10 things I learned from running my own gallery…

In New Zealand in 2018 my friend and I were recent graduates of Art History degrees and struggling to find a way into the art world. We had worked together on ad hoc projects in the past and curated a large exhibition together in a local art space (after weeks of pleading for discounted rent). We enjoyed it so much we decided to dive right in and open our own space. We found a room to rent and came up with a plan to be able to pay that rent back and we just started cold-calling artists and banging nails into the wall. Our gallery space survived 12 months and it was certainly a crash course in all things gallery related. Here are 10 big lessons I learned…

Image of Nicole Fairey, Synthetic Grape, [tacit] gallery 2018

1. Don’t be afraid to ask

In nearly all situations when you ask for something the worst thing someone can say is ‘no’. In that case you are no worse off that you are if you had never asked. We began our space by emailing local artists out of the blue with a tiny explanation of who we are and why we wanted to show their art. Over 12 months we had only one artist who was sceptical of who we were and what we were doing, but we even convinced her in the end.

Along the same vein contact local writers, bloggers, and influencers directly to let them know about your new space. If you offer them an exclusive interview or preview people often love being the one to discover “the new cool place”.

2. Connect

This doesn’t mean if you aren’t already a socialite within the local art scene you won’t be able to make a mark. Be confident and don’t be scared of self-promotion, attending other art events and hunting out the artist or curator and introducing yourself is a great direct approach. If you are shy or uncomfortable in a social setting, send follow-up emails directly to artists and curators after an event and introduce yourself electronically. We found there were plenty of ‘undiscovered’ local artists who also felt on the periphery of the art crowd and were thrilled to have a show that all their friends and whanau could check out. In fact, it was often the fresh up-and-coming creators who drew the most people to an opening with their personal connections just keen to see their mate in action.

Image of opening night, MATUA - Works of the Wise, [tacit] gallery 2018

3. Make friends

A small detail that I insisted on every time we returned an artist’s work was to also send them a handwritten thank you note, an exhibition catalogue and a copy of any promotional material we had produced. For smaller artists having a souvenir of one of the few shows they had been in meant the world, and for larger artists it was a small personal touch that larger spaces didn’t necessarily have the time to prioritise. When delivering some pieces back to an artist directly I handed over our little ‘gratitude bundle’ and she almost teared up and then insisted on taking me out for lunch. She told me a story about when her art had been included in a show at the national museum, they had ended up displaying her art in the museum’s front window promoting a different exhibition she hadn’t been involved in, without any credit to her, and she was not invited to the exhibition's opening. I believe building relationships with artists is the most important aspect of running a gallery space.

4. Transparency

With our sponsors, collaborators, artists and landlords we were always upfront and realistic. If we were going to miss a deadline we gave plenty of warning, if we couldn’t afford to cover the costs of something we owned up and worked through it, when an artists’ work was damaged we didn’t hide any details and accepted full responsibility. One of the few strengths we had as a tiny gallery running on fumes was the ability to communicate clearly and be honest; this is a weakness of larger galleries and museums required to deal with multiple layers of accountability and procedures. For one exhibition we approached an artist who got back to us with a list of specific requirements her art would need in order to be on display, we were honest with the lack of resources we had to accommodate her works and we didn’t want to ask her to compromise. In the end we were able to curate a show inspired by her works months later and she was very impressed and is now a good friend. Keep honest about your limitations; financial, time-based or otherwise, because people understand the struggle and respect honesty.

Image of hanging process, Do You Want to Keep Dreaming?, [tacit] gallery 2018

Image of packing process, [tacit] gallery 2018

5. Keep committed to the dream

There are far better industries to get involved in if you are looking to make profits and develop a successful business. You have to be taking on this kind of project because you love art, hold onto that. Showing the kind of art you love and supporting the kind of artists you love isn’t a guaranteed key for success, but when you are up at 2am hanging pieces, carrying a 6ft sculpture up three flights of stairs, or climbing onto a roof to black out the gallery’s skylight the love of what you do is the only thing you have to keep going. We held tight to our kaupapa (Māori roughly translated to ‘ethos/principles/core values’) and picked each other up when our enthusiasm was waning.

6. Do it differently

This point is a general business principle, don’t do what has been done before because there will always be someone out there doing it better than you. Find an area where representation is lacking and create your point of difference. For us there wasn’t a space specifically catering to queer or minority artists or artists working in non-traditional mediums. We focussed on working with a minimum percentage of local tangata whenua artists (Māori translated to ‘people of the land’) and adapted our space when needed to offer our gallery as a platform for others. This brought together a community who hadn’t had their own space and drew visitors in curious about what we were bringing to the table.

Image of works by Trish Campbell & Kristina Leggett, Chekhov’s Moon, [tacit] gallery 2018

7. Never forget the finances

No matter how unglamourous, you will need a business plan and to keep on top of the financial nuts and bolts. If you aren’t confident in this part of the project ask for help. We started our gallery with a loose plan of ad hoc funding options. We asked artists for fees and to help with parts of postage where costs couldn’t be reduced, we had sponsorship for any little thing you could think of (beer, nails, printing, glassware), and we applied left, right and centre for different grants and project funding schemes. There will always be little hidden costs but there are always ways to get creative to find the funds, starting out with an online gallery or a pop-up space is an option to test the waters without a full financial commitment.

8. Be prepared to fail because “you don’t know what you don’t know”

If I had been any less naive about the work involved to run a gallery I would have never started one. It was a blessing that starting out “we didn’t know what we didn’t know”, there was a lot of making it up as we went along and a lot of problem solving. But if we hadn’t just dived right in we may have never started. We knew it wouldn’t last before we had opened the doors, we were prepared that this wouldn’t make us wealthy powerhouses of culture, I often drove to remote garages and brand new cities to pick up and drop off artists' works in my own minivan; I stored works in between shows in my parents’ spare bedroom; and we had to pull extra hours at our own jobs to cover overlooked costs. We just knew we were prepared to make it work as long as possible and learn as much as we could along the way.

Image of [tacit] gallery, Synthetic Grape, [tacit] gallery 2018

9. Experiment and have fun

Do what you want. Get weird. There are no rules and regardless of whether your space ultimately fails or succeeds this is a chance to just do what you want. We covered plinths in reflective pink wrapping paper, we completely blacked out all windows and handed out glow-sticks, we hung fabric from the ceiling (10ft high, there was a ladder on a bench on a table on a table ~ we had a loose Health and Safety policy…). We figured that we weren’t going to be attracting big name art collectors so we would just curate shows we thought were cool and let them draw the people who liked what we were doing. This also made those all-nighters and panicked last minute dashes to the printers far more bearable, once the doors were open and people came through the space we were always proud of what we had created, we wouldn’t have made it through without having fun.

10. Teamwork

When communicating with artists, collaborators and sponsors we made the conscious decision from day one to always write with the pronoun ‘we’ and to sign off as ‘Ellie Lee-Duncan and Nicole Fairey’, no matter who was writing the email. One of my proudest moments was at an opening when one of the artists asked us how we delegate tasks between us as she had noticed we signed all emails as a pair. Ellie and I looked at each other and shrugged, we always worked together and just trusted each other to get the job done. When one of us fell behind the other just picked up the slack. Perhaps we were just lucky that our working styles complimented each other but no matter what we were always a team. I used to say to Ellie that if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have ever opened a gallery, they would reply that if it weren’t for me they would have still opened a gallery but it wouldn’t have survived more than one show.

Image of team meeting, i understand if you’re busy, [tacit] gallery 2018

Image of Ellie Lee-Duncan and Nicole Fairey, 2018

Written by Nicole Fairey

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