Catherine D. Anspon (editor)
- March 01, 2013
Miles Thurlow, co-founder, co-director and co-owner of UK-based Workplace Gallery, fields questions from collector Patsy Fagadau, partner at Beckerman | Fagadau Interiors, Dallas.
What draws you to travel from the UK to Texas to participate in the Dallas Art Fair 2013? We were asked to take part for a couple of years now by Chris Byrne, and a mixture of his enthusiastic hospitality and recommendations from a couple of other galleries that we respect persuaded us. There are obviously some very established institutions and collections in Dallas, so we are very excited to visit first-hand and introduce our program. I think it’s also really important generally for us to explore different parts of the USA and show our artists. It will be the first time in Dallas for any of us from Workplace Gallery, so we are very much looking forward to it.
Describe your gallery’s aesthetic. The program has sought to investigate intersections between the object and architecture, performance, video and social commentary, painting and photography, exhibiting international artists within an increasingly dynamic art scene in the Northeast of England.
Take us to the beginning. [Co-founder] Paul [Moss] and I just missed each other at Newcastle University, as he had completed his graduate studies just before I started there as a post-graduate. It was actually a couple of years later through a studio-group research trip to Rotterdam in Holland where we got talking. We went to a small artist-run gallery called Room that had no fixed abode, surviving from one space to another — the only constant was a table that they had made, and instead of having wine at previews, they would target art-world luminaries and invite them to bring a take-out dinner. It became a kind of collective pot-luck experience, turning up at a gallery with your pizza or Indian and Chinese food and encountering art. The idea that you could create some meaningful and focused cultural exchange with very little money was inspiring for us. I found myself standing next to Paul listening to the guy from the gallery explaining all of this, and before we knew it, we were hatching plots and trying to figure out how we could do something back home with a similar energy. When we got back, I introduced Paul to another artist, Richard Forster, who had relocated to the North [after] having had some representation in London, and the three of us started attempting to do something that addressed the sense of cultural marginalization that being an artist in an economically deprived and geographically isolated city can engender.
We started curating exhibitions together, showing ourselves and our peer group alongside internationally based artists, and we applied for and won funds from a new publishing house in the region set up to produce artists’ monographs that we rather cheekily carved into 12 individual chapters on artists and commissioned up-and-coming curators and art writers to write an essay on each artist. We had figured out that there are two parts of an economy for the growth of an art scene and for individual artists: financial and critical. You need both, otherwise you either can’t survive, or your work goes unnoticed and has little resonance or is undermined by the wrong context. So, despite being far away from the art market, we felt we had to attempt to take part in it. We took a small booth at the London Art Fair in 2003 (just before the first Frieze Art Fair) and were amazed and excited to find that collectors and curators in London took us just as seriously as any super-cool new gallery in the East End of London. Pretty soon after that, Richard decided that he wanted to focus on other things, and Paul and I managed to find a derelict store beneath the iconic Brutalist concrete architecture of Trinity Court in Gateshead. If you watch the original 1971 film Get Carter starring Michael Caine, much of the film is set in that complex, and the cultural flavor of the region hasn’t changed all that much. We stripped out the shop and persuaded someone to donate some wallboard, and we were away. The gallery was nestled between the Pay Day Advance Cheque Centre (loans) and Girl’s World (a cheap makeup store), in an extremely poor and neglected part of the city, and it had a kind of unlikely energy. It is exactly the place [where], if you were thinking of setting up a commercial gallery, you would choose not to do it. Biggest break to date? Was it getting into the New Art Dealers Alliance? There are a few breaks that we’ve been lucky with, but I think probably the most important and unexpected thing to happen was a phone call from Soraya Rodriguez, the co-founder of Zoo Art Fair, which had opened as the satellite fair to Frieze Art Fair (and took place in London Zoo at the other side of Regent’s Park).
In year one, Zoo was focused entirely on London galleries, and in year two, they sought to open this up. So Paul took a call, and we were basically interviewed on the phone. We didn’t realize that Soraya was also talking to another artist-led space in the region, and I think she was impressed by our enthusiasm and positivity. Not long afterwards,we were in our booth opposite the bear enclosure at London Zoo, and we were selling the work of artists from the small and dingy studios of Newcastle to important collections all over the world. Which was incredibly powerful validation for the artists.
We didn’t know what we were doing — we were giving out price lists and copies of our book to anyone who set foot on the booth. I think we were just pleased that anyone was interested; it was only afterwards that David Risley, who had the booth opposite, would sidle up to us and say, “Do you know who that was? That was … who has this collection, or curates for the … museum!”
For us, Zoo Art Fair was a real wake-up call that we needed to take part in an increasingly international and booming art world. It was here that we first properly started representing artists and thinking about how we could use the structure of an art fair to grow careers. So I think that qualifies as the most important break.
How does the model of artist-owned gallery work? We note that you do not show your own work at the gallery or during fairs. How do you and Paul divide up the duties of the running an international gallery? This has always been both a difficult and important aspect of Workplace. We basically refuse to conform to a stereotypical mode of being either an artist or a dealer. For me, personally, it means good time management. My studio time is focused on a Monday when the gallery is closed and in the evenings and weekends. It’s amazing what you can get done if you can focus into a short and regular routine. We can’t and don’t use Workplace as a vehicle for ourselves; it doesn’t sit right, and I don’t think it works. We keep a page on the Web site in resistance to the notion that we need to comply to a certain model of gallery, but this is something that we might consider changing in the future. We’ll see.
We note that you show modern British sculptors, such as Eric Bainbridge, who signal new directions in contemporary sculpture. Do you represent mostly UK talents? It is very rewarding to work with an artist such as Eric Bainbridge, who is currently being considered as an increasingly important and influential British artist. It is a real privilege to work with him. Eric is from Consett, in the Northeast of England, and is professor of fine art at Sunderland University, living in London and the Northeast. I think Eric saw the potential in Workplace very early on, and [he] was extremely supportive to us, giving us some teaching work and acting as an advocate for us in some of our more challenging times. It is a natural fit, and we think he’s a genius.
Most of our artists are from the UK, which reflects where we come from. More recently, we have begun to work with more international artists, such as Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren, who represented Sweden in [the] Venice [Biennale] in 2007 and [who] is one of Scandinavia’s most active young artists. It feels like a natural thing for us to begin to expand our outlook internationally, and I think it is very healthy for the gallery and the other artists.
When investigating new artists, how do you know who’s a fit for your gallery? What are you looking for? It is the constant dialogue about art between Paul and me that drives the gallery forwards. Like anyone involved in the art world, I think our interests are born from a combination of searching for something that hits the spot conceptually and aesthetically and from something that drives you forward in your thinking about what art can be. There is an element of being able to recognize or believe in something as art (beyond the known and established conventions of art) that is incredibly satisfying … We tend to always look for artists that are able to fulfill this first and foremost, and then we begin to think about the practicalities. One thing that has become clear is that the best and most productive relationships between artist and gallery are those where there is a balanced partnership rather than one side being overly reliant on the other.
Where do you discover most of the artists for your stable? Are some artists whom you knew from university? We grew very organically out of a local scene here in the Northeast of England, and our program reflects a peer group of artists who were marked by a willingness to put down roots here rather than move to London. Many of us initially studied together, but there are three art schools in the region, so quite quickly we had to go beyond those confines. We simply were interested in what we considered to be excellent work, and I think that this has continued to be a focus.
Is this your first time to visit, or have you been to Texas often before? What connections do you have already in Texas in terms of curators, other gallerists or artists? We are very excited about visiting Texas for the first time, and I’m especially looking forward to getting to know the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center. We have met some Texan collectors at previous fairs so there should be some faces that we recognize!
Can you reveal any surprises for your Dallas Art Fair booth? We will be showing some new work by Hugo Canoilas, who has our next show at the gallery. Hugo is an important young Portuguese artist based in Vienna and recently exhibited at the São Paulo Bienal. Eric Bainbridge and Laura Lancaster are making some exiting new work that we plan to show, and the rest will be revealed!
What is the art climate like in Gateshead? In England as a whole? In Gateshead and the region, there are very few collectors, and the art market is in its infancy. There are some individuals who have begun to take the risk of buying work, and I have tremendous respect for them, as ours is not a wealthy region. We have an amazing history in the Northeast. Richard Hamilton (the father of Pop Art) and Victor Pasmore pretty much invented the UK model of art school education at Newcastle University and made important advances in abstraction, Pop art and installation art. Across the road at Newcastle Polytechnic, a few years later a group of artists such as Matthew Higgs, Mark Leckey, Hilary Lloyd, Jane Wilson (from Jane and Louise Wilson) and even gallerist Gavin Brown were students. So there is a sense of history. For me as a student in Newcastle, the most exiting thing was watching the formation of Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, which opened in Gateshead in 2002. Though there was some local objection to Baltic, I think it opened up a possibility to encounter a more international art world directly. Experiences that I had when working there as gallery staff — being able to talk to artists like Chris Burden or drive Pedro Cabrita Reiss down to London and get stuck in traffic, or just chat to a director of an international kunsthalle at the bar, alongside engaging with a bewildered yet open-minded public — were fundamental.
In England, the art-world is still incredibly centralized and focused upon London, but there are more institutions like Baltic that have grown in the last 10 years that I think, along with university fine art departments, contribute hugely to our culture and underpin a sense of possibility of existing outside of London. It is vitally important to the future of culture in the UK that they survive. There are maybe a handful of commercial galleries dealing with critically engaged contemporary art and representation outside of London in England, and I think we are very much pioneers. Of course, Scotland is a different country and has an established art scene in Glasgow, which is an important and inspirational example.
What are the challenges and advantages of being located outside of London? Connecting with the infrastructure of the international art world and avoiding provincial obscurity is the biggest and most rewarding challenge to overcome, and it is why art fairs are so important to us. The advantage of being outside of London is that you are able to make some mistakes (hopefully) unseen and are able to develop and grow in a way that makes you more robust and able to focus upon the work that people are making.
What is on your list of must-see exhibitions and travels for 2013? So far: Dallas Art Fair [and] Art Basel Hong Kong, and we are very much looking forward to the Venice Biennale!