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Syson Gallery

9 June 15 words: Alison Emm
“There's something special about Nottingham, it's a city of artists: it's small but perfectly formed in terms of arts provision”
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Slide (2015).  Lotti V Closs
Reconstituted rubber, mahogany, brass, coral bead, forged nails, acrylic and enamel. 

What brought about the move to High Pavement – is it something that’s been in the pipeline for a while? 
We received some Arts Council funding to programme for up to three years and support artists in a more concentrated way by going to art fairs with them, and turning it into a proper business really. As much as we love Beck Street, the deal with Antenna was always, “You can have this for as long as you need it and for as long as we don’t need it.” For the time being we’re still officially there, but we’re turning that part of the gallery into project space while we develop a more permanent space for the exhibitions programme at High Pavement. Nottingham is really rich with a lot of artist-led projects and things in studios, Syson is the missing cousin between the great things that are happening in studios and Nottingham Contemporary.

You’ll continue to run a programme at Beck Street then, what will be the main difference between the spaces?
While it’s still available, I thought it would be great to offer that space up to other artist groups who I’ve worked with, and perhaps an artist who would like a more intensive project to develop. This summer, we’ve programmed really short shows working with  great galleries – Division of Labour from Worcester, and Studio Capri from Birmingham who are comprised of Eastside Projects' Extra Special People members. Later in the year we present MODEL from Liverpool; three individuals who are part of the Royal Standard, who got together for the biennial last year in Liverpool to create some amazing artist-led projects. It was literally, “I’ve got a bit of space but I’m a bit busy developing the new programme, do you fancy coming to Nottingham for a bit – no budget but I’ll do what I can to help out.” And most people jump at the chance to show in Nottingham, which is really refreshing.

What does the new site offer that’s got you excited?
The separation of a commercial gallery being different to any other kind of gallery used to really bother me, because essentially it isn’t. A gallerist can be lots of different kinds of people – someone from an art history background, or a retail background. And, increasingly, there are more curators going into that world because it provides more creative and perhaps more entrepreneurial opportunities than working for an institution might, which is why it’s attractive to me. The difference with the space is although there will be a defined area for retail, the gallery itself will be like any other gallery. It’s important to note that the people I will be working with to create that shop are artists themselves, and all the products will be made by artists and hopefully very different to anything else being supported. We’re seeing a cultural revolution in the Creative Quarter, which is absolutely brilliant.

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Lean II (2014). Lotti V Closs.
Italian alabaster and soap stone

Do you think the new space will allow you more scope with site-specific installations and showcasing work?
It’s the most conventional thing I’ve ever done so it might be the opposite of that. Having curated site-specific projects in the past and cutting my teeth on projects like that, it’s the four walls that have always been a draw to me. To be in one place and not worry about people falling into water or injuring themselves on some form of contraption run by a bike. It’s that tangible space that’s the reason I started a gallery - to put some roots down. It was clear I was a Nottingham piece of rock anyway and I’m not going anywhere, so it was a way to keep one project in one place and create a hub around that. We’ll be around for the next five years and hopefully longer.

You’ve done the art fairs and taken exhibitions to different cities, what does working in different places bring back to the gallery and, on a larger scale, Nottingham?
I suppose, learning from the fairs has shown me that collectors - if they’re really interested -  will travel. I explained to the Arts Council is that its hard for a commercial gallery to exist on its own in this country outside of London. It’s nigh on impossible. It’s not really been done on any level, with any kind of success (excepting perhaps the brilliant Ceri Hand and WORKPLACE gallery), but certainly not with projects who haven't eventually upped sticks to the capital. To run any commercial gallery for more than five years, you’re doing very well anywhere in the world. I never expected to have an opportunity whereby I could imagine regularly selling artwork in this city. What this building has afforded me is the possibility of doing that. It might work, it might not, but I’ve been encouraged by doing work like auctions and Kickstarter campaigns that people in Nottingham really do want to buy art.

This might sound a bit obvious, and hopefully not condescending, but it is about educating buyers. Giving them permission to say that they like something. It’s highly personal thing, owning an artwork and putting your taste up to scrutiny. It’s not a very English thing to do to say, “This is a painter I really love.” It’s also about getting people to understand that I share 50% of the profits with the artists. It’s about putting 50% of your support as a collector into the enterprise. The work I do outside of Nottingham is an advert for the city. It showcases the great artist-led stuff that happens here, but also the great facility there is for artists.

Obviously you can’t talk to everyone that walks through the door, but do you get a lot of people who come from outside?
I talk to as many people as I can and it’s about creating that one-step-removed gallery assistant experience. Sales only happen when you’re there to do them. You might be saying the same thing about the same artist for the thirtieth time, but you get a feeling for that person and what aspect of the artists experience or ability they would like to hear about. They might not be able to afford the art work you’re talking about, but three months later you’ll get an email saying, “Thanks for talking to me that time - do you want to come and do a talk at our studio/curate a show/be part of this art fair etc.” It’s really great. We're getting more people from other cities than ever before because of our building reputation.

You’re smack bang opposite the Contemporary, what does that mean for you and the space and a business?
It’s kind of essential to where we want to go in terms of as a business, but also as a creative endeavour. Nottingham Contemporary undeniably has done so much in terms of putting Nottingham on the contemporary art map, and in a sense the anticipation and the heralding of Nottingham Contemporary was when I first started working professionally in this city. Going back to when the first meetings were happening with Angel Row, Bonington and NTU, there was that desire to create a world class venue. The anticipation of that coupled with the outstanding BA course at NTU meant that the things surrounding that were always going to good - almost like preparing the soil for it.

There are examples of contemporary arts centres in other cities that have been plonked there without the same groundwork. I think there’s something special about Nottingham, it’s a city of artists: it’s small but perfectly formed in terms of arts provision. We have graduates that want to stay around and if they don’t like what’s happening they don’t leave, instead they say “right, let’s change it.” We’re close enough to London to have a relationship and not be scared of it, and I think finally we’re at a stage that we are grown up enough to go, “Yep we’re here, come and see us now.” Going to other cities, people always want to hear about it in a positive way. 

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Elizabeth Rowe - from the upcoming Cornucopia group exhibition

In the eighties and nineties, the public perception of contemporary art was quite dismissive, like, “It’s just a brick in a room…”, but people seem more open to it now. Do you feel that and, if so, is it something that’s specific to Nottingham?
No, I think it’s universal, but it’s helped a lot by the fact that spaces such as Nottingham Contemporary exist. Perhaps the nineties actually did a lot of harm for contemporary art in it's championing of the shocking and sensational. Hardly any art nowadays is cut from the same cloth as that YBA stereotype.

Contemporary just means "now", but often what people mean is conceptual art and that’s a word that frightens people. All it means is an idea about something, and an exploration of that idea. There’s always going to be pretentious people in any field, but unfortunately those people sometimes get more press than others. Sensational art work which works as tabloid-fodder pushes that type art work to the fore, when really it’s one genre in the whole plethora of different types of practice in visual arts. Artists still paint, they still write books, make pots, they can perform. To be an artist isn’t just one thing.

What I’m doing with Syson is going a little further with that level of understanding and accessibility.  Contemporary gives a foundation, an understanding; “It’s okay, don’t be frightened because we can explain it to you, and if you don’t like it that’s ok too but there is a bit more to it that bricks and unmade beds.” Whereas I’m saying, “This is great, but can you imagine taking it home and living with it too?" Hopefully it provides a way for people to understand that not everything you see in a museum worth millions of pounds is the only option in terms of collecting. Life is different now and people are more design savvy. There’s a greater access to culture than ever before in human history. If you don’t understand something, you don’t have to feel a prat, you just Google it. An example is that you now see the word curator being used for almost anything. It’s fashionable. But all it means is to give a shit about something and care about it.

People can sometimes turn their noses up at commercial galleries because they consider it to just be a shop, but artists need to be paid. The majority of exhibitions are free, so what’s the problem with seeing something and, if you can afford it, splashing out for it?
Most gallerists I know are poorer than the artists because your overheads to do something like this are ridiculous. Often I do portfolio views with artists and, although it sounds cynical, I say, “If you can do anything else, for God’s sake do it.” You have to be driven enough to want that more than anything else. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling and everyone has that creative part of them that they can choose to embrace or not, but you don’t tell someone studying to be a lawyer or a surgeon that they can do it at the weekends and not make a career out of it. It’s the same for being a curator or gallerist, you have to be serious about it.

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Ilk (2015). Lottie V Closs
Emulsion and acrylic on Bread and Butter
paper in handmade oak frame

Will you be running workshops as well?
I think so. What I’m trying do is create situations around each individual artist’s exhibition that will be beneficial for them in developing what they are doing. The reading rooms will be a part of that, and they may or may not be connected to the exhibition programme. For example, we’re doing a group show about collections in June and we’ve invited an artist from Berlin, Marie Von Heyl, to do a session about collectors and hoarders. Looking at how that is written about in texts by Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein but also looking at it almost like a medical programme, like these extreme hoarders you see on TV. There’s a fantastic documentary, Grey Gardens, about two women who live together in the Hamptons in New York who are obsessive hoarders. They’re second cousins of Jackie Onassis so have come from extreme wealth but are basically living in this crumbling ruin with amazing paintings. I’m hoping to do slightly more practical things that will be useful to artists as well, some sculpture workshops and things like that. Not necessarily geared towards an educational event, but to people who are interested in making things.

You’ve got studio space there as well, right?
We’ll have a bit of space. It’s great to be working with two artists who are helping with the shop as well, so it’s part of their studio deal, if you like – they get to sell the things they’re making in the studios in the premises. We’ve got Hugh Frost from Landfill Editions, who was recently based in Stockholm, making artists books and editions and prints. I’ve seen some amazing ones that are going to be available. And also we’ll be working with a company called DOHM who will have a studio there, and they’ll be importing other artist’s work as well.

Your programme, while it isn’t Nottingham-based necessarily, the artists do have links to the city. How important is that to you when deciding what programmes you run?
In the beginning it was the intention not to make that the USP because I think any gallery – commercial or not – if you go out there to say this is regional or local, you get a whiff of parochialism that can, unfortunately, be damaging within the art world. I began to realise fairly quickly that actually it was a really good thing to champion. Nottingham has a strong artist-led community, and to shy away from that is probably a really bad move. So consistently, even when doing lots of studio visits in other cities, I’m always drawn without knowing it to people with that connection. Even when I went out to other cities to see other people, other artworks, some ended up coming from NTU. I just thought, “Don’t fight it.”

Every artist with a solo show has a connection to Nottingham, if they don’t live here they might have been born here but their professional lives have taken them some place other. It’s kind of making sure that people who have had some success outside of the city, that the city shows them some respect. A lot of the time, there are lots of people who have been through the city and benefited from it, but then they go somewhere else and it’s written out of their story in a way that it wouldn’t be in Manchester or, say, another country. The Tony Wilson in me has decided to be proud of it. I’m never going rule out working with artists from other cities in other parts of the programme; it’s important to have that dual approach. I will say, though, if Nottingham is the only thing an artist has got going for them then that’s not enough for me.

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Stoop (2015). Lotti V Closs

Your first exhibition is Lotti V Closs who won the 2013 award - tell us about her work and why you chose it to be the big opener for the new space?
Initially it wasn’t going to be the opening show, but it just made a lot of sense. I had a very positive experience working with the Castle in 2013 when I selected Liam Aitken’s work. I was invited to award a prize and they’d worked with other galleries before and that had been a really good way of creating support for the gallery and providing a different prize other than cash. I knew Liam but I didn’t know his work. It was a great opportunity to work very intensively with someone who it wouldn’t have occurred to me to work with before. It provided Liam with three or four exhibitions and commissions as a result of that show, and it showed me what having a solo show at my gallery does for one particular artist. It changed the way I curated – since Liam, I’ve done more solo exhibitions because the benefits of doing that are far more for an artist than a group exhibition. I love curating group exhibitions but I think in terms of getting to know an artist’s practice and providing selling opportunities, it’s much better to do a solo show.

Fast forward to 2014, Lotti’s work, for me, was by far the strongest, and I’d seen some of her work during her BA at NTU and was aware that she’d moved away and recently come back having done an MFA at West Dean. I’m glad to report that it was absolutely the right choice because Lotti is amazingly prolific and has made so much work since moving back to Nottingham. To be able to provide this for an artist at an early stage in their career is very exciting. The response we have had to the exhibition has been totally wonderful - so many visitors have an instant engagement with it and really understand what she is trying to do with materials. They almost take on an anthropomorphic element whereby each small scale sculpture develops its own character and personality. Lotti herself refers to them as "he" and "she" and it's almost like they are having a dinner party here on this enormous plinth in the gallery. Her diverse practice has also lent itself to creating a range of jewelry which will be available from the gallery soon. We're entering the last week of the show and will be doing a talk next Thursday to close  the exhibition. It's a chance to meet her face to face and ask her yourself.

Mass - Lotti V Closs runs until Thursday 11 June 2015. Cornucopia - Darren Banks, Holly Davey, Yelena Popova and Elizabeth Rowe runs from Thursday 25 June - Saturday 8 August. 
Syson Gallery, Studio and Shop, 3-5 High Pavement. 

Syson website

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