In-person exhibitions, international travel and reliance on zero-hour contracts are unsustainable foundations for the traditional gallery model. The pandemic has highlighted their fragility.
As the restrictive realities of multiple lockdowns set in, belt-tightening measures were implemented by those at the top of large arts organisations whilst the lowest-paid staff – and countless freelancers – were quickly laid off.
At a grassroots level, a different story emerged as young galleries and collectives extended their support to struggling artists. The minds behind Guts Gallery and Short Supply, two emerging arts organisations which pre-date the pandemic, are proof that an overhaul of inequitable gallery structures is possible.
Frustration at the impenetrable traditional art world fuelled the growth of Guts and Short Supply and both have gained considerable online followings. Ellie Pennick, who founded Guts in 2019, was forced to turn down a place at an art school in London due to its financial barriers.
Short Supply was set up by artists Mollie Balshaw and Rebekah Beasley who, after graduating from the University of Salford, recognised the lack of opportunities for emerging artists.
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Rather than seeking a quick fix, these new organisations focused their efforts on forming meaningful networks between artists, collectors and curators.
Grace Collins, who is Short Supply’s Coordinator, explained that the model of galleries putting on one show for their artists and then leaving them in the lurch is something that we should be moving away from.
Short Supply’s motto ‘Bridging the Gap’ sums up the group’s aim to provide help to artists in whatever form that might take. In practice, this can mean organising swaps where artists can trade unused materials, alongside exhibitions such as ‘Made it 2019’, a group show of 14 graduates from the North West, and ‘Queer Contemporaries’, a showcase of contemporary LGBTQIA+ artists.
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‘When Shit Hits The Fan Again’ is the latest exhibition from Guts Gallery and features a mix of established and emerging artists, an exciting interplay cutting through the traditional pecking order. Work from the renowned American photographer Nan Goldin, for example, appears alongside pieces by emerging artists such as Corbin Shaw.
This approach is part of the gallery’s aim to ‘create an alternative system of support’ as 50 per cent of sales by established artists are distributed amongst the emerging artists involved.
Pennick choses to ‘champion’ rather than ‘represent’ the artists involved with Guts, recognising that she cannot speak for everyone’s experiences. “Representation is defined as speaking on behalf of somebody”, she explained. “They are very powerful artists, they can speak for themselves”.
This fresh approach to the gallery model is accompanied by a desire to escape the traditional white cube exhibition space. Guts’s last in-person exhibition, a collaboration with Soft Punk Magazine, ‘It’s 2020 for Fucks Sake’, took place under a railway arch in Haggerston in East London. Such spaces are not without their own complications: Pennick recalls how every time a train crossed over she would lose phone signal.
They are very powerful artists, they can speak for themselves
Pennick described the typical mainstream gallery visit to me: “You go in, there’s an invigilator there staring at you, you take a picture for your Instagram and you leave. Wouldn’t you rather go somewhere, be offered a cup of tea and have a conversation?” she asks.
As the pandemic drove businesses out of retail spaces, galleries stepped in. Castlefield Gallery created a new art space in a former M&S in Warrington where Short Supply now has a studio.
Using alternative spaces, both Guts and Short Supply set out artist-focused visions for the gallery space. “Shoulder each other, recognise your privilege and create communities”, Pennick concludes. “Communities are the only thing that is keeping everything afloat at the moment”.
Her parting advice: “It’s alright if you’re skint and you do something and it goes to shit. You can work it off again, you’ve go nothing to lose”.
Listen to the full interview with Ellie Pennick from Guts Gallery on our Soundcloud.