BY Jamila Prowse in Opinion | 04 FEB 21

How to Start a Gallery in a Pandemic

Jamila Prowse talks to three spaces - HOME, la Sala and Quench - about resisting cultural hegemony and the need for foundational support, access and equity in the arts

BY Jamila Prowse in Opinion | 04 FEB 21

Art institutions were thrown into uncertainty last year. With global lockdowns causing public venues to close their doors and Black Lives Matter uprisings emphasizing the dearth of support for Black artists, cultural workers and audiences, art organizations came under increased scrutiny about the roles they play in society and who they truly serve. In March 2020, performer and author Harry Josephine Giles wrote a blogpost, ‘I Woke Up and the Arts Was Gone’, compelling us to collectively consider how to envision something ‘better’ in place of what was lost. Institutions that are predicated on exclusion are often inherently resistant to making their structures more equitable – after all, getting to the root of the problem would mean a complete overhaul of the systems in place, thus threatening the CEOs, directors, corporate brands and sponsors who hold the power. On the flip side, artists and art workers with backgrounds in navigating these very institutions have launched alternative models for exhibiting art and supporting each other, grounded in a responsiveness to the failings and setbacks of their own experiences and those of their peers.

ronan mckenzie home london
HOME, London. Courtesy: Ronan McKenzie

Nottingham-based cultural meeting place la Sala reflects this trend. Co-founded last year by Lucy Lopez and Alba Colomo, la Sala provides a ‘feminist collective space for biodiversity, sustainability and care’, as stated in their founding manifesto, through workshops, artists’ editions and discursive events. ‘A large part of our driving force was a sense of exhaustion and frustration after years of working in larger art institutions and putting our energy into changing things from the inside”’, they explain to me. ‘Trying to influence [existing] working practices, ultimately, [seemed] impossible.’

Fair representation in the workplace has long been a prevalent problem in UK arts institutions, with diversity policies often using qualitative data to monitor change, without considering individual experience and job retention. There is, in fact, a vital history of Black-run art spaces in the UK dating back to the 1980s, through organizations such as Autograph ABP, the Institute of International Visual Arts and 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning – all based in London. Even so, it is still all too common for cultural institutions to be led by predominantly white teams, with little thought given to the impact such environments have on Black Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC). This imbalance catalyzed artist Ronan Mckenzie to open HOME, a multifunctional creative space in north London, at the end of last year. Speaking to Mckenzie, she points out, ‘Art spaces remain hierarchical and out of reach for most – especially BIPOC – audiences, making entering artistic spheres extremely difficult and maintaining a place in them even harder.’ Drawing on her own experiences of showing work at institutions, and working across fashion and the arts, Mckenzie is ‘all too aware of the difficulties of navigating creative industries as a Black female.' She tells me, ‘Amongst the current offerings in London, there needs to be a HOME.’

joy yamusangie and ronan mckenzie wata home
Joy Yamusangie and Ronan Mckenzie, ‘WATA, Further Explorations’, 2020, exhibition view at HOME, London. Courtesy: HOME, London

COVID-19 saw an unprecedented number of businesses adopting flexible working structures and cultural venues moving their programming online, despite the fact that disabled communities have long been advocating for similar forms of remote access. Easily navigable online programming, for instance, was previously perceived as a non-necessary add-on and unreasonable cost, as noted by artist and writer Sophie Hoyle in her essay for Festival Gelatina, a festival of art and thought, last May. Launching their respective art spaces in the midst of lockdown restrictions, HOME and la Sala were driven to build integrated online programming from the outset. Over the summer, la Sala hosted a series of events on Zoom, including an online reading and fermenting workshop and in November, HOME opened its inaugural show, ‘WATA, Further Explorations’ online as well as in person. Rather than being treated as an afterthought, access was built into everything these spaces did, with HOME utilizing open resources created by disabled communities, such as Carolyn Lazard’s Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice (2019) and Access Docs for Artists (2018) – devised by Leah Clements, Alice Hattrick and Lizzy Rose – to ensure inclusivity is thought through at every stage of public engagement and internal structuring.

la sala lucy lopez alba colomo
la Sala, Nottingham. Courtesy: Lucy Lopez and Alba Colomo

Providing foundational support for artists is a core priority for these alternative art spaces. la Sala put money from their first sales of publications and event tickets back into commissioning artist editions, while Quench – a gallery recently established by artists Lindsey Mendick and Guy Oliver, due to launch in Margate this year – endeavours to help other artists sustain work during a precarious period. Uniquely, Quench doesn’t intend to take any profit from the sale of artists’ works – a decision Mendick admits, in a statement announcing the space on her Instagram, was tricky: ‘We are very aware this is not a feasible business venture or model and my dad is very mad, but we want to give back what we can and engage with and support fellow artists in this time.’

Opening a new space during a pandemic is not without its problems. la Sala was among the many initiatives that had their funding prospects limited after the UK government announced the first nationwide lockdown, with an Arts Council England application in process before National Lottery Project Grants were suspended. HOME’s first exhibition was briefly opened to the public before being closed again as a result of further COVID related restrictions. With funding streams under strain, and with an increased competitiveness impacting an already saturated market, new spaces have had to get creative about how to make ends meet. Quench utilized a crowdfunding model, with Mendick and Oliver making and selling bespoke artists’ editions for the campaign. After successfully raising the money they needed, exceeding their targets and finding an exhibition space, Mendick and Oliver encountered another obstacle, with their landlord unexpectedly pulling the plug on their contract. (They are currently in the process of seeking out a new venue.)

lindsey mendick quench gallery
Lindsey Mendick, 'A Guaranteed Crowd-pleaser', 2020, glazed ceramic reduced price dish for Quench fundraiser, 10 x 18 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Quench, Margate

Why keep pushing to overcome the multiple challenges of running an art space in the midst of a pandemic? For many of us who have long worked in inhospitable institutions, the time has come to reclaim agency and envision a new type of art space that is responsive and adaptable to questions of ecology, artist support, access and wellbeing. In the words of Colomo and Lopez: ‘We didnt want to start an independent art space” but an interdependent one!’

For more information on how to support these art spaces: la Sala are selling artist editions to contribute towards running costs; HOME are looking for patrons to support the work they do; and Quench are currently seeking a new residence for their gallery in Margate. Jamila Prowse’s podcast Collective Imaginings, in which she interviews cultural workers about their experiences of resisting the hegemonic art world, is out now commissioned by Lighthouse through the Reimagine Europe programme.

Main image: Joy Yamusangie and Ronan Mckenzie, ‘WATA, Further Explorations’, 2020, exhibition view at HOME, London. Courtesy: HOME, London

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher. She holds a studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. Prowse has written for frieze, Dazed, Elephant, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.