BY Philomena Epps in Profiles | 17 OCT 22
Featured in
Issue 230

It Takes Guts to Challenge Art-World Elitism

Guts Gallery founder Ellie Pennick employs an equitable business model to empower the next generation of artists

BY Philomena Epps in Profiles | 17 OCT 22

London's emerging artists and gallerists have long contended with rising rents and a diminishing number of spaces. In this dossier, frieze profiles four new galleries — HOME, Ginny on Frederick, Guts Gallery and Queercircle — that are cultivating communities and flourishing amidst the city's many challenges.

Each month, Ellie Pennick, the 26-year-old founder and director of Guts Gallery, takes a moment to reflect and make sure that her actions are still in line with the core values of the gallery. ‘You have to check in with yourself to confirm that you’re not being a prick,’ she laughs. Identifying as a ‘queer, working-class northerner’, Pennick tells me that she felt compelled to launch the gallery due to her frustrations with the art-education system and the elitism of the art world. The ethos behind Guts – named for having the ‘guts’ to do something and also a ‘gut feeling’ – was motivated by her desire to promote ‘the work of Black, POC, queer, working-class and struggling artists’ to ‘empower underrepresented voices and champion the next generation of artists and collectors’.  

Ellie Pennick, Founder of Guts Gallery
Portrait of Ellie Pennick. Photo: Guy Bolongaro

Having turned down an MA at the Royal College of Art due to a lack of funds, Pennick took a job at a pub in south London, where she hosted exhibitions in the upstairs function room. When the manager decided to charge artists to participate, she set up her own project instead. Taking inspiration from tech companies and start-ups, she began adapting the business practices she read about in textbooks: ‘These industries were far more advanced than traditional galleries.’ Through her nomadic model – ‘hustling for spaces to hire’ – she was able to save the money that would have been spent on rent. Throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns, she continued to curate online exhibitions, building a popular following via Instagram. When galleries reopened, Guts held an exhibition at Sadie Coles’s The Shop during London Gallery Weekend in 2021 and, in early 2022, at The Sunday Painter. ‘It’s been important to be part of an uplifting community. It can be competitive, but the majority of galleries have been really supportive,’ Pennick says. These opportunities also pushed her to consider having a permanent space and, after talking it through with the seven artists she currently works with, she signed on a 185m2 gallery in Hackney.  

Olivia Sterling at Guts Gallery
Olivia Sterling, 'Manslaughter', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Guts Gallery, London

The gallery chooses to ‘champion’ rather than ‘represent’ artists. ‘I don’t like the word “representation”. As a white, cis woman, how can I speak on behalf of a black trans woman?’ she explains. ‘My role is to facilitate whatever an artist needs, providing both professional and personal support, and “championing” defines that approach. I want to make space for artists who historically haven’t had a platform.’ Pennick takes a low sales commission. She also wants to make collecting far more accessible, offering instalment repayment plans for younger buyers, which allows them to access the market, in addition to selling to typical wealthy collectors. 

Guts Gallery
Elsa Rouy, 'I Could Always Crack a Joke', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Guts Gallery, London

Pennick recently hired two permanent members of staff and six freelancers; the gallery has no unpaid positions and the minimum wage is above average. In collaboration with the artists, the Guts staff wrote a code of conduct, which is published on the website. ‘It’s common practice in other industries, but less so in the art world, which is disappointing. It’s very transparent, so there are no blurred lines: this is what we do; this is how we act.’ It’s important to Pennick that the gallery is accessible. ‘We have a lift for wheelchair access, we have a quiet space, and we can offer interpreters or lip readers.’  

What’s next for Guts? ‘We’re bringing on more artists, and we’re going to convert the office into a project space, so we can offer it to emerging curators for free. They can use our technicians and get the work photographed. I know I’m young, but I already want to support the next generation who are now in the position I was.’ 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 230 under the dossier headline ‘New Kids on the Block’.

Main image and thumbnail photo: Guy Bolongaro

Philomena Epps is an editor and writer based in London.