Post-Covid Galleries and the Funding Tightrope

Wednesday 3rd February, 2021

Elisabeth Tomlinson surveys four galleries on their journeys through the pandemic, as they navigate new ways to support their programmes. Part 2: Post-Covid Galleries explores new funding models in the pandemic era

Download Elisabeth's research around "Appropriation and Opportunism" in the art world here: appropriation-and-opportunism-a-study-of-four-non-commercial-london-art-spaces.pdf

In the wake of the March lockdown, and as the repercussions have sunk in, some in the art world redouble their effort to call out job cuts, union strikes, and racial exclusion. Covid-19 did not strike us in a vacuum. The “pre-Covid” art world was already defined by unsustainable income for artists, rising costs of maintaining or accessing an arts career, and therefore a stratification of opportunity based on access to funds all of which specifically disadvantage artists across intersections of class, race, physical and mental ability, gender, and sexuality. In 2019, I conducted a study based on interviews with four London-based gallery directors to explore with transparency the tactics these spaces are using to establish sustainable alternatives to the commercial art market. I then followed up in July and August after the UK’s initial lockdown to see how the pandemic had changed their financial structures, their programming, and their overall goals.

Throughout our interviews, each director communicated to me that their first concern was honouring pre-existing commitments. Each described a period of chaos and confusion. Some opportunities were lost in the scramble to respond to this new normal, while others were adapted or postponed. Sasha Burkhanova-Khabadze pointed out in her interview that Exposed Arts Projects is currently turning down new proposals:

“At the moment, we’re actively saying no to new things because last week and this week I got tons of emails from artists and curators offering me projects. [That’s] a good sign because it means they have energy and resources to do it, but at the moment the policy is to do what we haven’t finished yet and then start thinking about next steps. I think that’s fair to everyone.” (Burkhanova-Khabadze, Exposed Arts Projects, 2020)

Disappointment, a performance by Simona Sharafudinov, 25 Jan 2018, courtesy the gallery

While this is an important indication of the respect each of these galleries have for their artists and supporters, it has an unavoidable knock-on effect. Alessio Antoniolli, Director of Gasworks and Triangle Network, observed that the real void will appear next year, as the opportunities for artists will be filled already by those postponed from this year.

“By now we would be trying to engage artists for next year, and that’s not happening because we have to honour our current ones. So, there’s going to be a gap. That’s why saying we’ll go back to normality feels sort of silly, because in a sense the money trouble is going to be next financial year, the programming troubles because we’re not engaging new artists therefore leaving a gap for your generation will be felt next year.” (Antoniolli, Triangle Network, 2020)

Alessio stated that while Triangle has maintained and gained new funding opportunities, some partners are choosing to close, scale down, or put programming on hold. The space is also less equipped to channel funding from their position in London to partners abroad. A crisis in funding due to the pandemic and the very real and dire consequences for cultural workers, can’t really be overstated. Triangle Network is the oldest of the four spaces, yet they still face precarity in their funding.

Exposed Arts Projects is the youngest of the four spaces and in direct correlation, has the least available funding. Before Covid, Exposed secured grant funding on a project by project basis. Sasha says that she now enters into all conversations with artists or curators by clearly outlining that contributions are on a volunteer basis.

“Transparency really helps because I think once you start answering questions really directly without saying: ‘Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe funding, maybe I don’t know’, when you just say there is no funding and we’re all volunteers, it really helps to keep people who are interested in, filter out those who are not, and to be fair to everyone.” (Burkhanova-Khabadze, Exposed Arts Projects, 2020)

The tightening of funding opportunities is true across the board for these four spaces, but there is also a new phenomenon of emergency grant distribution. Unit 1 Gallery Workshop (U1GW) was awarded a grant from the Arts Council’s emergency fund, which Stacie McCormick says came just as they lost a large source of income from renting out their event space:

“Before the Arts Council funding, I was debating really finding other ways [of funding]. Would I set aside a couple more months downstairs to rent out? And when you realise that the virus means people can’t gather, my space as an event space is valueless. So, none of this would have been possible without the external funding we got. I would really be debating closing, having lost our key funding source of people renting the space twice a year.” (McCormick, Unit 1 Gallery Workshop, 2020)

Pool, 2019, Solveig Settemsdal, Solo Residency Exhibition, courtesy the gallery

Lindsay Friend is employed full-time outside of her role as Director of iMT Gallery (iMT), and was furloughed for several months from the position. While this wasn’t an increase in funding for the gallery, it granted the asset of time. Lindsay described how the furlough scheme allowed her to dedicate all of her time to iMT for the first time since its founding fifteen years ago.

In our initial interviews in 2019, each of these arts spaces described an ever-present financial insecurity, albeit to varying degrees. What I noticed in our interviews from July is that each organisation is looking to create their own sustainability outside the mechanisms the art world offers. It’s one part a tired resolve to quit the rollercoaster of sales and grant applications and another part pre-emptive anticipation of an economic downtown in the post-Covid era. Lindsay put it this way:

“The art world needs to stop thinking of the blue chip being something that can be scaled down, or that trickles down, because it can’t, and nothing seems to be that scalable unless you’ve got so much money or are at a high level. (Friend, iMT Gallery, 2020)

Any number of studies across the years1 makes it all but unnecessary to reiterate the structural inequality and instability built into our art world. The machine seems to chug on, and seems it will adapt itself to this new normal. Covid forced a stop to the status quo and – at least for these directors – some space to invent new possibilities for how galleries can operate.

In response to the loss of graduate exhibitions, throughout the summer, Stacie hosted graduate exhibitions in a series called “Final Not Over” and rather than taking a sales commission, she asked collectors to make voluntary contributions to the gallery – a model she says will continue. It’s a small change, but shifts a significant mechanism of the commercial gallery model. Not taking a commission allows artists to set a lower price, because they can pocket the full amount. That lower cost is accessible to more or first-time collectors. Collectors are incentivised to buy because they like the work itself rather than as asset investment. To the extent they are able, they then invest in the gallery that allowed the opportunity to collect in the first place. U1GW is then further enabled to repeat the cycle. There is direct and continual reinvestment that is scalable to different gallery spaces, different price points, artists, mediums, etc. It also reorients the culture of exhibitions from achieving a single blockbuster revenue stream to a plurality of “small” investments over time that don’t need to “trickle down” because its gathering momentum from the ground.

Lindsay and Sasha are also looking to a communal-based, long-term investments, but through education programming. Exposed is currently developing curriculum to shift the use of their physical space to host classes for children and artists at a fee:

“We’re having trouble getting public funding so I think this idea of investing time and effort into designing courses works... I’m thinking about making [the course] less specialist and more open for the public.” (Burkhanova-Khabadze, Exposed Arts Projects, 2020)

Exposed is defined as a “think-and-do tank” by Sasha but has mimicked the expectations of a gallery space by hosting exhibition events as their main public-facing programming. Sasha explains that after Covid, their space will be repurposed to better align with a focus on process and research; process and research being of course aspects of art-making less likely to attain funding. Orienting part of their programming toward educational programming connects the dots of their mission, and the financial means of achieving them.

Lindsay is also looking to an educational model to bring in a stream of income, but is designing an online membership where artists and arts professionals can convene, share resources, and gain critical insight into the art world. She’s calling it iMTV, and is designing it with cues from online subscription schemes.

“...Education is an aspect, but it’s a community – it’s an art world in an art world. All I’m trying to do right now is create a sustainable model for a small gallery and the one thing that the very, in my opinion, broken gallery model needs is something that actually deals with the core costs, so you’re not relying on sales or funding. That has to be something that we can create in the art world, because we see it in other [fields]. (Friend, iMT Gallery, 2020)

Installation view of "Zer0-City" by Plastique Fantastique at iMT Gallery, London, 2019, courtesy of the gallery

This was iMT’s founding mission: to be a collective institution responsible for the production of knowledge. That vision is a financial mammoth if attempted in a physical space. Online, however, people create the “institution” together from their own space and practices. This helps keep subscription fees low as participants aren’t offsetting the costs of the physical space, but instead pooling the funds needed to keep the iMTeam running.

Alessio is working toward providing a stream of income in the form of property. Triangle and their London partner Gasworks, hosts international artists in residence. Alessio’s goal is to purchase property to host artists and funnel their renting fees into the Triangle. He also described how the purpose of Triangle is shifting somewhat from distributing funds toward distribution and pooling of information:

“I don’t think that we’re going to have a lot of money anytime soon, and I think this knowledge exchange that we’re doing through our Zoom meetings is a huge asset that hopefully will come to define the Network more, rather than just distributing funding ... distributing funding is fundamental, [but] I don’t think we can just concentrate on one. (Antoniolli, Gasworks, Triangle Network, 2020)

Michael Armitage in conversation with Kudzanai Violet Hwami, Gasworks, London, courtesy the gallery

One final point I discussed with Alessio is that the small size and small overhead of the Network allows them a certain athleticism in responding to the crisis. They don’t have a large number of employees, large commissions to fund, or big buildings to maintain. Their small reserve therefore can be immediately invested in the artists with whom they work.

Overall, each of these four spaces have a core principle of providing for and aiding cultural production. That’s not a very monetarily profitable ethos, especially in a commercial system that, while profitable for some, quickly congeals opportunities around the top and leaves 90% of the field’s workforce well below a liveable wage. We as artists invest in it hoping we’ll be those few that benefit.

I’m relieved to be focusing on Exposed, U1GW, Triangle, and iMT, particularly in light of the storm of redundancies from those cultural institutions held up as the leaders of the London art scene. Galleries responsible for cutting workers and underpaying artists in the midst of a pandemic, or at any time, cannot be our example. I am a current art student and me and my classmates all know about the galleries with budgets to keep themselves at the forefront of the cultural conversation. What many of us don’t know is the plurality of spaces in the city. I say I’m relieved to focus on these four spaces not because I want to ignore the larger institutions and the inequality they create, but because I want to contribute to divesting from them by investing in something else. It’s not a definitive new model, but rather an active and present work toward effecting the cultural production in our immediate sphere of influence.

Elisabeth is a London-based artist, filmmaker, researcher, and writer currently undertaking an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins. She is a Mona Hatoum Bursary (2019–2021) recipient and recent participant in Autograph Gallery's PILOT course Rights, Care, Future (2020). In 2018 she earned an MA in Gender, Education, and International Development from University College London's Institute of Education. Recent screenings and exhibitions include: Independent Shorts Awards, Los Angeles, New Cinema Film Festival, Lisbon, Tate Modern, London, Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop, London, and Whitechapel Gallery, London.