The Big Interview: Ceri Hand

On the eve of Ceri Hand’s final show in Liverpool, Andrew Foulds caught up with the gallerist to find out her thoughts on the future of Liverpool, its artist practitioners and the importance of an art market presence within a scene…

The Double Negative: What were the aims of the gallery you created in Liverpool?

Ceri Hand: The aim was to establish Liverpool’s first international contemporary commercial art gallery. We wanted to contribute to establishing a tangible legacy for the city (post 2008), encouraging an art market based within Liverpool, attracting international collectors, artists and investment to the city, and complimenting the excellent existing public arts infrastructure.

We aimed to be challenging with our programme, and enable the artists to make new bodies of work within a large space that felt good to be in and encouraged visitors to take time to look at the work. This is why we set up where we did – we chose a large space which had an impact in itself, whilst helping people to adjust themselves into the mind set needed to view work. It’s slightly off the beaten track (Cotton St on the Dock Road), but we needed a large space which was also sustainable in our establishing years.

I wanted to work with artists who I felt were doing something interesting and at the point of really doing something exciting. We work with a few artists who work with performance and our artist’s output all relates, so I guess that’s an interesting part of our practice.

TDN: Why are you leaving?  How are you feeling about it?

CH: I am in the middle of the experience, so it’s changing daily! On the whole, making the decision was the hardest thing. Now I have, I feel quite upbeat and matter of fact about it. We never had it planned… I always saw us having galleries in Liverpool, London, LA or wherever we thought best for our artists. However, we simply don’t have the resources currently to keep exporting our artists work toLondonand run our programme inLiverpooltoo. We aim to do ambitious shows, usually with big builds, so we didn’t want to scrimp on quality or do less in Liverpool, but we had to do something to increase visibility and sales for our artists, quickly.

We have had success in Liverpool, but it was apparent that there is a ceiling for the collectors we have worked with in the North West. Whilst we value their custom highly and will continue to work with them, we needed to be able to show and sell some of our artist’s bigger installations and more challenging works. This means being in a place where we can exhibit and show works to ambitious collectors, with spaces to show and store these kind of works. It would take us another good few years, maybe five to be able to achieve that here.

Not only do I not have the money to fund this period, but I am also not getting any younger and my artists are all getting great feedback, so the time is now!

We had also experienced doing a pop-up inLondonlast year which was successful for us, and we have more and more clients inLondon. The reality is, our artists are all doing quite well and they need to be shown to an international audience that I can attract to London, but sadly not to Liverpool. We have had good curators and clients visiting of course, but when times are tough you have to take action to step up your game for the artists. At the end of the day to attract and sustain brilliant artists I have to offer them the best possible service I can. And I can achieve more for them in this next phase in London than I can in Liverpool. I will aim to do pop-ups in Liverpool though, as we value the clients and audiences we have established here.

TDN: What were the greatest challenges when establishing a gallery in Liverpool?

CH: Well I came from a publicly funded background, so I guess the shift from that to the commercial world and learning the ropes. Encouraging and supporting market development has been tough but we have had success and we hope to take our collectors with us! The fact that we don’t have any peers in the city has been disappointing – I had hoped others would have set up and followed our lead.

TDN: Why did you choose to set up in Liverpool?

CH: I always had a passion for promoting contemporary art and this fitted entirely with what in the Capital of Culture Year, seemed to be a wide-spread ambition for extending the cultural standing of Liverpool and the North West. I believed that this should be translated into highly visible progress which is recognised internationally.

My experience of working in the North West revealed a huge lack of support for emerging artists and I thought there was a real gap in terms of getting their work out there into the international art world. I identified an opportunity in Liverpool for a commercial gallery which would compliment other arts activity in the city, but provide a strong level of support for artists. I wanted to work as quickly and flexibly as artists. I was tired of the politics at play within institutions that often becomes all consuming and actually not very helpful to artists. I decided I needed to find a better way of using my skills for artists and to help them make the best work they possibly could and to introduce them to a wider audience in as interesting a way as possible.

The support network in Liverpool is brilliant in terms of arts provision and that was an incentive too, Liverpool had a thriving art scene, but no reputable commercial art gallery dealing in leading international contemporary art. We thought that a commercial gallery taking risks and presenting “cutting edge” artists was essential in Liverpool and the Northwest.

TDN: With your moving to London, and with the closures of A Foundation and CUC, the view from outside of the city could be that Liverpool is struggling creatively. 

CH: I see what you mean, but the reasons for the A Foundation and CUC closing are both different, although funding and governance does come into it of course. I do also think running large buildings, with public money, is a tough challenge in any economic climate.

However, I do think it’s about volume and a swell of consistent activity. Liverpool does need more Royal Standards, more Ceri Hand Galleries and smaller fleet of foot actions and events to attract artists to move to the city. The medium scale arts organisations are great, and have done much to work with and engage artists and audiences in the city. They work hard for their audiences and funding. The best possible scenario would be for loads more young people to take risks and start the things they would like to see in the city. Collectors come to see artists in their studios and want to buy works from them and commercial galleries. By the time artists show in the museums and galleries they have already been practising for years and the collectors know of them already.

“It’s a complicated thing representing artists… It’s not just about liking or admiring an artist’s work”

TDN: From your experiences in the city, how do you see the health of the ‘scene’?

CH: I have loved working here and really like the artists and practitioners who operate here. There is a real can do, will do approach to everything and a generosity you don’t see everywhere. My only criticism would be that there are far too many meetings and a lack of understanding of how to stimulate or engage with the market.

TDN: What effect will these changes have on the city?

CH: Where needs must, things grow. There will be new, exciting things on the horizon.

TDN: What level of importance do you place on the art market as being a component in the health of a regions artistic activity?

CH: Crucial. I know I may be seen as being biased, but I did work on the other side of the fence for 16 years too, and I am certain that there are new ways of thinking through the public/private in terms of sustaining the arts outside the capital.

TDN: One criticism which may be laid at the doorstep of Ceri Hand gallery is that it didn’t support/represent enough local artists.  Is this fair?

CH: I wanted to! I have represented artists from all over the country – one from Liverpool, three from Manchester, one from Nottingham, one from Wales & two from Birmingham & one from NYC alongside those from London. However, it’s actually not related to where they are from in terms of region in how I select artists, but on the work itself.

Having said that, I would’ve loved to have worked with artists from the city and I may still do! But it’s a complicated thing representing artists and now I have more experience I am actually taking longer to select new artists. It’s not just about liking or admiring an artist’s work, as I do really like a lot of artists who work here, like Kevin Hunt, Paul Rooney, Imogen Stidworthy, Emily Speed or Tracey Eastham.

Not only do you have to see a consistent body of work over a few years but you have to see what you can bring to the table. You also have to really like the artist and connect with them as a person and understand their way of communicating and know you can help them ride their anxieties and depressions, as well as their highs! And once you are convinced of their work and in being able to work with them, you have to be convinced you can sell their work and get them shows. You have to know you have a market for them and that they are also capable of bringing opportunities to the table. Sussing this all out takes time.

Most of the other artists I know in the city and whose work I like (not the ones I mentioned), haven’t actually made enough work yet for me to see exactly where they are going or had enough experience in order to be represented. I am not a gallerist who looks for what’s fashionable or takes on artists who might make great work, but might not be ready.

I think more could be done with colleges and institutions in the city to help artists understand what it means to have a gallery and how this relationship might affect their practice and the implications they should consider. I offered my time to Royal Standard artists to talk them through this as I think a lot needs demystifying! For example, I think a lot of artists don’t realise how much work they have to make in order to get to the nub of it that really drives them. It’s only over a period of time that you can really understand what it is they’re about and then the conviction, consistency and methodologies they employ really become clear.

It’s rarely a case of going to somebody’s studio and seeing three good works and going “Yes, you are the artist for me!” Having said that, sometimes I do just know, but that bolt of lightning comes very rarely. And unfortunately I am a gallerist who doesn’t pick up artists who are making fashionable work, I look for something that’s not quite there yet, but with support could really offer something unique.

TDN: What advice would you offer to someone thinking of setting up a similar gallery to Ceri Hand in Liverpool?

CH: Have a shit load of money and contacts under your belt first!

TDN: What’s your opinion on the activity around the Baltic triangle and its failure to establish itself as the creative centre in Liverpool?

CH: This is a lot to do with the Council trying to do the right thing and establish an area that was naturally developing. In marking out territories on maps, it perversely had the opposite effect and encouraged landlords to sell and buy at ridiculous prices (i.e. millions) which in turn pushed up all the prices of land and buildings. Now lots of people are stuck with land and properties in the area they can’t get rid of. It’s a real shame as it felt like there was going to be change afoot. Time to move to North Liverpool!

TDN: Final thoughts?

CH: When you have worked so hard and closely with so many great artists and peers over 10 years, those achievements and relationships don’t end when you move cities. I have loved being in the North West, have learnt loads that I can take to London and inject into my new version of the gallery, and I fully intend to keep all of those relationships open to build on in the future.

Andrew Foulds

Henny Acloque: Lugar De Culto, the final exhibition at Ceri Hand Gallery, previews Thursday 12 January 6-8pm, followed by Cotton Street closing party, upstairs at LEAF, 8.30pm – 2am.

Exhibition continues 13 January – 25 February 2012

Posted on 11/01/2012 by thedoublenegative