Chris Garlick, owner of Signal Art Gallery talks about the street art scene, the culture of art collecting and the importance of a strong artist-gallery relationship.
CB: How did you set up the gallery and what was your inspiration?
CG: We started showing artwork in July, 2007. How we came to be known as a street or urban art gallery is quite interesting because we had no idea about the urban art scene or the street art scene. We only vaguely knew about it and there were very few galleries with much interest in it at that point. We approached one artist who had already gotten a bit of a reputation in the street art world. He was a figurative artist and when we started showing his work, we realised there was this huge amount of interest. We didn’t know what that was about but then we discovered this whole scene out there; street art and urban art was exciting and new and innovative and we started getting involved in that scene.
CB: Do you do art as well? Or do you just manage the space?
CG: I’m not an artist at all. I’ve always loved art and I write about art. I’m a critic and I go around and review art shows. I’ve always had a great passion for art. Dale is the hands-on artist and he’s become one of our most successful artists, both in the gallery and also on the street. He’s made more of a transition from being a gallery artist into a street artist; some artists come the other way round. So we’re interested in pulling artists in different directions and that’s what I see that street art is doing, just pushing those boundaries.
CB: Is there a difference in how Dale’s art has been received, in terms of when displayed in a private gallery versus on the side of a building?
CG: Yes, absolutely. There are different expectations when you get work in the gallery, unless you are lucky enough to have access to important collectors with money just to buy artwork to collect it, rather than necessarily thinking about art that they want to have in their home. That might be different to art that they may want to see on the street. It’s quite hard sometimes for artists to get that balance right, especially if they started on the street. I mean, in terms of how to translate that into work for the gallery that people would want to pay for and own, as opposed to just walking past in the street and thinking, “Oh, that’s nice.”
CB: Is there a difference (besides aesthetic), between art that’s popular on the streets, and the art that people like to buy?
CG: It’s coming together more than it was. Five or six years ago when we started the gallery there wasn’t really much interest in owning street art. Banksy was sort of the vanguard of all that, but before that, nobody really thought about having street art in their homes. A lot of people thought street art was vandalism anyway so that has massively changed. It’s not just Banksy now; there are a whole lot of artists out there now who people are collecting. That boundary’s completely broken down and we’re happy with that. What we’ve found about the whole urban and street art scene, was a whole new group of potential collectors coming to the scene, who didn’t have as many prejudices as maybe collectors from the contemporary art scene. They weren’t maybe aware of what was happening on the bigger scene and, therefore, judged artwork for what they saw, rather than it being a part of any particular fashion or trend.
The street art/urban art scene has created its own look, which is in itself restrictive and not always as positive as it could be, but generally we’ve found that we could show artists to this group of buyers and they would respond well to them even if they weren’t anything to do with the street.
CB: Does street art present more artistic expression for those who may not necessarily come from a classical or contemporary art background?
CG: I think so. I wouldn’t necessarily say just street art. I keep on saying street and urban art because street implies that people are going out onto the street and doing their work. There are a lot of artists on the street art scene who really don’t do any work on the street but their work in galleries is seen to have the same aesthetic as street art. I think urban art and street art should sort of be joined together really. I mean, there are some very pure street artists and stencil artists. C215 is a very famous French street artist. He does work in the gallery but he is mainly a street artist. The majority of people on the scene now are not necessarily from that background.
CB: Are there more collectors who buy street art for the love of it, or mainly as an investment?
CG: Well I think when we first started, we sort of missed the main wave of hysteria. We just got the tail end of it but people were buying artwork because they could see that prices were going up, which was good for the artist at the time. But it wasn’t necessarily good for those buyers because there were certain artists whose work did get into the tens of thousands’ worth. Not Banksy…Banksy, I think, you have to keep separately because his work has now got the footing that I don’t think is going to change. Some other artists that came after him got to that high level but the market for their work has collapsed. For example, someone might pay £30,000 for a Nick Walker and be lucky to sell it for £3,000. It applies to a number of artists. I think that bit of the investment side has stopped to a large extent and that people are buying art, more now street art, because they love it and that’s what they should do. Prices have gone down and it’s a very good time for buyers actually. Now, if they want to invest in artwork, it’s a good time because prices are very low and are only going to go up. At the moment, I think people are buying art, not because they see it as an investment, but because they want to buy it, which I think is quite healthy. Investing in art is good, but you have to see it as a long-term process. You can’t just buy it and then sell it on straight away, unless you’re in that high-up period, or very clever. It’s either long-term, or it’s a huge risk. Who would have said that Banksy would be selling for a quarter of a million?
In fact, I have a very good story about this building. Banksy at one point was employed by somebody who worked in this building (this was before he was famous) and they couldn’t pay the rent, so they sort of did a moonlight flit and left everything in the office. They also left twenty original Banksy’s, which, at the time, weren’t worth anything very much. The landlord put it down into the vaults and didn’t think anything more of it.Two or three years later, the landlord’s daughter said, “Well, I’ve been giving them away as wedding and Bar Mitzvah presents!”
CB: So the ultimate gift, then?
CG: Well she didn’t know they were worth anything! They kept about four or five of them. She sold one and bought a Damien Hirst original. That’s how a lot of people got into investing in artwork. They could see what was happening with Banksy and they could see the prices going up. There’s this whole raft of artists who haven’t reached the plateau that he did.
CB: What would you say to the “sell out” stigma attached to street artists selling their art in galleries?
CG: I don’t see the problem with trying to make some money out of it, otherwise what happens is people are doing their street art and then having to work in a boring office job or something else. It’s like saying their art is value-less. Why not try and make some money by coming into the gallery and selling it? I don’t see that as a sell out at all. I see it as a very positive step for them. Likewise, the other way round; artists who haven’t got a street art background are now doing work on the street. There’s a lot of prejudice against them as well, as if they don’t have any right to do any work on the street.
Dale, for example, does wood cut work. You can make prints out of it and stick them up. He puts them on the street. They’re all over. He’s had about ten pieces around East London and somebody went round with a black spray can and blacked the whole lot out. You couldn’t see a single one…and that’s because he doesn’t have that street background. There’s a lot of jealousy and rivalry. There’s a whole thing about street art versus graffiti as well. I think some people feel that stencil art is not street art basically; that it should be free-hand spray can work. It is harder for those types of street artists to come into the gallery where people are not that keen on owning old-style graffiti. You know, the eighties, hip-hop type of graffiti? It’s very hard to sell that type of work but it’s hard for those type of artist to develop a totally different style that is more commercially successful so it’s a funny old world.
CB: What would be the average price a person would pay for, say, an A4 piece of work? Or is that really dependent on the artist?
CG: A small C215 would be about £1000.
CB: How do you decide which artists to display?
CG: Usually we get approached by so many artists, people come in or write to us or e-mail us. It is quite hard to choose. Generally now, I think we approach artists more than we take on artists that approach us. When we first opened, obviously we had no artists. We had to go and look for them and nobody knew who we were. Now there are a lot of people who want to show their work with us. We don’t have any trouble getting people. Generally now, we have quite a large list of artists, but we don’t take on that many new people at the moment. We’ve introduced a hell of a lot of new, completely unknown artists onto the scene. We’ve sort of started people’s careers. Some of them have gone on and done other things with other galleries and some of them are still with us. We’re not looking as much as we were for new artists before.
CB: Is there anyone particularly lesser-known that you have your eye on, or thinking about exhibiting in the future?
CG: If there’s someone who we really think has got potential, we keep an eye on what they’re doing and approach them. We recently took on a Dutch artist who we looked at. We thought his work was really good, but then it still felt like he was very young and his work was still developing. After looking at the work for a year or two, we eventually offered him the chance to have some of his work in the group show and he did a solo show with us last year. So that’s how we would generally work. We’ll keep an eye on people’s work and approach them when we feel they’re ready. We’ll then show them with other artists to see how people respond.
The other thing is that we have to be able to get on with them. If you’re going to work with an artist, you have to get the right relationship going, a positive relationship. It’s very hard if there isn’t mutual respect. I think there’s negativity about galleries on the street art scene which is unfair because we’ve always tried to support artists. If they’re ready to move onto bigger galleries, we’re happy for them to do that. We’ve never tried to rip any artists off. It’s quite hard sometimes for artists without a gallery background to understand why we have to take commission, why we have to feel we’re in control of certain aspects. It is a business for us, we make our living out of it and what we offer is getting artists together that we think people want to see and getting artists together who people want to buy as well, and it’s not that easy.
I think other artists tend to miss out galleries altogether and do their own pop-up shows. They might make a sale or two but actually building a career out of pop-up shows, unless you’ve got a hell of a lot of money behind you and a PR machine, and there are a couple of artists like that out there, then it’s not going to get you very far. If an artist is with a gallery, they can get a buyer’s attention. A lot of serious buyers want to see how artists are progressing. They feel safer if a good artist respects the gallery and they’re more likely to take a risk and buy work from an artist they wouldn’t normally consider.
CB: So the average buyer is looking for a strong relationship between the artist and the gallery?
CG: They like it when we show artists a few times and they like to see that there is a progression with us. They like to hear us talk about the artist. It’s important, because when you buy a new artist who is totally unknown, it is a risk, especially if you are hoping to make some money out of it. I always urge people not to buy something unless they really bond with the work. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something you want to wake up in the morning to every day, but it has to really do something for you. If prices go down and things are bit dodgy for a while, just hold onto it and see how it goes.
Image Credits: C215 mural, Kyla Borg (above) and Dale Grimshaw’s ‘Culture Club’, Bablu Miah (featured image).