Zavier Ellis is the founder and director of CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, a vibrant contemporary art gallery in Shoreditch, London, which is currently celebrating their 10th Anniversary.
How did CHARLIE SMITH LONDON come about?
I launched the CHARLIE SMITH LONDON gallery space in Shoreditch in 2009 after running it as a curatorial project for a couple of years. I was a partner at a gallery in Clapham before that, having started there as an intern. Going back further, I decided in my final year of History of Modern Art at Manchester University that I wanted to go into the gallery world. Even then I was organising events – exhibitions, club nights etc. – and wanted to combine that drive with my passion for art. Having cut my teeth CHARLIE SMITH was a natural progression and was entirely my vision. It’s a curatorial project – more so than many galleries – and we are biased towards painting. That said, I am completely open to all media and work with other media often. People who know the gallery know that we deal with profound and technical work that explores fundamental themes.
As a gallerist do you consider yourself an educator?
I’m a huge advocate of education. I occasionally give lectures at art schools on professional practice, and I see every BA and MA degree show in London each summer. I remain passionate about discovering and exhibiting young or new artists and this has always been part of my ethos. I don’t see that changing. I believe that education enabled me (History of Modern Art BA at Manchester University and Fine Art MA at City & Guilds, London) and that broadly speaking better education provision could solve many of society’s ills. Everyone should be enabled to fulfill their potential in a subject that they enjoy, and studying art specifically is profoundly enlightening since it is interwoven with significant events and movements throughout history. Do I consider myself as an educator as a gallerist? I don’t think I’m the one to answer that and it’s not a primary motive. But I can say that this project is an ongoing exploration that engages with history, philosophy, psychology and the self, so if that is educational, then very good!
How do you function as both a working artist and gallerist? What are the pros and cons?
It takes drive, good organisation and I have to prioritize accordingly. I do see it holistically though. Making work; showing work; writing about work; it’s all interrelated. And it enables me to understand when I’m showing with gallerists and curators what their requirements are and what they are going through; and equally, I understand the challenges of studio practice; making work; taking it to the public; etc. Because of this, perhaps surprisingly, I’m a pretty low maintenance artist; and perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t work with difficult artists.
I think there are three types of gallerists – artist gallerists; banker gallerists; and those in between. I’m an artist gallerist and most artists appreciate that. They know I understand what it is to be an artist and I guess its just part of the pact. If that’s problematic then there are plenty of other galleries that people can work with.
Why do you only focus on artists that you believe in when you could take a more commercial route?
It’s very simple – I have to do something I enjoy. I was only ever going to go into the art world and I have a unique viewpoint. As I mentioned earlier, the whole thing is an ongoing, personal investigation. I also have to be honest with my collectors, and I only want to place work that I believe in. This means that collectors can rely on my taste, interests and discovery capabilities – my eye if you will. And, if the work is authentic then the relationships between me, artists and collectors can be very rewarding as there is something fundamental that we have in common. My maxim is to work with like-minded artists and like-minded collectors. Ultimately, if I’m working with artists that I don’t believe in I might as well sell cars or houses.
You have curated ‘Young Gods’ and ‘THE FUTURE CAN WAIT’ – are these projects still close to your heart and will you be expanding on the format of these shows in the future?
Yes, these two projects will always be close to my heart. THE FUTURE CAN WAIT was a monumental 10-year project that had never been done before and might not be done again. Curated with Simon Rumley, we made an annual one week show during Frieze week that was completely independent and privately funded. We took spaces up to 26,000 sq ft in central London and showed approximately 50 emerging to mid-career artists each time. At the first one in 2007 at the Old Truman Brewery, we clocked 3,000 attendees at the private view alone – quite phenomenal. After a few years the Saatchi Gallery approached us and we partnered with Saatchi’s New Sensations until they closed that programme down. We signed off by helping to organise the heart wrenching but sensationally successful fundraising exhibition and auction In Memoriam Francesca Lowe.
As for Young Gods, that is absolutely an ongoing project. It’s my selection of London graduates and postgraduates and has taken place in three locations so far – I’ve run it on and off for around 15 years. This project will definitely continue and has the facility to adapt, expand and contract.
In your last ten years as a gallerist and artist, what have you learned about our industry?
I’ve learned that it is a long game and that relationships and authenticity are paramount. On the whole, people are trustworthy, but not all. People come and people go, and nothing lasts forever.
How would you define the current state of the art world?
In one word: good. In two words: not good. In three words: not good enough. (Stolen from the American psychologist Martin Seligman.) I think like most things the artworld’s current state is mixed but it has the ability to adapt to circumstances. Artists and those in the industry are creative after all. There are many very dedicated collectors who we are fortunate enough to work with who continue year in year out to support the market, but it does need more. We need more young collectors coming through, which I think was diminished by the crash in 2008. And we also need collectors who are only interested in big names to show interest in the new and undiscovered.
There is too much proliferation – too many artists, too many galleries, too many art fairs. But we just have to navigate that, and it does mean there is a place for everyone. I would like the government to support it more – partly this relates to education funding, which is a much broader question, but also tax breaks for collectors would encourage activity.
Online platforms are exciting and productive these days – Instagram and Artsy for example. These are great ways to reach new audiences and to discover. The internet can only continue to help the market – I think it has only just begun.
What is your advice to young or emerging artists trying to breakthrough in the art world?
It’s a long game. Don’t burn bridges. Keep your ego in check. Just do it.
But also, to continue with education as far as possible. I think a Masters is important, or a rigorous alternative such as Turps Banana. Get out there and attend openings; see as many shows as possible. Get to know people but be cool about it. I’d also advise applying for open calls and prize shows. That can provide exposure; funds; and important relationships.
With over 10,000 visual art graduates each year in the UK is it possible to be a mentor? or is it a Sisyphean task?
In some ways part of the job of being a gallerist is mentorship. There are always conversations around the work; and advice or opinions about work, professional practice or life generally are part of the dialogue. Outside of this, funded mentorships do happen, but I believe rarely. It would be a good thing, either publicly or privately funded, to proliferate mentorships for young or new artists with artworld professionals.
Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?
10 years is quite a psychological milestone so I’m going to spend some time thinking about the last ten and the next ten. I intend to concentrate more on less. And I have a THE FUTURE CAN WAIT shaped hole in my programming so expect something big at some point. I am working on a very exciting curatorial project currently that will be world-class, although depends on funding. If it happens it will be in 2020 and outside of London. I also have a couple of other large scale projects that are in the earliest stages of research and development. You can certainly expect more rigorous output as gallerist, curator and artist.
Zavier Ellis is a gallerist, curator and artist. He read History of Modern Art at Manchester University, 1993-1996, before undertaking a Masters in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School, 2003-2005. He is founder and director of CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, a vibrant contemporary art gallery in Shoreditch, London. He was also co-founder and co-curator of the museum scale exhibition for emerging artists THE FUTURE CAN WAIT. As well as curating exhibitions globally (including Berlin, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Klaipėda, London, Los Angeles, Naples and Rome), Ellis has exhibited as an artist widely including Museum der Moderne, Salzburg; Saatchi Gallery, London; Torrance Art Museum, Los Angeles; Klaipėda Culture Communication Centre, Klaipėda; Royal West Academy, Bristol; Dean Clough, Halifax; Paul Stolper, London; Galerie Heike Strelow, Frankfurt; and Raid Projects, Los Angeles. His work is featured in notable collections including Sammlung Annette und Peter Nobel, Zurich and Soho House, London / LA. Ellis has also published the iArtBook ‘100 London Artists’ with renowned critic, historian and curator Edward Lucie-Smith.
CHARLIE SMITH LONDON was established in Old Street, Shoreditch in 2009 with the objective of running an exceptional exhibition programme of dedicated one-person exhibitions and dynamic curated group shows. Specialising in emerging to mid-career artists, the gallery’s approach is collaborative and curatorial and emphasizes work that engages critically with profound human and historical themes. CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is recognised as a contemporary art gallery that discovers and develops vital artists and actively seeks to evolve a global synergy for like-minded and progressive artists, collectors, galleries and curators.