EK Interview: Signal Gallery

Our second ever gallery spotlight is on Signal Gallery, a London gallery that focuses on contemporary painting, and has featured some seriously amazing work. Check out our interview with Chris Garlick to hear about what they do and where it all began …

What’s the story behind the Signal Gallery? How did it all begin?

The gallery happened almost by accident. After losing my partner of 25 years to cancer, I knew that I could never return to my old life as a senior manager in local government. The traumatic experience made me reassess my priorities. There were creative things I’d wanted to do with my life that I’d never felt brave enough to pursue. Art had always been a passion for me – all those summers traveling around Italy searching for every Piero Della Francesca were evidence of that.

When I met my new partner, who is an artist, I looked into how best to promote their work. I soon became dizzy with, but also hooked on, the complexity of the London art scene and said to myself – why not open my own gallery. And so I did.

Is there a particular vision or philosophy behind the creation of the gallery? Has this changed or evolved with time?
Initially I was aiming to providing a much needed platform for contemporary figurative painters. Many London galleries seemed to have lost faith in painting as a viable commercial product. There seemed to be an air of snobbery about the ancient discipline. What I wanted to show the world was that it was still possible for humble painted works on canvas to be on the cutting edge.

Art Blog - Signal Gallery - Empty Kingdom

Jonathan Roney, Signal Gallery

Tell me about your artists. How do you find them? What do you look for in an artist’s portfolio?

We have worked very hard to develop and maintain our list of artists, as they are the bread and butter of our business. Some of them we represent fully and others we share with other galleries. Finding artists you admire and want to show is the easy part, especially with the internet making everything so visible. However, like any relationship there has to be mutual respect and trust in order for it to flourish. For me the most important qualities I seek out in an artist are genuine talent, evidence of long-term commitment and a clear path of progression in their output.

What needs to happen to you internally in order for you to offer an artist a show at your gallery? Do you approach the decision based on gut feeling, as part of a calculated business decision, or something else entirely?

We need to love the artwork, first and foremost. There has to be gut reaction intitially, but then our commercial brains starts to kick in. We would normally show an artist in one or two group shows first, to gauge the response of our buyers, before planning a solo show. It also gives us a chance to see if we can work together in a positive way. We have shown many new artists and some have fallen by the wayside before even getting a solo show. However we do our utmost to promote every artist we show and to give them every chance of succeeding. Several of our artists have to gone on to have successful careers and to sell large amounts of work.

Art Blog - Signal Gallery - Empty Kingdom

Crawfurd Adamson, Signal Gallery

Can you describe the relationship between you and your artists? What do you consider to be the objective of the collaboration?

As I mentioned earlier the most important thing is that there is mutual respect and trust between ourselves and our artists. Without this the process of collaboration cannot even begin. Once this relationship has been forged, then the objectives for both parties would be to present the work in the most positive way to an ever increasing and enthusiastic audience. We would hope that all this preparation would translate into sales.

I know the Signal Gallery began with a specific concentration in mind – contemporary painting. Has that focus changed at all over time? Do you think it will? Are there other artistic styles you’ve discovered along the way that fascinate you? Is there an underlying theme to the art that you do choose to show?

When we first set about curating shows and sourcing artists, we stuck to our primary vision of promoting contemporary painting. However, along the way we discovered that there was a whole new art scene emerging, that opened doors for many of our artists. This was the urban/Street art scene. For us this new scene offered the opportunity of reaching a new audience who weren’t necessarily familiar with the mainstream contemporary art scene and didn’t have so many of the prejudices about the style of work we wanted to promote. As a result, while sticking to our original goals, we also embracing some other forms that came from the street including stencils and graffiti based work using spray paint.

What is your definition of art? What about good art – is there such a thing?

The appreciation of anything creative is largely subjective. However I believe that the artist needs to seek out a way of clearly communicating their vision. If this vision is universal and touches us on a deep level, then maybe we can call this great art. I also believe that as the audience we need to be willing to work to understand what we see, because however successful the artist may be at communicating, some ideas may not and should not be too easily grasped.

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Guy Denning, Signal Gallery

Do you find art is naturally suited to business? How do you balance displaying work you absolutely love and making a profit for the gallery? Have you found that popular taste is generally in line with your own?

It is very hard to get this balance right. In these difficult times it is a challenge to make a substantial profit from selling art at the level we are at. We aim to show work that we love at all times. As yet I haven’t shown work I don’t admire for the sake of profit.

I have to say that we haven’t felt ourselves entirely in step with popular taste in the fine art world. The path we have taken often feels a lonely one, although we have connections with the fine art and the urban art scene through individual artists. We have stuck to our guns though and it is now reaping benefits and we are developing a very loyal and enthusiastic following who get what we are trying to do.

How would you describe your particular corner of the art market at the moment – how does it set itself apart from the art market in London, or Europe as a whole?

We are Signal Gallery and have our own identity. It doesn’t fit in with any particular trends. We are proud of this achievement.

Art Blog - Signal Gallery - Empty Kingdom

Case, Signal Gallery

Do you see any trends currently developing? Any hopes or predictions for the future?

I see a move away from the excesses of conceptualism as a positive step. I think that the contemporary art world needs a wake up call. We need to find a pace of change that takes a bigger audience with it. Otherwise there is a danger that the art market is cornered by a few entrepreneurial artists who replace quality of invention with bankability.

I’d like to see the art education system in the UK challenged. There are too many courses, with the results that the gallery scene cannot support even a small proportion of the students graduating. Also the content of many courses seems to lack focus and doesn’t provide young artists with the skills they need to practice their craft proficiently or to promote themselves effectively. We need to nurture the young talent coming through and make sure we are giving them with the tools to produce new masterpieces and carry on our great European art heritage.

Being a young gallery, you seem to have a lot more flexibility with your vision and the decisions you take looking to the future. Have there been benefits to being a young gallery that you didn’t expect? Any particularly difficult decisions that you had to make?

We have found that being a young gallery our lack of ties to promoters and a very fixed client base, has given us a sense of creative freedom. However in order to survive over time, many of these potential avenues are not in reality open us, because we become more aware of the financial imperative – not just for ourselves but for our artists. We’re not doing artists any favours to agree to show their work, because we like it and we like them, if we know that the chances of selling it are pretty slim. One particular artist falls into this category. Even though I collect them myself, we have never been able to find a market for their work, as her style does not fit in with how the gallery has developed.

Art Blog - Signal Gallery - Empty Kingdom

Joram Roukes, Signal Gallery

What do you believe to be the key elements of an amazing show? Are there any that you have particularly loved? Any hilarious moments of near-disaster?

Great artwork. Excellent promotion. One of our most popular exhibitions was one in which we showed the work of Punk musicians from the 70s and their fans. There were queues up the street for the private view and desperate tactics used by some to get in. It was a great show and gave us a lot of exposure. My final words on it though are – never work with Adam Ant!

What would you define as success for an artist? How about success for Signal Gallery? Are the two necessarily aligned?

Sadly it does all come down to economics. An artist needs their work to be admired and appreciated in their lifetime. The most definite evidence of this is when people want to pay good money for it. Without the imperative to make money a gallery cannot grow or even survive. In the age of the internet many artists feel they can ‘go it alone’. In reality private sales by artists is a road to nowhere for them. They need the resources and kudos of being aligned to a gallery in order to make a true impression on the art world

Where would you hope to see Signal Gallery in five years’ time?

Still here. Still growing. Still loving what we do.

Art Blog - Signal Gallery - Empty Kingdom