‘London’s streets are paved with gold’, or so the saying goes. For aspiring creative minds, how much truth does that tongue-in-cheek promise once made to Dick Whittington still hold?
We’re trying to find out. In this series, illuminating the world of London’s emerging creatives and explaining how they got there, Lottie Leseberg Smith spends a day with Alice Black– co-founder of the Alice Black Gallery.
Alice Black’s story could be told in a set of impressive numbers: a gallerist at 25, a spot nabbed in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Arts & Culture list, waking daily at 5.45am, representing seven artists…the list goes on. This story could be told in numbers, but when getting below the epidermis, we find that numbers tell only the surface level. They fail to paint an accurate portrayal of the hard work, determination and even fear that are essential to this ‘success’ story.
Alice Black’s story is better told in objects and places. A canvas bag, a police station, a bakery and a cloth house weave their way into the creation of a gallery that strives to give a platform to artists who seek to address the issues and challenges of our time.
I meet her in the gallery on Mortimer Street. Tomorrow is the exhibition opening of one of her artists, the Brooklyn-based Atalanta Xanthe (b.1996), whose latest body of work, Uteroverse, depicts the travails of anthropomorphic sperm as they journey across an imagined reproductive tract.
“There is no normal day,” Alice tells me. “I’m very much a believer that life extends beyond the gallery walls. It requires full immersion – your constantly juggling hats. Sometimes I have to kick back and laugh as behind the calm exterior that most people see, there is a lot of doggy paddling. In the very early phases, I was securing sales from high profile collectors in Asia from my mattress bed behind the sofa in my mum’s living room in Ealing, where I was living at the time – they just didn’t know it.”
Between planning the programme, keeping on top of the admin, finances, and daily logistical demands, Alice’s days are filled with meetings with artists and clients, studio visits, attending private views, or inviting people into her home for an informal art viewing.
Already, I’m struck by how warm Alice is. It is a decided contrast to what it feels like to usually enter a gallery in London, all seemingly competing over who can be the least inviting. This contrast is no mistake on Alice’s part.
“The artworld does itself a disservice by presenting as cold and impenetrable. I think it’s important to be open and warm and encouraging and do more to ignite all the latent interest that exists here in people. London is so reliant on an international import of collectors, that we forget about the people on our own doorstep. And for those that might not have the cash to actively collect, commercial galleries are one of the best places to see art for free. The very term private view is misleading.”
But how did it get to the point where Alice could be the change she wanted to see? Below, she sets out the different places and stages in her journey to this point.
The Home-Sewn Canvas Bag
“Everyone in my family is hopeless at being employed so it runs in the blood that we are all our own bosses.
“When I first entered the gallery world as an intern I assumed that everyone must want to open their own space – I was surprised to hear most didn’t. I definitely set out with rose tinted glasses and thank goodness I did, or I might have listened to the naysayers. When I first went independent I did not have any financial backing and so there was a pressing need for me to start generating income immediately. I had a five year plan, but I also had a five day plan. Things started very small.”
Small came in the form of a canvas bag sewn by Alice’s mum to house a few artworks in it.
“I used to put my artworks into my bag and get on the tube,” she reminisces, “going door to door as a travelling art dealer with my very early client base of a few contacts. My sell through rate was near 100% because I could only carry two artworks, so there was a small margin for error. I had to make it work straight away.”
With a back against the wall that fosters a specific flavour of determination, Alice continued step by step towards her next stop: a Police station.
The Police Station
“In 2016, I moved into an old police station in Chelsea under a guardianship scheme, and began to plan my first show with 8 artists, in its large, vacant, basement and cells. All was going well until the show was cancelled by the council. Based on the barrage of red-tape and bureaucracy I encountered, you would have thought I was trying to open a nightclub…”
It was during this time that Alice and her soon to be co-founder, Matt Symonds, began to discuss partnership, and started looking into other, more full-time gallery spaces. Matt, a passionate art collector and independent investor and consultant in the city, admired the ambition and grass roots quality of Alice’s initiative. He came on board offering much needed investment, business expertise and a desire, himself, to learn more about the commercial and creative workings of the artworld.
This is when the quaint, first floor storeroom of the Clothouse on Berwick Street enters the scene. “It was tiny (397 sq ft) and stacked wall to wall with exotic cloth. But it had a great atmosphere and good light and we were in the heart of Soho – I knew straight away that this was where we could cut our teeth.” The gallery launched its first official space in May 2017.
The next space, in the heart of Covent Garden, was located up four flights of narrow, winding stairs, on the top floor of a Victorian bakery. Nestled under the eaves with exposed brick work and original beams, it was the antithesis of the traditional white cube. It had an old fashioned pulley system that Alice had to use to winch her artworks up and down the innumerate flights of stairs. Not without its challenges, it was a space all the same, and most importantly a space that was theirs for that moment in time.
The way Alice talks about these places, with pride, a deep sense of nostalgia and most importantly love, is touching. From the first moment we met, it was evident how deeply she cares. There is a specific type of determination that comes from your venture simply having to happen.
“This gallery is everything. I wanted it so badly, so I was halfway there.”
The other half was littered with people who did not hesitate to hold back in letting her know that she was running before she could walk, having spent a short amount of time at Philips and a brief stint at Stephen Friedman, she was told she needed more experience, a deeper network, more knowledge, all of which was true, she adds.
But then Alice says something, which of course I already knew, but still it strikes me like a cord: “I was only 25.”
Maybe it’s the way she said it, but for a flash I caught sight of what it must have been like, vulnerable, largely alone, driven by a love of supporting artists and wanting to build something of meaning. For something that is so clearly pulled from her own stomach, something that is so deeply personal, I have to ask Alice, ‘Do you feel lonely?’
“You do, at times, feel lonely and sometimes it feels like the obstacles you encounter are unsurpassable. But you come to realise, they never are – there is always a route through.
“It goes without saying that as a gallery you are nothing without your artists, collectors and wider support network and it really is them that give you the get up and go to do what you do. On many occasions, I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that has been beamed towards us. I also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Matt Symonds, Millie Seal and our long-time gallery manager, Marcela Iriarte, all of whom are built into the fabric of the gallery, as it now stands.”
“There were multiple times where people would come into the gallery and be surprised that I was the director, and not the intern. There is definitely the assumption that if you are a young female, it is unlikely that you are doing this, but I’ve never felt like my gender has ever got in the way of anything I have wanted to do. I do know that starting out young has huge bonuses; you have time to experiment, make mistakes, and the energy.”
It is inspiring hearing Alice speak like this. For many at the bottom of the mountain or on the outside of the glossy glass gallery windows, it seems almost impossible to do what Alice has done and is doing. Putting one foot in front of the other, especially when you are at times scared, seems to be the only way through when you are just starting out.
Alice has one more golden nugget, and perhaps the key to her success and an ode to her finely tuned gut instincts. “Stay true to what you believe in. Don’t be guided by what you think will sell, or do well, people see through that.”
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What is it Alice believes in?
“Art offers us something that other aspects of existence do not. It is a point of contact. It has the power to open up new channels of meaning and feeling, taking us to places that politics, entertainment, religion, science and reason alone cannot. Today, it also represents a real, tangible return to a human reality that stands in counter to our otherwise digitally dominated world.”
“I believe art should be generous and reward the act of looking, before the need for words. I’m moved by the visceral, guttural feeling that sits in your stomach and makes you feel alive.
“In this moment of climate crisis, I believe as creatives we have to be conscious of what we are bringing into the world; to constantly ask, how can we tread more lightly?
“I also believe that we don’t hear enough about art history in the commercial world. How do we build on that history? I believe the art that is going to stand the test of time is the work that can stand on its own two feet and communicate on its own terms, as its own advocate. For me, it has to come from a place of soul.”
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Is there an explanation for her success?
Alice laughs. “In terms of success, I feel like we are only really, just getting going. The first few years are like pushing a boulder up a hill that could roll down and crush you at any moment. It now feels like we are reaching the brow of the hill, and all the past efforts are making themselves known and forming a more solid ground rock upon which the next phase of gallery life can be built.”
It’s the night of the gallery opening for Atalanta Xanthe’s debut solo show. As I approach, there is a crowd spilling out onto the street, and I make my way through into the lilac-walled gallery where I saw Alice standing alone two days ago. No longer alone, she is surrounded by people laughing and chatting, amongst artworks that are joining in the conversation too.
She’s done it. The doors are open. Onto the next for Alice.
Atalanta Xanthe is on at Alice Black until 16 October 2022.