You came to the gallery stage from an artistic area, why did you decide to make that shift?
I spent 9 years as a practicing artist after graduating my Fine Art BA at Middlesex University and never planned to do anything other than pursue that path. During those years I curated a number of exhibitions across London, bringing together groups of artists I admired while creating a context for my own work to exist within. Whilst I never thought I’d step away from making, I knew I had an interest in the organising and curation of exhibitions. In 2014 I curated a group show in a Fitzrovia gallery (Central London) I was the art technician for. They kindly let me use the space whilst closed during the summer holidays. Not wanting to be credited as the curator whilst also featuring in the exhibition I came up with Castor as a curatorial name to operate under.I always knew that whether I was to be an artist or gallerist, I wanted to do it to the best of my abilities, rather than trying to juggle both which would ultimately lead to compromise. There wasn’t a moment where I ‘quit’ making work but rather I had a break from the studio for a few months after a solo exhibition during which time an opportunity came up which ultimately became Castor’s first permanent space. The gallery started in a cramped basement below a cafe in New Cross, South London in January 2016, in the first year I programmed 10 solo exhibitions each of which transformed the awkward space, 4 of those 10 artists are now represented by the gallery.
Could Castor be defined as an artist-run space or the dealer-run one?
Castor is a commercial gallery following a traditional bricks and mortar model dependent on sales to fund the program, that said I see our approach to exhibition making as perhaps more generous than many galleries. When I start a dialogue with an artist in the run up to an exhibition I like to give them carte blanche to think outside the box and not to be afraid to pitch something ambitious. The other difference with Castor is as a former art technician and fabricator I have the skills and tools to realise most things myself, so whilst you will find me suited and booted at the opening, during the install I’m very hands on working alongside the artist to create the exhibition. I imagine this is a pretty unique position I put myself in but it enables us to produce impressive exhibitions without a large budget.
You once mentioned that you have always been intrigued by the market, keeping your eyes and ears open and not afraid of money, gossip and other stuff people are trying to avoid. Did it somehow give you a source of inspiration, useful insider-info or a spirit of resistance to do something opposite the market mainstream?
I think this was from an interview in my first couple of years running the gallery. As I recall I was saying that even as an artist I was intrigued about that side of the art world (as art market), something which I know many artists shy away from as noise or a distraction. But for me it was and still is fascinating, there aren’t many industries like it. Also this was my learning as a gallerist when I was starting out, I already knew how to build, plaster and paint a wall, I could write a press release and curate a show, but what I didn’t have were the contacts or any experience of art sales outside of the occasional sale of my own artwork.
I suppose all this is to say that unlike an artist, as a gallerist all the market stuff is important, even if it’s not necessarily always related to my day to day, it’s important to stay informed and as the gallery has grown, to contribute and be part of those conversations.
In the gallery vision it is mentioned that Castor focuses on emerged artists. What kind of differences do you see in the London art landscape now in comparison to the 90’s?
I’m too young to remember the art scene in the 90’s outside of the museums I visited as a child. I would say everything has changed since then from commerce, to housing and spending habits. London as a city has grown exponentially for good and bad. One result of this is we now have galleries able to operate in all parts of London, with our Deptford location in South London becoming a hotbed for young galleries in recent years. London is a tough city to live and survive in but those challenges create ambition which drives people to stand up and find their voice. I thought my voice was that of an artist but very quickly realised I was far better at wearing the gallery hat which suits my skill set as well as stopped me self deprecating about my own work.
Does the old money of London still influence alignment of forces on the art market? What does the big collector’s base consist of nowadays?
London is a city of tradition and built on old money, but modern day London is a melting pot of people from all parts of the world which is reflected in the collector base.
I started Castor when I was in my early 30’s and as a gallery working mostly with emerging artists I would say the collectors I experience are often of a similar age and more and more are based all over the world. Gone are the days when galleries were pitching to only a few local collectors who would walk in, to sustain the sheer number of galleries here we need a wide reach and inclusiveness to all.
Has online curation become a part of your gallery activity since last year?
Coming from an artist background I engage with the physical nature of a work and as such think of display in the real. Outside of digital media, you can’t tell me a painting or sculpture work better online. When our photographer documents an exhibition we of course think about how it’ll translate to the digital, however the curation is all about being in the space with the work.
During the spring 2021 lockdown here in the UK we organised two online exhibitions both of which were physically installed, one a solo exhibition by Lucus Dupuy and the other a group show of sculptures “The Stable Object in Precarious Times”. For me the physical existence of both those exhibitions was important even though no one could visit it in person, I saw these as a response to all the OVR’s which are ultimately jpegs dropped into a website. I’ve nothing against a purely online exhibition but the physicality of a space even if viewed via a website adds so much to the context and dialogues between the works.
From November until late April 2021 the gallery was only able to open for a little less than a month, at the start of 2021 I realised how much I missed the realisation of an idea installed in the real. The Lucus Dupuy exhibition happened in a 3 week period from 1st conversation to launching. We chose to install and document it in his studio, spending a few days prior to hanging the works to rebuild and paint the walls and cover over a door which leads to a garden.
“The Stable Object in Precarious Times” was installed and documented on the rooftop of an artist studio block in South London. After a studio visit on a sunny February afternoon I was taken up to the roof by the artist for a beer and was struck by the scale of the space. A little over a month later we were installing the work of 9 artists all of which had to be carried up through a small hatch, the works remained out for only a few hours but the show now exists online forever. The experience of both these exhibitions has given me the desire to continue to program and curate shows outside of the gallery space alongside our regular program, whether to a physical audience or online but the key for me is holding the works and seeing them together within a space wherever that may be.
What are the main selective curatorial principles you are following at Castor ?
There’s no specific criteria as such outside of the work having to speak to me. I see the gallery program as a pendulum with each show different from the last and I hope this keeps the audience engaged and on their toes. In September 2020 we took on the neighbouring unit and punched a doorway through which doubled the overall exhibition space. The first two exhibition slots saw 2 solos running side by side starting with Grace Woodcock and Indrikis Gelzis, then Simon Mathers and Charline Tyberghein. Having the 2nd smaller space enables me to also think about the combination of artists and links between the shows, whilst with our current Ben Jamie exhibition it’s given us the opportunity to present a much larger almost survey show of his work across both spaces.
There are certain threads people talk about with our exhibitions, such as the materiality or confidence of the maker’s hand being evident. With my practicing background I’m drawn to artists who have a very specific knowledge or handling of materials but I think ultimately rules are made to be broken and that’s the fun part of programming.
In a world of online viewing rooms and the desire to survive during tough times I try to follow the expand or die principals, to constantly strive to grow and do bigger shows. I’d like Castor to be known as being the gallery who go the extra mile to consistently produce exhibitions of quality for emerging artists. I think we’ve started well and I’m excited to see what the next 5 years hold.
Is it important for you to share similar values and life positions with artists you collaborate with ? Can you invest in totally unknown names?
Being a young gallery the artists I tend to work with are generally of a similar age (20-30’s). The relationship between myself and the artist has to be strong particularly as we often have a very collaborative approach to making an exhibition. If I’m putting my time and energy into the exhibition builds I expect a lot back from the artist. I find this shared approach to labour helps bring out the best in people and keep the quality consistently high.
All that said, often the most interesting voices are those whose life experiences are far away from our own so it’s really all down to the work and what speaks to me.
When I started the gallery I made a conscious decision not to work with artists I knew from before (outside of a couple of exceptions). I saw the importance of growing a network of new voices around the gallery rather than ones we’d already heard elsewhere. Everyone was unknown at some point, sometimes an artist comes along whose had recognition elsewhere and the show with Castor is building on that. Other times it’s a debut solo exhibition. Choosing to work with artists for me is very instinctual, I don’t do many studio visits but rather only visit someone if I’ve a strong interest in doing something with. There’s been a couple of occasions I’ve not followed up on an artist recommendation and kicked myself but generally trust my gut which seems to pay off.
You have six artists Castor now presents exclusively. Is it still referential and important for the gallerists to struggle for the special contract conditions?
I feel representation is a tricky thing, it’s got to be founded on a strong relationship and understanding so artist and gallery can pull in the same direction. The first few years I didn’t feel I had enough to offer to fully take an artist on, but as the gallery has grown I started to add artists to the program. Claire Baily, Ben Jamie, Alan Magee and Derek Mainella – all showed at the gallery’s first space in 2016 and we’re now on either a 2nd or 3rd solo show with each of them. Jack West first worked with us in 2017, while Grace Woodcock in 2020.
As a former artist I understand both sides of the coin so with representation I’ve made sure the offer to the artists is good and fair. Things like having full transparency about how the gallery is doing, an open door policy for advice/chats and studio visits + making sure the artists always receive a fair deal. Galleries are nothing without the artists, we’re only as good as the shows they put on. Sometimes I feel this gets a bit lost, a bit higher up the food chain, so for me it’s all about being artist centric. Representation isn’t a ball and chain, it’s about supporting and growing together whether that’s over a long period of time or otherwise. If an artist ends up moving to a bigger gallery then whilst sad, it shows we’ve done something right whilst working together.
Castor for you is a mission, the business, the art project? Is the Gallery the street-object, still keeping importance and alive offline positions?
Castor is clearly a huge part of me (or me, of it), it’s given me a purpose and direction in my life outside of an art studio and now a responsibility to the artists I work with but it’s also a business and as such needs to sustain itself. I see Castor as a dynamic, ever changing entity, a way of mapping my tastes and interests at any one time as well as the wider trends in contemporary art. I like to think there’s a sweet spot between the monied business side of things and having the ability to produce stand out exhibitions without compromise to mark a significant point in an artist’s career.
I hope and believe the physical experience of viewing art will always be the first port of call, clearly the past year of Covid has reconfirmed the importance of a strong web presence as a powerful additional channel, however if anything a year of lockdowns has given more importance to the physical.