Christina Mackie, installation Chisenhale Gallery Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Installation, Chisenhale Gallery
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Andrea Phillips


— Interview with Polly Staple

Over the last year Dr Andrea Phillips has been working on a research project for How to work together on the ways in which art’s organisational structures shape its politics. Published here are a series of interviews  with Polly Staple (director, Chisenhale Gallery), Emily Pethick (director, The Showroom) and Joe Scotland (director, Studio Voltaire). Read the introductory essay by Andrea Phillips here.

 

About Chisenhale Gallery

 

Chisenhale Gallery was established by artists and has occupied the former veneer factory building on Chisenhale Road in Tower Hamlets since the early 1980s. The gallery is a registered charity and has received regular Arts Council funding since 1986. Polly Staple was appointed director in 2008.

Chisenhale Gallery has a current annual budget of £485,000 and employs four full-time and four part-time members of staff. The gallery produces up to five solo exhibitions with artists each year; as well as Interim, a series of performance-based projects taking place in between exhibitions, and 21st Century, featuring performances, screenings, talks and research-led projects by emerging artists, writers and theorists. Chisenhale Gallery’s education programme includes work with local schools, higher education and the Propeller youth forum. Offsite includes commissions, collaborations, residencies and touring programmes all taking place outside the gallery.

www.chisenhale.org.uk

Andrea Phillips

Tell me how you got here, where you came from, what kind of institutions you’ve worked in before, and why you came to Chisenhale Gallery?

Polly Staple

I have an art history degree from Sussex University and a fine art degree from Goldsmiths. When I was studying at Goldsmiths in the early 1990s, I don’t remember us talking about ‘curating’ or ‘curators’. I think I’m one of the last of a generation that didn’t ‘train’ as a curator.

After college I worked at Cabinet Gallery, taught at London art colleges and was co-editor of Untitled magazine. I was awarded the first curatorial bursary at Cubitt in 2001. The establishment of a curatorial bursary at Cubitt was an interesting moment in itself, because Cubitt had a great reputation as an artist run space; it was the point at which they first received Arts Council funding and they moved from their Caledonian Road premises to Angel Islington. The artists established this bursary for a curator to run an 18-month programme, which has now been going for over 10 years. You don’t get very much money, but you get a great platform.

I was continuing to edit Untitled, and I had been writing for frieze magazine. In my programme at Cubitt, alongside commissioning new works with emerging artists, I was organising a lot of performances, talks and events. Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, the directors of Frieze, approached me with their idea to start an international contemporary art fair in 2002, and told me how they wanted to place artists’ commissions and a discursive programme at the heart of the fair. It was an interesting cultural moment for London (Tate Modern had opened in 2000, international travel had become more accessible, the economy was buoyant, the market was in rapid development…) and Frieze Projects & Talks, the programme we produced, was an interesting vehicle for thinking through that particular dynamic.

Andrea

What was your role at Frieze?

Polly

I was director of Frieze Projects, responsible for curating the programme of artists’ commissions — including the Artists’ Cinema in association with LUX and Ian White — and Frieze Talks. I was also editor-at-large on the magazine, which meant I participated in weekly editorial meetings, for example, but I wasn’t engaged in the nuts and bolts of production. I sat in the office alongside the magazine editors rather than with the art fair team, which seemed an important distinction at the time. I worked on four editions of the fair, 2003-06.

After leaving, I went on a series of writers and curators’ residencies and began working on independent exhibition and research projects. In Spring 2008 I had just embarked on curating the exhibition Dispersion for the ICA, London, when the Chisenhale job came up. It seemed like a challenging and major project to take on. I’d never run an organisation before, and I’d never looked after a building. I suddenly found myself in charge of a small business, but it was very exciting. There was a whole rebooting exercise to do, from redesigning the organisation’s identity and developing a new artistic programme, to diversifying income streams, including initiating a benefactors’ scheme. I had a fantastic chair of the board of trustees, Camilla Nicholls. We worked together on strengthening the organisation, including appointing new board members, which was key. We appointed people with specialist skills such as legal, financial, and communications, alongside curators with experience of working in larger arts institutions, and also artists. We now have a very impressive board of 12 trustees, chaired by Alice Rawsthorn. The trustees have always been supportive and continue to provide good governance for the organisation – all voluntarily I should add – and be great mentors for me.

Andrea

Had you worked with a board before?

Polly

Cubitt had a board, so I gained some experience there.

Andrea

What state was Chisenhale in when you started working with it?

Polly

We are a registered charity and, as an Arts Council England ‘Regularly Funded Organisation’ (now ‘National Portfolio Organisation’), Chisenhale Gallery receives funding from the Arts Council, which we apply for on a three-year cycle. We use the Arts Council funding to cover core costs such as rent, overheads and some staff salaries, but that’s it. It represents approximately one third of our annual turnover. We do not receive any Arts Council funding to produce the artistic programme, including the education and Offsite programmes. So there was, and still is, a lot of fundraising to do.

We’ve subsequently built up healthy reserves and we plan production and fundraising often 18-months to two years in advance of the public outcome of major commissions. We fundraise from a range of sources including trusts and foundations, national agencies and, increasingly, individual donors.

Andrea

What was the staffing structure like at that point, compared to now?

Polly

There were three permanent members of staff: the director, a deputy director and a part-time exhibitions organiser. There was also an education organiser employed a day a week, and freelance technicians. The deputy director and the director were full-time, but I found this structure very top heavy when there were so few members of staff.

There was some funding ring-fenced for developing the website and so, from my appointment in July until September 2008, we basically worked on this and a new identity. It was very intense, but because I had no in-depth knowledge as yet of the day-to-day working of the institution, it meant that I was able to work with our designer, Frith Kerr, in a very open way. If I had been occupied with other things, we probably wouldn’t have been as adventurous with some of the decisions we took with the new identity.

The staff structure has changed considerably since I started. We are now a core staff of seven with several key freelance supporting positions and freelance technicians.  We don’t run internships anymore. We stopped that last year. Our interns had become key assistants and it was ethically inappropriate to not pay them properly. Training new interns every three months was also not productive for them or the organisation, so we established a one-year traineeship programme with posts in Exhibitions & Events and Offsite & Education. Trainees are paid the London Living Wage.

Andrea

Tell me a bit more about your management strategy.

Polly

I like working at Chisenhale because I have autonomy and am self-directed; within these conditions I can flourish.  It is important to me that all the staff are also given a level of autonomy, so they are able to work on their own but also feel that they are able to contribute ideas about the programme and the organisation as a whole.

You learn a lot through things not working. For example, you may think you’re delivering a message but actually you’re not being clear. It’s about learning to communicate very clearly why it’s important to work together towards a shared vision of what the organisation should be, and to ensure that vision does not get diluted.

Andrea

The staffing has grown since you’ve been here. On the one level your autonomy to act in the way that you think is right for the organisation, based on your vision — which ranges from which artists are shown in the gallery, through to what the website looks like, and how it’s communicating — is maintained. But as the organisation grows, what happens as lines of communication presumably get more formalised and as more people have ideas?

Polly

We have a small open plan office, which is important to the dynamic of how we work, because everyone can hear what everyone else is saying. The bonus of an open plan office is that information can be shared quickly, and that any issues can immediately be discussed.

My ideal situation as a director is that you’re responsive, that you’re the person who’s thinking strategically, having the key meetings; and that you have a small team of people who are responsible for clear departments, and they are able to lead on managing those. And, they bring ideas on how to shape those departments and the overall vision.

I don’t think that we should grow any bigger. We don’t want to move building or produce more projects. But the quality of the projects, the strength of our research and networks, and the general reputation of the organisation have grown quite rapidly over the past five years and need to be maintained and developed. What that then means, for example, is that the ambition of the artists we work with and the detail of our productions is more intense. Partnerships with other institutions to produce projects are productive in terms of development for artists, sharing resources and project reach, but involve a lot of time-consuming negotiation. Or for example, we have increased audiences — which is a great achievement and a core aim — but we need to increase staff-time managing that. Social media, for example, is a growth area requiring consistent daily attention.

Andrea

How much time do you really get to work with an artist that you’ve commissioned?

Polly

Well it depends. Our remit is to commission new work and therefore we spend a lot of time discussing ideas with artists and guiding the project from inception to realisation. But also, especially with the younger artists, we talk to them about their careers and discuss their practice more generally. There is also a lot of time spent setting up partnerships with other organisations and dealing with production logistics.

Andrea

But somebody else could do that?

Polly

There’s always a natural point, for example with an exhibition commission, where day-to-day production management is handed over to our exhibitions organiser. But I continue to have direct conversations with the artist about how the work is developing, the ideas, and working with them on the installation.

Andrea

I think that’s quite unusual.

Polly

Maybe it is. But I think it is the nature of small-scale organisations like Chisenhale, and the fact that we produce new work, which requires close relationships with the artists. I understand that the artists we work with appreciate that.

I am concerned that, in our current situation, fundraising much more intensely to keep things afloat can take you away from that deeper engagement with artists and the discourses that support their work. Sometimes there just isn’t the time to research artists’ work more generally, and then decision-making becomes much more intuitive. The fantasy is always that you would have more research time than you actually do.

 

Andrea

Which other organisations do you admire?

Polly

I spent a formative period of my working life with Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp at Frieze, and I admire what they’ve created and the way that they do things. I also have great respect for the frieze editorial team.

When I worked at Cabinet Gallery, I spent most of my time talking to Martin McGeown and reading books, and that was a great education in itself. Cabinet are the polar opposite of Frieze really. Cabinet are good at plotting their own idiosyncratic path in relation to popular consensus. They are good at refusal.

I admire what Marta Kuzma did with the Office for Contemporary Art in Oslo, because Marta and her colleagues achieved a programme that was discursive and formally unexpected, involving a diverse range of people. I went on a residency at OCA in between Frieze and Chisenhale and it was a very productive time for me.

I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona (MACBA) recently, and I was impressed with how a museum could feel exciting, accessible and intellectually precise. I was very interested in how MACBA presented their collection with a focus on criticality, diversity and the archive, distinct from a more traditional Anglo-American canonical museum model.

I’m always very interested in the German Kunstverein model. Perhaps that 19th century civic patronage is potentially a good model we could learn from in the UK. I think about that a lot with Chisenhale, given we are located in the heart of a residential community.

I’m also interested in a small institution in Malmö, Sweden, called Signal; they have a very eclectic programme, which they’ve been running for years now. There are also a few commercial galleries that I admire for their business nous and commitment to their artists, like Sadie Coles HQ, The Modern Institute or Gavin Brown’s enterprise Sometimes I have more affinity with commercial gallerists, in terms of their relationships with artists, than some publicly funded art institutions that often appear more focused on building relationships with audiences.

Andrea

If you could expand on that a bit? What else is it about the commercial gallery model?

Polly

There is a reason I choose to work for a public gallery, and that I don’t work for or run a commercial gallery. It comes down to my own understanding of public art institutions and an interest in public space, and by extension my interest in the idea of ‘public good’, which Anna Minton explores in her How to work together Think tank piece. My first understanding of what art could do or be came from visiting public institutions and so I have an affinity with them. However, there is a lot of pressure to prioritise engaging new audiences, and this can take you away from the business of building meaningful relationships with art and artists, and committed audiences. The question is, do you start from the point of putting on a show to deliver to broad audiences, or do you start from the point of working with those you see as the most interesting and challenging artists?

Andrea

One could say that the commercial model doesn’t need audiences; they need buyers. What freedoms do they have that you don’t?

Polly

A specialism. Some commercial galleries are specialising in supporting a very particular kind of artist. And that commitment is similar to the way I argue about the work that we do at the Chisenhale: we’re interested in the work we present and the artists we work with, so we want to show that work to as many people as possible. But the work is of a fairly specialist nature, purposefully exploring new forms, testing boundaries and questions of meaning. The form is not necessarily instantly recognisable, precisely because it’s new and not yet established. Once it has been done many times, and by other people, then it becomes recognisable to a broader audience. I’m making a case for the fact that we do something that a general audience wouldn’t necessarily always recognise as art, or certainly be comfortable with.

 

 

Andrea

It seems to me that you’re saying that you produce value in its own right rather than having to dress it up, and that is what a commercial gallery does. Although of course a commercial gallery produces all sorts of other values — economic, investment-based etc. — but there seems to be a form of autonomy.

Polly

We trade as well on investment value and reputation, as has been articulated by the group of Common Practice arts organisations.1 It is vitally important that this value is recognised as artists move from Chisenhale to other institutions.

Andrea

I’m just wondering about how one articulates that in terms of making the organisation something that doesn’t need to go through hoops in order to answer to other agendas.

Polly

In London particularly, because there is strong activity in similar organisations at our level and because of certain advocacy achievements by Common Practice, there has been a real recognition that we operate in a very particular and valuable way, and that’s important.

Andrea

And that is essentially about prioritising artistic production.

Polly

Yes. We have an open and direct discussion with artists about their work, intellectual engagement and how we bring it to audiences. I pay a lot of attention to what the voice of the institution is, and how it can speak clearly and intelligently to a diverse audience.

This ranges from an informed art world audience in London, the UK and internationally — including those who may not actually visit the space but know us through our online activity — everyone from artists to students, curators, writers, academics, gallerists, collectors etc. Their commitment and interest varies, but their point of engagement is usually very precise. And then we have a more general interest audience — and here I would include the Guardian Guide or Time Out reader — people who would like to find something interesting to see on a Saturday. We also have our local audience, the people who live on our street, for example, who are committed to their ‘neighbourhood gallery’.

The question is, how much you may need to speak a particular language to different audiences; and how much that audience needs to know that what they’re coming to see operates within a very particular language itself?

Andrea

What you’re saying is that this language — let’s describe it as a kind of aesthetic language of artistic production — has a very particular audience. And that is a value for you isn’t it?

Polly

Well you do need, and want, to engage people and create debate around the work, but the challenge is, how do you do that in an interesting way that speaks directly to audiences and doesn’t compromise the artists’ vision and the project itself. For example, we invite specialists to give their perspectives on the projects and shows we produce to create a context and framework for debate around the artists’ work.

We are a charity and we have an educational remit, but that educational remit is about informing people about contemporary art, and supporting new forms of contemporary art — supporting artists who may not be given opportunities elsewhere.  We take great care to look at a broad representation of artists, of art forms and a diverse range of voices and nationalities, based on strong curatorial vision.

Andrea

You’ve spoken previously about Chisenhale being ‘an exhibition hall, a production agency, a research centre and a community hub’ could you expand on what you mean by being a community hub.

Polly

Chisenhale Gallery grew out of an artists’ cooperative model. The building the gallery is in was initially taken over by a group of artists. They had had studios in Butler’s Wharf, and came over here at the end of the 1970s but the building, which was an old veneer factory, was basically derelict and they fixed it up, created studios, an exhibition space and a dance studio. Originally the artists who had studios here ran the gallery and put on shows, sometimes of their own work, and that was the community. Of course there has been a large amount of regeneration in this area, but a lot of the artists still live on the streets near here and founder members are still core studio holders.

The question for the gallery is, how does it continue to best serve an ever-expanding community of local and international artists, produce excellent art and engage new audiences.

Andrea

So whether to be more of a public good generator across a broader spectrum of people, or to lead by excellent example?

Polly

I see the words investment and talent development used more and more frequently to describe our activities. This appeals to the Arts Council as much as to individual benefactors or a wider discussion about ‘the creative economy’.

Andrea

Perhaps this concept of investment shifts the way we understand a public model of the gallery. Investment is complex and multidirectional. The gallery is now part of a network, which includes a number of different actors: there are commercial collectors, there are patrons, there are dealers, and everybody is working together to support the artists. But many people get left out.

Polly

I suppose there is the concern that we must continue to make a programme that the people who support us are interested in, whether that’s the Arts Council or individual patrons or our general audience. But those interests can be really surprising. There are patrons who like to support difficult work that receives little attention from the market or broad audiences. A lot of our supporters are very serious patrons who understand how Chisenhale fits into a bigger picture. When that art ecology, or that chain of understanding and value, works, it feels quite solid, it doesn’t feel fragile. What feels fragile is that the same handful of people are now being asked by all the institutions to provide financial support. I think the real point of concern is, where are the new patrons and funders? And how do you get these people engaged in supporting your activities? And further, how do you educate a whole new group of people interested in contemporary art — beyond the traditional collector-patron axis — that supporting your local gallery is important? How do you retain an idea of public investment?

 


1  Common Practice, London, founded in 2009, is an advocacy group working for the recognition and fostering of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. The group aims to promote the value of the sector and its activities, act as a knowledge base and resource for members and affiliated organisations, and develop a dialogue with other visual art organisations on a local, national and international level. The group’s founding members are AfterallChisenhale GalleryElectraGasworksLUXMatt’s GalleryMute PublishingThe Showroom, and Studio Voltaire – together representing a diverse range of activities including commissioning, production, publishing, research, exhibitions, residencies and artists’ studios.

Common Practice has commissioned two research papers Value, Measure, Sustainability: Ideas Towards the Future of the Small-Scale Visual Arts Sector, by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt in 2013 and Size Matters: Notes towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation and Potential of Small Visual Arts, by Sarah Thelwall in 2011. 

www.commonpractice.org.uk

 

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