Interview with Jeremy Epstein @ Edel Assanti

Published Mar, 2015

By Tatiana Wiesner-Pavlova

Edel Assanti from the street. Photo: Mary Ashton Ellis.

EDEL ASSANTI was founded by Jeremy Epstein and Charlie Fellows in 2010 and since then attracted a lot of critical and press attention. Born in the midst of financial crisis, the gallery developed organically from a series of pop-up exhibitions. Its current roster includes young and ambitious international artists such as Jodie Carey, Gordon Cheung, Marcin Dudek, Noemie Goudal, Jesse Hlebo, Alex Hoda, Nicolai Howalt and Andrew Sutherland. Apart from the award-winning artists, the founders, often described as the most promising gallerists of their generation, were also featured in several articles published by top British mass media. I have had a privilege to interview Jeremy about the gallery’s recent move to Fitzrovia, the beginnings, the programme and recent development in the field.

On the Move to Fitzrovia

I’m excited to hear about your change of location — why did you move from Victoria to Fitzrovia and what do you expect from being in this area?

We started out in Victoria as we initially had the opportunity to take on a large derelict office building. It was an opportunity that made it feasible for us to put on exhibitions at the inception of the gallery. We then moved next door to a slightly more conventional gallery space than the first one.

At the time Victoria was practical. However, we did a major project in the car park on Brewer Street last year with Richard Mosse, which gave us a taste of what it was like to be in a more accessible area. Victoria was central and easy to get to, but we didn’t realise what you lost out on from not being surrounded by a community of other galleries, where people who are interested in art tend to be wondering around during the week to see exhibitions. Fitzrovia is a unique place and it’s becoming more and more of an established gallery centre.

…and so you moved into a space previously occupied by a Paradise Row gallery…

We were looking for as versatile a space as possible, when the Newman Street space came onto the market. We were taken with it already — we both liked Paradise Road and always admired how functional the gallery was because they had everything you could want: upstairs there’s an abundance of natural light, and downstairs there’s a self-contained gallery. When you are searching for the ideal space, you want a balance between accessibility and a space that will inspire artists to make ambitious shows in it.

When Charlie and I first met, we were talking about what we really wanted to do if we got the opportunity to start our own gallery. We always spoke about site-specific projects and installations, and exhibiting artists that were endeavouring to produce shows that gave viewers a kind of immersive experience, that could not be recreated outside of the gallery context. Just like the show we’ve got on right now (Jesse Hlebo: ‘In Pieces’ — the show finished on 21 February).

Jeremy Epstein and Charlie Fellows at Edel Assanti. Photo: Mary Ashton Ellis.

On the Beginnings

The gallery started as a series of pop up exhibitions. How long did it take you to get to where you are now?

Charlie (the co-founder and co-director of the gallery) and I met about a year or so before we actually started working together. We were introduced by a mutual friend, but neither of us had the funds available to do what we wanted. We knew artists of our generation, when we were in our early twenties, who were looking for opportunities to show and we felt like we really wanted to be a part of that, even though we both worked at established galleries at the time (Jeremy was with Gagosian and Charlie with Hamiltons). But it wasn’t easy to find the means, and it was the recession that provided us with the opportunity. We went to Westminster Council and they helped us to meet various landowners, because there was so much derelict space in 2009. We were able to get hold of empty retail units sometimes for a night, sometimes for a week and sometimes as long as a month for free, even in Mayfair.

Given that we had full time jobs, we didn’t think that we had the capacity to run a space, so in the beginning we were collaborating with other dealers and curators and allowed them effectively to run an exhibition. We would help them find the space and support them in that capacity. Through that process we arrived at the building in Victoria — the first of our three premises — and we decided to open a project space. We collaborated with a couple of friends who wanted to open galleries. It was a six-storey building and we ran a different show on each floor. We would flip the shows very quickly — it was four weeks turnarounds. Therefore, even after being in this big building for 2 years, it was still a pop up, in a way. Eventually when we had to leave that building, we found a new space next door, where we remained from 2012 until 2014.

How did you know it was the right time for you to leave the blue-chip galleries you worked for to have your own space?

Charlie left a year before me. At that point it became imperative that one of us was full time. The artists that we were showing in a very fluid way started to require our full attention and support, so we needed to formalize our arrangement — it needed to become more like a gallery that could actually cater to the artists’ needs. It gradually became solidified and the transition from a project space into a gallery was a very organic one. The turning points were Gordon Cheung and Noemie Goudal’s first solo shows with us. We knew we had a special relationship with each artist, and wanted to keep building on the foundation we created together.

Noémie Goudal — Tanker, 2014, installation view, The New Art Gallery Walsall
Commissioned by The New Art Gallery Walsall. Photo: Jonathan Shaw. Courtesy Edel Assanti.

On the Gallery Programme

You will be showing Noemie Goudal at the Armory Show this year — could you tell us more about it?

We are showing two films by Noemie as part of the second edition of Armory Presents, a section devoted to single and dual artist presentations by galleries less than ten years old and exhibiting in a designated space on Pier 94. These are the first two films she has made for her recent institutional shows, commissioned by The New Art Gallery Walsall in Birmingham. A lot of people are familiar with her photographic work now and it’s going to be great demonstrating how she has expanded her practice into this new medium.

How did you meet the other artists that are currently in your gallery’s roster?

We started by doing a run of almost two years worth of group shows, which proved a good way of testing out relationships with artists. We also worked with a lot of curators who were bringing new artists and we really got a feel for, firstly, what we were able to work with well as a gallery but also what kind of material we really wanted to define our identity. Since then, we find new artists by rigorous research both online, at museum and galleries and at fairs.

How would you define your identity?

Our programme is certainly broad, but we are interested in work that is open to representing where humanity is at, and takes on something of what’s going on in the world. This can sometimes manifest itself in a social or political sense, but often it is much more subtle: for example, Jesse Hlebo’s show deals with the impact of technology on our ability to mediate and interpret crises in the world. The work raises complex questions that we are only just beginning to understand as a society.

Installation view: Jesse Hlebo — In Pieces (2015). Courtesy Edel Assanti.

On the Current Development in the Field

What are your major challenges as a gallerist?

The field has expanded hugely and there is a feeling that you need to appeal to a global audience in a way that I don’t think one did even 10 years ago. That’s something which, when you have a small team, can be quite difficult as you want to reach clients in every continent, and you want to be presenting your artists on every front possible.

Which parts of the world are your priority in this respect?

There are established markets pretty much all over the world — there are very few emerging art markets now. There’s a fair anywhere that there needs to be a fair serving a collector base. It would be great if you had a partner gallery in every continent because that would mean that at every single one of those parts of the world, your artists were getting good representation, they were able to reach institutions that it would potentially take years for you to build a distant relationship with.

How has the art landscape changed since you opened the gallery?

There is a closer proximity between the primary and secondary markets than there used to be. The market for emerging art is far bigger than it ever was and as a result the secondary market has developed at a far quicker pace. So we get people talking about reselling works of artists that are barely in their thirties and that’s something that I don’t think was happening, again, even two or three years ago.

Technology has changed as well, the way in which people receive artwork, sometimes that’s for the best and sometimes I think it might be detrimental. Instagram and other social media enable people to see a lot more than they could before. As I said, that could be really beneficial to artists, but it can also shorten an attention span.

We are acutely aware of the need for work to be reproduce-able in an online format because so many people you need to see your shows won’t necessarily physically get to see them. Although it’s very useful if work looks good on a screen, that can’t possibly be a criterion for assessing an artwork, but it certainly is an increasingly valid concern.

What are the most important qualities for a young gallerist to have in order to succeed in this cutthroat business? Any advice you would like to share with people starting in this field?

One of the things that we have learned on the job is that working in sales in a gallery and running your own gallery are two incredibly distinct things. We realised that the most important thing of all is the artists you choose to show, because if you make the right decisions, then the other artists that you want to show will naturally be happy for their work to be contextualised in that sort of a programme. If you have the right programme, you’ll appeal to the collectors that you are trying to attract anyway. In our experience it works that way around: if the program is good then everything else will follow.

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