Guts Gallery: There is no time for inequality in the art world”

Ellie wears top LANVIN, jeans PALACE

In the fourth instalment of our week-long series, figures from music, art, food, sex work and education look back on a year that shook their fields. Here, Ellie Pennick, founder of Guts Gallery, talks us through a year of online exhibitions.

This time last year, it was quite entertaining for me to see the panic in bigger galleries, with all the spaces shutting down. Because I was online and nomadic, I was a bit like Hang on, it’s all right, we can figure something out’! But watching the big art institutions having mini breakdowns… It was a lot!

I was worried about the artists, though, because a lot of them had to go on the dole. I was having a lot of really difficult conversations. My phone bill was so expensive by the end of it, from phone calls going, This is really shit. I don’t know what to do. Everything’s getting cancelled. How are we going to do this?’ So I had to figure something out – and I moved quite quickly.

I put together our first online show [When Shit Hits The Fan] in two weeks, maybe even less. We had to figure out a way to get money coming in for the artists, and promote how much they needed help at that moment. I never considered doing an online exhibition pre-lockdown. Virtual reality was brewing, but I just didn’t expect it to arrive so quickly. I was thinking it was going to be a future thing in 10, 15 years time, not in the next few weeks. But given its success, I’m going to carry on doing both physical and digital exhibitions [post-pandemic].

Everything can go to shit very quickly – that’s what we’ve figured out, so we always have to have backups. But you can’t beat a physical show, which is just amazing. You do have to adapt to technology and the times, though, and VR means that people from other countries and people with disabilities that can’t visit gallery spaces can see the work in some form. Accessibility is really important.

Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a lot of support between artists, and between galleries; there’s been a real collective effort to promote change. In the past year, it has become apparent that the bigger galleries are struggling and haven’t adapted to the times. We as a generation have all adapted very quickly, which has proven that we can survive – even when something as horrendous as the pandemic happens.

With everything that has taken place recently, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the Sarah Everard vigil, and the Asian women who were killed [in Atlanta], this has been a time for us to sit the fuck down and recognise our privilege. Art always reflects politics, and specifically socio-politics. This is a time for us to take a step back and figure out how we’re going to move forward. A lot of people have had discussions – difficult discussions – and we are making progress in some ways, I think.

This year, in the art world, I’ve noticed a real distribution of wealth happening and honest, transparent conversations about finances and about who [galleries] want to support in the long run. Collectors are selling artwork from older generations and investing it back into emerging artists. It feels like we’re communicating, finally. Everything’s laid out on the table and it feels good. It feels like we’re no longer hiding things about money and who the collector is. There’s no hierarchy – it’s equal and we’re on the same level.

There have also been breakthroughs with a lot of artists’ practices. They’ve had time to create beautiful pieces of work, and collectors are actually buying them. This last year, there’s been a lot less pressure for artists, and they’ve been able to truly concentrate on their practice. It’s been so lovely to see.

It’s going to be a bit shit when they have to go back to reality, going back to part-time jobs and all that. But hopefully they won’t have to do that now. That’s part of my job, to help them become financially stable and to pay the rent so they’re able to do their practice full-time.

Artists and collectors are very aware about what is happening in the art world right now. People are being more vocal, and big institutions can’t carry on – they’re being called out, and it’s obvious there needs to be a change. And even in art universities, too. I’ve had a lot of conversations with universities that I lecture at, and they’re asking me what they need to do.

Things have to change. You need to teach artists how to write an invoice, you need teachers from different backgrounds. I think we are on the cusp of something – a definite, necessary shift. There is no time for inequality in the art world, and people are standing up. They’re finally having the guts – no pun intended – to do that.

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