The Peculiar Business of A Design Gallery
Every morning, curator Alistair Coe rolls up the corrugated steel shutters of Kemistry Gallery’s storefront onto the view of Charlotte Road. Since opening in 2005, it’s various exteriors have included a purple façade, a neon sign and a sculpture of a deer in stilettos, things which may seem like a giant “fuck you” to the older, stodgier gallery neighbors in the area. “Originally we were called ‘Chemistry’ but the Royal Society of Chemists objected on the grounds that people would think we had a license to sell drugs. So we changed the spelling,” recalls co-founder Graham McCallum.
Kemistry’s staff has curated dozens of shows that wallpaper the place with never-before-seen works that are as pleasing to the eye as anything hanging in the many galleries of Shoreditch. But, Kemistry has gone largely unnoticed by the press and struggles just to break even. A glaring difference between Kemistry and the other galleries the area? Kemistry is one of the only commercial galleries in the world that exclusively exhibits graphic design.
The staff of Kemistry is just as small as its space, with Rickey Churchill as the other co-founder, manager/curator Coe and his intern rounding out the group. The shows here (numbering seven each year) tend to focus on illustrative design. Some pieces are framed and hung classically, with the collection circling the room at head-height, but many are tacked up saloon-style with nails and binder clips. Other exhibitions allow words and images to leak off prints and onto walls, doors and cabinets. Everything is bright, punchy, and affordable; the gallery is like a grown-up candy store. And despite Kemistry’s lacking funds, it’s certainly not hard up for talent: the backlog of shows reads like a who’s who of European and American graphic designers. Recently, they’ve shown the work of poppy “it” kids Hvass and Hannibal and Parisian illustrator Geneviève Gauckler. They take responsibility for “Parra’s breakthrough in the UK,” and have helped propel Geoff McFetridge to rockstar heights. Though Kemistry’s recipe is one for a successful gallery with the ability to draw a crowd that literally mobbed graphic artist Geoff McFetridge upon his arrival, it can’t turn a profit and remains distinctly segregated from the wider contemporary art world.
“Graphic design,” McCallum explains, “is as much a marker of an age as fine art, yet often undervalued.” The recent struggle of people like Coe and McCallum to elevate the status of graphic design in the contemporary art world is preceded by a history of ignorance towards the artists responsible for the foundational icons and images of our visual life. Ask any number of people who they think created the ubiquitous ‘I Love NY’ logo, and they’re a thousand times more likely to answer ‘Rudy Giuliani’ than Milton Glaser, one of the 20th century’s most famed designers. Coe posits that the medium seems to suffer, improbably, from a case of vague branding.
“It’s a weird phrase…every graphic designer who went to the [university], people would ask them, “What do you do?” and it’s so broad. And unfortunately, most people sort of say ‘well, I design posters’ and stuff like that. So I think the idea of graphic design often scares people away.” Graphic design work is so omnipresent in commercial magazines, packaging, websites and ads that unless it’s manifested in a gig poster or something equally self-aware, its instances are transparent, so ubiquitous that they’re easily ignored.
The situation is tinged with irony. On the one hand, graphic design as art seems constrained by design’s deep integration within commercial culture. Indeed, design’s place in branding means it was by definition created to slip by unnoticed. Yet graphic design galleries also exhibit a certain inability—even a refusal—to fully participate in the sort of contemporary art commerce set in place by generations of dealers. Traditional galleries represent a roster of artists, typically taking a 50% cut of any sales by those artists. Dealers trade art futures, betting on the perceived value of a work. This type of money-mindedness goes against the grain of Kemistry’s project. Coe explains, “We don’t exist as a gallery in the traditional sense of buyers and auction houses. We really exist outside of that, and as such there isn’t this system where we represent people. The graphic designers, a lot of them have reps of their own. It’s not us. It’s not what we want to do. We’re just keen on showing good work to as many people as possible.”
In continuing their commitment to accessible art, McCallum and Churchill somehow manage to stay afloat while holding most of their prices at or below £100. With Kemistry’s focus mainly on edition prints, Coe sees the gallery’s economics as a simple equation. “Most people are buying work because they like it, and they see it on their own walls at home rather than anything else.”
While this model of art at a volume has become la mode du jour with brands like Urban Outfitters who opened their own online print shop, Kemistry still makes occasional overtures to the fine art world by selling singular one-off pieces for up to £4,000. Regardless, it seems that Kemistry’s effort to sell like a contemporary gallery will always be curbed by a kind of populist ethos. “We want people to have [the art]. There’s no point in trying to create this sort of elitist graphic design mafia,” Coe says. “It just harks back to an old school fine art kind of thing. And fine art is completely unaffordable.”
In the meantime, Kemistry remains an experiment in exhibiting new design work. Those who want to see Kemistry’s continued success might push for more Arts Council grants, but these institutions don’t typically concern themselves with graphic design. Or they might suggest the gallery become a non-profit like Paris’ Galerie Anatome and run off donations. Truly, though, these are not solutions so much as alternatives, both in process and intention. All that Coe and his crew can really hope for is that Kemistry’s neon sign remains lit long enough for a viable business model to emerge.
First published in Issue One of Design Bureau, August, 2010.