With about 20 years’ experience working in London’s energetic and ever-changing art scene, independent curator and gallerist Kristian Day shares with us his journey creating his own path towards doing what he truly loves. A believer in the importance of a strong connection between gallery and artist, Day’s own close relationships and involvement with the artists he works with can be seen in his work as a curator through his compelling exhibitions. Day discusses the ups and downs of being an independent curator, as finding permanent space for exhibitions in a city where costly rents continue to rise is often a struggle.
Originally hailing from the Yorkshire city of Hull, where the curator formerly taught Art History, Day has put together an impressive number of unique exhibitions, with the most recent being “The Diamond Sea” at Saatchi Gallery, with artwork including paintings with an assortment of different styles as well as cyanotype work on paper. Desiring to create a platform to sell more affordable artwork to a wider variety of audiences, Kristian Day has also launched Paper Cuts, which sells high quality works on paper by a wide range of artists.
We are delighted to collaborate with Kris as our guest curator for ArtMaze’s Winter print Edition of 2018. Check out our new call for art and submit your work for a chance to be published (deadline: November 30th, 2017).
Join us as we hear about the ins and outs of making your own way in the art world, the joy and satisfaction that comes from seeing your vision come to life, and the unforgettable stories you gain along the way.
AMM: Hi Kristian, it’s great to be able to talk about your experiences and share some of your knowledge with ArtMaze community. You’ve spent almost 20 years working for London’s leading commercial galleries. Could you tell us more about these experiences and your observations in regards to how different galleries and artists work together and how they develop their relationships?
KD: Hi Maria, good question! I actually began my career in academia, lecturing in Art History back in my hometown of Hull. Most of my students were on the fine art courses so I was very much used to being around studios by the time I moved down to London to start working for galleries. I mention this as I always found it strange how separated the galleries felt from the studio practice of the artists they represented. To a certain extent the studios were treated like a warehouse, supplying inventory to be sold, and that never sat comfortably with me. I’m not saying all galleries are like this, I was always jealous of those that had closer relationships with artists and I’m fully aware that commercial pressures can force some dealers into this situation but feel it’s worth the extra effort to strike that balance. There’s a reason I got into this business in the first place, and that is to work closely with artists, if it was just to make money I’d have quit a long time ago!
AMM: In 2016 you took the step of working independently and promoting emerging and mid-career artists in the UK. Did you always want to be an independent curator or was there something that gradually led you through your career to this kind of work?
KD: There was a point a few years ago where I was considering leaving all this behind and starting a whole new career. I’d grown despondent with it all and felt like I was stuck in a loop, a Cork Street groundhog day! However, I’d started to notice the odd artist here and there that I admired, and frankly wished I could be working with. I’m not sure what happened but before I knew it I was going to private views every night after work. I’d make lists of pretend exhibitions that I’d have liked to put on but had no idea how to go about it, or really what I was doing it for! It reached a point that I realised that I couldn’t work full time for someone else, I had to just get out there and get involved. So I quit my job, after 13 years and basically spent the summer of 2016 gallery hopping and doing studio visits with no clear idea of what it was all for, other than a personal need to get back into the kind of art I’d always loved. Eventually, my pal Chris Mooney from the brilliant Arcade, took pity on me and told me to put on a show in his space in Old Street and that’s where it all started…thanks Chris, it’s all your fault! From there I was invited to work with various galleries and spaces over London, putting on 10 shows in the first year.
So, to answer the question, I didn’t necessarily want to be a curator but I did feel a NEED to put together shows with the artists I admired.
AMM: In your new role as an independent curator, what are the toughest and most rewarding parts of your job? What does your working day look like?
KD: It’s always a challenge doing what I do, finding the venues, finding the artists…hoping that someone will turn up! There are so many stressful aspects to the role, I don’t think I’ve ever put on a show without some minor catastrophe happening along the way but I won’t bore your readers with them! Plus, it all becomes worthwhile when the exhibition opens and everything has come together. There’s a wonderful moment after every private view when you know it’s all gone well and all the hard work has paid off…usually just before I collapse in exhaustion.
My working day usually starts with me worrying that I don’t have anything to do, and ends with me worrying about having time to finish everything… me worrying about having time to finish everything I need to do! There is no average day but more often than not I’ll be arranging a studio visit, which is the part of the job I enjoy most.
AMM: Are you getting closer to a permanent gallery? How difficult is it to find a space/gallery/studio for a show in London?
KD: I’m still working towards a permanent space. It’s funny as I get asked a lot about my nomadic projects as people are starting to look at this kind of thing as a viable alternative to the struggling gallery system whereas I’ve always aimed to have my own space and only started this kind of programme out of necessity rather than design. I’ve been very lucky so far in finding galleries to work with, that said I am always on the look out for interesting new spaces and love to hear from people interested in a collaboration. When the gallery does eventually open I’ll still want to carry on doing collaborative external events here, there and everywhere, it’s fascinating how different spaces have such different atmospheres. I’ve changed entire shows previously as I like to build them around the space in question. The Love, Peace & Happiness exhibition I curated at the Menier Gallery changed completely from its original concept for example. It was originally going to have a cartoonish, humorous feel yet the venue, with its bare brick, steel girders and wooden floors commanded something less frivolous and more sincere.
AMM: Could you share with us some of your strongest tips in regards to the organization of a group exhibition?
KD: I wouldn’t really want to tell anyone how to curate their own shows other than I feel it’s important to try and find your own way of doing things. Oh…and find a good van driver.
AMM: You have a very strong aesthetic voice throughout your curatorial work. How would you describe your vision and what are the main aspects you are interested in when looking for emerging talents?
KD: I’m not sure if there is one vision behind my exhibitions. I do try to stay true to myself I suppose, in that I like to think there is a certain quality to the work I show. It’s often pointed out to me that there is a high level of draftsmanship with the artists I work with and maybe an eye for a more classical composition but it’s not necessarily what I’m looking for in an emerging talent – maybe it’s just something I’m drawn to? I spend all day everyday looking at art so my tastes change all the time…and I hope that never stops. I’ve previously been pigeonholed as someone who only looks at painting which is certainly not the case, it may be the arena I feel most comfortable in but…I don’t really want to be too comfortable, that’d just be boring.
AMM: You’ve previously spoken of trying to collaborate with artists rather than just receiving their finished works. How does your interaction with artists evolve from your initial encounter with their work, to studio visit, and then to the realization of an exhibition?
KD: I first encounter artists in many different ways, degree shows, exhibitions, Instagram, open studios. I keep a ton of lists and, for want of a better term, mood-boards, with ideas for potential exhibitions, artists I think would work well together, whose art could create some dialogue whether supportive or contrasting. Then, when I’m introduced to a space I find an exhibition that I think could work well there, although, as I’ve mentioned before, the show will usually evolve from that point on until it feels like a good fit.
I should mention that I do studio visits all the time, whether they are leading to a specific exhibition deadline or not so, most of the time, I will already know the artists I work with before proposing a show.
AMM: Has your desire to be close to the creation of artworks meant that, initially at least, you’ve concentrated more on the London/UK art scene? Do you hope to repeat your collaborative process in other international art centres?
KD: Sadly, time and money have been the big factors in keeping me and the exhibitions in London, don’t forget that for my first exhibition I had to collect all the works on the bus! However, I’ve never wanted to be solely based in the capital. As a Yorkshireman I’m very keen to work with Northern spaces for example. I’m also discussing potential shows with a few galleries overseas. I’m always open to new possibilities and the prospect of finding different spaces around the UK, or indeed around the world, to collaborate with is very exciting to me. If anyone out there has a venue then drop me a line!
AMM: Recently you’ve worked with Saatchi Gallery on “The Diamond Sea” exhibition. Congratulations! What an amazing achievement and what a great show you’ve put together. Could you tell us more about how this project came to life and how long it took to finalise the whole exhibition?
KD: The Diamond Sea was an idea that I’d had floating around for quite some time. For those that don’t know it was named after a surprisingly romantic song by the band Sonic Youth. This got me thinking about ‘The Romantic’ in art and also actual, real life romance and all the highs and lows associated. In February I met Paul Foster from the Saatchi Gallery and it turns out he is a big Sonic Youth fan too, from then the exhibition began to take shape. I was very pleased to be able to show Kaye Donachie in The Diamond Sea, who has been a favourite of mine for some time.
AMM: You’ve founded ‘Paper Cuts’, an online and offline marketplace for contemporary and less expensive works on paper. Where did this idea come from and what is the vision behind this project? How do you see it developing in future?
KD: It is very important to me to try to appeal to as many different audiences as possible and I was very aware that the works I was showing were beyond the budget of most of the people coming to my shows. Small works on paper are, by and large, a bit more affordable so I was very keen to do something but the stumbling block was always presentation. Framing would be way too expensive and I didn’t like the idea of pinning things to the wall, especially as I wanted to show works by a LOT of artists. The eureka moment came while visiting my local record shop in Crouch End. It struck me that I could display the works like racks of vinyl for people to flip through. Most of my show titles are inspired by songs so it kept the musical thread going plus the display cases are easy to move around, meaning it’s basically an exhibition on legs that can travel around with me from show to show. Paper Cuts, in case you didn’t know, is a Nirvana song.
The next phase of Paper Cuts is currently under development. I’ll be adding works by a ton of artists from around the world with a view to re-launching it with an event in December. I’m hoping the online store will be ready in that time too, the current website for Paper Cuts is fairly rudimentary so I’m trying to make it all a bit easier to navigate…with over 300 artists involved I’m sure you can imagine the sheer amount of admin it takes to get things in a straight line!
AMM: With the age of social media and speedy connection, everything evolves fast in the art world these days. How do you feel about the current London/UK art scene? What changes and trends have you observed for the last 20 years working in the industry?
KD: Everything changes, everything stays the same. Social media certainly helps artists raise their profile these days but I think the really positive aspect is the sense of connection artists can have, you may be alone in your studio all day but you can easily check out what your peers have been up to. I’m certain this has led to scenes popping up here and there but it has also led to support networks among artists too. As for industry trends there are certain worrying things happening. A lot of great galleries have closed this year alone and I fear it’s just down to the sheer cost of running a gallery, being in a desirable area and dealing with the rents is one thing but to feel compelled to show at several fairs every year on top of this with no guarantee of making a profit is concerning. Having said that I’m positive about the future, people will continue to collect and galleries will adapt to new business structures and start cutting their coat to their cloth a little more.
AMM: Any weird or funny situations you’ve faced since becoming an independent curator or perhaps throughout your whole career?
KD: I feel like I’ve been through it all Maria. Wolf whistled while carrying a large pair of ceramic buttocks through Mayfair, accidentally shouting at Jeff Koons, a Delboy-esque incident with a chandelier, a cleaner throwing away a Damien Hirst installation…I think I’ll save the rest for the book.
AMM: Things like ‘don’t follow trends’, ‘be true to yourself’, ‘work hard’, ‘stay connected’ are most common advice these days. Is there any specific advice you can share, which has reflected in your own life and stimulated you to be where you are now?
KD: I agree with all of the above, don’t just say it though…act on it. I’d also say don’t wait too long to do what you love. It’s all too easy to get stuck in a situation you don’t want to be in and can feel impossible to break out of the cycle. My biggest regret is that I didn’t start doing all of this ten years ago.
AMM: What would be your definition of success?
KD: Don’t get me wrong, I’d be more than happy to be earning millions but I don’t think you should measure success on that. I think you’ve got to try and measure success against yourself, try to do a better show than the last time, try to outdo yourself. Otherwise there’s always going to be a bigger fish.
AMM: Anything exciting you might be able to share with us about what you are working on right now or preparing in the coming year?
KD: There’s lots happening, starting with a show in Manchester at the end of October and Paper Cuts in December. Alongside the larger group exhibitions I’ll be doing more solo presentations too. Do follow me in all the usual places or get in touch via www.kristianday.co.uk if you’d like to keep up to date!
Introduction text by Christina Nafziger, interview by Maria Zemtsova for ArtMaze Mag.