Wednesday 30 January 2019

Why art gallery businesses fail, blossom in Lagos

Artists and a gallery owner, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis
at Alexis Galleries, Victoria Island, Lagos... recently.
Despite the increasing profile of Lagos as art hub, the dynamics come with both blossom and retreat for the art galleries. Some galleries, in the last ten years have shut down while new ones keep emerging.

Apart from few non-commercial outlets where art exhibitions hold in Lagos, nearly all the surviving galleries, currently, are changing presentation styles to avoid being put out of business so soon in the fledgling Nigerian art market. The Lagos art market, arguably, among the leading hubs in Africa, hardly allows critical appreciation of art to blossom in parallel along the commercial galleries. In fact, Lagos has always been conservatively, hyper commercial when it comes to art appreciation.  

Reluctantly, the city's art environment started accepting non-commercial space just about 11 years ago when Bisi Silva-led Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos emerged and changed the narratives of several decades. Despite the CCA's muscling its way through, the commercial art galleries are still the real energy driving art in Lagos. While the very few galleries that have survived over the decades are cautiously innovative, the new arrivals in the last five to seven years appear more aggressive in presentations.

The cautious galleries have reasons to thread softly: Treasure House, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi; Truview, City Mall, Onikan, Pendulum, Lekki, Nimbus, Ikoyi among others have either closed down or changed to virtual space in the past ten years. Interestingly, more new galleries and 'spaces' have opened within the same period. Nike Arts Centre, Red Door, Alexis,  Art 21, Rele, Mode, Ogirikan, Thought Pyramid (Lagos), One Draw, Zarnellia, Reconnect, Watersworth, B57, all emerged during the same period that some galleries were closing down. Yes, Nimbus also returned few years ago. During the same period,
galleries such as Quintessence and Biodunomolayo also had challenges, but changed locations rather than shut down.

And comes the new dynamics that both old and relatively new ones have to confront. Such dynamics include artists' increasing appetite and direct access to collectors; marketing via internet and emerging virtual galleries. Also, there has been an increase of new art enthusiasts coming into the business without running any gallery space. Such promoters, for examples, SMO Contemporaries, Bloom Art, among others organise art exhibitions regularly inside non-art gallery spaces across Lagos.

In the last three years, about four new art outlets have emerged within Norman Williams / Awolowo Road, Ikoyi axis. In fact, on Norman Williams Street alone -- home to Mydrim Gallery in nearly two decades -- four outlets have emerged. Thought Pyramid, Artyrama, Angels and Muse and One Draw. Though only Thought Pyramid and One Draw are full galleries, Artyrama is not exactly the same, but has commercial focus too. On Awolowo Road, where Treasure House once held away for many years as well as home to Signature Gallery, there emerged Ogirikan, recently.

Across the waters into the Victoria Island central business district, good old Terra Kulture has kept its art exhibitions activities in modest numerical strength with high profile and emerging artists. Terra Kulture, which is though still the first choice for some artists has another active neighbour in Alexis, a two-space gallery that is arguably, recording more exhibitions than others in Lagos. In fact, founder and curator,
Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis disclosed that Alexis "will be having 22 shows in 2019." An average of two exhibitions in a month for one gallery is incredible in a city where most spaces hardly make six shows a year!

While some of the operators of  closed gallery businesses in Lagos blamed "state of the economy" for inability to continue, the surviving ones traced sustainability to expanding of clientele in art appreciation. Others talked about trust and strong relationship with artists as well as collectors. For Mydrim, which marked its 25 years in business last year, trust has been a strength, Mrs Sinmidele Adesanya disclosed shortly before the anniversary exhibition. Mydrim, no doubt, had been a reference point for art gallery business in Lagos over one and half decades or more. But the changing behavioural pattern of art appreciaton, particularly with old collectors being fatigued or departing through deaths appears not lost to Mydrim. Apparently, generating  new collectors should always be on the table. And when such collectors come, do they trust the works of young artists? "Yes, new collectors buy new artists," Mrs Adesanya said, few days ago.

However, a young collector who would not want his name mentioned in print put a caveat: "I don't mind taking a gallery's advice to collect new and young artists, if it fits into my investment perspective of art collection." He argued that "we shouldn't pretend about anything; art collecting is pure business and investment."

The fear of shutting down, for Alexis Galleries, is non existence.  Chidiac-Mastrogiannis noted that like every other business, art gallery should be operated with passion. She argued that if those who set up galleries run the business fully, it will last as long as desired.

With constant exhibitions and residency for artists, Chidiac-Mastrogiannis appeared not disturbed by the windows that internet provide for artists' self-marketing. "Virtually presenting art is different from seeing it physically," she warned, advising that "the gallery owner must be involved."

Within the same period that some galleries shut down, Jeff Ajueshi, who started his career as a worker during Nimbus'  first time, has set up two facilities. Ajueshi set up Thought Pyramid with a one-room shop in Abuja in 2007. About three years ago, Thought Pyramid Centre moved to a new one storey building in the same FCT. Last year, Ajueshi opened the Lagos branch on a similar facility at Norman Williams Street.
"With the ever changing business environment, galleries are shutting down because most of them can no longer afford the running cost needed to stay afloat," Ajueshi noted. "This is due to various reasons such as the fact that most galleries run on modules that are rigid and do not support the ever changing interests of the audience, coupled with the seamless accessibility which the internet has brought to the world, making it unnecessary for viewers and collectors to be physically present in gallery spaces."

He argued that if artists can use the Internet to their advantage, galleries should do better with the same window. "With the changes and innovations in the art scene, and the use of the internet to reach out to collectors directly, Thought Pyramid has been able to use this to our advantage."

And as most artists link international exposures to the overall virility of art appreciation, Ajueshi-led Thought Pyramid looks beyond the Lagos market to promote Nigerian artists and the gallery. "For example, Thought Pyramid is showing a group of artists at the Art Expo New York and also at the 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair, London."

Speaking on the value of physical gallery space,  Ajueshi agreed that "art still needs intimacy, so this physical spaces serves as the meeting point for artists and collectors or enthusiasts."
 -Tajudeen Sowole.

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