Across the City, an Alternative to the Traditional Art Gallery

An architect’s office seems an unusual venue for an art gallery.

“We started displaying the art to support people we know who are painters or sculptors,” says  Tom Duffy at Green Design Build on Leeson Street Upper.

The art on display suits the sustainable-architecture business: much of it revolves around green themes.

There are quite a few businesses around the city that display artists’ works on their walls, including the Bernard Shaw on Richmond Street South, the Vintage Kitchen restaurant on Poolbeg Street, Love Is Art on Strand Street Great, and the Patriots Inn in Kilmainham.

Some say it was a way to help their artist friends sell commission-free canvases. For others, it’s a free way to decorate a room or two.

Helping Out

Many of those who have their walls decorated with paintings and prints say that the impetus was simple: they wanted to help out friends.

“Brian McMahon was a customer here, he was an artist who was finding it difficult to get a good space,” says Tommy Smith, the owner at Grogan’s Pub on South William Street, as he clears a few glasses from tables and puts them on the bar.

It was 25 years ago and McMahon suggested Smith put some of his works on the walls. “He had seen it in New York or somewhere … some city like that,” says Smith.

“Well, he sold a good few, and so we said we would do a group show for Christmas that year and it just went from there,” he said.

Each Christmas, they put up a fresh collection that runs for the year, and as paintings are sold they make space for new work to go up.

It was hard to get into established galleries back when he was starting, said McMahon, on the phone from Limerick, where he now lives. “You would have to apply and send in your CV and slides. It was a bit of a rigmarole.”

Much of his work had been out of sight. “I used to have a shed-load full of paintings at the time, and nowhere to show them,” says McMahon.

While his works were the first to go up, the idea gained momentum in part because of the number of artists who drank in the pub, he said.

“There was a real interesting crowd of artists hanging around Grogan’s at the time,” says McMahon.

An Alternative

For those starting out, seeing their art on display in these smaller alternative venues can help to temper the disappointment that comes from rejection by the bigger, fancier galleries, says McMahon.

“Some people also just don’t want to get involved in that system. It’s still a big rigmarole to get your work displayed in a gallery,” he says.

Even some of the more established artists opt for the smaller alternative galleries sometimes.

Joby Hickey has work in several mainstream galleries, including the Duke Street Gallery. But he also has a couple of pieces up in Green Design Build, and a relationship with Grogan’s too.

“I sold my first painting in Grogan’s. It was a six-foot charcoal picture of Beckett,”  he says. “I was still in school.”

A Good Deal

McMahon says that galleries take between 20 and 50 percent of the sale price, and 40 percent would not be unusual in large galleries.

Rosa Abbott, who works in the Kerlin Gallery in Anne’s Lane, says the industry norm is that around 50 percent of sales price goes to the gallery. It can vary depending on the artist and the piece, she says.

It’s clearly hard for newer artists to get their works into galleries.

Abbott compares the Kerlin Gallery’s long-term approach to working with artists to a record label signing a band. “We work with 30 or so artists on a long-term basis, ” she said.

The directors of the Kerlin Gallery do keep an eye out for suitable artists. But “it wouldn’t be that frequent that we take new people on board,” she says.

At the not-for-profit Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, curator Mary Cremin says that getting into galleries is competitive.

“We don’t do an open call,” she says. Instead, the curator selects the work they like and then invites the artists to exhibit.

Artists can invite curators to visit their studio and view their work, but this may not be immediately fruitful. “You mightn’t get a show straight away, but then you might get one a couple of years down the line,” she says.

As a not-for-profit, the Temple Bar Gallery does not take a cut and pays artists to exhibit.

Likewise, some of the small irregular galleries don’t take a cut.

At Green Design Build, Duffy says his staff get a kick out of being surrounded by art at the office. “Our core business is architecture and building, but it is a colourful and interesting environment to work in.”

Some of the art also matches the business’s ethos.

“My material is 100-percent ecologically friendly so the earth is not suffering any waste due to my art,” says Imelda Daly, an artist who has work there on display at the moment.

She uses recycled paper, buys earth paints from the US, and uses naturally discarded branches from trees to make her frames. For oil paintings, she uses almond oil. Her brushes are made of natural hair.

If customers are interested in buying art, Duffy and his staff will simply introduce them to the artist. Green Design Build doesn’t take any commission.

Neither does Smith at Grogan’s, who sells the piece and hands over all the money to the artist. Sales aren’t that rare an occurrence, either.

“Well it’s the thirteenth of January and we have sold eight paintings already this year, so that isn’t bad,” says Smith.

One artist sold €50,000 of paintings in Grogan’s following a one-person show, he says. “We provide the service as a facility for our customers.”

He doesn’t vet the artists’ work.

“I’m not an art critic,” he says, before qualifying this. “Well, look … We are all critics in one way, but really it’s up to the artist. If they are happy with their work, then I’m happy to display it.”

The only problem prospective artists may encounter is to find a place on the wall to hang the picture. The walls at Grogan’s are nearly covered in canvases at the moment.

He points to two beautiful oil paintings towards the front of the pub. They are McMahons, he says. Further along the walls are works by Stewart Dunne, Orla Mellon, and Olwyn Gillespie.

Where People Gather

Brian McMahon says it’s great to see that art is being displayed in an increasing number of public places. Especially as many people don’t go to art galleries.

“It’s brilliant if you know someone who has a hotel or a bar, because it brightens up the wall for them and there’s no expense for the artist,” he says.

“The public gets to see the pieces, and it reaches a wider audience,” says McMahon.

For artists such as Daly, there is also a philosophical attraction to showing art outside of traditional galleries.

“Art galleries are controlled, but nature itself is a painting,” says Daly. “It is great to have art displayed in places, like pubs, where artists go. Art belongs everywhere where people gather.”

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