Ryan Stanier unwraps going against convention and learning the nuances of an unfamiliar industry.
You mention in a past interview with Create! Magazine that you don’t have an art background yourself—you went to school for business and law—but spoke with your artist friends about their difficulties gaining recognition and thought of a way to fill that gap. What sort of challenges did you face transitioning from the business and law world of your degree to the art world?
Well, first of all, I wasn’t really in the business and art world. Ultimately, my first involvement was a pop-up gallery, which was initially really for just speaking to my artist friends. I could see where they were putting on these amazing shows, but it was miles outside of London and there’d only really be friends and family that’d come out and support them on the opening night, then the exhibition would be on for usually a month. It’s hard to get people coming through, so then I had this idea of approaching all the major landlords in London, and it was quite soon after the financial crash, so there [were] a lot of empty spaces.
There was this idea of doing a pop-up gallery of some emerging artists, and I was quite lucky that one of them said, “Yeah, there’s a space in Covent Garden—why don’t you use that?” Initially it was to be used for three months, but it went so well [that] we kept it going for 18 months. My interest wasn’t really in running a gallery. Previous to doing that I was running different events. I was actually involved in Art Hong Kong, but otherwise, on an event level I was involved in London Fashion Week, a wine show, those sorts of things. So, going back to your question, even though the industry was transitioning into selling art, ultimately all of my skills were business skills. At no point have I been involved in creating the artwork; it’s the selling of the artwork which, having a business understanding, puts you in a far better position than being an artist. I guess that’s why there’s galleries and why there’s art fairs and everything else.
The Other Art Fair (TOAF) is a huge undertaking, attracting over 20,000 people, which is incredible. What are some mistakes you’ve made over the course of these six years that helped you later on while planning and getting it set up?
Ha, mistakes, I like that. I guess it’s been loads. Although if you were to ask somebody the same sort of question about their own life, I guess it’d be the same answer. So if I said to you, “What mistakes have you made in your life?”, they’re still mistakes, but ultimately [what] you learn from them is the key. I mean, what I’ve really learned is the importance of people and finding the right people that actually help you. I’d say that’s the number one most important thing: getting a team of people together who understand what you’re trying to achieve, being enthusiastic, and just all being on the same page. There are certain people who’ve worked in the fair before that haven’t got that. And also, just overall understanding the importance of relationships.
Here’s an example. For each fair, we hire the venue and then we build it. In one of our really early London fairs, probably because at that point it was just me and a few others, I hadn’t done my due diligence enough and we’d hired this walling company to come in and build all the walls for all the booths. We had a really tight field time, so we got the keys to the venue at 5 pm [and] we had artists arriving at 9 am, which basically meant what you’d call an overnight build: build from 5 pm till 8 am the following morning, and then the stand’s ready. Anyway, there’s about three or four of us on the site overseeing this team of maybe 20 people. They’ve built the stands, it’s now midnight, and I thought, “Well, in order to keep morale high I’ll go out and buy some pizzas.” So I bought the pizzas, got them delivered, and the guys sat there eating their pizzas. I go down to the office. As I come back, they’ve all disappeared. Basically, they’ve all done a runner; they’ve all jumped in their cars and driven off. For us, that meant we had 130 stands that all needed painting white, they all needed “finishing it off” properly, they all needed to be painted, probably about three coats of paint, all of the name boards needed to be installed, all of the signage for the venue needed to be installed. This is all something they were meant to do.
I had to literally, at midnight, call around a group of friends and [ask them], “You know how you’re allowed one favor from people, no matter the situation? This is my calling in.” Thankfully I had a load of friends that ended up doing it overnight and then all the artists arrived at 9:00 in the morning. But we made it happen, and yeah, that was a mistake hiring that company, for sure.
What were some of the original challenges you faced with organizing TOAF?
Ah, so the original ones. I guess really that was it: persuading people that were already working in art to be involved and back what we were doing and put their neck out. Actually, I was very fortunate because this guy named Godfrey Wordsdow, the director of the Baltic Museum up in Newcastle, really randomly came into my pop-up gallery in Covent Garden about two months before I launched TOAF. He was the first person I went to when looking for a selection committee and for people to actually choose the artists. Thankfully, he remembered the gallery and liked it and he enjoyed what we were doing, so he kindly went onto our selection committee. The main challenges were persuading people that what we were doing was for the good of artists, [that] we weren’t in there trying to make a quick buck. We were looking to do something in the long-term.
This year, TOAF is traveling to Melbourne, Brooklyn, Sydney, and Bristol, with some new cities to be announced. How does TOAF navigate and appeal to different cultural tastes?
I think the key is that each individual fair is primarily there to support the local artist community. We always say between 50 and 60 percent of artists at each fair will be locals, and that’s how we try to do the majority of the selection. Of course, now there’s lots of artists wanting to travel; they do really well in a London fair, so of course there’s an attraction to apply [to] and be part of the Brooklyn fair. And that does happen quite a lot, but I think the key really is to have the foundation of each fair about the local artist community. Therefore every fair is technically TOAF, [but] they’re all fairly different, and very respectful of the country or the city [where they’re] being hosted. It’s definitely not a case of us trying to run the London OAF in Melbourne or the London Fair in Brooklyn. It’s working with all your local partners in each city to make it feel very much like the local artists should have ownership over that fair.
You founded Artbeat London prior to TOAF. When seeking partners for Artbeat or TOAF, what were some challenges you weren’t expecting to face?
There weren’t really any partners, necessarily. Artbeat was the pop-up gallery, so there weren’t partners in the same terms that we have partners now. I mean it really was me and the artist. I have a lot of friends that are artists, so it was really a case of initially just showing their work and sort of creating a space for them. [The artist] and I would hang the work and curate the space, but it was really just a collaboration between me and the artist. In terms of what were some of the challenges I wasn’t expecting to face, I mean, there’s too much to tap into over the last seven years.
I do remember one Christmas, actually, and this is sort of a demonstration of how unpredictable things can be. Christmas in Covent Garden is one of the busiest places in London, so we were expecting to sell quite a lot of artwork, but in the two weeks leading up to Christmas there was a power shortage or power cut so the gallery actually had to close for two weeks while they fixed the power. That was a real nightmare. It’s just one of those things—you have to kind of expect the unexpected and not be too fazed by anything.
What is something that intimidated you when you were starting in the art fair world that hasn’t gone away?
I [didn’t] have any experience working in the art world, so [I wasn’t] approaching it in the same way, therefore I wasn’t necessarily that intimidated. I was doing it my way, as opposed to the traditional art world model way. I think as a result of that, then, I was far more relaxed, or less intimidated, going into it. But in terms of what hasn’t gone away, I’d say now, but actually even quite early on, we were accepted by the art world, if you wanna call it that. I think it was [at] only our third fair that we’d run Tracy and we’d took a stand off the back of that, and I’ve had Gavin Turk, Martin Parr, various other well-known artists within the art world actually taking booths at the fair. Also, we’ve had so many selection committee members that have been involved, from museum directors to curators, so I think that even quite early on we were accepted by the art establishment. I’ve never felt intimidated or excluded.
I think the other thing was [that] it wasn’t me going out and saying, “I’m gonna run the art fair.” The key was, especially at the very beginning when we first set up, having credible people in place. At no point have I ever been involved in the selection process. We always have a selection committee that works in the arts and they know good quality work, or what to look for in an artist. They’ve always done that side. I’ve always been more involved in the whole event production and running the business side of things. I think it’s bringing in and working with key professionals in different areas.
In another interview with Artversed, you speak about the selection process for TOAF—there is a panel of people “simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’” to over 1,000 applicants, with only 100 slots open. That is obviously not a job to be taken lightly, so how do you select people to be on the panel?
The selection of people on the panel...there’s no exact science behind it. We just did a little bit of research. Initially we wanted to have [people from] different areas of the art market actually doing the selection, so we choose somebody in a museum, we choose a curator, we choose a commercial gallerist, [and] we choose an artist. And then you’d have five of them and they’d go through, but it’s kind of changing. Also, again, for each city it changes. We actually, one year, had four, five well-known artists and it was a bit of an artist-only selection panel.
In terms of what we look for in a committee member, it’s just someone that’s well-known or established within the art world, that has a good understanding of artists and quality work and that sort of thing. In terms of the criteria of the work that’s selected, again we don’t put too many restrictions on it. It’s basically looking at an artist as a whole and there’s quite a lot of information that a committee member will be given, anything from an artist statement to a CV to the education history and the website links, the social media, so you can really get a good understanding of what the artist is about before making a decision of whether they’d be appropriate or not.
Also, I think it’s key to say that the fair is not for every artist, and what I mean by that is that an artist has to stand and man their booth for four days of an art fair. It’s a really big undertaking, and it’s exhausting and challenging in the sense that you’ve got to stand there and talk about your work. Now on the flip side, the one thing that all of our visitors really love, and that really makes TOAF what it is today, is [that] the interaction with an artist is such a pleasurable experience, when you’re hearing about how an artwork is made from them rather than hearing that from a gallerist who ultimately is just trying to sell you a painting or an artwork. But [if] artists [are] not into interacting with art buyers, then they’re probably not going to do as well after that.
I know this is something that is typically asked to women, but I would like your perspective [as a man] on this. What sort of behavioral differences have you noticed between men and women creatives when speaking with you, potential buyers, or other creative professionals? I know that [women] tend to be a little more timid and apologetic, whereas men tend to be more assertive and stand their ground on things and that’s just how society has affected us. So have you noticed any little nuances like that when speaking to men and women that are artists?
I’d say no. I’d say, actually, my experience is the other way around. Also, bear in mind you’re talking to an English person who definitely doesn’t say exactly what they’re thinking. To be honest with you, maybe I’m not picking up on it, but I haven’t noticed a difference. And also, just on that point, we actually did some research. There’s a lot in the media at the moment about gender inequality, so we were just [wondering if] there were more artists that were female or male [at TOAF], and actually it was about 50/50. There were some fairs that were 52 percent female, 48 percent male, and there were others that were 51 percent male, but it really was almost exactly down the line.
Actually, it’s very interesting; it’s just by chance that that happened. We definitely don’t intentionally do that. We also did that [research] off the back of some publication [that] wrote an article about female artists and how, generally speaking, the average price of an artwork from a female artist [is much lower than the price from] a male. With us, [the prices are] pretty much the same; it’s very equal. Again, that’s interesting because we’re not part of the old traditional system. Maybe it’s a result of that, and by side-stepping it, we’re not going by everyone else’s rules. There’s not [one] way of doing things; we’re doing it by how we feel fits and [is] fair and ethical and everything else.
And for my final question: what is a mistake you’ve made, at any point in your career at all, that ended up helping you?
One thing that pops into my mind, and it was maybe not [a mistake] necessarily, in the very beginning: identifying all the reasons or benefits of why an artist would participate in the fair. At the beginning, obviously coming from a business background, I’m seeing artists and thinking, “Ok, so an artist surely just wants to sell his work.” I was probably coming from that angle and I actually completely didn’t see all the benefits. I mean, if you’re participating in the fair, I was thinking artists just want to make sales. But as they’re there, they’re actually meeting galleries that come along. It’s really the connections they make with other artists as well, and if you speak to any artist that participated, they all speak about this sense of community which, almost, in a way, outweighs the sales. So it’s not really a mistake, I just didn’t identify that in the beginning, which is fine, and it’s not that you can foresee everything happening.