“A few years ago, I was in London, walking along the Southbank path on the opposite side of the River Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral. I came to the Oxo Tower and went up some steps to the balcony level one floor above the riverside pathway. There were some small boutique shops. One was an art gallery, so I went in. The artist sitting behind the desk surprised me because she recognized me, knew my name, and introduced herself. That is how I came to be involved in the Skylark Galleries collective. I have been a member since 2012.” Colin Ruffell
Skylark Galleries have been going for more than a couple of decades. It is an artist’s group with about 30+ active artists at any one time sharing the wall space, costs, and workload of a superbly sited, attractive, and exciting retail art-gallery system.
There are actually two Skylark Galleries. The one in the Oxo Tower is ‘Skylark Galleries 2’. The balcony situation is also the home of several design shops selling ceramics, jewellery, bespoke hats and other interesting and unusual items.
The sister gallery, ‘Skylark Galleries 1’, is just a stone’s throw further along the path in Gabriel’s Wharf. It is on ground level sharing an open-air courtyard with a couple of small restaurants; take away food shops, a pub, and several other craft and design shops, including knitwear, plants, leather goods etc.
This gallery is open daily for 5 – 7 hours. 5 hours in the winter gloom, and 7 hours, 11am to 6pm in the Spring, Summer and Fall.
It is manned 364 days a year, and the 14 artists usually spend one whole day a fortnight in the shop looking after it, meeting visitors.
We get tourists from all over the world, all year round. Until recently the gallery backed onto a major TV studio, so sometimes Skylark got celebrities and fans during their breaks. Office workers and local residents form another supply of art lovers. But passing tourists and visitors to central London are the main audience.
There are a couple of obvious downsides. One is the limit on the room to squeeze 14 artists into SG1. Each artist gets about 80cm width of wall-space and a share in the browsers and card rack. This means that artists can only show small and middle-sized work unless it is their turn to have a bigger space during their annual ‘featured artist’ spot. This is when they get a window and wider back wall slot for a three-week period.
Secondly the overseas and up-country visitors are often in London for only a short time. They cannot experience multiple visits to the gallery. They have to decide to buy quite quickly. Then they have to carry their purchase home or have them shipped.
This gallery is situated on the balcony level overlooking the River Thames just above the riverside walkway. The balcony houses several unique creative boutiques which are run by small business concerns exclusive to this space.
‘Skylark Galleries 2’ artists only have a small wall space like ‘Skylark Galleries 1’. The gallery is not usually open on Mondays, but it can stay open for longer than Skylark One in the dark winter months. A few more artists display here which means that they need to hold-fort once every three weeks.
The position of this gallery encourages regular re-visits from local office and hotel workers, but fewer casual tourists who often walk by below unaware, without exploring the balcony.
Another good thing about being a collective for the 30+ member artists is that they can pool interests together and exhibit at some of the annual art fairs in London.
These art fairs would be very expensive for a single artist and some even prohibit single exhibitor stalls. The fair organizers expect that all exhibitors should renew on an annual basis with a growing experience and fan base but a changing choice of exhibits. This is understandable when you realize that visitors to these fairs are likely to return to familiar gallery setups where there is a new selection of art and artists.
Skylark has record of art fair participation that would be unavailable to a single artist. Members can choose whether to enjoy this benefit.
The over-riding interests of commercial gallery setups mean that all their visitors are seen as potential customers above all else. The artists and potential buyers are kept away from each other in case the collector makes a move to bypass the system by buying direct from the artist’s studio. So, commercial art galleries often tie up their artists with exclusivity contracts that also prohibit private sales.
The commercial gallery feeds back buyer’s reaction to the artist, but with a bias that is crucially in the galleries interest.
The major point is that a commercial gallery needs to take at least half of the sale price for its own expenses and staff costs, plus making a profit on top. This means that the price of art has to be as high as possible, but with the artist getting less.
There is no doubt that the main benefit for everyone in a setup like the Skylark Galleries is the personal contact between artists and visiting members of the public.
Visitors enjoy these meetings and often say that they are pleased to meet the actual art-makers. They provide direct feedback for the artists by getting into conversation with, and seeking explanations from them and they receive recognition, and deserved respect from all collective members for this influential input. They can share experience and enjoyment of the art for its own sake.
Even better, they get lower prices, and much more value for their money. The art is affordable and personal, and a lasting reminder for many of a visit to London on business or pleasure.
The benefits for an artist to be part of such an established group with many years of experience and professionalism are numerous. The artists meet a wide range of the public who give oodles of feedback about the artwork.
And artists can directly sell their own work, and other members work, themselves, plus keeping a worthwhile percentage after gallery costs as a reward.
Artists meet other visiting artists from all over the world, to exchange tips and encouragement.
A gradually changing membership of such a collective brings in new blood. Some members have been with Skylark for decades while others join for a couple of years then move on as other interests develop. Every member has something to add to the collective experience. This can be denied to other artists who often work in solitude.
Member artists get very valuable feedback, direct encouragement from visitors and from their fellow artists, and a better share of the sale price.
Skylark Galleries are in a unique location able to meet people from all over the world. The established collective experience has built up a know-how that can be shared and passed onto the changing membership.
Visitors get a very good deal by cutting out the necessary commercialism of other central London art gallery businesses. The collective system is not instead of the commercial gallery hierarchy but as well as.