The Gallery of Everything Q&A: James Brett
You’re in America at the moment and headed to Australia in a few weeks. Is that how you find your artwork?
Well, quite a lot of it is running around. If you are lucky, you find the artists directly, but quite often it is through someone who knows someone who is a friend of theirs, or from small galleries that date back a long time. Some of our art is more than 150 years old.
Are there parameters to what you’re looking for, or does anything—and everything—go?
Absolutely there are parameters. The Museum of Everything, which was really the forefather to the gallery, was set up to represent artwork by what I felt to be a silent minority of people all over the world who weren’t getting the respect of more ‘serious’ museums and galleries. It’s difficult to define what unites them, but I think to me it is the privacy of their practices: making art not for a market or gallery owner, but for themselves, or for a more unusual purpose. Of course, I should preface that by saying that it is often true of a lot of other artists who are more commercial, more formally trained. It is a grey area, encompassing formally trained artists who somehow exclude themselves from the cut and thrust of contemporary art; those who might find social interaction complicated so the process of making their work is an alternative form of expression; untrained, largely unclassifiable art makers whose vision and style engage me, but for whom there was no museum or gallery.
So you set one up…
It was initially a two-week project. I said, okay, let’s put this material into a space and see if anyone’s interested. And it worked. Tens of thousands of people showed up. I think part of its success was the style in which it was presented: really informal, in a run-down recording studio in Primrose Hill which was difficult to get to. We were trying to create a sense of modesty in the environment, I suppose. I didn’t want to turn it into a white box or to gentrify the art. That was the beginning of it. Then, after a couple of shows, we closed down the Primrose Hill space—it was costly and difficult to run—and went on tour.
What brought you back?
Doing all these overseas projects has its own swings and roundabouts. They are very exciting, because there’s a big noise over a short period of time, but I felt bad for the audience we had built up while we were in London. There isn’t much opportunity for this art in the UK. There’s more now, since we sort of jump-started it—it’s likely the Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Serpentine wouldn’t have happened had we not focused eyes on her material, for example—but the vast majority of shows are about professional artists. Even Tate Modern doesn’t accept these kinds of artists into the canon.
I thought that was the point of Tate Modern?
Well, that’s perhaps another reason I felt the gallery should exist as well as the museum, because I learnt quite quickly that as much as we had support and love from a very wide range of dealers and artists, many had a very rigid definition of what art should be, and who shouldn’t be an artist. By and large, ‘fine art’ as defined by the major art galleries does not tend to include non-academic art-making. If it does, it is because that artist has been referred by someone: Alfred Wallis, for example, was referred by Ben Nicholson, who was a friend of his and often fed on his ideas. Now, an art historian would refer to Alfred Wallis as being “of the Cornish School”, with no knowledge that the guy was actually a crusty old sea dog. To have an organisation that actually celebrates alternative practices seems important.
Why open this gallery as well as the museum?
The Museum of Everything is there to foster understanding about artists working generally beyond the mainstream—to promote it, and encourage people to study it. The gallery is simply a permanent outlet that allows that to happen by presenting commercial shows. It’s not a financial project: it’s not there to profiteer, it’s there as a representative for our artists in London. If someone buys something there and adds it to their collection, that is fantastic, especially if that someone is a curator of another museum or gallery. The hope is that the gallery will make enough money to survive by selling a few works—and if it sells more than a few, the money will go to the museum.
How do you curate work that seems to defy classification?
It’s a super-difficult issue. I don’t call myself a curator. People who are formally trained to do that are taught not to interfere with the work; that if you’re an artist you are artistic, and if you are a curator you are not artistic. I am not convinced that’s right: I think mise en scène—that feeling you give to an installation or performance—helps people to perceive that installation, and if the work is strong enough there is no reason you shouldn’t use other tools like decoration or artistic arrangement or motion to convey what you’re showing. I come from a film background, so using images placed in sequence to tell a story is what I’m used to doing.
You’ve said in the past, though, that you resist placing any interpretation on the work...
I am resistant, but I am also nervous. When I came to this type of work I found people very keen to analyse it, in a Kantian or Freudian O-level way, and I didn’t want to do that. I felt ultimately that it was wrong to offer interpretations answering questions about the artwork, particularly when the artists themselves aren’t available to tell you what it’s about. If you are going to say something about a piece of art, I think it is really important to try to get close to what the truth might be, and not be arrogant in terms of one’s interpretation. At the end of the day, behind the art is a real person whose making is perhaps more personal and intimate—subtler than it would be in the art world, where meaning is protected by layers of language and finance. The question we’re always asking ourselves with a show is how to convey that without being sentimental or pretentious.
Does that entail shutting down your viewers’ interpretations, too?
I used to shut down more, because I knew less—so I was more vocal. Now I take a slight step back, because if as a viewer you bring your own interpretation to something, that is valid. The only thing I want to do is ensure people know the salient facts and are guided in the right way. It goes back to being a child: you’d draw a picture and an adult would say, oh what a fantastic elephant! And you’d say, are you out of your mind? It’s obviously the rolling mountains of Wales. There are so many people who make their living on the turning of words associated with these objects and what they ‘mean’, philosophically, politically, behaviourally. What I think our artists do is capture the meaningfulness of just making—of reducing the act of making back to a simple statement of existence. Art is such a big industry these days, I sometimes wonder if it hasn’t replaced religion for the moneyed classes, as a belief system. That is something I really want to avoid.
Some of what you are describing sounds like folk art—is that right?
I would argue that ‘folk art’ as a term is ultimately a bit dismissive. It was created as an alternative to mainstream art to include the wooden sculptures you get on holiday, that sort of thing. When you have creation plus individuality, with the artist putting something of themselves into an object, that for me is interesting and transcends all labels. For me, folk art is another one of these terms, like ‘outsider art’ or even ‘primitive art’, that are indicative of this snobbery—even bigotry—toward the kinds of makers we exhibit. Many so-called ‘folk’ artists are black, and that’s not a coincidence. Especially in the States.
Why did you decide to move from film to art?
I got really bored of film, truth be told. I’d watched everything that has ever been made and I started to question whether films as I loved them were going to continue. I came to the conclusion that the era of really great films was over. I found that the museum was actually much more dynamic: each different artist became an actor in a stage play, and you could direct it, and you could see the effect on people. I would see people come out the gallery visibly moved by the experience, positively or negatively. I was totally floored by that. That was when it clicked in me that for me as the activator, this was a better format than movies.
Do you feel you are now part of the art world?
It’s true that over the last five or six years I have had more immersion, but I don’t really feel I’m part of that world—or if I am, I’ve come in through the back door. I’m the catering staff. And I prefer it that way, to be honest with you. I try to avoid the openings and parties and so on. You have to do a bit of that in order to try and change things a little. You can’t lobby from your bedroom, you have to be out there. But it’s a balancing act. I’m more comfortable behind a bar than leaning on it, let’s say that.
4 Chiltern Street, W1U 7PS
020 7486 8908
Interview: Clare Finney
Portrait: Alexander Coggin