Art at the edge – and at home: The Festival Gallery

Susie Stubbs

A new gallery, and a series of tours scheduled for the Manchester Weekender, show international art works in a surprisingly intimate setting.

Say the words “art gallery” and a series of hackneyed images may well spring to mind: white walled cubes sparsely filled with serious works, air kissing and hushed conversations, historic paintings hanging in stately frames. Yet the art world has long moved on from its own stereotypes and while the white cube (and air kissing) still exist, contemporary art appears everywhere – on billboards, on the street, online and even in people’s homes.

The newly established Festival Gallery is in the latter camp. Part website and part pop-up event, this autumn it brings work by artists such as Cornelia Parker, Tracey Emin and Michael Craig-Martin into an ordinary apartment “gallery” in Manchester. The big idea? To illustrate the fact that contemporary art is not only for serious collectors – it’s for everyone. It’s the brainchild of Aileen McEvoy, a former Arts Council director and, as it turns out, passionate advocate for collecting original art. “I have always collected work – it’s the best way of supporting artists and gives me a great deal of pleasure,” she says. “But I know many artists and where and how to purchase works I like – it’s not that easy if you’re not familiar with the way the art world works.”

You need to spend time with art, asking questions – just as you would if buying a new bed or car

Buying contemporary art is, for McEvoy at least, often considered a tricky affair. “There are many galleries and art events in the North West, but they’re rarely selling exhibitions,” she says. “If you want to buy works by established names you have to go online or to London. That can’t be right. Some brave people have tried setting up permanent spaces to sell what is sometimes called cutting edge work but time and again they fail because the overheads are so high – yet understandably buyers want to see works in the flesh.”

McEvoy hopes to bridge that gap with the Festival Gallery which, alongside an online shop, appears at events such as last week’s Manchester Contemporary. It also stages At home with art, a pop-up gallery-in-an-apartment that displays prints, ceramics and sculpture in every room – with a tour led by McEvoy herself. “It gives me a chance to talk about the work; I like to see art that is original, technically accomplished and speaks of a certain individuality.” The Manchester Contemporary (along with its bigger sister, the Buy Art Fair) works in a similar way. “They bridge that same gap between art worlds, and show critically acclaimed art to wider audiences,” says the Buy Art Fair’s Thom Hetherington of the Arts Council-backed event. “The crossover between the two fairs is sizeable; it enables us to support a larger range of artists and get their work seen by more people.” The fact that it features guided tours and artist-led talks is again key. “It gives people another route to accessing the kind of art that they may never have considered buying before,” says Hetherington.

George Osborne may be busy proclaiming an end to Britain’s economic woes but the reality is that times remain tough – which surely means that buying contemporary art is a luxury few can afford. “There’s still a relatively small market for contemporary art,” agrees McEvoy, “but it’s growing and every year gets stronger. People need encouragement to spend time looking, thinking and asking about art, just as you would if you were buying a new bed or a car. It’s not easy, but I believe there is a market here that can be tended and encouraged.”

The talk from this year’s Manchester Contemporary backs McEvoy up – perhaps proving the point that buyers can make the leap from mainstream to contemporary art if given the right support. Castlefield Gallery showed work by four artists, for example, including emerging artist, Nicola Ellis. She was on hand to talk to potential buyers. “As a result, and because of the fair’s guided tours, we sold seven works on paper by Ellis to collectors previously unknown to us,” says Castlefield Gallery director, Kwong Lee. “It was by far our best year yet,” agrees Thom Hetherington. “And where that was most pronounced was The Manchester Contemporary. We had a good mix of galleries who in turn know something about the audiences here – it’s very much a two-way process. The market may be smaller than in London but I strongly believe that’s only down to a lack of engagement, exposure and opportunity.”

As for At home with art, it’s a chance to find out more about contemporary art, even if you’re not in a position to buy. “The home is the ideal setting for enjoying art. What better place than a lived-in apartment to show paintings, drawings, original prints, pots and glass? The pots from Majolica Works in Manchester were fresh from the kiln when I visited yesterday – beautiful and good enough to eat off – and I have some extraordinary glass pieces by renowned Barcelona artist, Phillipa Beveredge,” says McEvoy. So with her knowledge and a roster of artists of international standing, who knows – you may find yourself at home with your own original art sometime soon.

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