After founding the successful DESIGNERDOCK recruitment agency in 1996, Alexander Dewhirst decided to create a networking project for artists to do what DESIGNERDOCK did for the communication industry. Artistdock aims to link artists and curators, on one side providing visibility and representational services for artists and on the other side serving as a finely-tuned artists archive for curators. Artistdock’s second group exhibition, “Suspension”, opened last week in a moderately-refurbished Sparkasse building. We met with Dewhirst last week at his office in Kreuzberg to talk about Artistdock’s past, present, and future.
When did Artistdock start and how did it come about?
I started up a recruitment agency for the communication industry in 1996, so I've always been dealing with creative people. At the beginning it was just designers, but now we recruit everything that you find in the communication industry. I have a lot of friends that were artists, so the question was always, "Why don't you do this for artists?" and the answer was, "How is this supposed to work?"
I was trying to find a way to help all of these artists. The classical gallery model seemed to be running out of steam especially when there weren't super-rich investors out there buying art like stock hoping that two or three of them hit the roof. I realized I needed a gallery that wasn't just a gallery, but more like a lounge, and to train the staff to help people understand what was going on. We wouldn't just have a menu; we'd have an art menu as well.
Our first exhibition was in May, and we had about 300 people there.
What are the services you offer artists who join Artistdock?
First of all, we try to get an overview of what they've done: give them feedback so that they know where we see them, and find out what direction they plan on going. We consult with them so we recognize their goal and help them get there. Then, we help them sell their work. A lot of artists have jobs on the side to pay their way. OR, they live like church mice with almost nothing. In both cases, it is not conducive to leading a fruitful life as an artist.
We want to help artists sell their work so they can spend all of their time working. To do that, we've got to exhibit them, get them on our website, create an Artistdock trailer for them and show it around town. We have studio visits for them, we show their trailers and portfolios at art fairs.
Artistdock is currently located in a former bank building. What are the plans space-wise for Artistdock?
We haven't found our own space yet, so we've been using satellite galleries. The main idea about how we present our artists it to create "gallery lounges"—more like a salon. If you can imagine one of your friends has a rich uncle with an amazing art collection and lives in an amazing space, and he shows you around and gives you a great coffee, it's a whole different experience than walking through a gallery. That's what we want to recreate: that salon atmosphere with incredible interior design with every single piece of the interior being a work of art itself. We want people coming into the space because they've heard about it, because there's great art on the walls, because there's great coffee to be had, because the staff can tell you about every single piece and the artist behind it, and because it looks so amazing even though they might not know it is an art gallery, because they smell the coffee beans, because they like the lighting, or because it looks like an event is happening.
This isn't like taking a Starbucks and putting art on the wall—first of all, Starbucks isn't in a position to figure out how to put an exhibition together, and secondly it's all about coffee, the art would be a decoration. We want to travel that fine line between purist art and commercialization.
How are artists selected to become a part of Artistdock?
They apply, and we have our internal staff—they all come from the art world—and we have some jury members, or members of the board—who also come from the art world—and we have our Artistdock artists. When they become Artistdock artist, they are also asked, if they would like to be part of the jury process.
When an application comes in, we send it to our jury members if it meets a minimum status, and they give us their feedback, which is incredibly important. First of all, there are those artists who are incredibly talented, there's no question if we're going to take them or not—the feedback gives us perspective on their art. We've got other artists who aren't quite mature yet, but a few of our jury members might point out, "That's more interesting than you think, because it's an irony on the style of this 1925 work." There's no curator that could pick all that up, but with a jury, the chance you won't let someone with potential slip through the net is much higher. We also use that feedback when we meet the artist: "Did you know, a couple of our jury members liked your work because of this and this and this…"
When I was at "Suspension", I noticed there were a lot of different nations represented. How is the distribution of Artistdock artists globally?
We are open to anyone if they meet the existing the standards. Say we have 50 artists—I am only guessing now, but I think that's pretty accurate—I would say 40 of those would live in Berlin. And of those forty, perhaps half of them would be from Germany and the others would be from some other place, but living in Berlin sometimes, and sometimes living wherever they come from.
Because of the make-up of our team—Italian, Peruvian—there's quite a few Spanish speakers from South America or Spain, which has to do with the initial contact. When we were building up our critical mass before we went public, we were going through word of mouth, and that's just how it worked out. It's not like we have a great prejudice against everyone who speaks Spanish, but I would say perhaps half of our artists who are foreigners are Spanish speakers.
Artists do pay a small fee to as compensation for the services Artistdock offers. Are there any other sources of financing for the project?
I think we have to think pre-lounge and post-lounge. We're still pre-lounge and the sources of income now are the 380 euros which the artists pay—in some cases, especially for younger artists, we do accept an art swap for the first year or two, or we can offer a monthly payment system—380 is a lot of money, that's probably as much they pay in a year for beer.
Anyway, that's the first source of income at the moment. The second source is the 20% commission we take on what we sell while we're exhibiting. We don't take 50% of what they do or sell, we only take 20% of what they sell during our exhibition or by our site.
When the gallery comes in, we have a whole new source of income: we will have lectures, which people have to pay for, we will, of course, have the shop opening up with artists selling their work, and the income from the lounge itself.
Anything else you would like to add?
Yeah! One thing I forgot to mention was this lecture series to help the artists that we're going to hold once we have out gallery-lounge. The idea is, say on Monday, we have artists presenting their work, with four or five artists and they each get half-an-hour. They get practice talking about their work, thinking about their work, verbalizing their concepts which is not just a good way to get their word out, but also a way to get more self-assured in their presentation.
The second is, let's say on the Friday, we'd have presentations or talks from the industry: curators, gallery directors, even frame-makers. They can promote themselves, of course, but the idea is to transfer knowledge, to find out what's out there and what's going on. Even things like copyright lawyers could be a great source of information for artists out there.