Guts Gallery is the platform emerging artists deserve. Founded by Ellie Pennick in 2019, Guts tackles how young talent is being failed by the elitist art world and its broken business model head on. Central to this is giving the next generation the support they need to become self-sufficient, from redistributing funds more fairly amongst the community to being there for a chat on down days. And Pennick’s no-frills approach has taken the gallery from showing above a New Cross pub to headline-grabbing online exhibitions with a mix of new and established names, including Nan Goldin and Corbin Shaw.
“I looked at what was wrong with the art world, why artists only get 50% of their sales, why workers aren’t paid, and it’s because of space,” says Pennick. “Renting permanent space is just a vanity thing that makes no sense. So, I started talking to people about spaces that were free or cheap, then held a big opening that reflected everything I stand for: supporting black, POC, queer, working class, struggling artists. And that’s where it all began.”
Although lockdown increased the pressure on artists, it also provided her online exhibitions - When Shit Hits The Fan and When Shit Hits The Fan Again - with a captive audience generating more exposure while most established galleries struggled to adapt. And it meant she could keep her artists on the dole afloat. But since being refused funding to study sculpture at the Royal College of Art herself, Pennick understands the importance of reacting and evolving to get ahead, applying unexpected ways of thinking to Guts inspired by tech start-ups and virtual reality.
“You have to find new ways to navigate,” she says. “We're in a completely different generation and the art world needs to keep up with the times.” And one recurring theme is its lack of inclusivity, with an artist’s background still influencing their chances of success in an industry dominated by bullies and snobs. Something that Pennick with her northern working class roots can attest to. “If you look at the percentages, I feel lucky to be doing this at all, because statistically I shouldn’t have even gone to uni. But I'm from a family who graft and have embedded that in me, now when I go back up north they call me posh.”
“We're in a completely different generation and the art world needs to keep up with the times.”
Caught in the middle of an office move, the self-taught gallery director discusses recognising your privilege, what we can all do to support young artists, and the benefits of being gobby if you want to bring about change.
Ben Perdue: Where do you discover the artists you work with at Guts?
Ellie Pennick: I discovered Corbin at this shitty private view, and he showed me his flags and I went, I like them, I want you on board. He’s a good laugh. Elsa Rouy I actually met on Hinge, a dating app, so we always laugh about that. And Instagram is amazing, usually flicking through your phone at 2am. I try to find smaller artists who aren’t trending yet. You do have to be professional, but my rule is that you need to be able to go to the pub and chill with an artist and have that relationship too. Just creating a dialogue with people is exciting.
BP. Does anything tie them all together?
EP: A lot of the artists I work with are very political and reflect society as a whole, which is why I love working with them. At Guts we recognise our privilege. I know that even though I’m queer female working class, it's a lot harder for black and POC artists. Individually all of us have struggled, some more than others. So, it’s a community that is trying to change a negative into a positive, that's what ties them together. They want to change the art world; they don't like how it works. And they want to be part of something collective because that’s the way forward.
“It’s a community that’s trying to change a negative into a positive, that's what ties them together.”
BP. What are the biggest issues facing young artists in this country?
EP: Education. You're just thrown into it without even being taught how to make an invoice. It’s bollocks. Funding is non-existent. Instagram can be a negative because there are so many artists and getting seen is just chance. And politics, if you look at how expensive rent is in London if you want to be part of the art scene here.
BP. How does Guts support them?
EP: Financially I do their sales and work out payment plans for collectors. If they need money for materials, I help them. I do virtual reality studio visits for them. I photograph all their work. They get solo exhibitions. They're in all the group exhibitions. I meet up with them. Ring them. And just try to support in any way possible, which includes counselling to get them through this pandemic. I give them time because I have a lot of faith and want their career to progress as much as possible. And there's no hierarchy, we’re all equal.
BP: You dropped out of studying sculpture, so have you had to learn how to be a gallerist on the job?
EP: Yeah. I read a lot of tech business start-up books. I didn't do business at school, I actually dropped out of the GCSE because I was so bored. People from working class backgrounds aren’t usually given this opportunity so it's meant hard studying and learning from mistakes. Without family to support you financially it is hard. I’ve had to work three jobs at a time, but you keep your head down and you do it.
“I’ve had to work three jobs at a time, but you keep your head down and you do it.”
BP: What can people who visit shows but can’t afford to buy art do to support the artist community more?
EP: Follow, like and comment. It just means the world to artists to have that support. And turn up at exhibitions. A lot of gallerists won’t even give you the time of day if you don’t want to buy art and I think that’s just rude. Chat to people about the art. Of course, money helps pay the rent, but these are people who love art and that's the most important thing at the end of the day.
BP: Is it important to prove that this career path can still be commercially viable for young artists?
EP: It's about self-sufficiency as well. Galleries don't usually talk about finances but I'm very transparent. A lot of gallerists are from upper class backgrounds and have been given spaces, and they brush over the finances. But I think it's very important to explain exactly how the money funds the artists’ rent, their studio, their materials. Let’s be honest about this. There's no harm in talking about it and I’m not sure why this industry is so secretive.
BP: Has having a disruptive approach put you on a collision course with the art world establishment?
EP: Gallerists can be very bullying. I've often had to keep my cool and be very professional while they can be quite patronising, because I'm a lot younger, and I’ve definitely experienced men speak to me in a certain way. But it just gives me more reason to do what I'm doing. I'm not standing for it.
BP: Is that partly why it's so important for people in the art world to recognise and talk about their privilege?
EP: It's so important. You’ve got to reevaluate. I do it every month. Am I a gatekeeper as a gallerist? Yes, I am, so then how can I hand over the keys? Arrogance and privilege are infuriating, but if more people like The White Pube and Guts keep doing what they're doing then it will shift. You have to show that change is possible, but that means a lot of head-butting. I’m quite gobby and Northern so I can do that.
“You have to show that change is possible, but that means a lot of head-butting. I’m quite gobby and Northern so I can do that.”
BP: How much harder is it for people further outside of London to overcome those obstacles?
EP: I have artists in Glasgow and Manchester who I support, but that's only because of my northern connections. I don’t know any other northern working class gallerists. Because I’m from that background I can connect with those artists. But now because everything's online, you don't have to move to London. We’ve got to fight against the art world being so London-centric, it's just not feasible anymore. I think it’s our job as gallerists and curators to start moving to those areas. Part of what I want to do with Guts is have a presence in the north. Galleries need to work together more to make a change.
BP: Was showing established and new artists together another challenge you had to work out?
EP: Getting someone like Nan Goldin was absolutely mad. It was hard but you'd be surprised how many big artists are against the art world and want to change it. A lot of artists support the work I’m doing, but in that case, it was just me getting hold of her assistants on Instagram. I went for it and it paid off, but I do feel lucky that I managed to get them onboard.
BP: Do you have something unexpected lined up for the next show?
EP: My girlfriend, Jen O’Farrell, is a curator with Guts and we’re working on a big show in a warehouse in London Bridge, which we're really excited about because it’s happening just as lockdown lifts. We’re going to be very busy. Lots of bags under our eyes.
“You might as well go for it, especially if you’re not from a stable, privileged background.”
BP: And finally, what advice would you give someone considering a career as an artist today?
EP: They’ve got to be realistic. They’ve got to graft and be prepared to work other jobs. I'm talking to artists who don’t have mummy and daddy to pay for them. And keep your head down. Also, learn to say fuck it, you’ve got nothing to lose. If the worst thing that happens is you go into an overdraft then get another job and pay it off. You might as well go for it, especially if you’re not from a stable, privileged background. And talk to people. Go to shows and chat to gallerists in person, don’t just email, if you meet that person it’s more personal. I always respect people that do that. It’s gutsy.
Ellie portraits: @bardhakrasniqi___
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