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Sam Rhodes - Gallery Manager of artrepublic, Soho

23 January 2012 Anita Mistry

Since 2007 Sam Rhodes has been the Gallery Manager of artrepublic in Soho. Specialising in street art and special editions, the gallery has a huge variety of artists at their fingertips, so you can find just the right piece of work for your walls. Here he tells Anita Mistry about the gallery and who he thinks are the next big things...

London Calling: Can you tell me a bit about the gallery and what kind of artwork you have here?
SR: Starting with the gallery space, it was called tomtom, which was set up in the late 1960s. It's always been about the counterculture, slightly more edgy on the fringe-type stuff. I wouldn't say urban because urban wasn't around then, they did a lot of punk art and things like that. Then they launched Banksy there. We took over mid-2007, kept the sign the same for the gallery, but artrepublic is our company name. We started moving towards contemporary art and so we do a lot of British based artists like Hirst, as well as Banksy and urban street art stuff. So it's kind of a hybrid between the two. You can come to us and combine a very serious piece of art with street art or a print.
 
LC: So you do originals, prints and special editions?
SR: In London we do. As a company we pretty much specialise in print, but in the London market people want original work so we kind of do a mixture of the two.
 
LC:And how did you become involved with artrepublic?
SR: I wasn't really that great a painter! So I thought, ‘Do I really just want to be an artist?’ So I studied art history. I like painting actually, but art history was great, researching about it, and after doing an art history degree, I feel that no-one could ever be a fine artist until they've done an art history degree. So much stuff just gets self-perpetuated. I started working for the original gallery in Brighton. I worked there for about six months after university and it's something I've always wanted to do so I made a beeline straight for it. I have family in Brighton so it was local to me. It was my aim to come back to London, go to university here, so when I found out they were going to set up a gallery here, I jumped at the chance, to help set it up, establish it. I knew a lot of people like Banksy and a lot of the artists that we already dealt with so it was a perfect marriage really. And over the years I've been kind of a manager, and co-run it, which is great.
 
LC: Who would you say we should keep an eye on? Who are you thinking is the next up and coming artist?
SR: It's difficult to say at the moment to be honest because a lot of people are still buying art, but they’re buying artists that they know, because they want to feel like their money is put into something safe. There are artists like Dave White who's had quite a few shows but he's still growing a lot - 2011 was a really good year for him, so he's an artist to look out for. There's a pop element to his work, but it doesn't look like your classic pop art with bright colours - he's got a really nice style and people seem to have taken to him.
 
LC: Is he a London-based artist?
SR: No, he's based in Liverpool, but I think we're hoping to do something with him this year in London. He's a good example of an artist who's already doing something, who's already selling, but he's still got a lot of leg. There are lots of artists out there like that, including Charming Baker, we're selling his stuff but he's still rising and it's early days for some of them. But those two are solid bets.
 
LC: With street art people tend to think of it as a genre that is outside the gallery, how do you think it translates?
SR: I think it translates quite well actually. Obviously things have to change a little bit, like it gets put on a canvas or paper, but quite often - and what's nice about it - is that street artists don't produce original work on canvas, because it’s not something they’re used to working with. So we get a lot of stuff on found materials, which adds an extra dimension and gives things a really nice texture. But when this kind of work is on canvas and you put it in your home, it still looks like a nice decorative piece of work, but it's not on a bit of metal or an old bit of wood; but it has still got that raw edge to it that lends itself to spray paint or something. It has transferred really well, people really take to it. But it's definitely the more decorative side to street art - not tagging or anything like that.
 
LC: Why do you think it's become so popular over the last 10 to 15 years? Do you think it’s just Banksy, or is it just a change through time?
SR: Banksy is part of it, obviously. But I think it is also about the rise with the whole social media world. With street art being out on the street 10 years ago people wouldn't be taking a photo of it and putting it directly on the Internet within a couple of minutes. So now you can see something that’s been put up within half an hour, if you're in the right place and all of a sudden it just spreads massively. And because people's tastes vary so much, someone is going to like it, there's a demand for it, whereas before you may not even have known about an artist or a piece of work somewhere in the world. But now you can and I think because it's outside, because it's accessible to absolutely everyone, and because the Internet and social media has grown hugely, street art is now accessible and everyone can access it, so I think the two have grown together.
 
It's probably the art form for this generation and the Internet has helped that massively. Where Banksy comes in - producing very affordable, essentially cool pieces that people wanted. Pieces they'd seen on the street and they can buy an edition, and they've seen his prices rise - people have realised that there's a new investment potential in limited edition, so it's linking the two. Banksy has been fantastic because he's just done it in a new way - it's an old format, but definitely done in a new way.
 
LC: Who's your favourite artist at the moment?
SR: I'm a big fan of Charming Baker. I've followed him since 2007. I think his work is a good example of where art is moving. It's painting, but it's done in a very raw way.
 
LC: So painting has come back into it?
SR: Yeah, anything with a skill, painting, classic print maybe, something that is taught. Even craft is really coming back in, ceramic and the like. Because if you've been paid to paint in not a necessarily classic way, but with the classic fundamentals, you can produce a piece of art that has depth. You’re obviously going to get one or two natural geniuses, but there's more appreciation because you can see the scale involved, there's another dimension to it and it just comes down to value for money.
 
So when I say we do street art and contemporary art, the two are merging, because a lot of street artists have been trained at art school but just couldn't find a job, so they've gone back to producing art as a passion. But because street art has now become so huge they're realising they're at a level where they could revisit some of their old stuff and go back into a bread-making design. So we're kind of seeing a shift, from merging street art into more classic art school work, so creating this edgy, raw talent.
 
LC: Your website is really good with a really strong search engine…
SR: We do indeed! We worked very hard on that, but again it's just utilising the internet - everyone knows how to search on the internet and it’s important to take advantage of that. I think galleries or other places that haven't done that are struggling.
 
LC: When people go to your website, it's all about the kind of art they like, I think its a really good idea to focus on that.
SR: There's a lot of stuff on our website! But that's it, we work very closely with all of the artists, but we don't strictly manage artists. So when people come in and they're like, 'I quite like this, I quite like that', we can still have an opportunity to acquire a work by a particular artist but we're not forcing an artist on you. So if you strictly like pop art by, say, Peter Blake, you can have whatever you want, whereas some galleries who don’t deal with Blake may force you in another direction. You see a lot of people come in who may have bought something and you see them discover different things, it's amazing to witness. Years ago they were buying this, now they're buying that.
 
LC: So you do have a lot of regular customers then?
SR: Yes we do, which is nice. That's really what I like, that's what it's all about. Regular people coming in, you get to know them. The gallery is in quite a strange place, in a side street off the beaten track; we don't get a lot of passing trade. But because it's been there for so long, we do get people coming back.
 
LC: I suppose if you get to know them you see their tastes evolve and then you can advise them and maybe suggest artists to them…
SR: Absolutely, and that's what I like to do.
 
LC: I heard on the grapevine a little altercation with Westminster Council – can you tell us a bit about what happened?
SR: We did a street piece with Ben Eine; he’s a great artist as well and one to look out for. Where we're located there's a street just around the corner near Covent Garden called Shelton Street and it's sort of a dotted line between Camden Council and Westminster Council, and where he did the piece was just inside Westminster's territory. Now they don't like large street pieces, but David Cameron gave one of Ben Eine's pieces to Barrack Obama in 2010. So there was a real conflict of interest there because Cameron had obviously been publicly seen giving a piece of his work to Obama and then Westminster Council were kicking him off the streets! So it was quite interesting seeing the council's reaction to that. They weren't that happy but they afforded us retroactive planning permission, which they've never done before. So there was a little bit of a grumble but they couldn't do much about it, so it was quite pleasing.
 
Like a lot of things you’re hoping that something may kick off from a PR point of view but they kind of just submitted. But we had permission, that was the other thing. We had permission from the landlord of the building we were going to put it on, it was on private space - it wasn't as if we were going out and just painting over someone's shop front. We had permission to do it but the council weren't that happy about it.
 
We get people spraying and putting stuff up outside the gallery on the wall and the council sometimes remove it, and we do say all the time that it's okay and it's on our wall. We don't encourage it publicly but we don't mind it, so there are constant battles with the council! It's a real fine line and I don't envy their position, but I think they could be a little bit cleverer with it, because especially going back to Banksy, it could generate a lot of revenue.
 

Check out artrepublic's website here, and you can visit the gallery at 42 New Compton Street, London WC2H 8DA.
 

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