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Gallery business in Lagos and tales of mixed fortune

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Artists and a gallery owner, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis at Alexis Galleries, Victoria Island, Lagos… recently.


Though, the profile of Lagos as an art hub has continued to grow, this, however, is with mixed fortunes, as a lot of art galleries in the city have shut down.Apart from a few non-commercial outlets where art shows hold, nearly all the surviving galleries are changing mode of presentation to avoid being put out of business so soon in the fledgling Nigerian art market.

Reluctantly, the city’s art environment started accepting non-commercial space just about 11 years ago, when Bisi Silva-led Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, emerged and changed the narratives of several decades. Despite CCA muscling its way through, the commercial art galleries are still the real energy driving art in Lagos.

While the very few galleries that have survived this past decade business challenge are cautiously becoming innovative, the new arrivals (last five to seven years) appear more aggressive in their presentations.

The cautious galleries have reasons to thread softly: Treasure House, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi; Truview, City Mall, Onikan; Pendulum, Lekki; Nimbus, Ikoyi and some others have either closed down or changed to virtual space in the past 10 years.

Interestingly, more new galleries and ‘spaces’ have opened within the same period like, Nike Arts Centre, Red Door, Alexis, Art 21, Rele, Mode, Ogiri Kan, Thought Pyramid (Lagos), One Draw, Zarnellia, Reconnect, Watersworth and B57.

They all entered the scene at about the period that some galleries were closing down. During the same period, galleries such as Quintessence and Biodun Omolayo also had challenges, but changed locations rather than shut down.

In the last three years, about four new art outlets have emerged within Norman Williams/Awolowo Road, Ikoyi axis. In fact, on Norman Williams Street alone — home to Mydrim Gallery in nearly two decades – there are four outlets: Thought Pyramid, Artyrama, Angels and Muse and One Draw. However, only Thought Pyramid and One Draw are full galleries. Artyrama is not exactly the same, but has commercial focus too. On Awolowo Road, where Treasure House once held away for many years as well as home to Signature Gallery, there is Ogiri Kan.

Be that as it may, both the old and relatively new ones face the same challenge: artists’ increasing appetite and direct access to collectors; marketing via Internet and emerging virtual galleries. Also is the case of a growing number of art enthusiasts coming into the business without running any gallery space. Such promoters like, SMO Contemporaries, Bloom Art show regularly inside non-art gallery spaces across Lagos.

How apt they are able to confront these challenges will determine their ability to survive. Across the waters into the Victoria Island central business district, Terra Kulture has kept its modest strength with high profile and emerging artists. Terra Kulture, which is still first choice for some artists, has another active neighbour in Alexis, a two-space gallery, which is arguably, recording more shows than others in Lagos. In fact, founder and curator, Alexis Galleries, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis disclosed that Alexis “will be having 22 shows in 2019.”

An average of two shows in a month for one gallery is baffling in a city where most spaces hardly make six shows a year.Though, operators of the closed galleries blame “state of the economy” for inability to continue, the surviving ones harp on their ability to expand clientele base. Others talk about trust and strong relationship with artists as well as collectors.

For Mydrim, which marked its 25 years in business last year, “trust has been our strength,” Mrs Sinmidele Adesanya, its founder, disclosed during the anniversary show. But the changing behavioural pattern of art appreciation, particularly, with old collectors being fatigued or departing through deaths appears not lost to Mydrim. Apparently, generating new collectors should always be on the table.

And when such come, do they trust the works of young artists?
“Yes, new collectors buy new artists,” Adesanya said.

However, a young collector who would not want his name mentioned in print put a caveat: “I don’t mind taking a gallery’s advice to collect new and young artists, if it fits into my investment perspective of art collection.”
He argued, “we shouldn’t pretend about anything; art collecting is pure business and investment.”

The fear of shutting down, for Alexis Galleries, is non-existence. Chidiac-Mastrogiannis noted, like every other business, galleries should be operated with passion. She argued if those who set them up run their business fully, they would last as long as desired.

With frequent shows and residency for artists, Chidiac-Mastrogiannis appears not disturbed by the windows that Internet provide for artists’ self-marketing. “Virtually presenting art is different from seeing it physically,” she warned, advising, “the gallery owner must be involved.”

Within the same period that some galleries shut down, Jeff Ajueshi, who started his career at Nimbus, in its first coming, has set up two facilities: Thought Pyramid with a one-room shop in Abuja in 2007. About three years ago, it moved to a new one storey building in the same FCT. Last year, Ajueshi opened the Lagos branch on a similar facility at Norman Williams Street.

“With the ever changing business environment, galleries are shutting down, because most of them can no longer afford the running cost needed to stay afloat,” Ajueshi noted. “This is due to various reasons such as, most galleries run on modules that are rigid and do not support the ever changing interests of the audience, coupled with the seamless accessibility, which the Internet has brought to the world, making it unnecessary for viewers and collectors to be physically present in gallery spaces.”

He argued that if artists could use the Internet to their advantage, galleries should do better with the same window. “With the changes and innovations in the art scene, and the use of the Internet to reach out to collectors directly, Thought Pyramid has been able to use this to our advantage.”

And as most artists link international exposures to the overall virility of art appreciation, Ajueshi-led Thought Pyramid is looking beyond the Lagos market to promote Nigerian artists and the gallery. “For example, Thought Pyramid is showing a group of artists at the Art Expo New York and also at the 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair, London.”

Speaking on the value of physical gallery space, Ajueshi agreed, “art still needs intimacy, so this physical spaces serves as the meeting point for artists and collectors or enthusiasts.”


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