Artists see benefits of co-operation in jointly-owned gallery

An artist’s co-operative set up almost 20 years ago is going from strength to strength. Studio Fusion Gallery is owned and run by seven artists who encourage new talent with an on-going programme of special exhibitions featuring British and international artists as well as using the venue to showcase their own work.

Since 1996, the Gallery has been based at the iconic Oxo Tower Wharf on London’s South Bank, close to Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre

It was the first art gallery in the UK to specialise in a contemporary approach to enamel, promoting non-traditional materials and techniques in the art of fusing vitreous glass by heat to a metal surface.

In addition to jewellery and silverware in precious metals, the gallery also features larger two and three dimensional items on copper and steel.

Less high-profile than other artforms, enamelling has an ancient heritage. The earliest known enamelled objects were made in Cyprus around the 13th century BC and over the centuries it has proved one of the most enduring techniques for the production of exquisite jewellery and religious artefacts, as well as innovative forms of artwork.

One of the gallery’s founder members is Gudde Jane Skyrme, who was born in Denmark. She trained as a jeweller at the Hornsey College of Art and graduated in 1970.

“I decided at a very young age I wanted to be a jeweller,” she says. “I worked in Canada and New York as a jewellery designer and in 1972, when I came back to the UK, I set up my first workshop. In 1982 I set up an enamelling supplies business and did weekend courses in enamelling.

“Then, in 1985, a group of like-minded people set up the British Society of Enamellers. We had been working together on a voluntary basis but it was extremely difficult to find a gallery that would accept enameled work so six of us decided we would open our own gallery. We had been looking for premises then a colleague said Oxo Tower were looking for designers.”

Stacey Bentley

As well as being one of the most distinctive buildings on the London skyline, the Oxo Tower is an ethical place to work. It is managed by social enterprise Coin Street Builders, which has transformed the formerly derelict 13-acre riverside site by creating new co-operative homes, sports facilities and shops.

This helped in the establishment of thriving restaurants, cafes and bars, complete with a park and riverside walkway.

“Their remit is very much social housing,” says Gudde Jane, “but when they bought the tract of land off the Greater London Council, it contained this building and they recognised it could be mixed use.

“The chief executive thought it would be very nice to have designers in the building, so here we are. We have been here for 18 years and are the longest tenants.”

The personnel of Studio Fusion Gallery has changed a little over the years. The current co-operative line-up comprises Gudde Jane plus fellow founder members Tamar de Vries Winter, Sarah Letts, Joan MacKarell and newer members Penny Davis, Daphne Krinos and Louise O’Neill.

But one constant is the co-operative approach, which Gudde Jane acknowledges as a major reason for its success.

“Studio Fusion Gallery is not profit-making and we have mutual trading status,” she says. “One of the main reasons we have been able to sustain it for so long is that, being a co-operative of seven people, we can meet the landlord’s requirement of being open six days a week.

“That is very difficult if you are an individual tenant. We decided right at the very beginning we would share that load.”

The group took advice and help from Lambeth Co-op Centre when they set up as a co-operative.

“Every month seven of us put in the amount of money required to run the gallery and at the end of each month we divide between us the commission we have made on other artists’ work,” says Gudde Jane. “Sales we make on our own work belong to us personally.

“We describe ourselves as a non-registered charity. We don’t take a salary and you might ask why we do it. On a commercial footing it gives us as individuals a central London location for selling or showing our work, providing commission, and covers our outgoings.

“We also get the full retail price for our own work. Over 18 years, 90 per cent of the time, the commissions we take have covered the outgoings.”

Though financial sustainability has been a major factor in the gallery’s longevity, there is also pride in the collective ethos which first inspired the initiative.

“Most of us have worked together for 35 to 40 years and we notice a huge difference in the approach of the younger generation coming to us,” says Gudde Jane.

“They are much savvier and commercially aware. I suppose there is more realism and less idealism. There are not many artists who could fit in with our common ethos.”

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 But that common ethos brings huge benefits, she insists. “As a co-op we mutually support each other. The fact we are all women is purely coincidental, but we are all of an age where it is good we are there to support one another emotionally and artistically.

“If sales of our own work don’t come in it makes no difference to the gallery because what are relying on is the commission we charge on other artists’ work. We are an agency for artists. But our mark-up is lower because the overheads are lower.”

She adds: “We work to everybody’s strengths. Some of us are better at accounts or administration and some are better at promotion and advertising. Each one of us is allocated a different task. We all have different personalities but the seven of us have a common ethos as to what the gallery should be like.

“If any of us individually were to run a gallery, it would be unsustainable.”

Gudde Jane’s latest work will feature in the gallery’s next exhibition – London Calling – which runs from June 13 until August 29.

“Until the 1970s enameling was taught in a traditional manner. What the gallery tries to do is pick artists using it in more contemporary way,” she says. “We have regular exhibitions with innovative techniques and non-traditional materials. We make a conscious effort to show cutting-edge work first.”Kelly-Munro-1-600x422