Hannah Barry

Hannah Barry (courtesy mawi.co.uk)

I met with Hannah Barry in January for a short piece I was doing for this month's Nylon on interesting, young female gallerists. I'd met her once before at a Parasol Unit event, and found her a little intimidating. Though she comes across as somewhat austere and exacting, she is in fact incredibly warm, and generous of herself and her time. And listening to her talk about her artists, you can't escape the sheer love she has for them. It was a pleasure. The March issue of Nylon is out now – the final edit was really short, but Hannah said a lot of good things, so here below is the full interview.

When did you open the gallery?
We started in january 2008. I really fell into doing it, it wasn’t something I had ever intended to do. For about a year and a half prior to that, we made exhibitions in an old shared house. It was just a project – we converted some of the rooms into beautiful spaces where we could show works of art by single artists, one solo show per month for 10 months. 

Who were the artists you were working with at the time?
The five artists with whom we began doing this programme are still with us – Shaun McDowell, Bobby Dowler, James Capper, Edward Wallace and Christopher Green. From then on, it just continued in a natural way. We’ve added other artists over time, and we’ve started working with a number of international names. 

So it wasn’t your ambition to have a gallery, or even a curator – how did you come to art?
I had always looked at art, from a very early age. I felt it was a big privilege to work with artists – to spend your day-to-day with them, talking with them and trying to help and build opportunities for people who didn’t have them, because you believed that what you were seeing was some revelation. 

Which writers, curators, events had been influential for you?
There were a number of people. I knew what Leo Castelli had done, how he had supported artists, the patience he had, over and over again he waited for artists to come into their own. I admired Becky Parsons, Karsten Schubert and the early days of White Cube; I read David Sylvester. I remember going to the New Museum in New York when I was about 18 for a William Kentridge show [in 2001] and really not being able to forget that experience. I also remember seeing a Botticelli show at the RA [Botticelli's Dante: The Drawings for the Divine Comedy, 2001] and thinking about how that complete presentation of an artist’s work was exciting. I didn’t see Sensation, but I did see Apocalypse, and all of that was exciting too. I think I was very interested in organisations – I knew what the Whitechapel had done and how Modern Art Oxford had been one of the leading European institutions. All sorts of things like that... a big melting pot of information.

Were you interested in the production of art from the outset?
I was interested in the experience of art, and how to make that available to people. I have just been reading a lot about the de Menils, and what they did – its all about helping people really. Of course, the nuances of what help you’re giving are quite varied. Helping raise a price, helping by introducing this or that person, helping organising an accountant...

And now that you’re in it, you’re learning as you go – if it wasn’t your ambition before I guess you’d never really imagined a structure before?
No I hadn’t. You can, of course, learn by being in a gallery and then going on to have your own. But I think there’s also a virtue to not knowing and to being quite ignorant– something that isn’t like anything else. I really feel like we’re just at the beginning of it. I feel that you have to be really patient, really patient. The artists that we’ve had the chance to work with have been able to make progress. I believe that a lot of the artworks that have passed through our hands in these two and a half years will be there in 50 or 100 years, people will go to see them again. I have that feeling about them – I can’t put it into words. If you know things really well, they stay in your mind. If they have any quality of aliveness, then they’re there, and just because somebody else can’t see what the meaning or value of that thing is right now doesn’t mean that in time they wont come to recognise it. At the same time, that artist making that thing is alive, living today – and a young artist breaking ground, or proving ground, needs all the help they can get. 

You have said before that you strongly believe that not having any money shouldn’t prevent you from doing things. That seems to me such an important thing to say.
I do. I have never had any money. At the same time, I acknowledge the critical importance of having to pay the bills. You need money to be able to produce art  – and so you have to make it. I’ve always felt that you don’t need huge financial backing. Of course it would be helpful to have a fund of money. But if you don’t have that you can either say “I can’t do it”, or you say “well, how can I do it without?” All the things we’ve done have been without funding. When we started the gallery a friend of mine loaned us £1,000 to help with the first costs. But since then we haven’t any additional money put in.

That makes you strong.
It does – it certainly makes you more courageous. 

When you’re looking at artists, do you have a sense of what you’re looking for?
It is more to do with intuition. I know that there’s an awful lot out there that it would be a great privilege to work with and that other people do a magnificent job with. It’s very important to know that. I don’t look for anything in particular. I’m always trying to surrender. Ultimately the work of art is more powerful than you or me – it might still be here when we are both long gone. And the goal is to somehow do something that shows that work to people in such a way that they understand or see something new. Artists are like special messengers of information spoken in a very particular visual or aural language. 

Looking through your roster of artists, you get a definite sense of a particular aesthetic, a strong vision.
Maybe it’s to do with stripping down. Things that almost seem spare, not bare but spare, calm, quiet. Things that are so quiet that they could maybe pass you by, and yet when you spend long enough with them they are very powerful. It requires a sort of meditation. Just a few weeks ago I learned the TM form of meditation which involves a constant stripping down and repetition. And I thought maybe this is what I’ve been doing. A constant repetition which leads to revelation. And maybe that’s why I’m so sure about the works, because they seem to be slowly revealing themselves. There might be something that instantly hits you and draws you back again and again – something there that you anchor yourself to. Or it might just be an overall feeling of mysteriousness. I’m very content to look at the same thing over and over again, to spend time with things. But this doesn’t only apply to the artists I work with – I do find that with lots of other artists too. 

Is it the idea of something withstanding intense and repeated visiting or investigation?
Yeah, something that is still there when you come back. Why is it there? I don’t have any works of art around in my home – I have very little furniture, very few clothes, but I do have a box of drawings and I look at them over and over. I edit, move things out, swap things around... I think I go home to sleep and let things settle then I wake up and go out into the world again. I like that process. Going back into the world, taking its onslaught and then retreating again. 

Do you internalise the art a lot?
With making exhibitions you want to make an experience that the visitor can take away with them. Someone once said to me the most important thing is when you turn your back on a work of art and you can still feel it’s there. I think it’s true. 

Do you enjoy taking part in every aspect of setting up a show?
I believe that that’s how you get great shows. I work towards the best outcome, whether that means minimal input or intense input. I would never try to impose myself if it wasn’t needed. The artist is a good judge of that. I also rely heavily on the people I work with. I couldn’t manage without them. It’s a constant dialogue – are we doing this? Should we do that? Is this the right price? Is there a better quality? Can we get it a different way?

Do you have a clear idea of where you’re headed and what you want to do with the gallery?
I don’t think I have a plan as such. I just want to make really good programmes, and to continue to grow the artists that we look after. New people come in, opportunities come up and we decide whether we can take them on or not. I have much a clearer idea of what I want to do with the annual sculpture project, Bold Tendencies, than of what I want to do with the gallery. It is now separate from the gallery because it needed to be its own thing – it’s a big public project. So there is now a curatorial committee, of which I am not a part, which votes to select the artists we commission. At the moment we are finalising the shortlist of the artists for this year’s show which will open on June 30. The show lasts for 3 months. Last year we had just over 45,000 visitors. This year, in addition to Frank’s Cafe and Campari Bar, we’re building two new buildings up there – a lecture theatre and a kiosk, by the same architects, Practice Architecture's Lettice Drake and Paloma Gormley. It’s the beginning of making it into a more permanent institution. It will also have a proper education programme as well as a dynamic schedule of public lectures, to create a real community around the project, a way for people to engage with it. We’re also currently building a library in Peckham for contemporary art monographs. We have about 25,000 books - it’s a much longer project. It’ll probably be 3 or 4 years. But years go very fast...

How did the Peckham Pavilion come about?
That was one of those crazy middle-of-the-night things. The idea was to do an exhibition in Venice. And the name just came to me, and that was that. 

And as with all your other projects, you just went ahead and did it, without backing?
Yeah. And this is also going to morph into a much bigger project, which we’ll launch the project next summer. It’s very exciting. But also, as often with completely new things, people don’t always get it for quite a long time. Sometimes you end up feeling really lonely, you’re just there on your own with all this art. When night comes and it’s quiet, you feel a tremendous solitude. 

Are there people who’ve really understood your work and supported you, as mentors?
I couldn’t even name any one person, there have been so many people who have been incredibly generous to us, old and young, across the board. People have really joined in and contributed and that’s been an amazing characteristic of everything we’ve undertaken. And that’s what art needs. People need to support each other. Of course projects like Bold Tendencies and the Venice project particularly bring this out. They couldn’t happen without a gang of people around them. But in general, in all the small, ongoing things, that support and community are vital. 

Which young artists are you really excited about now?
Everything. You can’t be specific. There are so many people doing so many things. You can’t possibly  compare or judge. You just have to watch and see how things develop.

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