2020 has seen a full year’s programme of exhibitions from Paludal, the establishment of Hot Lunch and now the opening of The Den – call it three for three. The Den is a new artist-run initiative (ARI) in central Ōtautahi directed by Jamie TeHeuheu, Sophie Ballantyne and Rupert Travis, with Tessa McPhee acting behind the scenes. I met with the newly dubbed directors to ask them how they saw The Den operating in the Ōtautahi arts scene and what they hoped they could provide for their artists and audience.
The Den differs from other Ōtautahi ARIs by being primarily a space for selling work with aspirations to be a hybrid dealership/project space. The directors spoke in earnest about wanting to offer a space for both commercial and non-commercial work – a seemingly organic model whereby the gallery will sway to meet the needs of the arts community. Specifically interested in supporting emerging practitioners, The Den seeks to be an intermediary before dealer representation and a space to continue exhibiting after art school.
Taking a modest 20% commission from sales, this covers promotion, food and drink for the opening, and overheads. For the exhibitions, including performance or less marketable installation work, the surplus from commission fees will stretch to cover costs, creating an ecosystem where previous exhibitors support future ones. The Den hopes to engage a student audience as well as any artists, collectors, dealers or public, believing exposure to be a big part of their support of artists. Comparatively low priced work by new artists offers an opportunity for peers or interested parties to start buying art; emerging artists for emerging collectors.
The directors acknowledge their limitations as they all have the same educational background, equipping them with no more knowledge than the next recent grad artist about running a gallery or curating. The team hopes to learn through experience and seek external help where possible. The plan is to have an open call for proposals when a permanent site is confirmed and establish a curatorial board (of fellow new artists I would urge) for the selection process. Reading this in February, there is a chance that The Den will be having to find a new location.
TeHeuheu, Ballantyne, Travis and McPhee featured in their own opening show The Collective. They don’t pay themselves a wage or take a cut from the commission so, being realistic, showing and selling work is the only way to make it worth their while on a financial level.
Increasingly, I’m becoming aware of a rhetoric around the “dealer versus project space”, distilled, in my understanding, as a privileging of money or ideas respectively. This sets up a warped understanding of intellectualism and its relationship to (and suggested reliance on) wealth. Selling art is not selling out, just as making non-commercial work does not show an ignorance of capitalism. It takes all kinds etc.
I’m interested to see how The Den navigates the tricky space it occupies and who and what will be compromised or prioritised along the way.
181 High Street
- The Collective, the inaugural exhibition and The Den’s opening night 1 December 2020, photograph: Jamie TeHeuheu and The Den