‘I feel like I’m picking up where I left off. Because I didn’t think I’d finished!’ Megan Piper looks around her new lower ground floor gallery on Jermyn Street, St James’s, a modest space below the antiques dealership Harris Lindsay. It is hung with the exacting, clipped abstracts of Tess Jaray (b. 1937) in preparation for the gallery’s launch, or rather relaunch, this week.
At 31, Piper is older and wiser than the 27-year-old with a trademark peroxide crop and scarlet lipstick who started The Piper Gallery on Newman Street in June 2012. ‘When The Piper Gallery opened its doors I was 27, with 2,000 square foot in the middle of Fitzrovia’ she says. ‘It was amazing while it lasted, but I did feel the pressure.’ Inspired by an exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, The Piper Gallery’s distinctive agenda was to show the work of mature artists with a career of 40 years or longer. It was an original premise, but it was open for just 18 months before her backer pulled out.
In the aftermath, Piper immersed herself in launching The Line, a sculpture walk through East London, with the late Clive Dutton: it opened in May 2015. ‘I needed to throw myself into something that wasn’t part of the commercial art world and was about regeneration’, says Piper. Nonetheless, she continued dealing privately. In the same month, she took her first stand at an art fair, Art15, before organising a show of Neil Stokoe paintings at London’s Redfern Gallery.
‘My skin has definitely got thicker’, reflects Piper of the last few years. ‘I think I’m more mindful about how to grow a business, the importance of developing relationships with artists and clients.’ Now that she is back in a bricks-and-mortar space, she will relaunch the exhibition programme that began in Fitzrovia’s Newman Street, with the artists who have come with her: Edward Allington (whose show will run 29 June–29 July); the late Francis West (14 September–21 October); Paul de Monchaux (2 November–2 December) and Neil Stokoe (11 January–17 February 2017). Looking around her at Jaray’s latest triptychs, Piper says: ‘She’s such an interesting artist, the first woman to teach at the Slade. Her recent work feels really vital and fresh.’ (An aside: Jaray’s public art is also the subject of a new book, Desire Lines, to be published by Ridinghouse at the end of June.)
What was it like swapping Fitzrovia for St James’s? ‘This is a great address, surrounded by such an interesting mix of dealers, many operating without a “shop window”’, says Piper. ‘So many dealers now, whether young or not, are having to redefine the way they work as they don’t have street frontage.’ She found the space through a friend, after two other premises fell through. It’s an unlikely alliance perhaps, between a young contemporary art gallerist and an established antiques dealer, but Piper enjoys the dynamic. ‘Ten, or even five years ago, this mix might have seemed peculiar. But particularly since Frieze Masters was launched, more dealers are working together, mixing old and new.’
Piper insists that the gallery and The Line are ‘totally separate things’, but she remains involved with the latter. She is about to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the project, alongside a public vote on ArtStack to decide which of three works donated by Michael Craig-Martin should be installed this year.
Piper is one of a number of thirtysomething gallerists trying to make their mark on the London art world. Jessica Carlisle – a former lawyer who exhibited in her own home for years before opening a space in Marylebone – impressed recently with her second gallery show ‘The Missing: Rebuilding the Past’ (closed 7 May), which featured artists’ responses to the destruction of cultural heritage by the so-called Islamic state. In January, Abby Hignell, formerly of Bowman Sculpture, opened a large gallery in Mayfair’s Shepherd Market concentrating on modern and contemporary sculpture. Directly opposite Piper’s space, at 58 Jermyn Street, Lyndsey Ingram is preparing to open her first independent exhibition of the polaroids of Miles Aldridge (16–21 May) at private art dealers Dickinson. Ingram left the established St James’s gallery Sims Reed to go it alone earlier this year. ‘I just knew I couldn’t keep running someone else’s business, I had to have my own’, she said of the decision. Next spring she hopes to open her own gallery space – 1,000 square foot somewhere ‘between Sotheby’s and Christie’s.’
While Piper continues to do guided tours of The Line, Ingram, Hignell and Carlisle also have plans for talks and lectures within their galleries: the ambition to create both a successful business and a meeting place of like-minded sorts is common to them all. As anyone who runs their own business will know, the life of an art dealer can be a solitary one, but the sense of camaraderie between some of these fledgling galleries makes that path a little less lonely.
‘Tess Jaray: Dark & Light’ (in association with Karsten Schubert) is at Megan Piper, 67 Jermyn Street, from 12 May–19 June.
‘Miles Aldridge: Please Return Polaroid’, presented by Lyndsey Ingram, is at Dickinson, 58 Jermyn Street, from 16–21 May.