35 | Founder and Director, Carlos/Ishikawa / Founder, Condo, London, UK
The increasing importance of art fairs and the growth of a select few ‘super galleries’ have created a challenging environment for most commercial dealerships, calling for imaginative solutions to help them stay afloat. One of the few genuinely intelligent responses is Condo, an initiative whereby galleries in different cities across the world collaborate to stage exhibitions in each other’s spaces, exposing their artists to entirely new audiences. Since its first edition in London in 2016, the initiative has expanded to New York, Shanghai, São Paulo and Mexico City, taking in dozens of galleries, both emerging and established. In other words, it has been an unqualified success – a formula so simple that one can’t help wondering why nobody came up with it before.
The brains behind it is São Paulo-born, London-based gallerist Vanessa Carlos, who initially conceived of Condo as a means to surmount her ‘frustration’ with the difficulties of showing artists internationally. ‘Usually it involves a huge amount of cost, and possibly means you become more conservative and allow the artists less room for experimentation,’ she tells me. But there was also a broader ambition: to help traditional galleries draw the spotlight back from art fairs. It’s a subject on which Carlos is bracingly forthright: ‘I think that there are some fairs that are really important, but there are too many that try and tag along on that model – and they can’t deliver. It creates this over-proliferation of fairs, meaning that we end up with a culture of people not going to galleries any more. So I really wanted to do something that brought back the focus to the gallery exhibition.’
Carlos’s own gallery, Carlos/Ishikawa, is one of the more notable venues to have opened in London in the past decade. Representing a diverse roster of artists working across a broad range of media, it has become one of the capital’s go-to venues for imaginative, experiential new art. Its genesis, however, was anything but preordained. Carlos studied fine art and subsequently worked at a number of galleries, including Stuart Shave Modern Art and the Approach, also making time for freelance curatorial projects. Opening her own space had always been an ambition, but the opportunity to do so emerged more or less out of the blue. ‘A childhood friend needed to invest in a business to get a visa,’ Carlos says. ‘So she approached me and I told her that the only thing I’d consider doing was starting a gallery. Her response was: “Fine – let’s do it”’.
Carlos/Ishikawa finally opened its doors in 2011 just off Mile End Road in east London, an unlovely thoroughfare not especially known as a hotspot for contemporary art. Yet geographical distance from the gallery clusters in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and central London has not prevented the gallery from earning significant attention, something Carlos in part attributes to the uniquely convivial nature of the city’s art community. ‘Of all the major art centres, London is a kind of sweet spot – it’s big but not too big, like New York, and it’s maybe more energetic than somewhere like Berlin. There’s room for everyone and it feels more communal than other places.’
For all its success, Carlos is adamant that Condo will not expand further. Staging a full-scale iteration in a new city would be ‘exhausting’, and the number of host venues will be kept to a limit. ‘If I’m to understand what’s good about it, I have to face the fact that it’s limited in scale.’ By including around only 20 venues, she thinks, people will try to see everything – any more, and they will tend to visit only the galleries they already know. Similarly, Carlos is committed to maintaining close personal relationships with her artists, and has no grand plans to add significantly to her 12-strong roster, which currently boasts the likes of Ed Fornieles, Richard Sides and performance art duo Lloyd Corporation. Mentioning one international gallery with a huge number of artists on its roster, she poses a question: ‘It stages some amazing shows. But I mean, how often does the artist actually speak to the person whose name is on the door?’
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