Simon Williams, 38, is on a mission. After running Pop-up Art Gallery for one year, he recently opened his new venue in Schöneberg: The Ballery is a splendid place for art collectors in search of the extraordinary and a haven for Berlin’s most talented artists.
When did you decide to open an art gallery?
It happened in May 2013. And it’s been a twisted plot (smiles).
Some time earlier, I had started to work in a cabaret restaurant in Berlin and was in charge of marketing and programs. The place wasn’t too busy, so the plan was to create unique events to draw more people in. I started to connect with Berlin based artists and finally managed to show exhibitions of their works every month. But then I left the place, because the owners didn’t pay.
A little later, I decided to start an art business with all the contacts I had gathered while working at the cabaret and before.
That was the beginning of Pop-up Art Gallery?
Exactly. The venue was relatively cheap, not renovated, and ideal for showing works of young and aspiring artists living in Berlin. In the beginning, I offered one wall to each artist – and he or she could do with it whatever they liked, provided the wall would be in its original condition again when the exhibition was over after one month. Later, I changed the frequency of the shows and we had a vernissage every Friday and a finissage the following Thursday.
One exhibition every week? This sounds stressful.
You could see it like that. But actually I had a lot of fun bringing new artists and visitors in and making the gallery a hot spot, where artminded people want to meet – and discover new art. After the first four months, however, I changed the schedule slightly and the exhibitions lasted only for six days.
And did it work out financially?
It did, indeed. One year after I had founded Pop-up Art Gallery, I was confident enough to look for a bigger space and eventually found one at Nollendorfstraße 11, now the home of The Ballery. It was officially opened on 6th September 2014.
In earlier years you worked as a ballet dancer and choreographer, a performing artist. What made you change your mind and venture into visual arts to become a gallery owner?
At some point in time I realized that I was jealous of visual artists because they have so many more opportunities compared to performing artists. Honestly, running a gallery is the cheapest and easiest way to make a show. You don’t need rehearsals, costumes, props etc., and the artsists bring in their own works. In other words: little cost, big impact.
But you would need some knowledge of visuals arts if you want to work as a curator or gallery owner, wouldn’t you?
Certainly. I was lucky and had the chance to gain substantial knowledge not only of visuals arts but also of the art and business of collecting arts, for I have lived with and around collectors, artists and enthusiasts since the age of 18.
Presumingly not in Berlin?
In many different places: in London, Zürich, Geneva, New York, Vienna, Taipei, Paris, Düsseldorf and for a short time also in Los Angeles.
Why did you choose to live in Berlin?
I love Berlin for many reasons. First of, it’s a very international city, a melting pot of people with new and unconventional ideas. Free-thinkers of the world unite. And then – it’s like an island. Actually, I don’t consider it being a part of Germany. It’s so different from, say, Hamburg, Munich or Düsseldorf. If I had to coin a slogan for Berlin, it would be „Come here and do what you like.“ Because you really can do that in Berlin with a lot less money than you would need in places like London, Paris or New York.
Sounds like paradise …
To a certain extent it is. But there are always two sides of a medal. I sometimes miss the dynamic attitude of people, especially artists. If they showed a little more energy and wouldn’t show up just when they wanted, and if, in general, they were better prepared – they could be much more successful. But then, this is the special atmosphere of Berlin: everybody is going to the big city to be somebody, but many just don’t care about the business side of it – and eventually find themselves in a precarious situation.
Talking about business: how can you make sure that your plan works?There is no perfect security if you start a business, but I have a strong confidence that the concept of the gallery is good and will prove successful. Being aware of what the buyers want, through monitoring and conversation, is essential. And there’s a secret recipe, too: running an art gallery is like being a chef. You got to know what people want to eat, before they know it themselves!
This very much depends on what the artists are delivering, right?Absolutely. In the Ballery, I like to gather a big and striving community of committed artists. I think, nowadays galleries are functioning similar to how churches did some centuries ago. Artists are attending the mass and come together, exchanging ideas, creating new projects. They bring their best works for to have them presented to collectors and buyers, while curators and gallery managers are the new priests. On the one hand they are offering place and space to the artists, on the other hand they are spreading the word about their works and make sure they will be seen. In the end, both artists and collectors feel good. And the gallery will prosper.
That’s an interesting concept. Where do you see the gallery and yourself in five years from now?
I don’t have a five-years-plan, but I do wish for some things to happen in the future. First and foremost, the community shall grow, the network has to become bigger. For that, however, I think I need a louder voice, and I’m already working on that. I’d like to have a bigger venue, too, a place that gives the opportunity of hosting larger events, such as live concerts, fashion shows and so on, maybe even a club.
Guest Post with interview and photo by Frank Lassak.
Frank Lassak is a journalist and photographer based in Berlin. Since the early 1990s he worked for various newspapers and magazines. In 2009 he founded Efacts Photography (www.efactsphoto.com), an atelier specialized in portrait and cinematic fashion photography. His stories and pictures are found in international magazines like Vogue, Shoot Me! or Get Inspired.