"Just Gone on Instinct" – Sim Smith

Inaugurating our summer interview series, for which we are interviewing six UK-based art dealers, Sim Smith details the ups and downs of running her eponymous gallery

Photo by James Frederick Barrett

Although Sim Smith only opened the doors to her gallery in 2019, she has already made a substantial splash in the London art world. Having worked with a range of talents, from the emergent lights of Kemi Onabule, Maïa Régis, and B Chehayeb, to rising stars like Daisy Parris, to veritable art world darlings such as Jenna Gribbon, Smith has run the gamut of styles and practices already. Now, Smith has turned her sights into expanding, opening up a bigger space in Camberwell via a stint on the storied Cork St. To learn more, I asked her some of the questions I thought most pressing to today's art world.

Jacob Barnes: What were your entry points to the London art world? How did your jump into working in art professionally happen?

Sim Smith: I already knew quite a lot of artists in London. I really like collaboration; bringing people together is something I find exciting. I have a strong interest in dance and I started putting together cross-practice projects with painters, dancers, musicians. Gradually I started organising more shows until I finally opened the gallery in Camberwell, South London in 2019. We’re now expanding into a new bigger space in September in the same area.

JB: What were the core tenets of your gallery when you started? What was it that you wanted to do differently than the rest of the “scene” and how did you go about actualising those intentions? Have the goalposts shifted as you’ve grown?

SS: I was keen to show international artists that hadn’t exhibited in the UK. Often, we were the first to show people here. I wanted us to be ambitious for a young gallery, and not re-shuffle shows of UK artists that people had already experienced at other galleries in London – I think that’s an easy trap to fall into.

JB: What did you look for when choosing your initial artists, and more importantly, your initial roster? How have the various criteria shifted over the years?

SS: I have just gone on instinct. It has been a very organic process; I’ve been introduced to people through other artists and things like that. There isn’t a criteria and there hasn’t really been a shift as we have always just done what feels right at the time. There isn’t a master plan – all I know is that we are ambitious for our artists and want to do all we can to help them realise their goals.

JB: Who have been the artists most influential to the gallery’s growth?

SS: I think the fact that we are growing together is what is working best for us. Everyone works hard and we [the gallery and the artists] are open and genuinely collaborative with ideas and ambitions. I think talking about what artists want to achieve has been really helpful in making plans that allow us to work well as a team.

JB: How would you define your own curatorial style? What is your bread and butter when curating a show?

SS: It’s one of the elements I enjoy most, and I go with what intrigues me. It’s about bringing a certain energy together for a show; sometimes it can be an artists’ work that I have had in mind for years that is suddenly integral to an exhibition. I also like to show artists at varying stages in their careers together, it helps make shows feel individual and, I hope, create a sense of discovery.

JB: How have you seen the London art world shift over your time in the industry, and where do you think it’s going?

SS: Like the rest of the world, we have obviously not been travelling overseas to visit collectors or attend art fairs due to the pandemic. However, over this period we have seen a massive increase in international collectors getting in touch with us. Presumably, because they are not able to travel either, people are becoming increasingly confident in engaging with galleries remotely and collecting works that they have not seen in person. Having developed some really strong relationships with people all over the world during this time, we are hoping to welcome many of them when they visit London in due course. It may be that the pandemic gave people time to do some research into smaller galleries, allowing them to become familiar with us if they were not already.

JB: At a moment when community organising is at an absolute premium, what do you think are the most efficacious ways of benefiting the community at large?

Art doesn’t need to be presented as capital-A Art for children and young people to be exposed to interesting ideas and things to look at. Having art in the public realm instantly gives people the feeling that someone else cares about your area, which I think is a reassuring feeling, even if it isn’t necessarily vocalised. I am exploring what we can do in Camberwell at the moment.

JB: What do you see to be the biggest achievement of your career to date?

SS: Opening the gallery in 2019 was great and to be ready to expand now feels good too. We are growing and surrounding ourselves with interesting, ambitious people; I’m proud of that.

JB: What do you still feel you have to accomplish?

SS: Too many things to list!

JB: If you could give one piece of advice to a young dealer, what would it be?

SS: Find a way that works for you, you don’t have to follow a set of someone else’s rules. Be ambitious, take risks and go for things that you don’t think you are capable of.

Jacob Barnes

is a writer and editor born in New York, raised in Dublin, Ireland, and currently living in London. After working in the film industry, he decided to start Soft Punk with Charlie in the summer of 2019. Since then, Jacob has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, and curator for numerous publications and organizations spanning the United States and Europe.

All contributions from Jacob Barnes

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