Skylark Galleries — Our Lockdown Experience
Skylark Galleries has been a presence on the Southbank for more than 20 years. It is a collective of artists who support each other, inspire each other and exhibit together. Before the Pandemic we had two units, one in the historic Oxo Tower Building facing the waterfront, and the other in nearby Gabriel’s Wharf, a usually bustling community of unique shops and cafes. It is a lovely area of the Southbank that you would find strolling east from the London Eye to Tate Modern. Skylark has been fortunate to be part of this scenic and creative spot by the river, as it’s in the heart of London and ties us to the energy and beauty of our city.
Back in March 2020, in the wake of the first Lockdown announcements, we had to close both of our galleries and face the prospect of not re-opening. The financial uncertainty was a lot to face by a group of artists who were looking at having to pay rent on spaces when there was no chance to recoup our costs.
As a collective we decided that all of these looming scary decisions needed to be made together, so along with the rest of the world, we discovered Zoom!
From our many front rooms, kitchens, sheds and studios across London we talked and talked about how to keep our group going. Each week we would meet virtually and this process began to affirm what was so special about Skylark. The sense of community between the 30+ artist members, our collaboration, our differences, our strengths and weaknesses was a ‘whole’ that was greater than each part and worth fighting for.
The realisation that restrictions were going to be long term led to tough decisions. We terminated the Lease on our space in the Oxo Tower Building, but held on to the space in Gabriel’s Wharf. Then an unexpected joy – a government grant for small businesses! This gave us breathing space and the chance to consider improvements, changes, entering the online world, developing who we were as a group.
The rollercoaster of re-opening, closing our doors again in November, re-opening with the hope of Christmas art buyers and missed exhibition opportunities has meant the gallery has lost more than £20K in art sales in the last year. Skylark is managed as a not-for-profit company, so there is no gallery owner who has a cut of the artist’s sales, all profits from sales go to the individual artists. So that is 30+ people whose incomes have drastically dropped. Along with most of the country, we as a group have felt not just the emotional but also economic pressure of Covid-19.
In the summer, facing the prospect of not being able to open the gallery for months, we decided to use some of the grant funds we’d been given to step into selling online. Sharing the decisions and responsibilities within our group, our once very simple website was overhauled completely. With technical help we improved all of the information on each artist, created Blog content, an Online Exhibition and linked all of this to our social media platforms.
A huge development for Skylark has been a ‘BUY ART’ function online, with a shop facility meaning that for the first time for our gallery, an online viewer could buy directly with just a few clicks. This has been so exciting to create and opens so many new opportunities for our group. It has been hard at times to step into this world of online selling, our members have had to learn new skills, commit many hours to making it happen, seek technical and legal advice on aspects of selling, but we have succeeded!
We have also taken advantage of the ‘window shopping’ perks of being based on the Southbank. An artist member who lives very close to Gabriel’s Wharf has meant we are able to offer a buy and collect service. So we have benefitted from some local shoppers who have been out for their daily walk, and been drawn to the beautiful and unique artworks in our windows.
For myself, on a personal level, Lockdown has not exactly been a productive time creatively. I have a young family so becoming a teacher was a very time-consuming role, that I did not see coming! We have made the most of the beautiful parks in Ealing, as a family, and spent many lovely hours together appreciating the changing seasons and the passing of time in slow motion.
As an artist, Lockdown has made me know myself and my process a lot better. I have been able to get some print making done, carving new linocuts and trying out new colour ways for my pieces.
I have not been able to paint at all though. I literally have not picked up a paintbrush during any of the Lockdowns in the last year. It has made me realise that to paint, I need a certain mind-set. I need calm and a particular focus that has eluded me in Lockdown. But my artistic mind is still running overtime and I am brimming with ideas that have been percolating away for months, hopefully to reach canvas very soon!
Other artists in Skylark have felt this way too, stifled creatively due to external stress and pressure, whereas some members have been inspired and found time to create stunning new pieces. That is the beauty of our collective, our differences, our unique perspectives that we choose to share with each other.
The developments of evolving in Lockdown has lead to me becoming a Leaseholder of the gallery space, and playing a much larger role in managing it day to day. So looking forward in 2021 and beyond, hopefully as a group we are ready to face whatever running our little gallery has to throw at us.