Interview with Gavin Rooke

Gavin Rooke is an designer, artist, gallerist and publisher in Johannesburg, South Africa. His namesake gallery (show top), Rooke Gallery, represents the work of Liam Lynch, Zander Blom, Olaf Bisscoff and the exposed members of Society of Photographers. The two books Ten and 6x6 include works by Society of Photography members and The Drain of Progress is the Catalogue Raisonné of mixed media artist Zander Blom.

Stephen Shore with Frank Arisman and reviewing work for Liam Lynch

MM: What is Society of Photographers, when, and by whom was it founded?

The Society of Photographers is a collection of photographers based across the globe. Access to the Society is by invitation only, but the invitation can be made by any existing member of the Society. Work is shared and judged anonymously by members of the Society in the online environment and only the best work is exposed to the public. Only at this time is the identity of photographer revealed. I founded the Society in late 2005. At the time I noticed that there were certain inefficiencies in the contemporary photography market, specifically around how contemporary talent is identified and then represented in galleries. I wanted to create a platform where talent would be identified by a broader pool of qualified individuals (including the photographers themselves) and allow for work to be judged anonymously. Great work speaks for itself, and should not rely on the author’s credentials to be judged as such (and vice versa).

MM: What is the mission of this organization? Who are the members and how do you become a member?

GR: The organisation’s mission is to identify great talent. I can’t reveal the list of members, other than those that have been published as a result of their work as being chosen as the best. This list includes the likes of Sasha Rudensky, Erika Larsen, Avant Car Guard, Shawn Records, David La Spina, Nivag Aekoor, Paula McCartney, Michael MacGarry. Many of these artists have become significantly more established than when I first saw their work via the Society. The member base initially started with 5 photographers in South Africa and the US, but has since grown across the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe to just over 150. Growth is not an objective.

MM: What are some of the projects/exhibitions that the SOP has produced? What are the future projects?

GR: A key component to the Society is the fact that the projects move from the online world into the physical world. There are a plethora of online “communities” revolving around photography. They vary significantly in calibre. My view is that the work generated in such forums must ultimately appear in a physical form – on a wall, in a book, formally editioned and printed by master printers. Some would disagree – but I sense a return to the physical and these forums are not taken seriously until they appear in these forms.

Our first physical project was in 2006, and was called “TEN”. Members were invited to submit ten images along with an artists’ statement. The concept was one of context. TEN Images tell a story (individually and as a set). A mini “novella”. The chosen works were then editioned on single sheets (up to 5m long) and the book allowed the reader to view all ten images at once. Hence the continuous gate-fold layout. The exhibition was hosted in Johannesburg and the books were distributed globally.

The next project was 6x6. A similar brief to TEN, but limited to six images . The chosen works were printed as individual books. I quite liked the thought of a book comprising only six images – as it allows the work to get the focus in deserves. The six books were then bound together into a limited edition slipcase. The exhibition was held in Johannesburg in January 2008. Frank Arisman of the ICP in NY and Roger Ballen hosted the opening address. The work then travelled to the Joburg ArtFair and was then due to travel to NY by mid-year. I was let down by the NY gallery at the last moment, and have since been reviewing alternative venues to travel the show. The book continue to sell locally and abroad.

The Society will be invited to partake in a major group show that relates to TYPE (type that features in art) planned for end-2009. The show is medium agnostic but already includes David Goldblatt, Stefan Sagmeister, Jonathan Barnbrook, Roger Ballen. The show will grow to approximately 25 artists once we announce it to the public and there will be a call for entries that will include the Society. A book will be published and the show will travel. This serves as the next model I plan to follow where major established artists are mixed with unknown, fresh talent. The Society has always included established artists and guest judges (Stephen Shore, Jason Fulford etc) - but I believe that the next step is to bring the young guns in alongside the “masters”.

MM: You are also co-owner of Rooke Gallery which was established picking four artists as your stable. Why did you elect to find the artist first and then establish the gallery?

GR: My approach is one of pure focus. I only work with a limited number of artists as I believe that an artist will only succeed in the long term if they are correctly marketed and given the means to focus on their work. I run three to four shows a year only and they run for at least 10 weeks. Its true that I found my first artist before establishing the gallery. Zander Blom’s talent requires a gallery all on its own...

Liam Lynch: The Bassline. Johannesburg, South Africa. 26 April 2006

MM: How did you find these artists and why did you pick them?

GR: I use the Society to assist me in finding talent – and then I invest heavily in that talent. I have also use art awards as a platform to identify talent. I personally entered a work into a major corporate art award to be able to review the other artists work before it was judged. I place little value of corporate art awards themselves, but they are able to attract fresh talent,. This is how I found my latest addition (who happens to be an oil painter who projects the likes of photographs onto his works).

MM: Is this model working?

GR: Certainly. The only way to run a gallery is with the view that each decision you take must add to the long term value and sustainability of your artists. I initially gave myself four years to critically review whether the model is working. We’re under 2 years old the gallery is profitable and well positioned in the market with each artist leading their respective field.

MM: You run a advertising agency in South Africa. Did this help to fund some of your projects initially?

GR: No – I keep my advertising business totally separate from my art endeavours. A business needs to be profitable from the outset. The business rules simply need to be put in place upfront.

MM: How did your background in the marketing and design industry influence what you produced and select to market?

GR: Marketing taught me to be critical. There simply are better ways of doing things in the art world. It comes down to delivery. It must be great. I have a number of criteria when selecting my artists. One is that I will not work with an artist that has been represented elsewhere. It takes too long to “unlearn” the market. I prefer working from the ground up so that I can position them for what they really are. Bluntly put, an artist is a brand. They need to be nurtured, managed and strategically positioned over their entire lifespan.

MM: Does this influence how you have marketed the gallery?

GR: Certainly. I focus on building large scale audiences who I can communicate with directly. I understand my market and I position my artists to them accordingly. This may seem blindly obvious, but its surprising how few marketing skills galleries have. Technology is also something that needs to be harnessed. Podcasts, Videocast, blogs, Social media – all of these mediums are shifting the balance of power toward the market and away from the small set of “taste-makers” that include journalists, critics and curators. You can no longer keep a few people happy and attempt to influence the market through them. There’s nowhere to hide, so make sure you do right.

MM: Do you think of art as a commodity?

GR: Something that is bought and sold and has a perceived value or use is a commodity. Whilst art has these qualities, it is not a commodity. You can’t form a relationship with iron ore. You do however form a relationships with your art. If you don’t – you bought the wrong art.

Zander Blom: Untitled, Bedroom 1, Corner 3, 8.07 p.m., Thursday, 29 March 2007

MM: Are you trying to brand the gallery, artists and/or by extension your presence in the art market in South Africa? How so?

GR: The gallery is branded and purposefully positioned around its small, focused stable of artists. There is no other gallery in South Africa that works according to the same model. The artists are brands in their own right. Their work is what positions them, whilst my role is to assist in getting their work seen for what it is. What else is the role of a gallerist? The South African art market is however relatively small, so global reach, partnerships and positioning is critical. This is the focus for 2009.

MM: You are an accomplished photographer as well, what and who have influenced your photography?

GR: I grew up in a darkroom and have an immense appreciation for the craft aspects of photography. My work life has given me an appreciation for focus and conceptual value. When a strong concept overlaps with great craft – you have the makings of art. My influences are varied but include Ruscha, Gursky, Shore and the Bechers. The obvious suspects I guess – but what they did, they did first. The Avant Garde is something not to be undermined. I see so much photography imitating other photography. Its sad.

MM: Who is your favorite photographer or one who has impacted your life and work?

GR: Ed Ruscha (and he doesn’t even call himself a photographer). His work is profound – and yet was created to be the opposite. When photographers search for profundity, it starts to erode their work. I wish more photographers would read “Ed Ruscha - Photographer”.

MM: What blogs do you read? Magazines?

GR: I must admit that I don’t read as much as I would like to. Importantly, I believe in the value of Naivety. What you don’t know isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I tend to avoid artists blogs as they become emotional and lost in their ways. I enjoy Blind Spot Magazine and the broader art publications like Art review etc.

MM: What is your favorite book, photo or otherwise?

GR: Book – Zander Blom : The Drain of Progress.
Photo - Jason Fulford : I own the cover image from his book “Crushed”

MM: Do you have an odd or funny photography related story to share?

GR: I recall receiving a call on my mobile on a Sunday in 2007. A bloke with a heavy NY accent was enquiring about the gallery. I assumed he wanted to sell me space at an art fair or the like, and I kept rejecting his calls. He finally got through and wanted to see our opening exhibition (Liam Lynch). I still had doubts and put him off. We eventually ended up at the gallery and he turned out to be a trustee of the ICP (Frank Arisman). We laughed about the fact that I almost turned him away thinking he was a salesman... He acquired a significant number of works and we ended up 3 weeks later presenting them to Stephen Shore in his home in upstate New York. We’ve become great friends in the interim.

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