A new deal for ceramics

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John Windsor

Prices of contemporary ceramics are likely to get a shot in the arm with the opening next month of the Barrett Marsden Gallery in Islington. Its co-founder, Taijana Marsden, formerly director of the charitable crafts organisation Contemporary Applied Arts (CAA) and now a ceramics consultant to Christie's, has taken the controversial step of making London-wide exclusivity agreements with 13 artists, including such established names as Alison Britton, Martin Smith, head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art, and the veteran Gordon Baldwin, recently retired head of ceramics at Eton College.

Hitherto, the London contemporary ceramics market has been an economic anomaly. Unlike the picture market, in which a multitude of galleries sign up artists exclusively and promote them in one-man shows, the contemporary ceramics market has few galleries and has been dominated by Bonhams, the auctioneers, where dealers are often outbid by private collectors.

The new gallery, occupying 2,500 square feet in Great Sutton Street, Farringdon, will help to lift studio pottery out of its down-market rut as mere craft. At present, very few contemporary pots, even by top names, command more than pounds 3,000, the price a voguey, little-known art college graduate might get for a painting.

It is financed by Nelson Woo, a wealthy Hong Kong Chinese collector of contemporary ceramics living in London. He said: "Unlike America or Holland, there are very few galleries in London where talented ceramicists can get a showing." He declined to discuss how much the gallery is costing to set up.

The exclusivity agreement, under which the 13 have agreed not to attempt to sell their work through other London galleries or auctioneers, has already raised hackles. Martin Smith has cancelled his one-man show at the CAA in September and Gordon Baldwin's one-day show scheduled for May at Galerie Besson - the biggest of only four London galleries that put on one-man contemporary ceramics shows - is in the balance.

Many of the 13 are members of the CAA, where a selling exhibition "A View of City", curated by Alison Britton and including the work of Gordon Baldwin and Richard Slee, also now exclusively with Barrett-Marsden, will still be on show when the gallery opens on 13 March.

The CAA's director, Mary La Trobe-Bateman, said: "I find the exclusive showing rights disturbing. We still have work by a lot of these people in stock and have had no word from them about whether they are going to withdraw it."

During Ms Marsden's directorship of the CAA, which ended in 1990, the trend was towards gallery-style shows of adventurous, sculptural ceramics by artists such as Ewen Henderson, Alison Britton and Bryan Illsley (another Barrett-Marsden member). But the CAA now has 260 members, including textile artists and jewellers. "We have a lot of stock," said Ms La Trobe-Bateman. "It really doesn't allow one-man shows."

At the new gallery, there will be few prices above pounds 3,000, an indication that prices have slipped in the past decade.

The new gallery will charge up to pounds 3,000-plus for the work of Gordon Baldwin and Martin Smith. Their ceramics, and those of another gallery member, Ken Eastman, are semi-abstract artworks, quite unlike craft pools, that expand the concept of the vessel to its limits.

The new gallery is bound to accentuate the rivalry between dealers and auctioneers. At Bonhams last November, a Baldwin open bowl of 1982, estimated pounds 1,800-pounds 2,500, fetched pounds 2,070. In June, a stoneware vessel by Britton, estimated pounds 1,500-pounds 2,200, sold for a below-estimate pounds 1,380. At the CAA, a Britton pot with pleated spout is on offer at pounds 2,400. But in April at Bonhams, a Britton pot will carry the bullish estimate of pounds 2,200-pounds 3,000 - a sign that higher prices are firming up.

Gallery goods are fresh to market and undamaged, so their value tends to be higher. Members of the new gallery will get back only 50 per cent of prices paid (a standard gallery rate) compared with about 80 per cent at Bonhams. But Ms Marsden said: "Buying at auction is bargain buying. It's damaging for the artist."

She said she hoped that in five or 10 years' time there would be "a healthy network of galleries like ours throughout Britain. Everybody is going to be better off. If artists have spent months making a piece, the same consideration should be given to how it is going to be shown. Work should not be displayed like bags of sugar.

"If our artists have agreed regular exhibitions with other galleries we will not ask them to break those relationships. We're just trying to plug the hole we have identified. For me, it is now or never."

The typical Barrett-Marsden ceramicist is ex-RCA, around 50-years old, and with an established reputation both here and abroad. For them, an exclusive relationship with a London gallery makes sense. They will no longer have to hump pots between galleries, argue prices with clients and do paperwork.

Alison Britton, aged 50, who was offered a solo show by the CAA after committing herself to his new gallery, said: "At my age, I want to feel that someone is taking care of how my work should be displayed. At the age of 30 I would have said yes to any gallery and hoped for the best."

Or, as Gordon Baldwin, aged 65, said: "Tatjana told me 'You need somebody to look after you"'.

Barrett Marsden Gallery, 17-18 Great Sutton Street, London EC1V ODN (Telephone: 0171-336 6396).

Correction: The auction of the Swaythling apostle spoons is next Thursday, 5th March (10.30am) at Sotheby's, 34-5 New Bond St, London W1 (0171-293 5000), and not as stated here last week.

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