The Enigmatic Gloria Knight

Gloria Knight was an artist run Auckland art gallery founded in March 2012 by Elam graduates Francis Till, Juliet Carpenter, Henry Davidson, Oscar Enburg and Henry Babbage (Dryburgh, 2014) and in its almost three years of operation bucked the trend and the organisational structure of artist run galleries and commercial galleries alike, while embracing elements of each. The gallery ran with the collective, nonhierarchical structure of a collaborative in terms of its management, but also worked within the established business leadership model often used in the Auckland gallerist scene; that of a gallery operated by a single compelling leader. Gloria Knight was a fictional persona created to symbolise their collective decisions, to legitimise, and possibly critique, their business and the commercial art industry itself, by taking on the form of their competitors.

The gallery was based  right in the heart of the yachting area in Wynyard Quarter where they successfully as curator Emma Bugden says “staged the familiar tropes of a commercial gallery – restrained white lettering on the door, vase of flowers on the desk, the clean white space” (Bugden, 2016, p.55).  They had multiple shows in this space showing their own as well as other artists work and “fronted a booth at Auckland Art Fair wearing suits, holding technology and looking convincing” (Bugden, 2016, p.55). According to artist, curator and gallerist Emil Dryburgh Gloria Knight “outshone the community of full-time dealers, suckers” (Dryburgh, 2014, emphasis in original).

The artists ran the gallery as a collective but invented their own figurehead; Gloria Knight, who symbolized all their collective decisions like a hive mind for a fictitious queen bee, it was an artist run leaderless structure that had an imaginary leader. In her 1987 article “Freedom and co-ordination”, Mary Parker Follett speaks of leadership and common purpose and I believe her premise applies to Gloria Knight.

Leader and followers are both following the invisible leader – the common purpose … While leadership depends on depth of conviction and the power coming therefrom, there must also be the ability to share that conviction with others, the ability to make that purpose articulate. And then that common purpose becomes the leader.  (Follett, 1949/1987, p. 55)

Literally. The common purpose of Till, Carpenter, Davidson, Enburg and Babbage became the invisible leader, the enigmatic Gloria Knight. The persona of Gloria was even the subject of a show in 2013 titled WERK where the gallery was laid out as if it was Gloria’s own bland hotel-like house, devoid of any true personal character or idiosyncrasy, just the remnants of an unknown body; “somebody has slept in the lefthand side of a double bed, and left a used towel on the settee. There appears to be a woman’s hair on the pillow, and no evidence of anyone else” (Hurrell, 2013).

I approached, Juliet Carpenter for more information, the 24 year old artist is currently on a residency in Beijing but we arranged a video interview to discuss the gallery.

However, all the information for this article had to be gleaned from the debris of what was left after the gallery and its website was shut down, as despite her initial keenness Carpenter dropped out of communication.

Annoying as this was at the time, in reflection this absence of face to face communication characterized the very nature of Gloria Knight and her inventors in relation to her. There wasn’t any kind of straight interview, blog, inside scoop or clarifying text written by the collective about either their management process, their experience or motivations, bar a few enigmatic statements made by Till and Davidson to Bugden by email for her 2016 text “Hybrid practices – Artist run spaces and money”. This lack of information has contributed to their success or at least worked in their favour, not only in the type of press they received; articles written by friends and peers are likely to be complimentary, but also the absence of information leaves a blank for the outsider to project into, just like Gloria Knight’s personality in Werk; a blank space to be filled.

Was this a clever tactic on the collective’s part or am I reading too much into it, was it just a playful lark into which I am postulating or a way for them to avoid trying to articulate the essence of something which can only be seen in peripheral vision? Gloria reminds me of R. Austin & L. Devlin’s analogy about artful making where you are:

looking for your black Labrador, Hannah. But she’s invisible, the same colour as the night. You might catch a glimpse of her over by the hedge. If you focus just to one side of where you think she is, she’ll appear out of the dark. Look right at her, though, and she’s gone. (Austin & Devin, 2003, p. 164)

So why did it seem to work so well for nearly three years, when many other artist run initiatives barely make it through their first twelve months? In my opinion (and here I am speaking from my own experience, filling in Gloria’s blanks with my own projections) it could be that their relative inexperience worked for them because they may not have had fixed ideas about how to structure an organisation. Because of this they approached it as they would any other new artistic endeavour; with research and even with fieldwork. When I met Carpenter in 2012 she indicated that she was starting in the corporate job I was vacating, so that she could experience some of the environment around the business of art.

The members of Gloria Knight had recently graduated from Elam and here is where I think their true strength lay, each member would have come freshly from critique based learning, a culture where group discussion on an idea and intense focus and criticality on work is taken as a normal learning process, not as insult or threat, but a way of expanding, clarifying and improving a concept. A kind of removal of self from work is needed to be able to fully critique it and this is what I believe was the main driver for Gloria Knight.

As artists, they were able to both be within the corporate art culture as well as to hold it at arm’s length to be able to critique it. To identify the game and to play it. They took as Davidson said in his correspondence with Bugden a somewhat antagonistic position in relation to both the dealer galleries and the artist run galleries (Davidson as cited in Bugden, 2016, p.56) taking parts of both but also pointing out the problems within each as perceived by the other. The creation of a leader persona indicates a lack of commercial credibility for artist run collectives, the absence of an actual leader, or more correctly, the bland emptiness of the persona could be a nod to the notion that corporate art and its dealers lack true authenticity.

The position of Gloria Knight remains elusive but I think it would be fair to say, or even to perhaps concede on behalf of both dealer galleries and artist run initiatives alike; well played Gloria, well played.

 

 

References

Austin, R. & Devin, L. (2003). Artful making: What managers need to know about how artists  work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bugden, E. (2016). Hybrid practices: Artist run spaces and money. In G. Amodeo (Ed.), Assay/essay:Artist run in Aotearoa New Zealand. (pp. 53-57).Wellington, New Zealand: Self published with Enjoy Public Art Gallery and The Chartwell Trust.

Dryburgh, E. (2014, December 17). Gloria: The dame of Wynyard Quarter [Blog post].  Retrieved from https://hashtag500words.com/2014/12/17/gloria-the-dame-of-wynyard-quarter/.

Follett, M. P. (1949/1987). The essentials of leadership. In L. Urwick (Ed.), Freedom and co-ordination: Lectures in business organization (pp. 47-60). New York, NY: Garland Publishing.

Hurrell, J. (2013, October 25). Venue as artistic persona. Retrieved from http://eyecontactsite.com/2013/10/venue-as-artistic-persona.

 

 

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