AM continues our look inside the art world from an insider’s perspective with Signal Gallery co-owner Chris Garlick. After just two years, Signal has established itself as one of the leading urban contemporary galleries in London showing artists like Dale Grimshaw, Replete, Charming Baker, Guy Denning and Holly Thoburn. Their current show with C215 (covered) opened last week. Garlick shares the turning point that got the gallery started, the elements crucial to his success thus far and more, after the jump…

AM: How did you get into the business side of contemporary art?

Chris: I worked in local government for over 20 years and by the end of this period was a senior manager. However, as a creative person this life became increasingly tiresome for me. I’d been around the political block a few too many times. Something had to change – or so I’d been saying to myself for five years. Then a very traumatic thing happened to me. Very suddenly my partner developed cancer and died. It was the worst period of my life. Nothing made sense anymore and I knew that a lot had to change in my life. It was then that I decided to change my career direction entirely. Initially I had no idea what I wanted to do and running an art gallery was not even on my list of options. However things began to fall into place when I met my business partner, who was then a struggling artist and began to explore ways to promote his work. This soon expanded as I became fascinated by the business side of the art world. Always passionate about art, I then began to consider using my admin/management/project management skills in combination with my partners knowledge of the contemporary art scene, to start an art selling business. It was amazing how quickly this dream became a reality and in no time at all, it seemed, our first show was up and running in Hoxton.

AM: Lots of people think it’s really easy to open an art gallery, many try, but very few can actually make it work, what’s your secret?

Chris: When we set up the business from scratch we had three qualities that helped us:

1) A love of art
2) Flexibility of approach
3) Some cash to get us going

We had to learn the business on our feet. The main problems for us at first were attracting artists whose work we liked, that people would buy. Then we needed to get the attention of art buyers. This all takes time. In the two years since we started the business we have made massive in-roads into both areas. Still a way to go, but with a great space to show the work to its best advantage and an excellent location, we have achieved much more than ever could have ever imagined.

The secret to success is basically twofold. Firstly, be flexible and open to any opportunities that present themselves. Business plans are great but if these become too rigid then you may miss out on something amazing that is staring you in the face, because it’s not part of the grand plan. Secondly cross your fingers and wish for good luck.

AM: How do you feel being based in London is different from being based in the N.Y.C., L.A., Berlin or elsewhere?

Chris: Not sure about how to answer this. London is a great place to be running an art business. It’s such a lively and diverse place to live and work. The art market is very vibrant and diverse also. Unlike N.Y.C., there is no Chelsea ‘ghetto’ for art buyers to gravitate towards. There are pockets across London. Where our gallery is situated, in Hoxton, is one of the most vibrant of all the pockets. This is particularly so for the urban and street art scene.

AM: Where do you generally discover new artists? What influences your taste and curatorial direction?

Chris: We mainly find artists through the internet or personal recommendation. Over time this has become easier as we became more aware of who was out there and where they fit in gallery-wise. More recently we have been in the fortunate position of being approached directly by some fabulous artists wanting to work with us.

We have very particular artistic tastes. My business partner is a successful artist with very strong opinions about the contemporary scene. We tend to gravitate towards work that is either very painterly and figurative or towards other mediums where the artworks are of a high creative quality, for example C215, whose stencil work is second to none in it’s intricacy and tenderness.

AM: How do you feel technology, especially digital cameras, the internet, web forums and blogs have influenced the art market?

Chris: What was life before the digital camera? The internet is an amazing tool. Of course there are good and bad things about it. The good are too numerous to mention but one area of concern for galleries is that artists feel sometimes they can ‘go it alone.’ Bypassing galleries has become fashionable and acceptable. However this can be a short term fix for artists, who do not always see the big picture and understand how their work needs to be perceived by art buyers. Progression can be difficult for them.

Web forums and blogs are also an extraordinary new thing for the art market. Finally there is a place to discuss art that is accessible for those new to thinking and talking about art. It has to be a good thing.

AM: How do you feel about the secondary market? How has it changed and how has your relationship with it changed since you first started selling?

Chris: We have avoided selling work on the secondary market. The work we show is always done by the artists specifically for their show in the gallery. We’ll leave the secondary market to the numerous other dealers out there.

AM: What artists do you personally collect?

Chris: I have Swoon, Elbow Toe, Gaia, Peter Howson, Guy Denning, Dale Grimshaws, Barbara Steinberg and Crawfurd Adamson, amongst others. Hoping to get a C215 from the show. I am new to collecting contemporary work. I used to collect Indian portraits in the Mogul style.

AM: What advice would you give collectors who are just getting started collecting?

Chris: Always buy artwork you love. Buying purely for investment is not advisable, especially in the current recession.

AM: If someone gave you $100 and said you had to spend it on one piece of art, how would you and why? What if the amount was $1000? $10,000? $100,000? $1,000,000?

Chris: If someone gave me $100, I would buy a print that I really wanted for my walls, so that when I wake up in the morning I’d look at it and think, I’m glad I spent that $100. For $1000, I would look to buy a small work by an emerging artist whose work I love. I would buy it from a gallery and research their achievements so far for myself. $10,000 would buy me a decent sized canvas from same artist. $100,000 would buy me a top draw canvas of an artist riding high – a Glenn Brown would be nice. With $1,000,000, I would be looking to get an older work at a good price. Maybe a late Franz Kline.

AM: What’s one thing very few people know about you that you don’t mind sharing with everyone?

Chris: I studied music at college and trained as a composer. Back in the day (a long time ago), I wrote symphonies and operas.

AM: What’s one question you always want to be asked but no one ever does?

Chris: I have a $50,000 holiday to give you. Where would you like to go?