A tradesman by day, Alex Campbell isn't your average art gallery owner. His lifelong passion for the arts combined with a creative entrepreneurial spark would see him commission a Jenny Saville in 1990 for £50. Rachael Smith visits Veneer Gallery in Finnieston to swap stories and learn more about him and this unique tale! Be the first to read it here.
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather just chat.” It’s not the first time I’ve met Alex Campbell, owner of the Veneer gallery. A month earlier, I stopped into the gallery to look at the space for a forthcoming exhibition. What was then meant to be a ten minute reconnaissance resulted in an hour and a half discussion about Glasgow’s art scene over a cup of tea. Stories were swapped, biscuits were scoffed and I left with an admiration for a gallery owner who - as you will come to learn - is a true patron of the arts.
Fast forward to take two: after ransacking my own home to find batteries for the dictaphone, I arrive late. Veneer is now completely empty following the de-install of Anna E. Smith’s photography exhibition Lost In Tranquility. Alex stands with another man having just lifted the large glass panel out from the middle of the floor. It acts as a skylight to the artist’s studio beneath the gallery. Introductions are made hastily between myself and Eugen Alupopanu while they continue to balance the glass precariously before Alex confesses, “Sorry, I forgot you were coming today. Give me five minutes and I’ll be right with you.”
Situated in Finnieston, Veneer gallery cuts a dash from the newly coined “Strip” where it’s mandatory for bars and restaurants to have exposed brick, mood lighting and 'small plates'. As most Glaswegians will tell you, the last five years have seen the area drastically transform into to a bustling community with all the gentrified trimmings. Back in 2008, while creating murals for Café Bayan (now The Finnieston), Alex spotted the empty newsagents for sale further up Argyle Street. He explains, “It was a lot of work transforming the space. I gutted it, taking it back to an empty shell: plastered the walls, removed the side door that went into the close and built a staircase down into the basement to make an additional functioning space.” The list of construction work goes on. However, being a tradesman, Alex was able to see the potential in the former shop and undertook most of the work himself - and what a labour of love it has been. From the unique industrial finish on the walls to the lighting rig, he beams recounting all the changes.
Before the gallery opened, or indeed even had a name, Alex was eager to have artists exhibiting. With construction work still going on inside, the large shopfront was used for the first ever Picture Window as part of Glasgow International in 2012. The project, which is still on going today, specifically utilizes shop windows to project stills and videos around the city. In this instance, Picture Window founders Annie Crabtree and Eileen Daily showcased a different artist over the 18 day festival. The gallery’s official opening would come a year later with the début solo exhibition by Glasgow School of Art graduate, Jonny Shaw. Since then, Veneer has continued to offer a programme of contemporary and visual art from a wide range of artists, collectives, students and graduates.
Having left school at the age of 16, Alex’s parents encouraged him to take up a trade despite his strong interest in the arts. The self-taught graphic designer would continue to have a hand in the creative world by painting murals in restaurants and bars, notably the blue baboon in various states of madness that once adorned Nice n‘ Sleazy’s pillars. Working alongside his friend and fellow builder, Francis McMenamin, the pair struck upon an idea: they would commission works by students and sell them on to galleries. What sounds like an incredibly naive move into the world of art dealing would actually pay off some 16 years later, when a painting they bought for £50 from a then unknown Glasgow School of Art student, Jenny Saville, would fall under Sotheby’s hammer for £31,200.
Describing his experience at Sotheby’s Olympia in February 2006 Alex states,“The auction had a big impact on me and my desire to work within the arts. I had been collecting paintings since the mid-90s. I would go around galleries and degree shows, picking up pieces and commissioning them along the way. I was always working towards having a physical space of my own. However, it was the excitement of seeing the big auction that gave me the bug. I knew we had gotten lucky but from our initial meeting I could tell that Jenny was incredibly ambitious.”
So how did they manage to stumble upon one of the most famous contemporary British artists, known for her large, protuberant, oil paintings depicting the female body?
Once again, rather innocently. The pair went up to the GSA student union and got chatting to a group of students in The Vic Bar. Alex recounts, “A tall fellow, said ‘I know someone who might be interested in helping you.' He then took us over to the MacIntosh Building and introduced us to two 2nd year students; Jenny and Diane. We proceeded to look over their work. They weren’t doing portraits at the time, but we asked if they would do one for us. Jenny took the lead in the discussion and said that she would do a painting of Diane and then Diane would do a painting of her.”
Less than a week later, they received a phone call to say that Jenny’s portrait of Diane was ready. Both Alex and Francis were immediately struck by her work and were keen to have her personally choose a frame to compliment the piece. Ironically, the simple black frame would cost the same as the painting, a mere £50. Sotheby’s Olympia, 9th February 2006. Lot 492, Jenny Saville, Untitled (Portrait) listed as follows:
In 2006, and in spite of the financial crash looming, the contemporary art market continued to bubble. Hiscox recorded that between 2006 - 2007 contemporary art increased in value by 55% while old masters lagged at 7.6%. Furthermore the average rise in contemporary art grew 800% in value from 2003 - 2008. It is no wonder then, that the guide price for Saville’s portrait at £15,000 - £20,000 was easily surpassed when it came to auction. This sale however was never Alex, nor Francis’ intention. Back in 1990 and following the painting being framed, they immediately took Saville’s piece around Glasgow galleries in a bid to make their first sale. They were deflated after being turned away by a market who relentlessly told them that the painting wouldn’t have any monetary value, until the artist had come through the system. The painting along with their hopes of commissioning other works would lie dormant.
That was until Jenny Saville made headlines over the Boots Chemist scandal in 1994. The pharmacy based in Victoria Road, Glasgow, refused to process the film which she had used to photograph studies of the female body. The manager condemned the images to be ‘disgusting‘ at a time when the artist was rising to fame following Charles Saatchi’s patronage and purchase of her entire degree show. Stumbling upon the article and recognising Jenny’s name, Alex wondered if this was now their time to sell. After unearthing the portrait from Francis’ attic, they approached a well known gallery in Blythswood Square who had recently sold a Jenny Saville degree show piece for £17,000. The gallery owner, and art dealer, looked over the painting while Alex and Francis gave its provenance. He made an offer: £1,000. Rightfully, and thankfully, they declined. Tired of the art market, and their misfortunes, the painting went back into the attic until the Sotheby’s sale twelve years later.
What then happened to Diane’s portrait of Jenny Saville? Alex sighs, “We never got Diane’s painting and I kick myself for it. When we were unable to sell the first painting we got back to doing our day jobs and our venture in to the art world went on hold.”
However, what is obvious from Alex’s animated account of the Jenny Saville story, is his fearlessness of a market that holds prejudice to those who don’t come through the known academic avenues. Thank goodness for that, because what Alex does is champion artists irrespective of these pretentious prerequisites and instead guides his decision making by his love of meeting people, whether they are 70 years old or a first year student. “I admire anyone for having the ambition to show their work.”
We’ve almost finished tea, the glass panel is being wiped down by Eugen. Alex explains that he is now working for the gallery. He calls him over, “What do you want your job title to be? So Rachael can put it in her article.” In June, Eugen exhibited his own show, Crossing the line in Veneer. Three days after arriving in Glasgow from Portugal, he sent his artistic proposal to twelve galleries in the city. Alex was the only one to reply. The show was a huge success with several of his pieces being sold, but once again it highlights Alex’s one-of-a-kind attitude to exhibiting artists and cements his standing as a true patron of the arts.
To find out more about Veneer visit: http://www.veneergalleryglasgow.com/