Four years ago, two young men decided to take advantage of the pop-up phenomenon and showed works in an empty commercial space. Now their Victoria gallery, Edel Assanti, is at the centre of a new art district.
Words Amy Raphael
Photography Trent Mcminn
In 2009, Charlie Fellowes and Jeremy Epstein talked their way into Westminster City Council offices. The recession was, as Fellowes says, 'biting hard' and buildings were lying dormant for weeks or months at a time. Why not allow the two young men, who had worked at Hamiltons and Gagosian galleries respectively, to open a pop-up gallery in an empty space? The council liked the idea and eventually a six-storey office building in the heart of Victoria became available.
In February 2010, the Edel Assanti Project Space opened at 276 Vauxhall Bridge Road. It was a vast space for Fellowes and Epstein, who are now 29 and 27 respectively. 'We weren't yet 30 and there we were in Victoria with six floors of gallery space,' says Epstein, still clearly a little baffled at their ingenuity and luck. 'Victoria is perfect for us because it's still a blank canvas. Yet you're only a 10-minute taxi journey from Mayfair.'
Galleries in Mayfair tend to be slightly corporate, while the self-consciously cool galleries in Bethnal Green have largely moved west to Fitzrovia, forced out of the East End by rising rents and the recession. Victoria, by turn, is unique. It has a steadily growing reputation as a new centre for art and a prime location. 'It's down the road from Tate Britain,' says Epstein. 'We're a little bit on the edge of things while remaining easily accessible.'
Edel Assanti is now in the next-door building, in a more intimate space over two floors. Both owners favour concept-driven work that has something to say. They also admire technical accomplishment. One of the artists they represent, Gordon Cheung, certainly fulfils all their criteria. He also has his studio in the gallery. 'The way we work with artists is far from conventional,' explains Fellowes, laughing. 'Gordon was part of a group show we put on two-and-a- half years ago and it just so happened that, as the show was finishing, his studio in Mile End was being pulled down. We casually asked if he'd like to take some space at Edel Assanti and he jumped at the chance.'
Cheung graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2001 and, since then, has been forging an international reputation with his vivid and unsettling images of utopian and dystopian worlds. Fellowes and Epstein are looking for a balance of established artists such as Cheung and comparitively recent art-school graduates such as Noemie Goudal, a recipient of a Land Securities Studio Award who graduated from the Royal College in 2010.
Goudal's photographs - of buildings semi-submerged in water, of a jungle of plants growing unexpectedly in the doorway of an anonymous white building - are striking and gently provocative. 'Noemie is definitely one of the stars of the gallery,' says Fellowes. 'She has grown with us. We started as a pop-up gallery; now we're a far more professional enterprise.'
Ask the gallery owners - who named the space after Fellowes' Maltese great- uncle and Epstein's Polish grandmother - how the recession has hit them and both laugh. 'We started out in the most hopeless moment of it, so we don't know anything different,' says Epstein. They add, rather encouragingly, that 'things feel as though they are picking up'.
Prices range from around £700 to £20,000 and, as such, aren't accessible only to the Charles Saatchis of this world. 'Owning art is a relatively new idea for young professionals, but I think people have realised that it's a great way to enjoy your money.'
The pair can't now imagine being based anywhere but Victoria. 'We are so pleased we went to see Westminster City Council back in 2009,' says Fellowes. 'We were cheeky, but it paid off.'