Director of the Victoria Emerging Art Gallery, Ellen Manning brings her international experience in contemporary art to this vibrant gallery in downtown Victoria, BC. Not only a place to discover art by emerging as well as international artists, the gallery hosts a variety of workshops and, as a rental venue, is a unique space for weddings, parties, meetings, etc.
After studying Art History and English literature at the University of Victoria, Ellen launched her career in the arts in Shanghai, working with internationally-recognized artists and international buyers. She also developed an interest in supporting emerging artists, both in China and later in Thailand. Upon her return to Victoria she worked at The Avenue Gallery in Oak Bay Village, where she launched the Victoria Emerging Art Awards.
Now director of her own boutique gallery, which celebrated its grand opening last month in their new Apartment Gallery location, Ellen is passionate about discovering and encouraging emerging artists, as well as educating new art collectors. Read on for a peek into the life of this savvy and talented gallery director!
Can you talk a little about your experience in China, and what brought you back to Victoria?
I was managing one of the largest Chinese contemporary art galleries in China, Art Scene China. The market was really booming in China when I was there in 2006. After the demise of the Cultural Revolution, a huge forum opened up for Chinese visual artists. I was working with well-established, internationally-recognized artists. Being a destination gallery, we had visitors from all over the word. Chinese contemporary was/is still a young movement but the price points on fine art in the gallery ranged from $5000 and up…. I sold a $500,000 painting there. Then we moved to Thailand and I was working with Southeast Asian emerging artists. If you’ve ever lived abroad, especially somewhere like Thailand (a beautiful country and very tempting to live there forever ) but I felt a sense of disillusionment because it was so temporary… you’re not in your home country so you know you eventually have to transition again so it’s hard to feel settled. So we decided to move back to Victoria in 2008.
What differences did you see in the art scene in Canada when you returned, compared to what you’d experienced in Asia?
The scene in Victoria was very different when I moved back, because of the economy. There’s so much money in Asia, there are European buyers, the international auction houses are running hot and it’s a completely different market there. The gallery I was managing in China had a very avant garde collection of artists, a lot of undertones of politics or eroticism, something that is different here because we’ve accepted that. We’ve had an open forum for so long – what you think about politics, what you think about sexuality… just having a voice. It’s different in China, being a communist country, and the regime of Chairman Mao and what happened during that time with artists and poets and musicians. The excitement and momentum and what was suppressed for so long… it’s hard to articulate what that looks like. That was what I was excited about.
In Canada, I think you have little hubs in the art world, where certain things are more sought-after than others. For example, we just don’t have a huge market in Victoria for photography – it’s very niche, although Vancouver Island attracts a lot of artists and most have great cameras and consider themselves to be somewhat of a photographer, if you have that creative eye. Photography was really taking off in China when I was there. You had this really interesting juxtaposition with ancient buildings, temples and ruins, apartment buildings that were still crumbling, and a Starbucks next door. There was a moment in photography where artists were capturing this as it was happening.
I think that art always collects the culture around you, and here in Victoria we are drawn to nature – the island’s natural beauty and the spirit that this evokes. You can’t deny this sublime beauty and this is often reflected in Canadian art especially historically speaking. Here in Victoria we see a market for paintings. When I first started out in the gallery here I saw a lot of interest in landscapes, florals and abstract works but that’s changing.
People are becoming more keyed in to movements – what’s happening internationally and other artists that are doing something slightly different… experimentation with media and subject matter is also changing. Surrealism and figurative works are becoming sought-after in Victoria and I believe that a shift is happening – even for new collectors – they want something unique as opposed to ‘safe.’ I’d say the market is getting more daring and not just looking for something to highlight the decor. I had a client who bought a couch to match the artwork and that’s great! That’s the shift we want.
There’s also an incredibly dynamic community of artists in Victoria. Again, it’s a very nurturing place to be for artists and sometimes that can be a good thing, sometimes not…some artists’ best work is from a place of anguish and chaos, some from a meditative place where things are calm and making sense.
How did your experience in Asia influence your direction when you came back?
It was always my intention to bring the artists that I was working with in China, Thailand, Burma and Vietnam to Victoria, and to open an international gallery focusing on Asia. But getting reacquainted with the art scene here in Victoria, I’d gone to a few art shows – some were really well attended but I wasn’t seeing many red stickers on the wall. Things were not selling. I also noticed a shift in the art scene here. There were some incredible artists coming out, artist-owned and artist-run galleries and co-ops, even in cafés there was some incredibly diverse visual art. It had become more diverse and well rounded. There’s a younger generation of artists emerging that are really tuned in to what’s happening internationally. So I shifted gears and decided to focus specifically on younger, emerging artists. I know how difficult it is to get into a fine art gallery; it’s very competitive, and galleries tend to be owned and operated by the older age demographic that sort of tap into their community and circle. So I think for a younger artist, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door.
When I first started out here I saw a lot of interest in landscapes, florals and abstract works, but that’s changing. People are becoming more keyed in to other art movements and other artists that are doing something slightly different. We have really edgy artists making big bold statements.”
One of your very successful projects has been the Victoria Emerging Art Awards, what was the inspiration behind it?
What worked really well for us in China was China Art Prize, which was a platform for emerging Chinese artists. We recognized a need for the younger generation of artists who had a whole new visual narrative. The Victoria Emerging Art Awards show was inspired by China Art Prize, as well as the Cheaper Show in Vancouver – an annual show where they have works for $200. That really resonated with me, and inspired me. It’s encouraging people to support artists, and also taking that elitist context out of the art world and creating a new market for young and new collectors. So the Victoria Emerging Art Awards is something that I developed after reflecting on all of this. I launched the first show at The Avenue Gallery in Oak Bay, and we had people lined up down the sidewalk waiting for about five hours. It was a lot of fun, and we sold almost thirty pieces in less than two minutes. I opened the door, people flew in, and the work was gone! What I did slightly differently was that I made the community really involved. There’s a jury that I select, who chooses ten finalists. They offer work for $200, tax included, and the people who come to the show pick three winners. Those winners receive cash prizes, as well as representation. The whole idea is that we’re working with artists to help increase the value of their work over time. We share feedback from the community about their work, help them to build their portfolio, as well as creating a new market for collectors.
What makes the Victoria Emerging Art Gallery unique?
I think what makes this gallery unique is the fact that we’re working with two stables of artists. We have the VEAG collection of original fine art coming in at $300, and the Apartment Gallery collection, which is more established local and international artists. The grand opening was really special because we featured Lu Jun, a Chinese artist – that was my first international show in Victoria. The heart of this gallery is my experience in Asia, and the Victoria Emerging Art show.
Are you an artist yourself?
I am an artist and a musician, but I haven’t picked up a guitar or a paintbrush in years! I’ve been so involved in the business side of things that I haven’t had time. I want to eventually have my own studio and start painting and playing music. That’s the life balance thing, right? But thankfully I’m surrounded by all this beautiful art and I get to work with artists, which in itself is a very creative process.
What do you do when you have any free time?
My husband has an acupuncture business downstairs – it was our vision to create a centre with healing and visual arts combined – so we’re sort of firing on all cylinders. There’s not really a lot of down time, but we sail and that keeps us both sane. Between that, and my friends and family, that’s about it. Just living in Victoria, it’s such a playground here. I love the outdoors and long walks, and you’re at the ocean in less than ten minutes no matter where you are. Victoria’s a great place to be… if I was trying to do this in any other city it might be a struggle to find that balance.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Doing what I’m doing in this economy in Victoria is no easy feat. You’re constantly thinking about the next step, the next artist, the next show. It’s a lot of work, but also very rewarding. I find reward in seeing artists making a living off their creative process, seeing an artist refine and evolve over the past three years, and the support of the team that I’ve built. I have a great community here.
I often look back to the very first Victoria Emerging Art show on video clips and photographs and I see family, my friends, and these artists who come to every show and have supported me. And that’s really rewarding to see. It makes me feel really lucky, and like all of the hard work is worth it. For the longest time you’re in it and just doing it, and now I’m in a position to look back and see what’s been accomplished, and see what the future holds, and it’s really exciting.
Thank you, Ellen, for such an informative and interesting conversation!