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Bright Young Things part 1: Francesca Goodwin meets gallerist Megan Piper

Megan and Chloe

‘Bright Young Things’ is a series focussed upon unearthing the stories of individuals who are bringing fresh perspectives to traditional themes within the arts.

For Part I Francesca Goodwin met Gallery Director Megan Piper at The Piper Gallery in Fitzrovia, a space dedicated to the showcasing of living artists whose careers have spanned forty years or more.

Here she investigates how the partnership of an invigorating vision with a niche focus, has proved to be a winning combination in carving out an identity in an increasingly competitive arts market. 

The Piper Gallery oozes an understated gravitas from the very outset of its Newman street entrance. The deep gray of the window frontage frames a seductively simple white interior- tradition and austerity juxtapose seamlessly with the calling card of a modern art gallery.

It’s a card that has brought me here. Many months before Megan had handed me a sumptuously thick, just-larger-than-regular, business card with ‘The Piper Gallery’ stamped in bold, plain typeface. The card stuck out of my leather holder, anticipating the fact that it would be Megan’s name that would stick in my mind long after the evening had swept me off to another private view.

I had a feeling that this was someone whose idiosyncrasy was to stand out and, as I finally succumbed to the card’s siren’s song and entered the gallery- I was not disappointed. Megan Piper with her pale hair, red lipstick and impeccable taste in stationary certainly knows how to make an impression.

I believe in doing things properly’ Megan announces, perched on one of the numerous, endearingly eclectic, leather chairs that populate the gallery’s office- come- project space. ‘Doing things properly’ rapidly becomes a common thread throughout our conversation as, I realise that the seemingly effortless cohesion of ‘brand Piper’ is the result of exceptional hard work, determination and a strong will to prove her capability and, to succeed.

From the very beginning when she had her first business at nineteen- a market stall in Camden – she identified that in order to succeed you had to stand out from the crowd. Amidst the colourful clutter of the market, Megan’s black lined eyes could regularly be found peering out from behind a black and white stand:

'I was a punk back then and that’s how I got both my nickname and the name for the company- ‘Panda Ink’. It was something to earn money at the weekends but it taught me a lot about the fact that you can work hard but there is unpredictability to consumer markets that you can’t control. Some days I’d make quite a bit, other days nothing.' 

Megan’s reaction to this unpredictability was not, however, to abscond from the art world. Instead it became her central motivation to master as many practical skills as possible, in order to never feel out of her depth. After graduating she launched straight into the working world, rather than joining her friends for the usual ‘summer of love’ post finals.

'I knew that in the area I wanted to work you have to seize every opportunity.'

Hence,she began work at Momart where she spent two and a half years working her way up from an assistant to the position of gallery services coordinator.

'I learnt a lot there about problem solving, the different approaches for liasiing with artists, galleries and clients, as well as the practical logistics of setting up shows and shipping work. You’ve always got to be able to pre-empt problems, especially when you’ve only got a small team, as I do now. It also gives you a sense of empowerment when you’re dealing with people- so’s you’re not speaking from a position of ignorance. Saying that, you also need to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie.'

Testimony to this is the presence at her right hand side of Chloe Nelkin- Piper’s friend and PR mastermind. Another young creative powerhouse, Chloe built her consultancy company up in her early twenties and now has a clientele list which boasts many major galleries and museums. Like Megan she enjoys working with a small team and has been on board with The Piper Gallery from its opening in 2012.

It was two years before that Megan had first conceived of the idea, which, like many other great ideas, came to her on a train. Although she had always had dreams to open her own gallery, the formal construction of a tangible space that exhibited artists with long careers, took shape when travelling back from Birmingham. It was a moment she recalls vividly:

'I rang my mum and she asked me how the trip was and I replied: ‘Mum Birmingham’s changed my life.’

After months of redrafting a solid business plan, it was a chance introduction made by her little brother to one of his friend’s father that transformed a dream into a concrete reality. Andrew Morris, who launched the Business Design Centre in Islington, had also long harboured ideas about opening up a space and when he heard of Piper’s ambitions he was immediately intrigued.

Before the opening of the gallery’s current home in Newman Street, Megan piloted the concept with an exhibition of one artist and one piece of work in May 2011. Finding a venue to exhibit Vaughan Gryll’s 19m x 5m painting was always going to be something of a challenge. The fact that the space that presented itself- a church hall in Ridley Road, Dalston- was not so much ‘off the beaten track’ as ‘where the wild things are’, was even more so. Despite this and, despite the fact that Megan confesses herself to be hopeless at PR, the show saw queues of taxis filled with West London clientele and column inches in The Telegraph the next day. Despite this success in the east of the city, ever the pragmatist, Megan began to scour Fitzrovia for a suitable permanent space, knowing that she was more likely to succeed if she made people’s lives easier. The fact that as I arrive Chloe and Megan are discussing the logistics of hopping between shows, dinner and cocktails that evening- striking off openings that are too far apart- and that the gallery’s bathroom also doubles as Megan’s wardrobe, testifies to the fact that convenience does indeed sell.

The gallery itself was designed by Piper alongside a team of architects to suit her minimalist taste and preference to allow work to speak for itself. Though Megan reminisces that there were other pressing concerns as well:

'My agreement with Andrew was that he could have a terrace to smoke cigars as long as I could have a fridge in my office for champagne! '

Champagne corks were soon popping to the tune of the Gallery’s opening in June 2012 which Megan describes as:

'It was totally surreal. My parents had instilled in me a belief in making things happen and it was exciting to be making such a bold statement- the whole thing was very emotional but I also knew that it was just the beginning and that there was a lot of working out still to be done.'

The gallery launched with a portfolio of nine house artists who Megan had sourced via a combination of her own research, chance encounters and approaches from the artists themselves. It seems, even in these early days, word had spread of the opportunities that the innovative mission statement of the gallery could open.

Indeed, the first exhibition in the new space epitomised its ethos- of looking back whilst also looking forwards. Entitled ‘Then and Now’ it featured the work of sculptor and draughtsman Edward Allington and photo collage artist Vaughan Grylls, whose solo show had launched the concept months before. Both artists share a fascination with history and the show comprised work both from forty years ago and from their current series.

It is this richness of the portfolios of long practicing artists that so captivates Megan. It allows her to rediscover work developed in formative years but to also jump at a phone call to go and see new work. She is inspired by the drive of artists making art as ends to itself, without the incentive of back-to-back exhibitions. Indeed, she admits that, though her age might seem incongruous to the focus of the gallery, the artists with whom she works are just as focussed and forward thinking as when they first began.

The conversation between new and old is something that Piper is investigating in terms of a series of collaborative shows too. Nick Hackworth from Paradise Row will be taking the hot seat for the next show of Mike Finch’s work in September and Tess Jaray will be curating an exhibition of younger artists’ work entitled ‘The Edge of Painting’ later this year. Amongst those selected are some of her old assistants- a decision which provides an interesting insight into the influence of teaching and generational relationships upon work.

Likewise, new perspectives are a focus in The Piper Gallery’s ‘One Club’- a quarterly series of evenings for which one artist presents a piece of their own writing alongside a single print, on sale for £100. The idea is to promote a richer image of the artist as a multi-faceted creative force; with evolving ideas and modes of expression- yet again the overlooked are given a very contemporary voice.

With this plethora of projects already in the pipeline Megan is tentative about declaring long- term future plans. Rather, she recognises the need to cement a reputation rather than spreading yourself to thinly although does admit to hopes for international representation.

As our interview comes to a close it seems apt that, as the gallery anticipates its first birthday, the current show is Etienne Viard’s ‘Poetry of Instability’. The folding and cutting techniques of his making process contains the initial intuitive energy, so that the resultant metal structures appear as energetic as they are ordered. Their minimalism is infused with a romantic expressiveness that takes us beyond time and space.

As I walk out into the sunshine I realise that, in meeting Megan, timelessness is what I have encountered.

‘The Poetry of Instability’ runs at The Piper Gallery until 26th July 2013

For details of forthcoming exhibitions and events see The Piper Gallery website