TAITMAIL Alice Black, from Design Museum director to artists’ translator
Whatever happened to Alice Black, the credit analyst who fell in love with creative art, helped make the Design Museum, becoming its co-director … and then left?
What she isn’t is the proprietor of the contemporary art gallery that bears her name and recently moved up in the world from Soho to Fitzrovia. Another Alice Black altogether.
This one has re-emerged as the spectre behind the saving and making of the careers of freelance artists, creator of exhibitions and weeder-out of hidden opportunities as the founder and sole operator of ArtULTRA. “The Art is obvious, the ULTRA is for ultraviolet, the light you cannot see” she explains.
Paris-born Black got her business degree there before moving to New York with Credit Lyonnais as a corporate planner. There she met her husband, a British financier, and moved with him and their daughter to London where, for a while, she had time to indulge her fascination for arts and culture. She soon found herself in the development department of the Imperial War Museum becoming head of strategy and planning before turning to operating by being curator of the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. So, still in her early thirties, she had accumulated in-depth knowledge of banking, museum operation and strategy. Then she came to the attention of head-hunters working for Terence Conran.
The dream of Conran’s later life was to move the Design Museum he had created in 1989 at Butler’s Wharf, Rotherhithe, to the Grade II* listed former Commonwealth Institute, which he did, opening it in 2016.
In 2007 Black had come on board with a brief to develop audiences and increase self-generated income, which quickly came to include exhibition and learning programmes. A year later she had the title of deputy director and was in charge of raising £50m for the project, complicated by the financial involvement of property developers responsible for residential blocks rising around the famous copper roof of the new museum.
Two years after its opening the Design Museum won the European Museum of the Year award, and two years after that in January 2020 Black, by now joint director, left. “It was a mixture of burn-out – it was a very intense job and I’d done it for 12 years – and a curiosity about what else I could do and whether ideas that were forming could be realistic. I wanted to work with artists”. Two months after that, Covid struck and the opportunity not so much arose as hit her square in the face.
Artists were the left behind as the then chancellor strove to keep the noses of those whose jobs were affected by the lockdowns above the water, and what was immediately clear to Black was that artists fell through the slats as self-employed freelancers who seldom if ever have any kind of financial backing. And galleries to represent artists soon began closing too.
It wasn’t just a question of hand-outs, she says; the issue was more profound. With her banking background and her own traverse across strategy and operation in the creative realm, what she knew she could offer was guidance and support. “What we needed to do was improve the business literacy of artists so that they were not afraid of commercial practice” she says, and before long they had gathered 200 artists under their wing, now part of Black’s network. She had teamed up with Amanda Fernandes whose West London based FerArts collective works with creatives around the country.
But she soon saw that the requirements of freelance creatives were infinitely diverse, there could be no blueprint to fit any crisis. Each one had a different problem – how to set up a website, finding studio space, linking up with galleries, dealing with the ongoing mental stress and loneliness, acquiring materials, joining co-operatives... The five-star Harry’s Hotel in Mayfair was closed by the pandemic but was persuaded to free two large rooms for a couple of artists during the lockdowns - Emanuel Unaji who has gone on to make a name for himself as a fashion designer who paints, and Matilde Merli, a graphic illustrator and printmaker. They still remain in her coterie, less in need of the close mentoring they at first had, but still under a caring eye.
But the portfolio she was creating for herself was as what she describes as “broker turned curator”, in which she could act as a paid consultant for companies wanting to sponsor or organisations with an exhibition to plan, or as a pro-bono wise friend. And so in 2021 she set up ArtULTRA, championing emerging artists and “to create a more diverse and vibrant art world”.
“I didn’t want to be a charity, I’d done that at the Design Museum and there are complications with that you don’t need when you’re trying to think with a business brain” she says. “I had to step out of my box”.
ArtULTRA, she insists, is not unique. She is full of praise for the work of Matthew Burrows, and his Artists Support Pledge which has raised more than £100m to help freelance artists through the pandemic. She knows Marine Tanguy whose MTArt espouses developed artists and helps them bypass the gallery system to show and sell their art, often off hotel walls. She admires Artists Network which helps artists at all levels of accomplishment to continue developing their work. She has worked with Culture Commons which creates paths into community culture for artists.
To give her the boxes she eschews, Black’s small operation can provide four broad areas of help: ArtULTRA can help to sell work; it can seek out work opportunities such as artists’ residencies, community commissions and private sponsorship; it offers career management; it can make business connections (Black has three corporate clients at the moment).
We are sitting in the bar-restaurant of another five-star Mayfair hotel, 45 Park Lane, surrounded by the work of the painter Yoram Chisin which has just opened and which Black has curated.
“He came to me, said he liked what I was doing, and he needed help to present himself better” she says. “He’s Franco-Israeli, but he needed to have a website in English and present his work in a professional way. We redid his entire worksite – and then, having understood how he was working, this opportunity came along through contacts. The hotel is exquisite, but he’s bringing something that’s a bit challenging to the atmosphere. They like that contrast.”
Since we spoke she has flown to New York to work with the multi-talented British painter-musician Ella Spira in planning an event at Carnegie Hall with new work of her own but introducing up-and-coming young female singers. “Her new song will be premiered at Carnegie and then released on YouTube where she has an audience of millions. That’s where I want to be”.
When she returns she may work with Artdom, the organisation fronted by the Iranian curator Arghavan Agida and based in Norway whose project is to pick female artists in two different parts of the world and get them to complete the same canvas, collaborating on the planning with one providing the first brushstrokes and the other finishing the picture. “We’ll see if I can add anything”.
“I want the work of artists to be valued, for them to value their own work and for someone else to buy it, so I want to help them understand that equation” Black says. “From the Design Museum I got an understanding of both sides of working with creatives, how they do what they do but also being commercial and know to make a viable success of an artistic practice. So speaking both languages: I’m a translator.”