Established in 2016, Ben Broome's group exhibition series, Drawing a Blank, has cultivated a space for young artists to showcase their work outwith the confines of traditional galleries. Discussing the art world, the future of Drawing a Blank and his unease with being called a curator, we sat down for a chat with the 24-year-old in his Peckham flat.
After a stint working in a gallery in central London, Ben Broome was tired of adhering to the constraints conventional galleries placed on artists, desiring a space that was inclusive, diverse and championed the talents of young creatives. Spurred on to create his own exhibition series and put his vision to fruition, Drawing a Blank was born in 2016.
Primarily showcasing the artwork of his close network of young artists, photographers and filmmakers, the 24-year-old has hosted a yearly group exhibition in a variety of unconventional spaces not traditionally associated with exhibiting art. Signalling an unease with the white wall spaces that pervade the majority of the contemporary art landscape, Broome has offered respite from the bright lights and blank box locations with a rugged and visceral art experience. Hosting exhibitions in a derelict house, underground car park, disused police garage and former book store, the visionary behind the series cultivates an atmosphere that carefully balances between a rave, art exhibition, gig and house party.
Sitting down with the enigmatic organiser of Drawing a Blank in his Peckham flat, it is clear that he lives and breathes the world in which he inhabits. Encircled with artwork from household names such as Raymond Pettibon and Keith Haring to contemporary figures George Rouy, Hanna Moon, Frank Lebon and Jack Greer (aka Iggy), Broome has created a rich visual tapestry of his eclectic taste. Enamoured with documenting the past, present and future of the art world, it is clear that for Ben Broome, Drawing a Blank is only the beginning of his creative practice.
Drawing a Blank was conceived during your time working in an art gallery in central London. Do you see the project as a rebellion against white wall gallery spaces?
It's not necessarily a rebellion; white wall galleries have their place and at some point in my life I’ll probably work within the confines of one, but I also think that they’ve become the norm. They’re perceived as being a blank canvas from which anything can grow, which might have been the case when the concept of a white wall gallery was conceived, but now it has come to mean something else, with weight and connotations that it didn’t once have. Institutions used to be dark walls and ornate frames, but it is increasingly normal for them to be white wall spaces. For me, it is more interesting to find space that perhaps doesn’t lend itself to the exhibition of art and to transform it into an environment that complements the work. My curatorial practice is a big part of it; finding spaces that people wouldn’t normally associate with showing art.
What are you looking for when you’re location scouting?
I’m not generally looking for anything in particular. Those first few shows were very D.I.Y. and the venues contributed to that feeling. Now I want to move away from that a little bit. Ultimately, derelict or run-down spaces are really hard to show art in. With the underground car park, it pissed it down for the entire day before the opening, the ceiling was leaking and there were huge puddles all over the floor. While it added to the atmosphere, it isn’t something I want to have to deal with every time. I’m still finding the middle ground between a white wall space and the flip side, somewhere I can work in easily but that still has character and something unique about it. I see finding space and repurposing it as my art. It really is just based on a feeling and a general energy that a space will have, and whether it complements the overall atmosphere of an art show. White walls and bright lights are counter-intuitive to people having a good time. If you’re in that sort of space, people will have these pre-conceptions of how to act – they can be a lot more reserved. I don’t want that, I don’t want my events to be “art exhibitions”, I want them to lie in-between a rave and an art show.
I don’t want the events that I do to be “art exhibitions”, I want them to lie in-between a rave and an art show.
You've been able to quickly build momentum with Drawing a Blank. Is it difficult to compel people to come and view your gallery shows when the internet makes imagery of events and exhibitions so readily available?
I’ve never really had to try that hard to get people to come. The nice thing about group shows is that you’ve got ten artists who’ll each bring down a bunch of people, so you’ll usually have a reasonable turn out. Combine that with musical performances and a central London location, then you’ll get plenty of people down. I’m more interested in spreading things by word of mouth, which perhaps doesn’t happen as much as it used to. It becomes a community then. I can say with a degree of pride that some of the past things that I’ve done have encompassed so many different subcultures and scenes, from the fashion folk and art crews to the skaters and music nerds. It’s a diverse crowd of people that come from all different walks of life, it isn’t just people from one scene, which is the case with a lot of events that I go to.
Has the goal of Drawing a Blank changed as the project has progressed?
I’ve actually only figured out what it is fairly recently myself. I think that it’s an exhibition series that is celebratory of youth. A big part of the project is providing a platform for young artists to exhibit in an environment where they don’t have to worry about sales, which is the norm for exhibitions in commercial galleries. It’s a youth led series that aims to build an international community; so far I’ve done three shows in London and one in New York, but I’m aiming to take it to Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City and Milan. It’s about sharing ideas and providing a platform, showing the work of unknown artists alongside artists who are more established with a bigger name and reputation. I want to do ten exhibitions as Drawing a Blank over the next five or six years, before I’m thirty, and then put the project to bed with a coffee table book documenting the whole series.
Why do you think that the art world is slower to pick up on new artists when compared to other creative realms?
You’re considered a "young artist" if you’re 40 or 50 years old, which is positively ancient in other creative industries. But it’s not necessarily based on talent – you’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops to become an established, well-known and well-respected artist, and it's rooted deeply in commerce. You get to that level when you’re showing work in museums and institutions, and you can’t really do that without being represented by a major gallery, whose collectors might be benefactors of the museum. To get to this point you have to subscribe to the commercialised art world and chase the gallery representation to achieve art world “stardom”. It’s not like a musician, who could go from having ten fans to a hundred thousand fans in the space of a year. You can’t do a blockbuster painting and blow up like that because art isn't consumed in the same way and people judge art based on its commercial value as well as historical and cultural importance. For young artists, it’s a much slower burn.
A lot of people who are well known in my artistic community have not become well known for their artwork but for their commercial work – making music videos or shooting fashion photography. From that they have a career and a following, and the art that they make is a part of that creative output. I can’t really see the system changing. Instagram has certainly provided a platform for people to get a following, but you can have a million followers and not be able to pay your rent from selling your artwork. I suppose it is quite refreshing that the biggest artists in the world can have very little or even no online presence and still be regarded as legends or geniuses in their field.
How do you find artists you would like to exhibit? Are there any prerequisites you look for when selecting artists?
I often get asked what genre or style of art I work with, but it really is just art that I enjoy that my friends make. That is exclusively the art that I will exhibit – that personal connection and friendship is really important because I don’t want to work with any egos or difficult personalities.
In terms of finding new artists, I go to a new city and talk to the artists I’ve worked with before and ask them who I should hang out with in that place, then go and meet them to see if we connect. There is a lot to be said for just reaching out to people. Sometimes you don’t get a reply and sometimes you do. If people fuck with you and think that you’ve got a good heart and your head is screwed on, they’ll generally want to be a part of what you're doing. Every time I do something, it adds weight to my practice and I can stand by it a little more and it gets easier. Hopefully by the time I have done exhibition number 6, 7, 8, it’ll be a piece of piss. Then I can be really choosy and be a diva myself. I say that in jest, but I also don’t want to work with everyone. I’m really lucky to have found my people here and in New York, especially. I’d be very happy working with the people I work with right now for the rest of my life. I have bigger ambitions, but I can’t speak highly enough of the artists that I already am lucky enough to work alongside.
It’s not like a musician, who could go from having ten fans to a hundred thousand fans in the space of a year. You can’t do a blockbuster painting and blow up like that because art isn't consumed in the same way.
Do you feel that the term "curator" suits your practice?
Calling yourself a curator is definitely quite a loaded term, and it’s something that I’m not altogether comfortable with. It has connotations of grandeur and it baffles me that people study curating at university. To me, it’s not too dissimilar to party planning or events management. What I do is a bit of everything, ranging from production, curation, PR and installation, right down to cleaning the toilets and sweeping the floors. I do all of it out of necessity as there is no one else who can do it – I’ve become quite good at juggling everything. It’s a shame that I even have to call myself anything and get pigeonholed into the role, but it's often easier to say to people that I’m a curator. People love asking that question “so what do you do?” There are so many iterations of what a curator is and does, so maybe I fit into a box somewhere but I don’t worry about it too much.