Originally published in Ladies of Leisure, June 2016. Images by Ru Kwok.
Four months ago photographer turned gallerist Elle Ross opened the doors of Collingwood’s LON Gallery. Not one to mince words, she told LOL what she really thinks about Melbourne’s art scene, male dominated photo shoots, and being your own boss.
Tara Kenny: Hi Elle! Let’s kick things off with the story of LON…
Elle Ross: Adam (Ross, Director and Co-founder of LON) and I met while studying photography at VCA. Adam has since migrated into sculpture; he makes these large-scale sculptures of skateboarders and BMX bikers falling.
When I graduated I went to New York. I basically packed up a knapsack and was like “I’m outta here Melbourne.” Adam was doing a residency in China and then came over to do another one in New York. I don’t know what happened, but in the time since I had last seen him he had become a hustler. I was shocked!
When I came back to Melbourne we started talking about how we were both disillusioned with the local arts scene. We wanted to open a commercial gallery where we could foster a really great relationship with artists and give them a platform to sell work.
TK: Did you get a lot of out your experiences in New York?
ER: Yes and no. Sometimes interning is a crock of shit! There were times I was cleaning coffee machines, answering phones and directing people towards art. I was the token Australian: “This is our intern Elle, she’s from Australia and has blonde hair” [American accent]. I actually didn’t love New York. I was constantly exhausted, working so hard for peanuts and interning for people I’d never heard of. The winter killed me, American men killed me, and people were constantly offended by my bluntness.
TK: Where did you intern over there?
ER: I interned at this studio called Fast Ashleys, which was good for meeting people and getting a general sense of the industry. The most vital thing I learnt was that I don’t want to work in commercial photography.
TK: What turned you off?
ER: It’s a pretty male dominated industry. The cameras are phallic: boys and their toys. Everyone’s a dude on set and the only women are stylists, make up artists and models. There’s a weird dynamic.
TK: This follows on to my next question, which is what your experiences as a woman in the arts have been in general?
ER: Around 80% of VCA students are girls, which is a bit of a cliché – girls have a lot of emotions, let’s explore them – but that ratio balances out after school. Maybe I’m a bit jaded but unfortunately most industries are male dominated. Men always have a leg up. However, there are a lot of women making art that I am super excited about at the moment. At LON we are showing their work, but not by exclusively exhibiting females.
TK: How do you find your artists?
ER: I am really against the bureaucratic application process; it’s very rigid and there’s a lot of academic bullshit. Personally, me trying to articulate my thoughts is tragic! After I got back from New York I was really obsessed with this romantic old school ‘80s idea of artists like Basquiat going into galleries and being like “look at my shit.” Obviously it’s not exactly like that but we find artists ourselves, or they contact us.
TK: How are you bridging the space between an ARI (artist run initiative) and a commercial gallery?
ER: Commercial galleries represent artists – almost like a record label – then those artists can generally only have solo shows and sell work through that gallery. When you have a show at an ARI you have to pay a fee; I just had a show at c3 and didn’t sell anything. People don’t only make art for money, but you have to sustain your practice.
LON is a hybrid; a commercial gallery that takes a commission but doesn’t charge artists to show, and also doesn’t lock artists down the way other commercial galleries do.
TK: Do you want to show art by young artists specifically?
ER: We definitely want to support young and emerging artists by promoting their work to older people. A lot of our art does appeal to young people, but they choose to spend their cash on Acne boots instead of a painting. I would love to have more art, but I totally prioritise eBay sometimes!
TK: Do you buy much art?
ER: I own bits and pieces collected through art school, but at the moment I just don’t have the funds. I have a friend who is part of an art-buying group where they put in a smallish amount a month, which is something I’d like to do eventually. It’s a pretty waspy concept, but also a nice one. Members pool money to buy art and then rotate the work around their houses, so they get to have a dinner party and keep up with the Jones’!
TK: Gotta keep up with those Jones’. Another thing I wanted to ask is what has been most challenging about starting LON?
ER: Well, I couldn’t have done it without Adam. For me LON was this philanthropic adventure and I was all “art – it’s a beautiful thing”, whereas Adam is more business minded and realistic. I needed someone who can do more than just come up with drunken ideas.
Starting a business is also a financial investment. When someone comes in and buys a piece of art it gives me a big sense of gratification that makes it worthwhile. I couldn’t just flog the kind of art you see on The Block. I think about this venture as similar to investing in a degree.
TK: I understand. I’m going to have a $60,000 HECS debt! What are you thinking of doing with your photography practice?
ER: I love photography, but I need to do something else in order to pay for the things I love. A lot of my work is portraiture, which is quite difficult to sell.
TK: Is it because people feel weird about owning a photo of someone they don’t know?
ER: I think so. You have to get to a point where people don’t care who is in the photo, they just care that you took it. I’ve never been in it to make money, but I do sometimes think about totally selling out and having a show called The Coffee Table Book Show with prints made for lounge rooms.
I’m a photographer and at the moment painting is back in a big way. When I was at VCA I was all “death to painting”! Now I can’t believe I said that; all the artists I’m so inspired by are painters.
TK: People say a lot of crazy things when they’re young.
ER: Yes, like “I will never wear flares!”
TK: Ha! Now let’s talk about fun stuff, like how you clock off from work?
ER: It’s dangerous being your own boss sometimes. I’ll be in bed eating spaghetti and watching trash television and tell Adam I’m super busy.
TK: It’s not like you’re unmotivated though. We don’t have to turn this interview into an intervention…
ER: Oh my god, imagine the headline “Gallerist Gone Wild” and a photo of me wearing big sunglasses and entering LON. I actually love playing into the sleazy gallerist image though [winks].
TK: Gallerist sounds so schmancy!
ER: I feel like I need to be wearing pearls.
TK: As in Charlotte in Sex and the City?
ER: Charlotte’s my role model. Or at least for a giggle she is…
Check out LON Gallery here.