x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Promoting an art gallery? Throw a party with A-listers

Julia Peyton-Jones talks about her innovative approach to promoting art and her gallery

Julia Peyton-Jones says she is 'very robust about criticism'.
Julia Peyton-Jones says she is 'very robust about criticism'.

Julia Peyton-Jones had never thought of herself as a party planner, but she discovered it was a natural skill that stood her in good stead when she set out to put a little-known British art gallery on the map.

The Serpentine Gallery's summer party is now a milestone in the social calendar of the glitterati of the art world, but 20 years ago neither it nor the gallery itself was on many people's radar screens. The crumbling building, built in 1934 as a tea pavilion in London's Kensington Gardens, had fallen into disrepair and was badly in need of a turbocharged boost of energy and new direction.

Both were supplied in force in the elegant form of Peyton-Jones who, with the support of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, transformed the fortunes of the gallery and turned its summer party into a fund-raising phenomenon.

In Dubai last month for the Celebration of Entrepreneurs conference and also to visit Abu Dhabi Art, Peyton-Jones shared a few of her fund-raising secrets with would-be entrepreneurs, although it's clear that her own formidable energy and single-minded passion for her subject were the driving force behind the emergence of the gallery as one of the foremost of its kind.

Peyton-Jones gives the princess much of the credit for the success of the early parties. When Diana, who was a friend of Lord Palumbo, the chairman of the trustees, became the patron, they immediately shot into the A-listers league. If the princess was attending, there was never any difficulty in selling tickets and now everybody who's anybody wants to be there. Actors, models, artists, and fashion designers dress up in their finest to rub shoulders with patrons of the arts and society folk.

Says Peyton-Jones: "When we began to raise money for the renovation appeal we had one of the great figures of the 20th century, the Princess of Wales, as our patron. Obviously, that was extremely helpful for a number of different reasons. She was not only a dear friend to us, but she was a champion of our cause."

Diana represented the Serpentine Gallery at the Venice Biennale and her involvement attracted party sponsorship from the magazine Vanity Fair, transforming the fortunes of the whole enterprise. Who can forget the photographs taken in June 1994 of the princess arriving at the Serpentine party in a beautiful, black-chiffon Christina Stambolian cocktail dress, upstaging her former husband's television confession of marital infidelity? It was an iconic image that was flashed around the world.

In the early days, Peyton-Jones and her staff of just 12 survived on their ingenuity and the willingness of everyone to put their hands to everything. "It was all hands on deck. You may be head of finance but you also had to be a fund-raiser and be extremely good at knowing how to address people on invitations. We grew in a way that was completely organic. It was not a planned thing, I wish I could say that I came up with this unbelievable five-year strategic plan, but it wasn't like that."

An attempt by the member of parliament Ian Sproat to turn the old building into a riding school was eventually seen off, thanks to high-profile support.

Peyton-Jones was quick to understand the need for supporters outside the art world, and the parties and events were tailored to encourage people who might not normally have been interested in art to get involved. It's still part of the gallery's survival strategy.

"I am very robust about criticism over how many parties we may or may not give," she says.

"Summer parties continue to be an astonishing way of bringing people to the Serpentine Gallery who may or may not have an interest in art. We give them a reason to feel comfortable being in our environment. If you do something for the first time you feel a bit uncertain, but if you bring people to a party they might feel good about themselves and they might go on to support the Serpentine. Over the years, people become more involved, more engaged, more knowledgeable. People who walk in for the first time wondering 'what is all this' often go on to commission art."

Peyton-Jones's networking skills netted another wealthy and influential supporter in the form of Michael Bloomberg, now mayor of New York. She met him at a dinner to celebrate a book he had written and encouraged him to become a patron of the gallery.

" I went to this dinner and was very lucky to be sitting next to him. Mike joined the board and is a friend to this day. Bloomberg's support of the arts is phenomenal."

Renovation work began in 1996 and although the following year Diana's death was an enormous loss to the gallery as well as to the British nation, the foundations of the gallery's success had been laid.

Peyton-Jones has always resolutely refused to compromise on her ideals. "The privileging of art and culture, architecture, design and education is a forefront of what we do. What our challenge has been is how to support and enable what we do. In other words find the solution and find the resources and not to change what we do to match the resource we've identified."

One highly successful innovation that began in 2000 was to invite prominent architects who had never before completed a building in England to design the temporary pavilions that have become so much part of the summer art scene, attracting art lovers and curious tourists alike to the gallery. The pavilion architects to date include Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Oscar Niemeyer, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. Each pavilion is sited on the gallery's lawn for three months and the immediacy of the process - a maximum of six months from invitation to completion - provides a peerless model for commissioning architecture.

There is no budget for it either and it relies on sponsorship and the sale of the finished structure.

Says Peyton-Jones: "We were about to open the building and we needed to do something completely and utterly different. And so for the same amount of money that it would cost to erect a temporary tent in the park, which was about £100,000, we commissioned Zaha Hadid, the only woman to have won the Pritzker Prize, to design the marquee for the gala dinner.

"My belief was that many of the people who came to these dinners probably didn't know a lot about art, but that didn't matter. It was our job to inform and educate them, not only about what we do but what contemporary art could be, so we put on these three-day exhibitions which would encompass the Serpentine's programme and show the artists which we had exhibited to date - ranging from Giacometti to Jasper Johns, to artists who were young and emerging."

The tented structure designed by Hadid as the gallery's first "pavilion" was later sold on to the Royal Shakespeare Company as an entertainment centre. Initially, the Royal Parks were reluctant to allow the gallery to operate outside the pavilion, but another high-profile supporter, Chris Smith, the culture secretary at the time, intervened and eventually they were allowed to keep the structures up for the entire summer.

Says Peyton-Jones: "The important thing about doing this project was what it said about us - no tortured flowers, no table arrangements, resolutely contemporary, resolutely committed to architecture. It was designed to show international architects to a British audience. Instead of seeing an exhibition of models, drawings and photographs we commissioned these great architects to design something that was symptomatic of their work. We put them under immense pressure, we have absolutely no budget for this whatsoever. We turn into a combination of property developers and estate agents, we also sell this at the end of the summer. Although it never raises more than 40 per cent of its costs, it's part of the financial plan.

"What we learnt was that we don't need to be specialists in construction and we don't need that much space to work with great architects."

Her own passion for art was kindled during a three-month holiday in Italy, visiting Florence, Siena and Rome, given to her by her parents after she left school in Oxfordshire.

"It was the best present they could possibly have given me," she says. "My school wasn't a school that was particularly focused on art. In fact, art didn't really feature in my life at all until I went to Italy and I did two things there. I went to drawing lessons and the other was that I went all the time to see works of art. I developed this astonishing appetite for visual culture and couldn't get enough of it."

When she returned from Italy she went to art school, including postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art in London. Two of her paintings were bought by the Bank of England. Later she ran the 20th-century picture department at Phillips auctioneers. She was working as a curator at the Hayward Gallery in London's South Bank complex when the directorship of the Serpentine was advertised. Her friend the art writer and curator David Sylvester, who died in 2001, encouraged her to apply.

"I didn't think that I would ever get the job," she says. "I wouldn't say that I was a front-runner. However, I did get it which was incredible."

Today a staff of 40 runs the gallery with the help of a further 25 gallery assistants who work part-time under the direction of Peyton-Jones and her co-director and friend, Hans-Ulrich Obrist. With more than a quarter of a million visitors a year, private viewings and exhibitions and the annual party, the future of the Serpentine Gallery is looking rosy.

Over the years notable artists who have been exhibited there have included Jeff Koons, Paula Rego, Andy Warhol, Henry Moore, Man Ray, Bridget Riley and Damien Hirst.

Peyton-Jones is determined to keep entry to the gallery free. She also feels the need to keep moving and thinking of new projects, such as establishing a new gallery in The Magazine, an old arms repository which is being renovated by Hadid, thanks to a large grant from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. Due to open in 2012 it will house the best new international talents.

Part of the job entails travelling the world to art fairs such as Abu Dhabi Art, keeping an eye on emerging international artistic talent and occasionally inviting artists to spend time at the gallery's research project on the Edgeware Road, the Centre for Possible Studies.

"It marks our deep commitment to the Middle East and artists come to the centre to work with us during a three-month residency. There will eventually be an exhibition at the Serpentine of the work they did during that time. Judging by what I saw at Abu Dhabi Art, the art of this region is flourishing and there's a huge appetite internationally for people to know more," she says.

Her advice to young entrepreneurs on how to keep an organisation growing is simple. "Push every aspect of your resources to the furthest limit. It's much easier if you have a goal in mind. I had a goal and it was to bring more people to the Serpentine, to make it better known to renovate it. Those three things shaped what needed to be done."

She might have added that they should learn to throw a great party.