Workplace featured on Artsy

Published on

7 February 2024

by Maxwell Rabb

In 2005, Miles Thurlow and Paul Moss opened Workplace’s first physical gallery for the cost of just £1 a year. After three years of working together on an artist-led curatorial project, they struck a deal for a small space in the Gateshead Indoor Market in North East England. This unconventional setup came with a community-centered exchange: In return for the affordable space, they would judge the market’s annual Christmas card competition, involving artwork from children of surrounding schools. This approach not only secured the duo a physical space, but also embedded the gallery within its local environment. Thurlow and Moss envisioned Workplace as a space to counteract the mainstream art world’s tendency to focus exclusively on established artists.

“There was a sense that we were outside of the center and that the activity that was going on in the museums and galleries around us at the time was all about showing artists that were already well known, already validated, nearly always based in London.…But if you were living and working as an artist outside of the center, you’d somehow be excluded,” Thurlow told Artsy. Even as Workplace has grown into a larger commercial gallery, with two spaces in London and Newcastle, this DIY spirit continues to form its approach. “There was always this DIY attitude that we had—if you’re not in the center, you’ve got to make it around you wherever you are, and we’ve carried that with us,” he added.

An early, formative experience for the gallerists came with Thurlow’s first experience at an art fair, the London Art Fair in 2003, before they opened their physical gallery space. Then, Thurlow and Moss approached Paul Hedge, the co-founder of London’s Hales Gallery—who was on the selection committee at the time—with printouts of their friends’ and peers’ artwork. They managed to secure a spot in the fair.

“We were very nervous about being dismissed as parochial or provincial, yet we realized that the booth of an art fair can be a great leveler,” Thurlow said. “We very quickly placed work with significant national public collections and major corporate collections, who all bought works from us. It was a real ‘lights-on’ moment where suddenly these artists, who were completely unknown even within their own city, were now in these really important international collections….It was a real awakening to the power of the art market and the way in which it can validate an artist’s practice.”

Workplace’s artist-first approach is epitomized through its long-standing relationship with the British painter Laura Lancaster. The partnership began with an exhibition in 2005, which inaugurated the gallery’s Gateshead space and sparked its working relationship with the artist. The connection has become a template for Workplace’s programming, in which collaborations are viewed with long-term ambition in mind.

“With all of the artists that we work with, we aim to dig down into what it is that makes them a success,” Thurlow said. “How do we place this artist’s work in an institutional context? How can we build their careers? How can we develop partnerships internationally for the artist? The origins of the gallery are very artist-centered. I was an artist, Paul was an artist….There’s an intuitive understanding of what it is to be an artist and what you need, and that’s not just financial, and it’s not just glitz and glamor. There’s a critical economy that surrounds your practice, and you need to develop strong roots in your practice. The resilience of the artist’s practice is as important to us as the resilience of the gallery—in many ways, it is the same thing.”

By 2013, Thurlow and Moss had introduced a London space, establishing a network between the North Eastern art scene and the U.K. capital. The two ran the galleries together, cultivating a dynamic roster of artists such as interdisciplinary artist Marcus Coates and British photographer Matt Stokes until Moss passed away in 2019. Faced with tragedy, Thurlow had to reapproach the gallery and, in 2020, permanently relocated the Gateshead flagship to London. Then, the gallery moved to its current space on Mortimer Street in Fitzrovia, London. In 2023, Thurlow returned to the North East to open a second gallery in Newcastle, and today, Thurlow looks ahead with a community-based lens.

Today, Workplace has evolved into an internationally known gallery, participating in Art Cologne, Art Basel Hong Kong, and Art SG, among other fairs. But as the gallery grew, Thurlow and Moss never left their DIY roots behind. The gallerists launched Workplace Foundation in 2017 to focus on uplifting artists outside of the mainstream gallery scenes. In Thurlow’s words, “If you’re outside of London, access to the art world is limited,” and therefore, the foundation bridges “emergent grassroots artists into the more institutional position.”

Above all, the initiative is a project devoted to nurturing an artist’s practice. On multiple accounts, artists from the project, such as Simeon Barclay, have worked with Workplace to put on shows. Meanwhile, the project also supports art practices from various mediums. For instance, painter Rachel Lancaster first worked with the foundation as a musician.

Beyond fostering local talent and working with the U.K.’s art communities, Workplace has extended its community-building ethos globally. The gallery works with Philadelphia-based painter Olivia Jia, who first showed at the gallery last year with “Ex Libris,” and it recently hosted an online exhibition with Chicago-born artist Cathleen Clarke. Both Clarke and Jia show with New York’s Margot Samel, underscoring the constructive relationship between the galleries cultivated through these artists. For Thurlow, these cross-gallery relationships are essential not only for the gallery itself but also for the artists.

Workplace’s evolution illustrates a journey marked by risk, innovation, and resilience. But more than anything, the gallery has championed the importance of community building and artist support. Thurlow likens it to a “tightrope walk across a ravine with crocodiles underneath, and you’re juggling at the same time.”

“There are moments of real fear but also moments of great success,” he said.

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Portrait of Miles Thurlow and Paul Moss in Gateshead, U.K