Interview with Annelien Kers – Ongekend and Kers Gallery
Beards & Suits is at the Kers Gallery on the Lindengracht in Amsterdam to interview Annelien Kers, founder and owner of Ongekend – Young Masters at Auction and Kers Gallery.
About Ongekend and Kers Gallery
Ongekend – Young Masters at Auction is an auction house that auctions off the work of upcoming artists at a reasonable price. Ongekend was established in 2009 and was the first agency to work with such a concept.
Kers Gallery was established in 2010, initially as a pop-up gallery and now located on the Lindengracht in Amsterdam. Annelien represents artists such as David Bade, Anouk Griffioen and Hendriekje van Houweninge, attends various national and international art fairs and has seen strong growth over the last year in what is otherwise a difficult market.
Beards & Suits is interested to find out how she began and how she has managed to achieve that growth.
How did you start?
I started with Ongekend – Young Masters at Auction in 2009 and a year later I started a pop-up gallery on the Van Baerlestaat and the Van Hoitemastraat in The Hague (‘where the Queen shops’). I used the pop-up galleries to see if people’s tastes matched what I was showing. I discovered that people in The Hague had fairly traditional tastes, but sold a lot to expats, which I responded to by showing art that could fit in a suitcase, for example in a project with Hendriekje van Houweninge called Art To Go. However, there did not seem to be much of a future here, either with this project or the city of The Hague. I was also head of the Education Department. Meanwhile, Ongekend was being well-received and the artists that I showed were receiving more and more requests for galleries. That was a confirmation for me that my ideas and my taste were right, and it was also the right time for me to start my own gallery because I could not live from the auctions alone.
Why did you set up Ongekend?
During my study I realised that there are very few artists who are able to break through, and when I visited final exam expositions I saw that the work on display and the market were worlds apart. I was also wondering where I was going as an artist, and so I thought why not let the public decide? An auction seemed to be a good way to do this (although I did not auction off my own work).
How did you attract visitors?
A lot went through Facebook, and because it was a unique concept at the time (affordable art from young talent) I also got a big article in Trouw and every newspaper, including the Financieel Dagblad. I therefore attracted a varied public, including collectors who would not normally have come.
You now see the concept being used more often, for example Unseen and Unfair, both of which have studied my concept closely.
Newspapers are tricky; they have their standard addresses and are not really open to new initiatives. Blogs are no problem; they will come and look. However, if you manage to get into a newspaper it can really help; with Ongekend I had eight pages in the Volkskrant Magazine, and that is when things really started to take off.
Did you make enough to live on right away, and how is that now?
At the start I could not live on what I made with Ongekend or the gallery. On the one hand I had high costs, and on the other I had the low prices of starting artists. I also worked in the museum and as a curator for the Grid photography biennial. I moved into the gallery to help reduce costs a bit, and even had a job in a sandwich shop. At the same time, I completed my Masters in Art History and got a job as a visiting lecturer at the HKU, where I assess final exams. I want to continue to work for one or two days a week anyway, because that way I learn about and do other things and continue to develop. I also do not want to be 100% dependent on the gallery, where I need a turnover of at least € 10 000 a month. However, I also want to be able to experiment, as with the wall painting in the current exposition. I want to produce real expositions; I think that gallery expositions could be a little more exciting in general. I also often put on teacher-pupil expositions in the gallery; an older artist alongside a younger, which can lead to some interesting partnerships.
It has only been in this last year that I can live from the gallery as I have sold a huge amount of work since April.
What brought about that change?
I think that the fact that I had a permanent address played an important role. When you start, people wonder whether you are going to make it. I have been to lots of art fairs and have had contact with a lot of commercial collections as a result. I have also found a more structured way of working. I am a fairly chaotic kind of person but have learnt what is good for the company. The higher turnover also means that I need to keep better records.
In addition, I have always done my best to be visible. I give a lot of readings, for example for young collectors, and I put on a new exposition every three weeks. I have also got an extra gallery in Zuidas.
The main thing is not to give up, but to keep on going. In the first few months I ate only Cup-a-Soups. You have to go for it more than 100%. Time cannot be an issue either, you just have to do it. For example, I made the mistake of spending the first money I earned on a visit to a secondary Art Basel Miami fair. There were very few visitors and it cost me a lot of money. When I got back to the Netherlands, I pretty much needed to start all over again and just worked really hard. I also had a run of shows that did not go very well. People around me kept telling me to ‘go get a job or something’, but I didn’t want to. After that, sales started to pick up, but my costs were still very high. At the same time, however, some buyers started coming back.
The real turnaround was when I had a show with Rob Scholte and Jan Schoonhoven Jr. I also had a large article in the Telegraaf at the same time. I managed to sell everything in the Jan Schoonhoven exposition, which was a big boost for my self-confidence. I think that people can see that too; it is very different from sitting stressing that you have to sell.
At a certain point, the rumour started going around that I was doing very well, and that brings along the better artists. They want to exhibit here and are suddenly keen to show me their portfolios. Because things are going better now, I can be more certain about the future and plan better.
There are also museums and commercial collections who follow my work and make regular purchases. Plus, Bart Rutten (curator of the Stedelijk Museum) is going to open my next exposition.
Where does your drive come from and what is your ambition?
This is very much my passion and what I enjoy doing. That means that I don’t really mind that I have to do things that I don’t like now and again.
I would like to go to more international fairs, and I would really like to go to the Frieze Art Fair. A bit more money would be good too, so that I can invite more international artists.
My ambition is to be the new Hauser & Wirth; in other words people come to me and discover new things that are later picked up on by the big collectors. I also find it important to help artists develop and to closely follow their development. It helps that I have studied at the academy and know about the various techniques, so that I can advise both artists and clients. I know what the process is and can put myself in the position of both sides.
My gallery is in fact my big work of art.
What do you find difficult about running a business?
The uncertainty. Suddenly you don’t sell anything for three shows and then you have a problem. Plus, the pressure of the high rent. That is also what is so exciting about running your own business – that you always need to do your best. That is my boss really.
What I also find difficult is the unfairness of the subsidy system. I do not have time to write the stories required for subsidy applications, then you see people around you receiving hundreds of thousands of euros.
You also need to keep innovating. I am going to put together a new website, and students of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences (CMD) are working on that now. I am open to new ideas, I listen and I look. I also look at other companies who are setting up a community, for example, and I look at how I could apply that too.
I also think about other revenue models, for example a webshop or a ‘Kers Pakket’. I have also thought about moving to a cheaper location, but I have already tried a pop-up store and that didn’t work because people expect you to be in one place.
What makes you unique?
I have a different way of looking at things and I am open to new ideas. Lots of people copy each other but I do things in my own way. What that is exactly? The gallery is approachable; I draw everyone in, I think that everyone should see my artwork. I also put on a new exposition every three weeks, which absolutely no-one else does. I also do a lot of performance and music and recently took part in a play, which we showed at Centraal Station Amsterdam. My prominence really is where I stand out from others.
I am also not afraid to introduce artists and people to one another. A lot of galleries are hesitant to do that. I also believe that I need to earn the margin that I ask.
Do you use a business plan?
No, not really, although I write down more than I used to. I didn’t do that to start with, but I think it can be useful. I do know what my turnover needs to be each month, so if I don’t achieve it with one show I need to earn it back with the next.
What would your reasons be not to work with a certain artist?
If the artist takes it less seriously than I do, or if somebody sells something themselves while it was in my exposition. I only work with people who are just as obsessed about art as I am, and if I know that they will always go for it. They need to surprise and touch people.
What would you like to say to people starting out, do you have any tips?
Follow your passion and go for it 100%. I also just have to do it, I had nothing to fall back on.
You are a company like any other, you need to have a good PR and you need to know what your market is and who your competitors are. Innovate (and that is very difficult) and be open to new ideas. Make the most of opportunities; opportunities only happen once. Make sure that you have ambassadors, make use of them and take good care of them. A lot is just coincidence. For example, I was at a concert as a visitor and met an art critic there who introduced me to a completely new network. You need to recognise such opportunities and respond to them. That means of course that you are actually always working.