If you, like more than forty million others, have passed through London’s Piccadilly Circus tube station this year, you might have noticed something a bit different. Soft Opening is a gallery for contemporary art that’s unique not only for its location: it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week, but you can’t get inside. Viewers peer into the vitrine-like space, as busy commuters bustle by, emphasising the voyeuristic nature of art spectatorship, but also liberating visitors from the sterility of the white cube. When I stopped by, school children were filing through and pointing, shoppers stopped to stare, and a few curious tourists pressed their palms to the windows. Inside was a curious green glow, emanating from a show by Louis Morlet.
Soft Opening was founded by 30-year-old Antonia Marsh; a young London-born curator turned dealer who has put up more than twenty indie exhibitions around the world before deciding she needed her own permanent spot. That spot ended up being 15 by 5 ft, and deep underground in one of London’s busiest and most historic places.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with artists!” Marsh says, when I suggest artists must be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. She has worked closely with artists, most of them her peers, since 2013. “They’re special creatures, and I think it’s good if you are patient and generous with your time. That said, if I could apply the patience with which I work with artists to the rest of my life, I’d be a happy woman.”
Running an art space in this setting, with TFL as a landlord, isn’t without its challenges. “Many of the advantages of the space can also strangely function as disadvantages – the fact it’s a vitrine means that I work remotely and can’t meet people that go and visit, but it also means I don’t have to sit in the damp all day,” Marsh admits.
“Working as a dealer has massively expanded my curatorial practice, which I didn’t expect,” Marsh tells me when asked how she balances the dual role as curator and dealer. “I now work with artists more intensely and longer-term, and precisely that development of relationships was my favourite element to curating in the first place. Working in my own space has afforded me much more freedom in what I programme.”
Marsh studied Art History at Bristol, then moved to California where she completed an MA in Curatorial Practice, before setting up a roving residency programme, Girls Only, in Brooklyn and eventually returning to London. She is interested in tackling complex conceptual ideas and how they intersect with contemporary aesthetics, but running a gallery demands a head for business as much as an appreciation of diverse artistic practices. “Of course now I have to be mindful of many different factors and altogether it’s a lot more work, but shifting roles has been an enormous learning experience, and I’m sure that isn’t going to stop any time soon.”
Most of the artists on her expanding roster are young and upcoming, recent graduates and artists Marsh met through her curatorial work over the years. “A lot of the selection process is instinctive and organic, coming out of relationships I’ve developed along the way and inviting artists to do shows at moments that feel natural.” She explains. “I also love recommendations from other artists that I already work with. Studio visits are a really important and intimate moment to connect with artists, but I also think hanging out outside the studio is vital to a dealer-artist relationship too.” This personal approach gives Soft Opening an intimate feel, quite distinct from the Blue Chips on street level in nearby Mayfair. Marsh doesn’t stick to one medium or theme but chooses artists she believes have staying power, that can grow with her as she evolves.
The next step in that evolution is imminent, as in January Marsh is opening a space on Herald Street with a stellar art heritage: formerly Wolfgang Tillman’s studio, Laura Bartlett’s gallery and most recently serving as the shop for Claire De Rouen books. The more traditional environment, amidst the cluster of East London galleries – with Herald Street and Maureen Paley as neighbours – will allow Marsh to present art in a more conventional context, without the commuter footfall but, “hopefully have less awkward openings!”
At Herald Street, show runs will be longer, and you can expect a different kind of exhibitions more suited to the traditional gallery, while at Piccadilly Marsh intends to “maintain the idiosyncratic nature.”
If there’s one thing young gallerists like Marsh can do to change the current cultural scene, it’s to encourage more people to come together to have more meaningful encounters with the art — and that is another reason Marsh is resurfacing at street level in Bethnal Green: “having a space people can enter into also means we can harness more of a community around the shows, something that I think has definitely been missing at Piccadilly.”
Words by Charlotte Jansen