We first became aware of Francesca Gavin through the distinctive ‘collages’ of different artworks adorning the walls of Soho House and its sister establishments. As the chief curator for the Soho House group, Fran’s idiosyncratic choices played a major part in defining the character of each distinctive ‘house’ around the world.
Fran recently took the decision to leave the world of exclusive member’s clubs behind however and forge a new life in Berlin, where she has recently relocated to from London. We discussed how she first dug herself out of the familiar post-graduation floundering and transformed her passion for writing and exhibitions into a rewarding career - as well as how Berlin offers her “a space of [her] own to fill with flowers and plants!”
It seems your work can broadly be divided into writing and curating - how did you end up down this path? Did one arise out of the other or did you always want to work in both worlds?
I fell into both! I started as an intern and then journalist, writing for years about everything from books to soul music to graffiti to fashion to interaction design. Over time I naturally started to specialise in contemporary art – it became my main focus about ten years ago. I wrote numerous art books, catalogue essays and curation offers began to come in from there. I've always said an exhibition is just like a book or thematic article but 3D. It’s all about making connections.
Could you tell us a little about your background - your formative years and how you first became interested in art?
My mother went to St Martins in the 60s and when I was 9 she gave me and my sisters her art postcard collection, from there I became obsessed and have collected them ever since. I have about 2000 now. It just grew from there - I studied History Of Art at University in York because I loved it, but I never imagined I could make a career out of it!
And how you got your first break?
Editorially, it was at Dazed And Confused. I was working as a picture researcher at a book publisher and was miserable - it was so easy, I could barely fill my days. So I took the day off, rang Dazed and told the Editorial Assistant "I want your job, how did you get it?" I ended up doing part time work experience for 9 months and it grew from there.
In terms of curation, it was Soho House. Nick Jones had asked an artist I knew, Jonathan Yeo, to curate a collection for the restaurant at Dean Street Townhouse when it opened. Jonny asked me to do it with him. Soho House liked the results so much it became their signature look. The collection now has over 3000 works and is worth millions.
Are there some specific niches or ‘scenes’ that you take a particular interest in / would say have become your area of expertise?
I've always been into emerging artists - particularly those exploring ideas around technology and our relationship to screens. I've also got a thing for the psychedelic and contemporary takes on counter culture.
Could you take us through the different stages involved in curating an exhibition?
First, it’s an idea - noticing patterns or themes or connections between works that feel relevant now. Then I pull together all the artists in my head, create a proposal letter (which often ends up becoming part of the release) and start emailing or calling people to be involved. It’s all very organic and builds from a conversation about the idea with artists about what work fits, their feelings around the idea etc. Then you get the work in, install and open!
Your work for the Soho House Group, for example, often seems to take very eclectic sources that somehow hang together perfectly. How do you approach this type of curation in comparison to more conventional exhibitions?
I have always sourced the work from locals as much as possible - all the works in the Berlin house, for example, are by Berlin artists. I often have a similar brief but the results are completely different. The main thing to unify things for Soho has been colour - for a long time this was monochrome. But even if you are getting black and white works there are so many nuances of colour from white to blue, sepia to grey. Hanging things on the wall here almost becomes a form of collage where you are creating a larger whole together from disparate parts. But at the heart of it all when dealing with such different media is colour and shape.
Could you talk a little about a favourite (or favourites) of your exhibitions? What excites you most when presented with an idea for an exhibition?
I was very proud of E-Vapor-8 - a show I did first at 319 Scholes in New York and then reworked for Site Sheffield. The exhibition was about the influence of rave on contemporary artists - in particular those who were not old enough to be part of that scene growing up. For many this was the first experience of dissent, politics and rebellion. In New York, the space was a huge two-floor warehouse in Bushwick and it felt like a party. The show touched on my wider interests in the relationship between art, technology, counterculture and the psychedelic - all of which are very intertwined.
Am I right in thinking you’ve recently relocated to Berlin? It seems to be an increasing trend amongst young creatives - can I ask what prompted your move?
I am living in Berlin - though I'm still pretty transient and while working on Manifesta in Zurich, a large section of which I'm co-curating, I'll be there in Zurich. I've been coming back and forth for 6 years. In 2010, I was here every month. After that it was around 4 times a year. I've got a huge number of friends here and have always really connected to the breadth of work being made here and the sense of freedom and space within the city. Making the move for a while was a very natural thing to do. I'm a born and bred Londoner and in the long run I'm sure I'll settle there, but for me Berlin felt like the right time on a purely personal note.
How are you finding it? What are the main differences you notice between there and London? Both personally and professionally.
Berlin is so much slower! The manic-ness of London isn’t here. You go out for dinner and 5 hours go by. Everything is open late and there is no time limit to how long you stay out (or how old you are, Berlin is utopia for the old). It’s really tiny in comparison to a city like London, but I like that ease and the sense of discovery. People work in Berlin but you really need money coming from out of the city. There is much less of a preoccupation with ‘things’, fashion and aspiration in Berlin. It’s basically a bit cooler. Although the days of the 1 euro falafel are over, it’s still a hell of a lot cheaper.
Does your curatorial approach extend to other parts of your life? For example (to shoehorn in a Floom-relevant example!), houseplant arrangements and the like?
This is the first time I've had a space of my own to fill with flowers and plants - and I'm buying them every week. Admittedly, I travel so much they keep dying, but it’s a battle to see what survives – I bought a crop of baby cacti, as I know I can’t lose. I'm choosing tons of things based on colour again - rich oranges and purples. I'm also obsessed with the smell of hyacinths so get them all the time when they're in season. The flat I'm staying in is bloody gorgeous and i love hanging out here. Plants are just part of that.
Why do you think flowers/plants/nature feature so heavily across the arts?
They are so sensorial. They also do the same thing - art often aims to provide moments of pause in our daily existence. Surely a bunch of flowers do the same thing?
Check out Fran Gavin's work here.
Photography by Trevor Good.