The Wick - Gemma Rolls-Bentley, copyright Thomas Morgan, Queercircle launch with director Ashley Joiner and cochair Glenn Scott Wright, courtesy of Gemma Rolls-Bentley The Wick - Gemma Rolls-Bentley, copyright Thomas Morgan, Queercircle launch with director Ashley Joiner and cochair Glenn Scott Wright, courtesy of Gemma Rolls-Bentley
Monday Muse

Interview Avant Arte’s Gemma Rolls-Bentley

Gemma Rolls-Bentley
Thomas Morgan
02 January 2023
Gemma Rolls-Bentley
Thomas Morgan
02 January 2023
A new year calls for a new Monday Muse. To start 2023 as we mean to carry on – celebrating individuals creating positive cultural impact and legacy – we’ve chosen Gemma Rolls-Bentley to set the inspirational tone. Chief curator at Avant Arte, she has been at the forefront of contemporary art for 15 years, working passionately to champion diversity in the field and amplify the work of women and queer artists. In addition to running Avant Arte’s artist and curatorial strategy, she co-chairs the board of trustees for the charity Queercircle and is a member of The Courtauld Association Committee.

In 2022, she also curated The Brighton Beacon Collection for Soho House’s Brighton Beach House. The largest permanent display of queer art in the UK, it features works by 50 LGBTQIA+ artists and was named in honour of Brighton’s role as a safe haven to the community. Upcoming projects will also see Rolls-Bentley work on a major institutional exhibition at Leslie Lohman Museum of Art in New York in September and her debut book on queer art, which will be published by Frances Lincoln next year.

THE WICK:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Gemma Rolls-Bentley:   Bette Porter. She’s a fictional curator and art dealer in the cult lesbian drama The L Word. She’s bold, strong, deeply cares about art, is always mega chic and generally an all-round lesbian icon.

TW:   What is your typical Monday?

GBR:   I’m working on a book about queer art due to be published in spring 2024, so I dedicate my mornings to researching and writing at the moment. It always feels like such a productive and fulfilling way to start the day. I usually have lunch with my wife and kids then I’d typically do a studio visit in the afternoon – the best bit of my job.

TW:   2022 was a big year for you. What were some of your highlights?

GRB:   It really was. I won’t lie, I felt pretty exhausted by the time we got to the holidays. The first highlight has got to be the special collection that I curated for the new Soho House in Brighton. I called it the Brighton Beacon Collection because I wanted it to reflect on Brighton’s role as a beacon city for the LGBTQ+ community. I brought together 50 artists, ranging from superstars like Wolfgang Tillmans and Christina Quarles to Brighton locals and emerging artists like Jake Grewal and Nash Glynn. I didn’t expect it to get the reception it did, but I think that just highlights how much people value a collection like this and how much of a need there is for more queer representation in the world. According to The Art Newspaper, it’s the largest permanent display of queer art in the UK but I’m hoping that won’t be the case for long. Hopefully, we’ll see more public institutions stepping up to acquire work by LGBTQ+ artists.

I worked really closely with Simon Lee Gallery on an exhibition by Bahamian-born, Los Angeles-based artist April Bey in September. The show I Believe in Why I’m Here was April’s first solo show in Europe and it was very special, she turned the gallery into the fictional world of Atlantica, a new planet that’s free from prejudice, that celebrates difference and where the only currency is love. April is a real star and definitely an artist to watch. We did an in conversation about the show, which you can watch online – link below.

It’s also been another big year at Avant Arte and I was particularly excited to launch our new public art programme, which really serves to deliver on the business’s mission to make art radically more accessible. We kicked off the programme with Tschabalala Self’s first-ever public sculpture, which is on view at Coal Drops Yard in London for a couple more weeks. The public sculpture is accompanied by gorgeous sculpture and print editions and a film that reflects on the act of sitting.

The other highlight I have to mention is the Tom of Finland Art & Culture Festival that I curated in London in October. It’s the first time the Foundation has staged the festival in the UK, having been running in LA for 30+ years. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t love Tom of Finland’s work (perhaps because I know so many gays), so it’s a real honour to be working with the Foundation and bringing artists I love into the Tom of Finland community. Next year’s London festival will happen in the summer and we also have activations planned in Berlin and New York – it’s going to be an exciting year.

TW:   Who are the next generation of collectors and how are their collecting patterns different to the previous generation?

GRB:   One of the reasons I love working with Avant Arte so much is that they’ve done an incredible job of building a huge community of 2.5 million young people that truly love art and want to invest in the future of art and artists. Avant Arte connects with these young collectors – 95% of whom are under 35 – across a variety of social channels including Instagram, TikTok and Twitter; the digital spaces where this young audience typically engages with content and culture. Social media offers a proximity to artists that has historically only been available through exclusive access, it allows collectors to get to know artists and their practice in a meaningful way and truly go on a journey with them. I see a lot of these young collectors making long-term investments in artists and collecting in depth – in many ways, it resembles old school patronage.

“Social media offers a proximity to artists that has historically only been available through exclusive access.”

TW:   What are some of the barriers that the next generation of collectors face and how does Avant Arte tackle these challenges?

GRB:   Many of our young collectors haven’t necessarily grown up with art and have found it hard to navigate more traditional art spaces, feeling like some of those spaces simply aren’t built for them, whereas Avant Arte makes everyone feel welcome, from long-term collectors to first-time buyers. Something that really sets Avant Arte apart, and that I’m particularly proud of, is the diverse programme. You’ll find museum artists like Jenny Holzer and Larry Bell, alongside emerging talent like Antonia Showering and Tunji Adeniyi-Jones and artists with a hype following like Ayako Rokkaku and Roby Dwi Antono – there really is something to float everyone’s boat. Avant Arte offers art at more affordable prices, with timed release editions starting at a couple of hundred euros – regardless of the price level, every collector receives an incredible white glove service. The content and storytelling that Avant Arte creates is really successful in speaking to new audiences, offering deeper levels of access to artists and really illustrating the magic of the amazing artists in the programme and their practice.

TW:   Avant Arte launched its first public art installation in Coal Drops Yard. Why do you think public art is important?

GRB:   It’s been magical watching the public engage with Tschabalala’s beautiful sculpture, particularly the kids that walk past it on their way to school every day. Everyone should have the opportunity to spend time with art and public art is often the most effective way of making sure that happens. There can also be a real power to placing very thoughtful work in such a public arena. As well as being vibrantly joyful to behold, Tschabalala’s sculpture gives the viewer the opportunity to reflect on the significance of a black female figure taking a seat and taking up space.

TW:   What long-term systemic change would you like to see as a result of the work of Queercircle?

GRB:   What Ashley Joiner, the founder and director of Queercircle, has already achieved with Queercircle is very inspiring. He has worked closely with the LGBTQ+ community for many years to deeply understand what is really needed from an arts charity. In response to that work, we opened Queercircle’s new home in North Greenwich earlier this year and have already had over 4,000 visitors in less than six months. As well as everything Queercircle is doing for LGBTQ+ artists, it is serving a truly diverse and wide audience. Growing up as LGBTQ+, you don’t see yourself reflected in mainstream culture in the same ways as other people. Things are getting better and we’ve seen some real progress in the past 30 years, but there is still a long way to go. Being able to visit an institution that is dedicated to your community, where you see yourself reflected and can connect with other people with shared experiences, as well as people from outside your community that want to learn about and celebrate your identity, is extremely powerful. I hope to see more LGBTQ+ spaces opening around the UK. Queercircle has also been very successful in programming for intergenerational audiences, from events for queer families to workshops being run by elderly queer people. I’d love to see more programming like this in our national institutions.

TW:   Who are the top three queer artists that should be on our radar?

GRB:   Gray Wielebinski, Michaela Yearwood-Dan and Dominic Myatt are all artists that I’m working with on upcoming projects and they’re amazing. You can find them all on Instagram.

TW:   If you could own one piece of artwork, what would it be?

GRB:   This one is easy. It would be Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait/Cutting, 1993. When I’m teaching, either at the Royal College of Art where I teach regularly or other universities where I often guest lecture, I always make sure I show my students this artwork. It so perfectly illustrates the radical dream of carving out a happy, healthy queer future built on community, stability and family (whatever shape or form that might come in) and how that dream can often be extremely challenging and painful in the face of societal and political oppression. It was made 30 years ago and still feels very relevant. This work will feature in a museum show that I’m curating next year, which I can’t quite believe… it’s a real honour.

TW:   What’s your favourite culturally curious spot in the UK?

GRB:   Chatsworth House is very close to where I grew up and we used to spend a lot of time there as kids. I love taking my family to visit when we’re up north, the house itself is iconic, the gardens are magical, and the art collection and temporary exhibitions are always wonderful

TW:   If you could only take three things to a desert island, what would they be?

GRB:   I feel like I should choose something like a pen knife, or just a massive knife, so that I could actually survive, but to be perfectly honest I don’t think my chances of survival are going to be particularly high, so I’ll probably just choose some nice books to keep me entertained for however long I last…
A Douglas Stuart or Sally Rooney novel (hopefully, one of them will have written a new novel by the time I get stuck on an island).
100 Queer Poems – a lovely anthology. You can read poetry over and over again and see something different each time, just like visual art, so this would be perfect on an island.
A Catherine Opie monograph, because I’m a superfan.

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