Peter Hopkins: The Art World as a Coral Reef

In Dialogue with SHIM Art Network Founder Peter Hopkins

From The Coral Reef Principle, French artist Alexandra Mas (with Kandi Spindler) Vanitas Nostrum II, real and artificial flowers, wax, perfume, candles, sound, and empty cosmetic containers.

SHIM Art Network is an arts exhibition service network that provides resources to artists, curators, galleries and non profit organizations through their Exhibitor Groups. Peter Hopkins, co-founder and Chief Executive of the organization elaborates on its premise, ongoing activities, and future plans..

Tell me about SHIM and SHIM/Eco – what brought you there?

I had my first exhibition as an artist at 19, in 1974. Scary thought, but I’ve been exhibiting professionally since then, including Documenta IX. I opened a gallery, the Bogart Salon, in 2010, and helped create the 56 Bogart building in Bushwick before moving to a 2,500sf space on Meserole Street in 2013, and renamed ourselves as ArtHelix Gallery. In short I have seen every aspect of the art world up close, and knew it was fundamentally broken at all levels- from undergraduate education to museums. So we started to rethink this whole process in 2015 at ArtHelix Gallery. We saw lots of underrepresented art communities seeking space from us- university graduates, small collectives, performance and video artists. We realized giving shows to these entities was pointless, because no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t accommodate everyone as a gallery selling work. So we decided to re-imagine the art world as other transformative businesses had done to their own antiquated industries- AirBnb to hotels, Amazon to retailing, CostCo to supermarkets, Southwest to the major airlines, and Netflix to the film industry. The one thing they all had in common was that they were all networks, not stores. These enormously successful companies gave benefits based on memberships in order to grow, and to lower costs. Why not the art world?

That was our “Aha!” moment. From then in 2016 we have been building, (with the typical share of mistakes and false starts) and improving this concept. SHIM was then asking artists to understand that each by themselves had little or no power, but as small groups of 10-20 they could have enormous power. Our next job was to ask artists to rethink themselves as part of something bigger. A fluid model of identity based on things like geographic proximity (where they live); university alumni affiliation (where they studied); and formal identity (what they make). This could allow efficiencies that lower costs. Again think of a discount airline that flies you to a small location using a full plane of other similar users.

We began employing the hub-to-hub idea. We needed to visualize the art world not as a series of pyramids as it is now, with fewer and fewer available spaces as one climbs further up, but as one big ecosystem, like a coral reef, where every constituent part contributes to the ecosystem so that each and everyone can thrive, all without a master plan, architect, or gatekeeper, and most importantly without creating competition for resources among the users. Each group connects to each member and to each other group as they desire. Basically, we sought to replace a gallery identity model (which few artists ever achieve) to a group model that everyone could access. We removed commissions (of which we take none) and replaced it with a yearly low cost membership fee that includes individual uploads to Artsy- the world’s largest art e-commerce and archiving host. That’s the simple premise, and it’s working, while still facing all the typical challenges of a disruptive start-up.

SHIM Eco is our first SHIM art group predicated on ethical or justice based identity. Founded on a deep concern among artists over climate change and human rights, it may become our largest group since it encompasses a concern shared by hundreds of thousands of artists everywhere. We are really excited for the first very exhibition coming this October to Ursa Gallery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. From there we are already planning a stand alone Eco art fair, and other global art events.

Partial installation view of The Coral Reef Principle, Ursa gallery, Bridgeport, CT.

The Coral Reef Principle, from left German Pitre, Kathleen Vance, Bernard Garo.

How do you see the relationship between online and physical exhibitions organized by SHIM?

Covid taught us all that every artist must have both access to analog spaces as well as a permanent, and continuous digital presence. The correct balance should be almost 50/50, not 90/10 as it is now. Artists are always focused on shows, when they need to embrace “visibility”. Artsy has over 2,000,000 unique views per month. How many shows would an artist need to achieve this? Think how collectors and curators now look for work? Traipsing through galleries and art fair booths doesn’t work any more. Aside from the Covid pandemic the art world is too big and dispersed to engage this way. We all love art in space. Art is after all ideally engaged in a one to one setting. But if we can learn to date online, and buy food online, and purchase clothes online we would better all learn to find and view art online. Not as a replacement, but as a necessary complementary practice. The world of art engagement is changing incredibly fast; we’re all seeing the creation of the metaverse, NFTs, online sales conducted via Instagram- and SHIM is eager to embrace these new models and make them available to artists currently frozen out of the current art world.

How do you see the role of the artist in this model?

The artist is central to all changes we are developing, yet the artist has to also understand that as we create new ways to engage global markets they too must change. It is no longer enough to think, “I make art, it’s not my job to promote or work to create my own opportunities!”. Nonsense. Every successful artist knows that making art is just one part of the process.Creating children, and raising children are not the same things after all?

How can artists join?

It’s easy. Just visit our website and fill out a form to either join a pre-existing group, or start one of your own; and if the group’s curatorial concept is approved the first trial upload is free! SHIM’s job is to listen to what artists want and provide it…whether it’s international shows, art fairs, e-commerce access, residencies…really there is no limit. We love the CostCo model. It is not a supermarket, but a buyers club that offers food. Once they got big enough they started to offer their own in-house discounted brand, Kirkland, which resells Starbucks beans, Grey Goose vodka, et al. because their size allowed them to negotiate from strength with global name brands, and all because they use a small yearly membership to create a better experience for their users and employees. Ideally SHIM will be able to do the same.

Where would you like it to be in two years?

There is no limit to how large and transformative SHIM can become. The current art world is so broken, so difficult to enter, so willfully obtuse in it’s sales and pricing that we have no choice, but to work to change it. After all, the job of the artist is to imagine the future, and then to create it. It is a slow process, but we are growing and expanding our memberships and benefits models enormously over the past 2 years.

Installation view, from left Sika Foyer, Andy Li, Courtney King, Debora Rayel, Kandi Spindler

All photo courtesy of SHIM Art Network unless otherwise indicated