A culture of community

Interview with Gemma Rolls-Bentley, Chief Curator of Avant Arte

Avant Arte is an organisation taking a different approach to art. It is engaging, motivating and inspiring new communities of art lovers – 2.5 million in fact, of whom 90 per cent are under 35. One of the people responsible for propelling forward Avant Arte’s mission to make discovering and owning art more accessible is Chief Curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley – a perfect blend of curatorial and commercial experience with a passion and commitment to creating a better world for artists and social activism.

Gemma’s appointment in 2021 to this newly created role reflects the vision and values of the business and its desire to motivate and inspire new audiences. We were delighted to speak with her as she makes her mark in Avant Arte.


You have been with Avant Arte for just over a year now. What drew you to the organisation?
My career in art has spanned two decades, from working directly with artists, my independent curatorial practice to working at the intersection of art and technology. In recent years we’ve seen the art world recognise a new generation of collectors who are acting and thinking differently to previous generations and the team at Avant Arte understand what motivates and appeals to this generation.

I have watched Avant Arte grow and develop over the last few years as they’ve built a huge online community – including many young people who had no particular experience of art before. I also saw how they prioritised artists every step of the way, from enabling them to experiment and explore different forms of edition making, to introducing their work to new audiences.

Your role as Chief Curator was newly created when you joined – what are your hopes and vision as you evolve it?
My role is guided by Avant Arte’s mission to make art radically more accessible. We are doing this really successfully through our social media channels and how we chose to present and talk about an artist’s work with our community.

I am also really excited to help grow an artistic programme that’s diverse and brings many different artists and their practices to our community. Diversity has always been at the heart of my curatorial practice and will be at Avant Arte as well and by that I mean diversity in the broadest possible sense – identity, nationality, gender, but also the types of work and mediums we present.

As Chief Curator, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we can further support artists’ creativity and I’m really looking forward to expanding how we can support artists in new and exciting ways as a company. Whether that’s through public art programming and bringing art to new spaces or partnering artists to collaborate with leading arts institutions across the world.


Photo: Jessie Makinson, Stay here while I get a curse, image courtesy of Avant Arte, © Lucy Emms


Avant Arte has emphasised its aspiration and purpose to attract and engage new audiences with art. How does it do this?
We provide a community for young people who haven’t grown up with art and feel there are barriers in the traditional art world. Art is now part of their homes, their everyday routine, and their lives. That’s transformative. We’ve done this from the very beginning. Our founders Christian Luiten, Curtis Penning and Mazdak Sanii all came from outside the visual arts, and represent part of this new generation of art lovers. People who discover art through music or youth culture, for example rather than through more traditional routes like museums. We started life in the early days as an Instagram page to share art online, which back in 2015 was still a pretty novel way to engage with art.

Since then our community has grown significantly and we engage with them in different ways. We have our Discord channel where art lovers and collectors can compare notes, share their thoughts on artists and what they’re excited about and we recently launched our new proprietary space, the Collective. It’s currently in its beta-phase, and is a space for collectors to discover exclusive content, access upcoming releases and experience live events like our recent 8 hour live stream from Christian Rex van Minnen’s studio in Santa Cruz as he created one of his monotypes.

As the company grows can it maintain that level of authenticity at its core?
The business was founded by people who wanted to do things differently and who want to build a business that puts artists first and helps bring their work to a new generation of art lovers. We’re a values-led organisation and everyone is committed to scaling thoughtfully. We have a rigorous recruitment and onboarding process, both so we find people that will flourish and thrive at Avant Arte but also to give candidates a real insight into the company and our values when they’re applying.

How is your previous experience inspiring your approach with Avant Arte and this new role?

My career has been varied and I’ve worked in different roles and organisations blending the curatorial and commercial, the traditional and contemporary. Before Avant Arte, I was at Artsy for five and a half years and joined just as they were starting out in London. At that time they were very much the leader in art and technology.

Many of the roles I’ve had, including my current one, didn’t exist when I started out. But I’ve always been driven by the belief that artists should be able to earn a living by making art full time and the desire to champion underrepresented voices in the arts. I saw at university how art history and the market have excluded people from traditional narratives and wanted to change that. Avant Arte is driven by similar beliefs and that’s what drives us to open up the work of brilliant artists to a new generation. We want to create more opportunities for artists to earn a living by making art full-time. The art market is crucial to making this happen. Growing the business means multiplying opportunities for more artists globally.

What is your criteria and approach for identifying new artists?
We consider artists in many different ways. For example, we look at emerging artists and consider the buzz around them with some new and incredible pieces of work. We think about artists from around the world who have not had a chance to build their profile and consider what and how we can help them do that. We also look at those artists who are very well-established, who might appear in museums and we think about how we can partner with them to introduce their work and contribution to art history to a new generation of art lovers.

We cast a very wide net and look in lots of places for artists. We do our research, invest a lot of time going to shows, following artists and their career growth. We have a big network of collaborators and curators to ensure diversity in our artist programme.

We really listen to our community too, which is vital and central to our business. Social media provides an immediacy to that kind of dialogue. We also use Discord and WhatsApp groups to hear what artists they are interested in. With 90 per cent of our 2.5 million strong-community aged under 35 we are engaging with a new generation, passionate about art and artists and supporting their careers and evolution.

Recently we’ve taken this engagement to a new level when we invited members of our community to share their thoughts with us in a small, tight knit workshop. We invited collectors to come and put forward ideas with artists and our curatorial teams and we talked in an open forum about which artists’ practices they’re most excited by. I have never seen this happen before and it felt really energising to hear from them.


Photo © Tobias Karlsson – Esiri Erheriene-Essi, And All of My Friends Were There, image courtesy of Avant Arte


How do you and the Avant Arte team identify and establish new partnerships and relationships in the wider cultural ecosystem?
Avant Arte has a history of partnerships. We worked with Jenny Holzer on a partnership to raise awareness and funds for the the New York City AIDS Memorial in 2020, creating this amazing edition Urge, Urge, Urge and bringing the important work that the AIDS Memorial do to a new generation who didn’t live through the AIDs crisis. After the success of that campaign, Jenny approached us to support the Hurt Earth campaign which coincided with the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow last year.

We also partner with curators such as Larry Ossei-Mensah and Aindrea Emelife on projects. We’ve collaborated with Larry on three curated launches under the banner, ‘Inner Visions’ which most recently showcased three brilliant artists Gisela McDaniel, Patrick Quarm and Khari Turner. As the Chief Curator it’s important to me to bring new voices, artists and ways of thinking to our community and collaborating with curators like Larry and Aindrea is a core part of us building a diverse and rich artist programme for our collectors.

I’m also thinking about how we can partner with arts institutions and not-for-profit spaces. There is an important role for us to play in sharing stories about the importance of the spaces, and how they champion artists’ work. We’ve got some really exciting institutional partnerships coming up this year that I’m thrilled to be supporting.

In your view, how is the commercial art world evolving?
It’s a really exciting time, so much is unknown. I am almost happy to not know as it means there’ll be some nice surprises in the future. I could never have imagined the job I am doing now when I first studied Art History – these types of roles, or companies just didn’t exist. I love that about the creative sector.

We have seen so much change already with the rise of technology. It’s opened up the arts with so many more cross-cultural reference points and that’s fantastic. A lot of people who follow and buy art from Avant Arte, might have not been interested in art before. But some are already collecting and come to us from that, whether it’s sneakers, watches or luxury fashion, they understand and like our approach.

What role does technology play in commercial art?
Technology has so many applications across the art world. The pandemic showed us just how important it can be: enabling art lovers to tour their favourite museum at home when they were closed, bringing us virtual fairs and online viewing rooms when we weren’t able to travel, not to mention new, grassroots initiatives to support artists and arts spaces.

When I first joined Artsy it was incredibly difficult to convince artists to move online. There’s been a big shift with companies like Avant Arte at the forefront. The sector has seen the need for and use of technology. It has shown us what is possible; improving access, enabling discovery and creating new ways of engaging with art.


Photo: Super Future Kid, I beg your Garden, image courtesy of Avant Arte, © Ben Westoby


Can you share any news on what is in the pipeline for the artist programme this year?
We have such an exciting and diverse programme this year from new artists’ releases to public art programming.  We’re collaborating with Kwesi Botchway on his first ever print edition. It’s going to be a beautiful series of 3 silk-screen prints, each print is made up of over 40 layers.

We’re working with Peter Halley on a new print edition that combines two of his original works. The process has been amazing to see, Peter was able to work with our team to use some really innovative print-making techniques that he’s never used before in his work. It’s so exciting to see how we can push the boundaries of edition-making and bring new techniques to artists.

We’re also creating the most amazing sculpture edition with Marguerite Humeau. It’s an entirely new work in ceramic.  It’s been a really involved process of discovery and iteration. An apothecarist has been working with us as part of the project! I was just in Venice and saw her spectacular new work “Migrations” in Cecilia Alemani’s ‘The Milk of Dreams’ exhibition. The edition we’re working on is really special and I can’t wait to be able to share it along with many many more!


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