Illustration by Beth Nicol
At just 23, Ellie Pennick is one of the youngest gallerists currently navigating the artworld. She launched Guts Gallery in 2019 in response to the discrimination she had experienced firsthand in the art world. As a queer working-class woman herself, Pennick believes it is of the upmost importance to provide a platform for marginalized artists as well as a space they are so often denied.
We spoke to Ellie about own experiences in the artworld, and her advice to those trying to carve their own way in this time of crisis.
How did you start up Guts Gallery? What inspired you to make your own way in the artworld?
I wouldn’t say I was inspired; it was more the situation that I was in. Seeing the struggles around me post-university made me wonder how this could be changed. I was awarded a place on an MA at the Royal College of Art which was a really big deal for me, I was so excited and my family was so proud. It was insinuated that I would get a grant to fund my studies but I didn’t, so I had to decline which was totally devastating. On top of that I'd just broken up with my girlfriend and was sofa hopping. I was frustrated with everything, especially the fact that there was no cushion or support. I'd noticed the same with friends also from minority backgrounds, none of us were getting the support due to the really traditional model within the arts and the universities.
What is your experience as a freelancer in the artworld?
What the current situation has really made clear is that when you work for yourself, you are entirely responsible for yourself. If it goes to shit, it’s on you! There’s a lot of pressure to keep afloat with that. It’s up and down too: one month you can make a lot of money and be completely financially stable and the next month you can be completely skint. This being said, most people I know in London who are my age and in the arts are freelance, it gives you freedom you can’t get otherwise. Worth the hard work? We’ll see!
What is it like being a woman in this position as well? How does your gender effect your experience?
There is still undeniable misogyny in the artworld. There are a lot of female gallery directors at the moment - which is great - but the white, straight, older male is still predominant. Its tough, a lot of people don’t take me that seriously, for other reasons beside my gender as well, but there is still a struggle - you just have to look at the percentages to see! This isn't just artists though, being in the creative industry as a woman is hard on all levels.
What are the other reasons that people don’t take you seriously?
Age mainly. They all ask, “how old are you?” and the second I say 23 I can see their attitudes change. My accent as well, people associate northern accents with a working-class background and then decide to devalue me for that.
What motivates you to make the changes you want to see and take a strong political stance?
I’ve always been strongly political. The artworld is very much aligned with contemporary politics and the contemporary class systems, it really is. The motivation though is mainly the artists, and the support I can provide to marginalised artists. I know their backgrounds, I know their stories. Building a relationship and helping these people is the motivation. The people I work with as well, learning from the people around me. We’ve created a platform of support – not just me but everyone who has been involved in Guts – and that is so special to me.
What would your advice be to young women wanting to start up their own business and take on the artworld?
I always say “fuck it. You’ve got nothing to lose”. That’s my thing, but its hard work! Really hard work, you have to be prepared to work 7 days a week. I'd also say stand your ground. You have to remember that you are equal to everyone else and always be very vocal about this. Don’t let anyone treat you badly or make you feel small. Just fuck it!