Art dealer Sid Motion is a ‘whisperer artist’ showing works that artists can actually afford to buy
When Sid Motion opened its first gallery on the site of a former betting shop in King’s Cross, London, friends and family were quick to joke that it was taking a big gamble. Six and a half years later, as Motion takes to the stage in its large, airy, white-walled gallery in Peckham, that gamble seems to have paid off.
She moved south of the river in 2019, after three years at Kings Cross, just a year before the pandemic, swapping the shiny surroundings of the new Thomas Heatherwick-designed Coal Drops Yard for the Penarth Center, which houses more than 50 workshops of artists. She is the first and only commercial gallery to land there and claims to have seen no change in visitor numbers. In fact, it may even have increased.
“I was interested in joining a studio and being part of a community,” she says when we meet on a cold October afternoon at the gallery. The Penarth Center is located on a former industrial estate near a railway line, while a working metal workshop is visible from the gallery window. When Motion greets me at the door, a local artist sticks his head out and asks if he can take a look at the new show, then walks around the room while she makes coffee.
As we sit down, she explains that her first initiative upon arriving in the area was to set up a local art trail. “There is no common workspace in the center for the artists and they just don’t meet. So having a gallery party once a year and having a weekend where they can all explore each other’s studios, really changed that.
As one of London’s most exciting young gallery owners, Motion, 34, has earned a reputation as an artist-friendly, with a keen eye for emerging talent. Young artist Remi Ajani, a recent Slade graduate whom Motion spotted early on, calls her “the whispering artist.”
Born and raised in North London, daughter of former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and Jan Dalley, arts editor of the FinancialTimes, she has a long-standing interest in the industry. “I was very lucky because I grew up in a family of artists,” she says softly when I ask her about her well-connected upbringing. “My parents always took us to museums and galleries, but not so much to commercial galleries, to be honest, so it was a bit of uncharted territory.”
Motion went on to study fine art and graphic design at Chelsea and the London College of Communication respectively, but never had the ambition to become an artist herself: “I was very clear that this role was for someone else. Instead, she placed friends in group exhibitions even during her time as a student, an early experience that continues to ground her work as a gallery owner today. “I love the idea of introducing new voices into the art world, of being able to work with people in their first exhibition experiences.”
It was this philosophy that led her to move to South East London, where she saw emerging artists. “She’s highly regarded but willing to take risks — a delicate balance that’s rare,” said Dafna Talmor, who is represented by Motion. The print studio of her partner Charlie Billingham, with whom she is also expecting a child, is right next to the gallery and hosts an ongoing program of artists in residence.
Motion speaks fondly of cups of tea shared with late resident Aimee Parrott, with whom she could engage not just in the display of the finished work, but in the active process of making it.
“I think it’s too grand to suggest that I bring a commercial gallery closer to the studio, but I’ve noticed in London that the gap between the two can feel huge,” she says. “Practicing artists and the opportunity to show are absolutely apart, and so bringing those things a little bit closer together feels like it makes sense to me.”
The artists Motion has chosen to show are eclectic. “I intentionally tried to keep my exhibition program and mediums quite varied,” she says. “I’m very interested in painting but I don’t want to show it exclusively.” Its list of just four artists includes photographer Dafna Talmor and 63-year-old Vincent Hawkins, who works primarily with drawing, as well as two painters.
In a competitive gallery landscape in which there is often a rush to claim an artist, Motion’s decision to keep its gallery artists highly selective is surprisingly refreshing. “I feel like I really owe them something if I represent them, and I want to be accessible to them in a way that means we can talk every day if they need to. I feel like I have a duty to them.
Motion’s official roster may be small, but it has exhibited over 100 names at over 50 shows since it opened its doors. These range from abstract painter Mary Ramsden, portrayed by Pilar Corrias, to sculptor Gabriele Beveridge, and bigger names like Rose Wylie, who is portrayed by David Zwirner.
Motion herself cut her teeth at Zwirner’s new London space, where she “learned everything I know”. This was followed by a liaison artist role at the now closed Max Wigram Gallery in Mayfair. The most important lesson she learned in the world of top notch galleries? “Putting artists first.”
She is also defined by what she has chosen to do differently. “I had an amazing experience in these world famous spaces, but I felt quite disconnected from some of the artists, friends or communities that I was witnessing. So when I opened, one of the things I had to heart to do was to make price levels accessible, and to be a place where artists could meet and dialogue with each other.
Works in Motion’s latest group show starts at £900 and climbs to £19,000 for a painting by Mary Ramsden, while its inaugural show in the south London space was a two-person show ranging from £200 to 3 £000. At a previous group show of 10 artists, works were offered for between £1,000 and £5,000.
His own events are a typically low-key affair, including a recent gallery dinner held at the small Italian cafe in a nearby south London park. “I approach everything I do at the gallery with seriousness and integrity,” she explains, “but I don’t think that means being picky.” Dressed in an oversized white shirt, black jeans and Converses during our encounters, it’s clear that she doesn’t comply with many of the formalities often associated with art dealers.
Yet she is no stranger to the challenges of the art world. “I don’t feel the pressure of always having to do things right. I made some decisions that were perhaps not the most commercially savvy,” she laughs sadly, “but hopefully this will create a truly exciting and nuanced, diverse and surprising exhibition program.
She still remembers former stars of the young London gallery scene such as Limoncello, Laura Bartlett and Breese Little, all of which closed the year she opened her first space.
“They were really people I looked to for what could be achieved, and these closures felt like a big, big shift,” she says. “There are a lot of bright young galleries here now, but it seems like a tougher place since Brexit. I hope to uphold some of the values that are stitched together in London.
The gallery continues to be a site of experimentation for the movement. In his latest exhibition, Same same (opened the week before Frieze London), she asked eight artists to perform the same idea twice. Pairs of works stand out in the room, both for their similarities and for their differences, in a complicit game on twinship. Motion reveals that she herself is a twin, believing that this shared experience may have influenced her outlook and openness to creative collaboration.
She remains involved in all aspects of the gallery’s operation, providing an intimacy that allows her to build lasting trust with clients and artists. “Whether they show up here, write me an e-mail or call me, they know who they are receiving,” she concludes. “And I hope the level of connection I’m able to offer means people feel they have a direct connection with me.”
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