Roman Road: paving the way for the new generation of creative talents

Through a highly inclusive, democratic, and experimental artistic hub, London-based curator Marisa Bellani intercepts new talents from the contemporary art scene and supports them in defining the first critical steps of their careers towards a strategic positioning and tangible prospects.

The contemporary art market can be a fascinating universe of opportunities, but also a seemingly inaccessible, intricate labyrinth, especially for the new generations of artists. Drawing on her decade-long experience and thorough understanding of the art world, Marisa Bellani, London-based leading curator, strategist and artist mentor, came up with an innovative project aimed at helping emerging artists navigate the troubled – and for many unknown – waters of the art market. After ten years of prolific activity, she has thus transformed her gallery space Roman Road into an established hub for emerging artists seeking a viable support system. Through two areas of intervention, Roman Road Studios – a program of workshops, tailored mentorship, and residencies – and Roman Road Curation – dedicated to the conception and production of exhibitions -, this new platform aims to support young artists, many of whom are self-taught, in the delicate initial stages of their career. Launched in February 2024 with the group exhibition WE ARE THE FUTURE: Knocking on Heaven’s Door at Christie’s in London, featuring artists from every corner of the world, Roman Road reconfirms its international scope with the first solo exhibition of the queer Thai artist Channatip Chanvipava, which will open in Venice in conjunction with the 60th Art Biennale Foreigners Everywhere. In this conversation, founder and creative director Marisa Bellani provides some insights into the contemporary art market dynamics, their contradictions and gaps, and how Roman Road intends to correct them.

What is Roman Road and how did you come up with this innovative project?

Roman Road serves as a catalyst to facilitate the growth of artists’ careers, tailored to the goals and needs of each individual artist. This is achieved through various means, whether it’s by wearing my curator’s hat to provide visibility through group or solo exhibitions, or by offering one-on-one or group strategic guidance. Departing from the conventional gallery model and formal artists’ representation, this initiative stems from a decade of experience operating a space, coupled with my observation that many young artists are left without practical tools to kickstart their careers after school. For self-taught artists, breaking into the art world is even more challenging. My aim now is to leverage my accumulated experience to empower artists and help them navigate this crucial moment by addressing their questions and strategising with them about their next steps.

What are the main difficulties that a young artist can encounter in the contemporary art market?

For most visual artists, a practice is impossible without a decent studio space. In London, high rents and living costs can pose challenges for artists starting their careers. However, London also offers abundant opportunities for them. For those who can afford a studio and have a practice, the question of representation looms large. The contemporary art market is now divided between blue-chip artists and ultra-contemporary artists. Blue-chip artists, with institutional recognition and an established market, often belong to a generation born before the 1980s, whose careers have been developed by galleries representing them.
Ultra-contemporary artists, typically Millennials or Gen Z, have access to different tools such as Instagram or work with independent curators to gain visibility. Many of them are not yet represented, either because it’s too early in their careers or because they choose not to seek representation. Choosing not to be represented offers freedom and more control over one’s future development, but it also means that the artist must navigate the broader aspects of their career themselves. Traditionally, a gallerist handles this broader perspective through representation, which involves developing a mid-to long-term exhibition and sales strategy and possessing a strong knowledge of the art world and its market dynamics. This new structure for artists means they must learn these skills themselves.
Another challenge I’ve observed is the fast-paced contemporary art market versus the time it takes to build a sustainable career. Nowadays, particularly with very young artists, collectors respond to trends akin to how traders react to events in the stock market. It can be challenging for artists to keep up with these trends while staying true to their direction and vision, especially if their livelihood depends on sales.

WE ARE THE FUTURE. Knocking on Heaven’s Door, installation view

Is there any category or minority that is particularly disadvantaged?

Self-taught artists face inherent disadvantages. Art schools, particularly the most prestigious ones, often serve as a launching pad for artists, especially during degree show days when collectors and galleries flock to discover the next generation of talent.
This underscores the significance of the school an artist attends and the degree they obtain. Consequently, there’s pressure on some artists to pursue higher education. However, entry into these institutions is highly competitive, and the exorbitant tuition fees pose barriers, preventing less privileged individuals from accessing this crucial step that still holds weight on their CV.
Regarding the market, while progress has been made in closing the gender gap, women artists still face significant challenges. LGBTQ+ artists are increasingly gaining visibility, but in comparison, they are still not as widely collected as other artists or even other minority groups.

With what strategies and practical tools does Roman Road support emerging artists in the early stages of their career?

I approach each artist differently, adapting my role to best assist them. When I act as a curator, my relationship with the artist is built on deepening my understanding of their practice through numerous studio visits and conversations. Additionally, I make a concerted effort to familiarise myself with as many artists as possible, enabling me to grasp the zeitgeist and incorporate them into my group shows whenever feasible. With select artists, I also work towards organising solo exhibitions with them.
In instances where we are not collaborating on an exhibition, we engage in mentoring and strategy sessions. Together, we evaluate their goals and equip them with the necessary tools to achieve them. Ideally, they can then utilise these tools independently, feeling empowered to navigate the art world and market.

Who are the artists eligible to join the Roman Road platform?

In my curations, I collaborate with artists whose work resonates with the themes central to my curatorial research. This collaboration typically begins after studio visits and discussions to understand the topics the artists are researching. It’s a dialogue where I aim to align my interests with theirs. Primarily, I focus on two main topics: envisioning the future of the world through explorations of utopia and dystopia, and delving into the complexities of the human mind, ranging from non-normative identities to the deconstruction of prevalent stereotypes in modern society.
Regarding one-on-one sessions, I encourage individuals to reach out to me. There may be opportunities for us to collaborate in achieving their goals together.

In your opinion, what are the crucial assets an artist should possess in order to be able break into today’s art market?

Direction, discipline and drive.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues that contemporary art should address?

Many artists today are exploring themes that transcend the conventional structures of our world. These investigations encompass a wide range of topics, including LGBTQ+ issues, the impact of wars, hydrofeminism, and the meaning of existence within a digital landscape.
However, not all artists wish to convey overtly political messages. Some of the artists I work with like Daisy Dodd-Noble, Lola Stong-Brett, Ariane Hughes or Channatip Chanvipava want to veil those pressing issues beneath a veil of sublime, esoteric aesthetics, surrealism, or abstraction. In doing so, they seek to address the harsh realities of our contemporary world while maintaining a sense of ambiguity and mystery.

Let’s talk about your upcoming exhibition, The Sound of Many Waters (17 April – 27 May): what topics will it address?

With this idea of helping artists gain visibility, and after having worked with Thai artist Channatip Chanvipava for two years, I am extremely delighted to present his first ever solo show, The sound of Many Waters in Venice, which coincides with the opening of the 60th Venice Biennale. As I was preparing the show I saw a link between his work and the curatorial title”‘Stranieri Ovunque” (“Foreigners Everywhere”). This show proposes a new series of autobiographical large-scale paintings which relate real observations, stories, and subjective experiences of the artist’s life. From key moments like same sex marriage or child conception, to the exploration of fantasy as a representation of identity and a mundane scene from a meal with his in-laws where he experienced gentlemen playing a board game and commenting on the art market. Within each painting, Channatip blends different moments which are attached to the same event and yet not linear: some blurred, some sharp, some imagined. This way of depicting moments of life challenges traditional notions of belonging and conceptions of time, and refer to queer sensibilities.

Lovers at First Sight, By Channatip Chanvipava (2024)

Where will it be held?

Given the context’s importance to Channatip’s practice, alongside a series of paintings, he has conceived a site-specific installation for the exhibition, which involves completely transforming the space of a 17th Century Venetian “Dimora”, opened to the public for the first time, while still respecting its integrity. The installation, primarily composed of metal, offers viewers the opportunity to immerse themselves in reflections. Moreover, it explores the interplay of body and eye movement around each painting, enhancing the overall experience of the exhibition.

In your experience as a curator, what contemporary languages and artistic mediums do emerging artists tend to favor nowadays? And why?

I preselect artists within a framework of research, often favouring those who work with traditional methods over digital ones. However, the internet doesn’t cease to have a considerable influence over artists, as I’ve observed. While there is a noticeable trend towards redefining the meaning of painting – with some artists expanding their practice to include installations for instance – we have also observed a tendency to consciously craft works to appear visually appealing in photographs destined for online platforms. In my opinion, this phenomenon echoes a further development of Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra, where the notion of reality is increasingly questioned within the realm of paintings.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that artists have moved away from adhering to a single artistic language for quite some time now. Many incorporate multiple techniques within a single work, while others use various mediums as layers to achieve the desired effect.

Agnese Torres
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