Meet Hugh Allan, Damien Hirst’s partner in the Other Criteria art business.
When tickets for Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern went on sale, the first three days sold out in minutes. On the opening weekend crowds packed into the gallery in record numbers to view the show, while hundreds of others queued in wild weather outside.
The exhibition has offered a not-to-be-missed occasion to see the work of Britain’s most famous – and richest – living artist (The Sunday Times Rich List estimates his worth at £215 million), but Hirst fans in the know will tell you it’s not the only way to get your fix, and it’s certainly not the most relaxing.
I’m in the Welbeck Street offices of Hirst’s company Science Ltd to get the inside story on a peculiar shopfront at a nearby Marylebone crossroads that has a habit of arresting my attention every time I pass by. A clock with spots in place of numbers sticks out of its Thayer Street façade while the sign over the Hinde Street entrance modestly reads “other criteria”.
What’s it all about? Other Criteria works directly with Hirst and a number of established and emerging artists to make limited editions and multiples, t-shirts, jewellery, photographs, posters, prints and books. All merchandise is available for sale through the website and at the shop.
Art and commerce collide Hugh Allan is not only Hirst’s business partner but also one of the founders of Other Criteria, so I’m counting on him to fill me in on how this magical collision of art and commerce came to be. “Obviously he’s an artist and I come from a fine art background as well,” Allan says. “So we came to the publishing, edition, merchandising, retail world with no formal training. The whole thing was sort of born out of creative excitement.”
Other Criteria was registered as a company in the late 1990s when Hirst set out to release a co-edition around his work The Last Supper. (Inspired by the design of pharmaceutical packaging, The Last Supper was a series of 13 screenprints using the names of British canteen foods as copyrighted brands.) The business morphed into a publishing company when they decided to produce a book on Young British Artist Jane Simpson. And over time, Other Criteria went beyond the reproduction of art books into the reproduction of art pieces in the form of limited editions.
“There was no formal business plan,” Allan insists. “The whole thing came about through inspiration more than anything else. It grew organically, and in a very non-business way. Whatever the magic or secret of it is, Damien’s involvement with it was obviously key. Through his success – and his trial and error both inside the company and elsewhere – we’ve managed to work with other artists as well.”
Before the Hinde Street outlet opened in February 2009, Other Criteria existed as on online entity for several years, first as an information-only site and eventually becoming transactional. But if creative works could be experienced by just opening a web browser and clicking a mouse, then we wouldn’t be seeing queues out the door of Tate Modern. “The shop came about through necessity really,” Allan affirms. “Because what was being made – although it was very visible – obviously wasn’t tactile. And art, in whatever form, is about experiencing first-hand.”
A kind of retailer The decision to set up Marylebone came about through serendipity, but in retrospect there seem few places that so seamlessly unite the commercial world with the cultural world. “In some way in our minds was the fact that we were part gallery, part publisher, part merchandiser, but I suppose essentially a kind of retailer,” Allan remembers.
Physically and perhaps metaphorically, the Other Criteria crossroads connects Marylebone High Street, home of design boutiques and bookstores, with the Wallace Collection, a museum that in itself is a celebration of the act of collecting fine and decorative art. Then only steps away is Selfridges, the department store with a history of bold art initiatives when it comes to window design.
“So it was a great location, and it was on the corner – like lots of convenience stores,” Allan laughs. To be fair, Other Criteria sells considerably more unique objects and far fewer bottles of milk and Stella Artois than my own local Costcutter, but the analogy does make sense. “The idea I suppose in a way was to make the purchasing or acquiring of art less threatening and easier to do, by creating the retail environment which everybody’s familiar with.”
I have an image of pop stars, oil billionaires and sheikhs pushing shopping trolleys through the space, grabbing a spot painting from one aisle and a cow suspended in formaldehyde from another. “Have we had any sheikhs?” Allan shrugs. “I don’t know. We’ve had all sorts of different people. I mean, it surprises me every day.”
And for the uninitiated, what’s on offer day by day is surprising too. It could be a tissue paper and mylar garland by Confetti System, a silk scarf by artist Misha Milovanovich or a hand stitched wool tapestry of Polly Borland’s surreal Smudge photographs. Or how about a bass guitar decorated by Hirst in his iconic spin painting technique, signed by the artist and Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea to benefit the latter’s charity, the Silverlake Conservatory of Music?
Democratise art “Some people are a bit baffled when they come in; they see posters and they see prints and they see books. And then they see prices – posters for £30, prints for £3,000. It’s a bit of an education in a way.” In a sense, the space serves to both demystify and democratise the acquisition of art.
And it would seem there could be no better time to become an art collector. “We started trading at the beginning of all this terrible economic thing. But people still want to buy art and get interested in it. We were doing quite well during this troubled period, and still are.
In fact we’ve had a record few months in terms of turnover.” With average prices between £1,500 and £5,000, apparently the entry point at Other Criteria is much less daunting than Hirst’s £50 million diamond encrusted skull. “The other thing that was interesting is that quite a lot of our customers are first-time buyers, and they see what they’re buying into as an investment.”
With the banking industry’s smoke and mirrors approach to finance leaving a bad taste in many consumers’ mouths, Allan believes there’s comfort in owning something tangible whose inherent purpose is to be seen. “The financial world has turned its eye onto art as an investment,” Allan says. “So the common man, so to speak, can get a little bit of that through an established name. Over the years we’ve seen that some names hold their value and in fact increase in value. So it’s encouraging to put hard-earned cash into something that they not only get pleasure or meaning from but that’s actually an investment opportunity. I’m not saying that £1,500 is nothing – it’s a large sum of money. But it’s definitely widened the audience who can participate in the collection of art.