A ‘millionaire’ artist owes me £1300

An ex-gallery owner, artist – counting Sienna Miller and Debbie Harry among his fans – and ambassador for mental health charity Mind dresses himself up as Mr Nice Guy: all soft eyes, tilted head and listening ears.

But when something (or someone) seems too good to be true – it usually is. And I found out the hard way that Stuart Semple is less the philanthropic, kind-natured, mentoring artist and gallerist that he claims to be – and more just a straight-up fraudster. Let me explain.

I returned to London in March 2012 after spending a couple of years in Somerset writing articles and running an art gallery. We’d returned quickly – on a whim – and I didn’t have any work lined up, so when a friend of a friend asked if I’d like a part time job as a gallery assistant, I was game.

The next morning I went down to Shoreditch to meet the man who was running the Aubin Gallery on Redchurch Street: a 3000 sq foot, contemporary space for emerging artists.

We went for a coffee and he asked about my time in Somerset – I was initially living on the Dorset border: his home county, which he liked – and my writing, but nothing about whether I’d worked in a gallery before. I eagerly volunteered information about my stint in Frome, running a gallery, but he wasn’t really interested.

He took me to the Aubin Gallery, showed me around and then asked when I could start. I said: how about tomorrow? He said YES. Bam! My first week back in London and I had a job. We agreed an hourly rate of £8 (shit, but a start) and he assured me this would increase over time.

The next day I rocked up with an Allpress coffee – this was a novelty, as Somerset is notoriously bad for coffee – met the other three new employees and settled into the windowless, makeshift office at the rear of the gallery.

We ogled the Sarah Maple canvases scattered around the place, leftover from her exhibition at the gallery the previous month – and discussed press strategies.

Despite the rather odd office set-up, there was lots of positive energy flowing in that room – probably because we were all new. Of course, that in itself should have rung alarm bells: where had all the previous assistants gone? But we excitedly chatted and planned and didn’t worry about it.

The gallery owner was based in Bournemouth during this time so would only occasionally come to see us. He’d suddenly appear, tell us that Charles Saatchi was going to be making an appearance and that we should prepare – and then saunter off.

His partner in work and love was at home with their young child and seemed to be running the admin side of things. She kept us vaguely updated on his jet-setting jaunts to Madrid and Hong Kong, where he was exhibiting.

Let me mention that at this stage we all thought he was a self-made millionaire artist because of articles like this and this.

A month went by, one exhibition was taken down and another put up, and we started wondering about pay. We were told it would arrive in our banks at the end of the month. We’d done all the contract-signing and bank-detail-giving at the beginning and it seemed quite efficient. But it got to the end of the month and the money didn’t appear. We were told that it was taking time to set us up as PAYE employees but that it would be with us soon.

We worked into the next month and then had an email from the woman who’d been running the gallery before us. She was owed thousands, apparently, but couldn’t go into detail because of an open court-case.

At the end of the second month, with no payment – I stopped working and suggested the others did the same, as it wasn’t looking like we were going to be paid. He accused us of stealing an iPad, amongst other things, but didn’t mention the money we were owed.

A few weeks later, I was owed over a grand and needed the money so I filed with a small claims court. I won’t go into detail because it’s long and boring but in a nutshell: I hired a PI, bailiffs eventually found him (he’d given us a fake address), they disrupted his solo exhibition and claimed some of the works to cover his debts. He then tried to sue the courts for damage to reputation. A year after this all began, I was told that the entire claim was wiped. He had admitted to owing the £££ but said that he couldn’t pay it.

Four of us were trying to get our pay, as well as two workers before us – and who knows how many before that. I got the impression this man knew a thing or two about court-cases and how to get out of paying debts (like – push it back and back and back because after a year, the claim becomes defunct). So although the bailiff was determined to nail him – we were having regular phone calls – there was nothing that could be done. Unless I wanted to file another claim, which meant paying another £200 or similar.

What irked me was that he waxes lyrical about encouraging young people to pursue creative dreams – in articles like this – and yet doesn’t pay the artists (we were all using the part time Aubin job to support other creative endeavours: shoe-making, photography, graphic design and writing) he hires.

But I decided to give up and let karma do it’s thing.

And I’ve written this as a cautionary tale because, as I said earlier: when something seems too good to be true, it generally is. Don’t be fooled by a big smile and eye contact.

I’d be interested to hear about other, similarly exploitative situations people have been in. It’s one thing when you opt to work as an unpaid intern – but quite another if you’re fraudulently hired under the false pretence of payment. Get in touch: annie@annieridout.com

And to the man in question, if you read this, that £1300 would come in real handy right now. So please feel free to contact me and absolve your debt.

*There was a response from the artist, see here.

*And then the Independent wrote an article about it – see here.

31 replies on “ A ‘millionaire’ artist owes me £1300 ”
  1. My name is Chris and I can verifiy these claims. I was one of the employees mentioned. Iworked at the gallery at the same time and was also not paid

  2. I too worked for Stuart, first as an intern and later as an assistant, working one day a week for 6 months. In my interview I was made a promise that it was very important to Stuart to at least cover his interns travel and lunch expenses but as the invoices went out month after month and no money was coming into my account I began to wonder whether this was really the case.

    After a few months I was offered £100 a month to continue to work one day a week. Whilst way under minimum wage it was more than the £10 I was meant to be receiving as an intern. This also turned out to be a lie. Whilst no where near the amount of money owed to some of his assistants the principal is the same, we entered into a verbal agreement when he promised to cover my expenses, Stuart Semple is a liar and a cheat and should be avoided at all costs!

  3. My name is Ellie Rees – I am an artist and Univeristy of the Arts Associate Lecturer. Stuart Semple curated my work in an exhibition for MIND at The Old Vic Tunnels in 2012. I spent some money on installing the show including transportation which was always promised would be returned as expenses. It never was.

    Correspondence between us became less and less frequent and more and more aggressive, until I was repeatedly ignored. Eventually I gave up a since it was a nominal amount.

    However, an ex student worked as his Studio Manager during the same period of time (Summer – Autumn 2012) and is still owed thousands of pounds by Semple. Everywhere I go, she and I meet technicians, recent graduates and artists who have been ’employed’ by Stuart and never paid. Sadly, he has left much financial destruction in his wake – well-meaning peers and colleagues have been exploited repeatedly and I believe his immoral behaviour needs to be exposed.

    When a Guardian article was recently written about him, extolling his virtues as artist/mentor/Philanthropist, many comments verifying the above were removed from the Guardian website. The publication cited them as unfounded. As a result, many complaints were officially made to the paper through the appropriate channels (including by myself and my ex-student). However, they were ignored. The Guardian refused to take a partial position and wouldn’t remove the article or even acknowledge the tens of outraged artists who had been manipulated and effectively robbed.

  4. Same tale here, I worked at his studio and he left myself unpaid as well as two interns. Highly irresponsible and advantage taking practice he leads.

  5. Hi Annie and everyone else who has shared their stories,

    I’m so sorry to hear about what you’ve been through. I read Stuart’s response. He encourages us to make our own minds up. I’ve never heard of him or his work, and am completely impartial, and his excuses sound defensive and squirmy to me. I have had experiences like those you describe with others in the world of art and culture, and think it’s important to stand up and speak out about things like this and not submit to bullying. We need to stand together and warn each other about potential bad employment practice.

    Remember you can always get free legal advice on employment issues from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

  6. I am an artist, he offered me a show and 3 months to working on it and planning my whole year around it, “they” cancelled it for no apparent reason. Very rude and extremely disrespectful and very very dull. Here is a film about people like this.. http://vimeo.com/69351174

  7. Annie, what’s the deal with Stuart’s answer:


    I really really tried to give you the money (twice via the court) but it wasn’t what you wanted from me so you turned it down.”


    It would be important to hear all the details, in case other people want to work with /buy from / show with Stuart

    1. To confirm: Although I was promised the money for the work I did many times in 2012, I was told twice that my wages had been sent to me, even after we stopped working there, not once did he try to give me any money.

      I did not turn down any money so, at least for me, this is very much a lie to back up previous lies.

  8. Why not send everyone cheques for the money you owe them? Why should anyone even have to take you to court for money they earned with their hard work? You tried? Not hard enough by the looks of it – hey an idea, you get the cheques written to all these folk and give me an address and I’ll send you some stamps, I’ll even throw the envelopes in 🙂 then everyone is happy

  9. The School of Law at Queen Mary University of London runs a free Legal Advice Centre, which specialises in cases involving creatives. You should group together and get in touch with them via lac@qmul.ac.uk include your contact details and a brief summary of the issue (by the sounds of it this falls under contract And employment law). This is a disgusting state of affairs, I mean really Stuart pay your debts, there’s no need for all the disceipt and drama.

  10. I suggest you contact The Guardian, The Times, FT, Independent, Artists Newsletter and Art Monthly with this story. Hell while at it why not some of the “reactionary” press like Mail & Express. I bet they’d love to do a hatchet job on someone like this.

  11. It’s a shame he changed his original statement, I hope that you got a screenshot of it, Annie. It was so squirmy it made me feel a bit sick. I especially liked the bit where he told Chris he was too good to work behind a gallery desk – and what, so by not paying you he was encouraging you to leave and follow your dreams? And where he puts 8,000 pounds of his own money into making a show look good – so why couldn’t he pay the 40 quid that he was asked for? And of course, the bit where he touched and improved many people’s lives, a bit like an artistic Jesus. It seems ironic that an ambassador for Mind should cause so much mental distress to so many people.

    It seems that even if you take him to court and he admits liability, he just says he cannot afford to pay. When people leave, after two months or several, he just replaces them with a new batch of employees. He’s done it for years, since well before the Aubin Gallery. He used to do it to his “friends” – a lot of people that worked for him were friends, and out of a misplaced sense of loyalty kept on working for him, even after he did this to them more than once. Now I see that he doesn’t mention his friends, only his assistants. The ones he bought a bike for, paid medical expenses abroad, gave money to when they were ill – now, according to his account, they are just employees and he is the magnanimous employer. Every person he listed there as helping he later went on to owe wages to – and he asked them to work for him when he knew he couldn’t afford to pay them. Annie & Chris, perhaps you’re lucky you didn’t know him, because then you would be betrayed by a friend as well as employer.

  12. Firstly, someone’s name is not their ‘intellectual property’, it is a descriptive term that cannot, absent acquisition of a secondary meaning, be trademarked. What you’re saying about them may be taken as libellous, but not as intellectual property infringement as you’re not using the name to start your own business or promote a product (unless Stuart Semple has trademark-protected his name). On the other hand, the photograph does hold the authorship and reproduction rights by the person that took it. Put two strokes across it, you’ve ‘created’ a unique work of art (a la Stuart Semple), and you can use it to your heart’s content.

    Secondly, dig deeper. The issues you mention go much further back than the last days of the Aubin gallery which, in fact, was over with by the time you lot joined – and SS knew it. The gallery had a fair run while backed by the Aubin & Wills money, with salaries paid on time, a dozen of exhibitions per year and day-to-day management. This was not SS’s money nor was it his gallery, he was the front face because of his alleged fame. Once the label and the gallery shut down, SS had the run of the space but never the money to back it up… just the walls. Unfortunately, this is when you got your ‘jobs’. SS’s previous projects and collaborations all bear the same signs: each ‘big operation’ is run in-house, fooling dozens of wannabe assistants and just as many potential business investors into trusting him with their labour, support and money.

    This doesn’t make him evil, just an exceedingly bad manager who can’t be trusted with the books because his vision is shaded by his ego. He is certainly not the only one building a one-man brand on the backs of interns, assistants, associates, friends, strangers, but I doubt he does it maliciously. The key issue is that this WILL happen to you again (or you yourself might be tempted to try it), unless the industry standards change. Gallery is not just the four fancy walls and a nearby hipster café, it’s a reputation built on ethics and sound business management. Where is SS’s reputation? Remove his PR and you’ll realise you don’t quite know what his art is all about.

    You – and Stuart Semple – would do well to reach out to the likes of Precarious Workers Brigade and see how this can be avoided in the future. Next time when you pass a job interview too lightly, start working without a contract, never see your employer or previous employees, hear only about celebs and never the real life art critics, investors, work associates from the same industry – you will know that you’re fuelling someone’s pipe dream.

    Think of this when it’s your turn to employ someone else.

  13. I ordered some of his black, pretty good tbh, and was about to order everything else when I ran into this. I don’t think I’m going to place that order now. His response reminded me ALLOT of employers who failed to pay me in the past.

    1. Yes, it’s hurts the countless workers that he conned money out of to see things like this. He’s a genuinely shit person. When Stuart semple industries Ltd didn’t pay me the money I was owed I was forced to take out a loan to pay my rent. A half decent apology might have made me feel better about it. But instead like others we just got c+d letters. I’m a believer in karma though.

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