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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.