Galleries like this come along once in a Bluemoon


Tell us about the background of the gallery and how you got involved
It existed already and has been here for 12 years. It has gone through various changes during that period, but it was always involved in selling arts and crafts. I took over in August 2014 and we’re coming along in the same sort of style. The theme is modern, contemporary artwork within a range of subject matter. My background is in painting and teaching, so I’ve come into this as a practitioner rather than a businessman. I taught in south London and Hastings quite a lot and still do a bit of part-time teaching to subsidise the gallery.

How has business been since you took over?
A lot of people thought it had closed, so it was very quiet at first, then it gradually came back. Its strongest success has been through word of mouth and social media.

Having a good shop window has increased the footfall a lot – it’s definitely a centre where people come for handmade, quality gifts, which you can’t seem to get too much elsewhere. Tunbridge Wells is good for shopping, but things made by craftspeople and artists are harder to get hold of.

Where do you find your artists?
It’s varied; some I’ve known through having a painting background. I might have known them at college or met them since through mutual friends. In the art world, having personal contacts is the strongest way. Some artists were already in with this gallery and wanted to stay here, so I’ve sort of inherited them. There’s a range of different ways, so it’s a good mixture.

What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Letting people know that we’re here and welcoming them in to have a look. After 12 years as a gallery, we still get many customers who don’t know we’re here, which is a bit of a surprise I’ve had to pick up on.

Galleries can be quite unnerving for people who aren’t already art collectors and most people are a bit cautious. We want to reach out to the sorts of people who might not have bought original artwork in the past and need to come in and see it to realise how exciting and enjoyable it is. We’re looking at supporting charity events and maybe teaming up with other galleries to promote jointly.

Where do you receive your funding?
Almost all the artists are on commission – I represent them rather than buying their artwork. We’re in a start-up period, so I fund it privately as well to make sure it’s working. It’s a lifestyle for me; wanting to have it on show, come in every day and be around it is part of the reward.

If it was purely financial, I’d do something else.

How does your business and client base differ from other galleries in the town?
Compared to The Pantiles, we have a lot more footfall, which is where our display window and gift-buying work well; we’re still testing it out and keeping our options open.

In The Pantiles, people who are looking for expensive pieces of artwork will go there because they think that’s where the galleries are.

It’s much quieter there a lot of the time, but you’ll probably make bigger painting sales reliably, whereas here we have a lot more chat, a lot more conversation and we’re much more a part of the community.

Is there a big market for culture in the town?
I like Tunbridge Wells very much, but it’s a strange town that lacks a cultural centre or a cultural history apart from architecture. There’s no university, there’s no cathedral; we had the first art fair last year, which will continue and get better, but that’s still a transient thing rather than a hub.

People round here want to spend their money on cultural experiences and they’re starved of opportunities to experience that. Because we’re so close to London, it’s really easy to get on a train and go and see your theatre and your opera. People don’t come to visit Tunbridge Wells for the culture, they come to go high street shopping and for the restaurants. It’s a social town, but it’s not a cultural one, and I don’t think that will ever change unless the council gets behind it.

Any ideas for what you’d like to see?
Either they’ll support a gallery and build up a collection, or fund something like a sculptural outdoor art project – if we want the town to be known for something, the council will need to decide to take this on. They’ve got a prime opportunity with the old cinema site; there must be space there for something cultural and I really hope it won’t just be financially based like expensive flats and expensive shops. I’m not against that, but if that’s all there is, it’s a missed opportunity. If I was a councillor, I would be embarrassed if I didn’t promote a bit of the cultural interests of the town.

Does your clientele tend to vary?
It seems to be a wide range. This is a generalisation, but in the younger and middle ages, it has been very middle class. As you get into an older group, it seems to be more varied. I’m slightly concerned about that because I don’t see what it is about art that should be class based; it’s only pictures and visual images. The cost can be exclusive to people on low incomes, but visiting and looking at it can be free. I don’t think there’s an age issue, but I do think there’s a class issue.

Has the recession had an impact on the art community?
I haven’t got first-hand knowledge of this, but I get the feeling that people have become more cautious. There’s easily as much money around being spent on art, but it’s less speculative and is being spent in less varied ways. People want the security of something they think will go up in value, but that’s probably not true of many things in the decorative art world.

Do you get many investors coming in?
It’s a smaller number and I don’t really meet them in the shop. I’ve spoken to them over the phone and I do get fairly regular contact from people about that. But they don’t come in and browse; if they do come in, they want me to be a sourcer. They know I can get them a better deal than they’ll get over the internet. I can guarantee a better price, and even if they get a similar price somewhere, they can see it here. It’s a much smaller group.

How much repeat business do you get?
Most people are decorating their houses and a lot have bought one piece and come back saying they would like another one by the same artist. There’s a rumour that people tend to buy three pieces by the same artist, which I think is true. They do know what they want though; they don’t come in saying they don’t know anything about art. They might say they want a landscape, but not one that’s so obviously a landscape – one that’s suggestive of a landscape, which is a good artistic background for a non-practitioner to have. They’ve got an idea in their head of what they’re after.

Is Tunbridge Wells culture in crisis or are things looking more promising?
I’ve only lived here for eight years, so to say it’s in crisis sounds a bit of a panic to me. But it’s slow work getting it to change. I feel like it must be one of the slowest towns to change in the southeast. To say it’s in crisis would suggest that it has cut itself off and I think the demand from the people who live here will prevent that happening. They’ll probably always generate it themselves because they want it here. So it’s not in crisis, but a bit of investment would be nice.

What are your hopes for the future of the gallery?
I quite like it the way it is. I think it’s a nice gallery and I knew it before I took it over. So many people come in and say that it’s nice to have somewhere to go and see; the galleries at the other end of town don’t have crafts elements to this extent. I’d like to see it continue and would like to bring in more of a London feel to it. Because I’ve got two floors, I could always have local and regional artwork by unknown people that fits in with the decorative market. I’d like to have a collectors’ area for buying and selling, which is something a lot of London galleries specialise in – either that or another branch on the coast would be nice!

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