Interview: Karen Sherwood from Cupola Contemporary Art
In 1991 Karen Sherwood, then a recent art graduate, took the brave and potentially foolhardy decision to open a new gallery. The location for this venture was Hillsborough in Sheffield and the gallery was Cupola Contemporary Art. Since then, Karen has had to overcome obstacles and opposition, recessions and roadworks. It is a story that she has herself begun to document on her fascinating blog, which you can read here.
The good news is that 22 years later the gallery is still going strong. It currently has several rooms and a wonderfully idiosyncratic sculpture garden, all nestled in between Hillsborough’s tight main roads. The tram now stops almost outside the front door. The work of an extraordinary number of artists is on show and available to buy. There is also a full programme of exhibitions, curated by Karen herself.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Cupola Contemporary Art for the first time. I was there to review the ‘Kilter Kelter’ exhibition for the website www.digyorkshire.com You can read my review by clicking here. Whilst at the gallery I started to chat with Karen. We began discussing the exhibition itself but soon found ourselves talking about art in general and the process of curation. It wasn’t long before we were putting the world to rights!
Once I’d returned home I found myself thinking about the ideas we’d discussed. I was very interested in Karen’s approach to gallery ownership and the process of displaying and selling art. In order that we might explore these ideas further I’ve now interviewed Karen. You can read the full text below.
What comes across in Karen’s answers are, I think, her passion not only for her gallery but also for art, artists and the art buying public. Another strong trait that emerges is the integrity of Karen’s approach.
I’d like to thank Karen Sherwood for taking the time to answer these questions. The interview was conducted by email August/September 2013.
James Holden: Cupola Gallery has now been open for 22 years. How would you characterise the ethos behind the gallery? Do you feel that that ethos is any different now to what it was when the gallery first opened?
Karen Sherwood: The driving force, ‘the ethos’ if you will, of the gallery has remained unchanged since I began. I want people to want to pay for artwork and creative talent. I want artists to be valued and appreciated for what they do. I long for the day when I meet an artist who hasn’t at some point in their life been told to ‘go out and get a proper job!’ It is a proper job and I want my gallery to promote and value the artists we represent and be an ambassador for all those artists we don’t.
Pic: © Light & Dark Photography
JH: How, if at all, is the work that you show now different to the work you showed when the gallery first opened? Have you noticed any trends or shifts in the kinds of work being produced or offered?
KS: One of the nicest compliments I think I ever received from a customer of long standing, once said ‘What I love about this gallery is that you seem to improve constantly without ever changing!’ Although I believe that Cupola has always shown a consistently high standard of work across a wide range of media, I would readily admit that there is work I accepted in my early years that I would struggle to accept now. As Cupola’s reputation has grown, so has the number and quality of submissions we receive from artists daily. As we have such a large number of artists, we have to think very carefully about new artists and new stock. As for trends, there are trends both in the work artists are producing and exhibitions being curated and mounted. I am happy to say that often we are ahead of these trends or maybe even occasionally lead them. I was most amused once when I received an email from a customer suggesting ‘White Cube’ (London) had nicked my idea for a show. This was tongue in cheek of course but nonetheless both our galleries were hosting exhibitions on the same theme within weeks of each other.
JH: To what extent does the fact that Cupola Gallery is a commercial gallery make a difference to the kind of work that you exhibit? Is there pressure to show only ‘commercial’ or generally accessible work?
KS: Being a commercial gallery does, of course, make a difference to the kind of work I exhibit. However, I strongly and resolutely believe in the value of artists working with integrity. I am not interested in artists who make work ‘for a market’. In the very first promotional leaflet I ever made I said ‘I am interested in the work the artist wants to make, not the work they think they can sell.’ I believe artists should make the work they want to make as that is likely to be their best, most heartfelt work. It is then my job to sell it. I consider it part of my raison d’etre to draw people in and to facilitate, if you will, engagement with and connection to the artists’ works. Unfortunately, it is not exactly true that artworks sell themselves.
My gallery has a temporary exhibition space for themed and solo shows – often of a more challenging or, as some people might see it, ‘less commercial’ nature. In exhibitions it is not uncommon to find items that are not for sale. If I feel the work deserves to be shown and it can be shown to its best advantage then it will be included. I do not believe in an art hierarchy. I want people to get excited about art, artists and creativity in general and therefore I am happy to mix conceptual work, with fine craft, with installation, with painting etc.
JH: How, in your experience, has the audience for art changed over the last 22 years?
KS: Has the audience for art changed over the last 22 years? I am not sure it has. It is possible that more people feel less intimidated by the ‘art scene’ than previously as it appears to be more ‘trendy’ than it was, but I am really not sure. The rise of urban or graffiti art has been interesting and has engaged young people and/or new groups that may have not previously felt that ‘Art’ was for them. However, I still see day after day people who feel uncomfortable and intimidated by my gallery and the ‘art world’ generally.
Pic: © Jonathan Stead
And, conversely, rarely a week goes by without some comment as to the gallery being ‘in an unusual place’ – i.e. not the ‘posh’ side of town. It still seems to me that the art world wants it both ways. It says it wants to be ‘accessible’ but then plays on the idea that buying original art is some kind of desirable status symbol which is not for everyone. I have always been on a mission to engage people with art and I feel that my mission is far from over.
JH: Have you noticed any changes in attitudes towards ‘contemporary’ art during the life of the gallery?
KS: There seems to be more general knowledge about what ‘contemporary’ art is courtesy of high profile artists and prizes – most notably the Turner Prize and Saatchi’s endeavours over the years, but I cannot help feeling that most members of the general public not connected to the art world would struggle with a definition. It is difficult for me to answer this as although Cupola is called Cupola Contemporary Art, most of what we show could quite easily be described as belonging to ‘modernism’, although all the artists we exhibit are currently alive and are therefore ‘contemporary’. The only change I feel I could honestly detect is that more and more people seem to feel comfortable expressing a strong desire not to be like everyone else and assert their ‘individual’ taste outside of ‘the mainstream’.
JH: Do you get any sense that the attitudes of the art public towards emerging artists (as opposed to established artists with a high media profile) has changed at all?
KS: Well, I find that difficult to answer as I can’t really speak for the general art public. I am not sure what you mean by ‘attitudes’ towards emerging artists? Do you mean, is there a lack of interest in ‘unknown names’? As previously mentioned I have yet to meet an artist that hasn’t been told to go out and get a proper job, so I am not sure if attitudes to artists or artistic practice are changing very much. Unfortunately, art is still seen by many as a hobby, a luxury or an ‘extra’ rather than an important and, to my mind, crucial part of everyday existence.
It is clearly true that when an artist’s profile is raised they sell more work. However, my customers have never come looking for established names. Occasionally they have spotted one or two nestling amongst my ‘stock’ but I am interested and always will be in the work first and foremost. My enthusiasm seems to rub off on my customers and they are as interested in new work and new artists as much as I am.
JH: At Cupola Gallery you run a full programme of exhibitions. How do you decide upon this programme? Do you feel the need to link your exhibitions to broader art trends?
KS: Wow, the million dollar question! How do I decide on the programme? Gut feelings, news stories, conversations & debates with customers, artists, my husband, staff & friends congeal together into a sticky mass of ideas, which I gradually distil towards a single overarching theme for a whole year. I deliberately do not look at broader art trends. I cannot help but be aware of some of what is going on in the art world but have never wanted to follow anyone else’s lead. There often is a zeitgeist that you can easily get caught up in, but I try to steer my own ship so to speak!
JH: How do you go about selecting the specific pieces to go in each exhibition?
KS Another difficult question! Often themed exhibitions are selected via an ‘open call’ and work is selected from those submissions. If we are not happy with the variety or quality of the work submitted we will then search for work we consider appropriate and that ‘fits’ what we are looking for. When selecting work, I consider not just the individual art works submitted but the overall oeuvre of that particular artist. Each artist and their work needs to relate and add value to every other piece in the exhibition. There will always be a connection and a reason for each piece on exhibition within a themed group show.
JH: Do you feel it is important that you, as the gallery owner and exhibition curator, actually like every piece on display?
KS: Like? That’s difficult to answer. I ‘esteem’ every single piece of work in the gallery, or else I couldn’t possibly show it, but I probably only want to take home and own about 10-20% of what I show. This is an important difference. I have never wanted to be the arbiter of taste. I don’t want the gallery to be about me, I want it to be about the artists. Each artist is a unique individual and a unique personality as are the people who visit my gallery. It would be a nonsense if anyone came to Cupola and liked everything on display. I would expect that some of what was on show would appeal and some of it would most definitely not. I want that variety of work and that opportunity for all the different styles and ‘personalities’ to vie against each other for attention!
JH: With so many artists’ work on display, and with such a high turnover of pieces, how do you maintain the sense of a coherent identity for the gallery?
KS: Well, carrying on from my last answer, despite the diversity of artwork it is important to create an aesthetically pleasing and considered environment at all times. I continually work very hard to achieve this. I hope that the ‘coherent identity’ for the gallery is the range and quality of work we represent and exhibitions held. I want Cupola to be known for quality, innovation, diversity, accessibility, energy and enthusiasm.
JH: Has your own practice as an artist impacted upon the kinds of art you look to carry in the gallery? Have you ever sold your own work in the gallery?
KS: Strangely, when I opened Cupola I felt my own work wasn’t really suitable for my own gallery! That shows you what an odd creature I am I suppose. My own work is generally fairly accessible and I felt that I wanted to show work that was more challenging than what I was producing at that time. I have certainly sold my own work in the gallery and it was always a little conceit of mine never to label it or point it out. There was a reason for this of course (apart from lack of time), as selling your own work, as many artists will attest, is an odd thing. Generally, once my work is pointed out, the customer feels obliged to comment. I would therefore always say to the customer ‘if you comment positively about a piece of my work on display then I will own up to having painted it!’ Sadly, I rarely get chance to make work anymore, but I do try to find the time occasionally as it is one of the things that manages to keep me sane… just!
To find out more about Cupola Contemporary Art visit their website by clicking here.
To read Cupola Gallery’s tweets, click here.
To read Karen Sherwood's tweets, click here.
To read Karen Sherwood's blog, click here.
Published Sunday 15th September 2013