Indie Oxford Interview: Sarah Wiseman Gallery

 In Indie Oxford Interviews

This week we’re chatting to Sarah Wiseman about 20 years of the Sarah Wiseman Gallery in Summertown, and how her ambition and drive has meant the business has stood the test of time.

Sarah Wiseman Gallery Oxford

Sarah, congratulations on the 20th anniversary of the gallery!

Tell us about how the gallery started and your first exhibition.

Opening a gallery became an ambition of mine whilst studying History of Art at University. In the background of many artists’ careers I was aware of the important role gallerists played in creating opportunities to exhibit and promote their work. I found it very inspirational as these individuals were brave enough to believe in the artists, take risks and find a way to put their work on show to the public no matter what.

The core of my business is that I firmly believe in that transformative moment when the artist and gallery successfully work side by side. I loved that energy from my studies and I love it even more now that it is part of my daily professional life.

Running alongside my ambition were two other catalysts to taking the step to opening a gallery.

I am very proud that I have had the courage of my convictions to stand by that initial ‘Why not’ moment and once I had my gallery, I was going to do all I could in my power to keep it; so, my career path was set.

The first was when people kept telling me that I couldn’t! One conversation I distinctly remember was with a friend while I was still at university. We were discussing what we wanted to do in the future and I said I wanted to own a gallery. She simply said ‘You can’t do that!’ The idea of it was an impossibility in her mind, but that closed mindedness got me thinking, ‘Well why not?’ And from that moment, I started to consider it a real possibility and began to look for ways to make it happen, which meant working in the art world to get the necessary experience.

The second was being turned down for a dream job in a gallery in London as they thought I would be leaving too soon to open up on my own. It was quite a compliment that they feared my ambition. When we met again a few years later at an art fair where I was presenting my own gallery they said ‘We should have employed you!’

I am very proud that I have had the courage of my convictions to stand by that initial ‘Why not’ moment and once I had my gallery, I was going to do all I could in my power to keep it; so, my career path was set.

Our first exhibition was called ‘Fresh Paint’. It reflected the new artists that we had on show and the fact that the refurbishment had just been completed. The show had a great energy, with abstract and figurative paintings. In fact one of the paintings by artist Adam Stone is still remembered by clients today. It is a huge painting of a man diving into a swimming pool, very dramatic and it set the tone for the gallery’s future. I remember it very fondly.

Sarah Wiseman Gallery Oxford
The gallery team: Johanna Gullberg, Sarah Wiseman, Sarah Lacey

20 years on, what does your role entail now?

In many ways it is very much the same as when I opened. Firstly the rhythms of running the gallery are very similar to any business.  You have to take care of the financials, marketing, managing the building, taking care of customers, each of these areas have their own demands and are pretty constant.

Then there is my primary role of directing the gallery, planning ahead for exhibitions, constantly looking and learning about new artists as well as keeping in touch with our gallery artists. This can involve being away from the gallery visiting exhibitions and studios. Keeping up can be quite challenging as there is always good art to be seen and then to be digested. It is important to always try and keep this at the front of my mind as this engagement is vital for the gallery’s continual development.

I feel a big responsibility to all our artists that we represent them well and that all the paintings we sell go to very good homes!!

One of my first loves though is being in the gallery, meeting and talking to our visitors about the exhibition on show, introducing people to artists they may never have seen before and sharing my excitement about their work. The buzz of selling work never leaves me, it is always exciting when there is a match between an art work and a collector. I feel a big responsibility to all our artists that we represent them well and that all the paintings we sell go to very good homes!!

I also love re-hanging the gallery! It is always a massive task and it often feels like you are turning the place upside down. This is a very physical part of the job, it is great to get away from the computer and just think about curating the space with the beautiful art work. It often feels like a re-invention and can be very energising, as the new exhibition changes the mood of the space.

Sarah Wiseman Gallery Oxford
Work by Daniel Ablitt

How do you go about commissioning work for customers, and what challenges does this process hold?

Commissioning paintings for clients is a very delicate process, in fact just this week I have been arranging one. The first step is to spend time getting to know the client and what they are looking for. You also have to listen very carefully to what they are saying and not saying. Quite often most customers are not very good at articulating what they want and you have to encourage them to speak up, even if they feel uncomfortable using ‘arty’ language. Once this barrier comes down you can start to really think about artists that will potentially suit them.

Then it is a bit like online dating, we have to match the customer to the artist, and the artist to the customer. This can be quite challenging but when you get it right (which we do most times) it is very rewarding and we have made some simply amazing commissions over the years.

The most challenging part is to leave room for the artist to be creative and let the work develop, the brief must not be too restrictive. This involves an act of faith on the part of the customer but will always lead to a better commission experience and a great final art work.

What achievement, moment, or success are you most proud of?

This moment, in fact! I have been asked the question a lot recently and there are too many moments and people to mention that have been pivotal in the history of the gallery. Looking back it is quite emotional to think how far we have come along and I am proud of everyday that I have been dedicated to the gallery. I am even prouder that my enthusiasm has brought many wonderful people to work with me at the gallery and be part of its history and future.

However when looked at as a whole they all build to one thing and that is today celebrating our 20th Anniversary and the gallery’s future.

Sarah Wiseman Gallery Oxford
Work by Daniel Ablitt

Which are your favourite pieces at the moment?

Daniel Ablitt’s new collection of work is very special to me at the moment. Daniel is having a solo exhibition ‘Foundations’ at the gallery and it is the backdrop for the 20th Anniversary celebrations. I have worked with Dan for 6 years and I really admire his work and his ethic. In recent times we have spent many hours discussing how to develop his established practice, where to take his work, to push it to a new level.

In this exhibition I have encouraged him to take a leap of faith and go for it, I have given him the freedom to take the work where he wanted it to go!

It has been nerve wrecking for the both of us! Yet, truly rewarding!  It took a while for Dan to settle into a different way of thinking about his work to find a new depth and narrative to explore. For a while it was all just up in the air as ideas and then they began to fall into place. I feel this is just the beginning and now that he has started testing his own boundaries he wants to break more of them down as the ideas are really flowing!

Dan’s exhibition really represents what the gallery is all about, working closely with our artists to help and encourage them to grow their careers, so it is a fitting show to have on while we are celebrating the start of our 20th year!

Sarah Wiseman Gallery Oxford
Work by Daniel Ablitt

What element of your work still makes you really excited after 20 years at the gallery?

There has to be two things and I appreciate they are a constant theme. So the first is seeing new work by artists in the gallery, their creativity and willingness to always push themselves is very motivational and inspiring. It is that endeavour that gives the gallery its buzz and energy.

The second is when our customers/collectors get as excited about an artist as we do, it is so rewarding.

Oh there has to be the third telling an artist when they have had lots of sales!! Never fails, to make me feel good; it is great to be able to tell creative people when they are being successful!

If you could work with any artist on an exhibition (living or dead) who would it be?

I admire all the artists that I work with and if I really want to exhibit an artist’s work I would try to find a way!

For example – I wanted to show printmaker Angie Lewin for years! I simply love her work! Customers were constantly asking me if/when…. But Angie’s work had taken off in a major way and she just could not take on any more galleries…. So we kept in touch (around 10 years), I kept reminding her that we loved her work and she kept say she couldn’t until….. Angie started printing at Edinburgh Printmakers.

Then after a conversation (without my knowledge) about my gallery with fellow artist Catherine Rayner (whom I have exhibited for 12 years) a lovely email came to me from Angie asking if I would still like to represent her work….. Catherine had sung our praises so much to Angie, that to show with us became a natural step. I was thrilled and in 2015 we had a large, very successful show of Angie’s work and in 2019 we will have the second solo exhibition. Every month we have people visiting to see her work and we often send it overseas as well!

That’s what I love about working in the art world – really anything is possible!

Sarah Wiseman Gallery Oxford
Work by Angie Lewin

Do you have any advice for budding artists looking to work with galleries to show their work?

You will get many rejections, but do not be put off, there is always the right gallery for each artist; it can just take time to find it!

It is important to find the right galleries to exhibit your work and I would advise spending time researching and visiting ones you admire. Try to find out as much as you can about them, the artists they work with and their exhibition programme. It is important to be selective as to who you approach and then only approach them formally – similar to applying for a job, you want to be seen as serious. Find out what their application procedure is and follow it, never cold call with a portfolio of work. It is quite a complex decision for a gallery as to whether they think they can represent an artist or not, so they need time to consider applications.

You will get many rejections, but do not be put off, there is always the right gallery for each artist; it can just take time to find it!

Lastly, which are your favourite independent businesses in Oxford?

Ooh! Now there is a list! I will start in Summertown on my street! Vanilla, Portobello and Mamma Mia, are my wonderful neighbours! Then onto Banbury Road Joe’s and LB’s the Lebanese Deli are great! And I have to mention Exell my local indie dry cleaners for the last 20 years! Where would I be without them!

Further down the Banbury Road Gee’s is a firm favourite as well as Fabulous Flowers, their window displays are always amazing! In Jericho I always enjoy a trip to the Phoenix Picture House, followed by a visit to to Branca, but I also really like the Jericho Tavern for a more relaxed evening.

In the city centre a walk around Antiques on High and Sander’s of Oxford followed by a stop in Quod Bar and Restaurant is always a treat! I also think that 1855 is a newish hidden gem and along with Objects of Use, great for unusual presents.

Mamma Mia Oxford

Sarah is a truly inspirational business owner and her passion and positivity is infectious. As part of the gallery’s 20th anniversary celebrations, Sarah will be holding an exclusive Independent Oxford evening on 23rd May where she will talk about her career and her journey as an independent business owner. If you would like to join us for this inspirational evening, please reserve your free place here.

We are so excited to be able to celebrate Sarah’s 20th anniversary with her and showcase this independent Oxford success story.

Love, Rosie xxx

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