Image: My Cupola Gallery – 2012


This is my first ever blog post.  I have often wondered if people would be interested in knowing what it really is like to run a gallery.  I am not sure that my experience is typical, but what I am going to post will be honest.  I will try to give you a flavour of the passion, the fun, the trials, the pain and the damned hard work involved!  Times are tough, but in the art world my experience is that it is never easy.  It never was, it isn’t now and I doubt it ever will be – but I am an unrepentant optimist – I think you have to be – that or slightly insane.  Most people who know me would perhaps put me in the latter category, but I have some fabulous friends, wonderful artists and amazing customers and that’s good enough for me.

When people ask “how are you?”, I often reply “fair to hysterical”, which kinds of sums it up really.

So, a little background.  Who am I?  Well, apart from being slightly unhinged, I am the founder, owner, director and curator of Cupola Contemporary Art, which I established in 1991 as a fresh faced, enthusiastic and fairly clueless fine art graduate.  I won’t go into how it all began but suffice it to say, it happened very quickly, almost by accident and I suddenly found myself fulfilling my long held dream (from the age of 15 I had wanted to open an art gallery).  OK, OK, a little more detail?

Well, when I graduated (badly – I got a 3rd) from Sheffield Hallam University, the fabulous Psalter Lane campus, sadly no longer with us, I honestly wanted to carry on my art practice.  I, therefore, got a studio and looked for somewhere, anywhere, in Sheffield to show my and other artists artwork;  I am a painter by the way.  And there really was nowhere despite Sheffield being the 5th largest city in the UK, 3 working artists studios and an established art college (150 years).  This both confused and frustrated me enormously. When I questioned the strangeness of this fact, everyone; artists and the general public included, simply stated quite matter of factly that a gallery in Sheffield would never work. I just couldn’t believe this!  It didn’t make any sense at all.  The reasons people gave seemed more rooted in prejudice and ignorance than reason.

So, to cut a rather long story short, myself and a friend, Shaeron, who is still a practicing artist I may add, decided to hold an exhibition in my shared student flat, located above a butchers shop in an area of Sheffield called ‘Nether Edge’.  As an aside, my boyfriend was a vegetarian at the time.  Shaeron was a printmaker and kindly offered to go to the art college where they let us (Shaeron) silk screen a whole load of invites.  We got some work together and then distributed invites broadly and randomly!  It is a terrible thing to say but everyone we knew was either unemployed or unemployable – they were all artists!  I would never say this now, but the general view at the time was that anyone who described themselves as an artist was actually saying “I am on the dole”.  So instead we distributed invites to the owners of the little row of shops under the flat I was living in, to the picture framer, to people we met at bus stops, we took them to church, to the theatre, anywhere and everywhere else we could think of!

Then to our delight people came to our little flat, not just for the free alcohol we had advertised I don’t think, and they bought things.  What we had on show wasn’t expensive but it was ‘out of the ordinary’ and I truly believe that people don’t buy anything just because it’s cheap, I think people only buy what they like.  Anyway, on the back of this extensive market research(!) I was convinced that there was a market for contemporary art in Sheffield and all that was needed was a venue to show it.  According to me, I had proved(!) that people would buy contemporary art if they had access to it.  Those that were buying it were not buying it in Sheffield, simply because they couldn’t.  Armed with this information, I decided I was going to open an art gallery!  Yeah right …

I tried to get help and advice. I attended a business start up course (anyone remember Enterprise Allowance?) I went to Business Link, The Princes’ Youth Business Trust, I talked to The Arts Council, I went to the bank … To put it plainly I was metaphorically patted on the head and told to ‘go away’, in no uncertain terms.  The Arts Council even informed me that the reason they would not support the setting up of a contemporary art gallery was that they had supported so many in the past that hadn’t survived they simply didn’t bother any more.

As you might well imagine, I was inspired with confidence(!)

So, that was that.  I didn’t think I could do it.  I don’t and didn’t have any family money and no-one was going to lend a debt ridden recent graduate a ton of money to open a gallery without a feasible business plan which couldn’t be written because there was no way of knowing what the running of a gallery would cost and how long it would take to turn a profit – no information was available then and sadly, no information is available now either! And of course I knew no-one who could or would act as a guarantor for such a loan.

Therefore with a heavy heart , I advertised myself as a freelance artist and tried to do the best I could. I was waitress-ing part time, drawing a few dogs and babies (I’m sure there are artists that can relate to that), and working in my studio. That’s when it all happened – God or Fate intervened!  I suddenly, without warning, received a cheque through the post for around £15,000! This was my inheritance from my grandma who had died not so long before, but it was totally unexpected.  And I remember thinking at the time “Oh no! if you have more than £12,000 in savings you can’t get dole!”  How grateful was I?

Now this is where it all gets a bit weird …

Around two weeks prior to receiving this money I had been contacted by someone who thought they might be able to offer me some freelance painting work. They were based in Hillsborough (north side of the city), and ran a picture framing business.  The owner had an idea to decorate table tops in a faux naive African style and export them to America.  To say this type of work didn’t ‘float my boat’ would have been an understatement and I politely declined the offer. However, it turned out that the owner was running down his business to close it or sell it off cheap because he was emigrating to Alaska – honestly I am not making this up!

So, when I received this money I suddenly had a thought, surely a picture framing business could support and sustain a gallery whilst it got established?  It was worth investigating.  So I visited again and asked how much the owner wanted for the business – he said he wanted £10,000, the landlord said if I took next door he would give me a deal on the rent. Picture framing, on one side, gallery on the other – could I do it?  Well, this was my chance.  By this time I had £6,000 left, not due to extravagant living I can reassure you- I’d not even had a holiday out of it! I think most of it had gone to clear student debt amongst other things. So I went and asked the owner if he would accept £6,000 if I paid off the rest within the first year of running the business.  He agreed, so I just went for it! I agreed the sale with the owner, ran off to Scotland to get married, came back, learnt how to picture frame in a fortnight and then opened a gallery!


My husband has since said on many occasions that had he known I was going to open a gallery he never would have married me …

We celebrate our 22nd anniversary on June 21, and the gallery celebrates its 22nd anniversary in August.

I have SO many stories about the gallery I hope you will enjoy part two – coming soon.

K x

Image: My Cupola Gallery and Framers – 1991