With no shortage of galleries in Tunbridge Wells, art continues to populate the town’s cultural landscape. Fred Latty met mother and son Gill and Nicholas Ib, about how their Chapel Place Gallery is taking the local scene in new and exciting directions a year after opening its doors…
Tell us about the background of the gallery
Gill: We opened at the end of May last year. I had worked in galleries before and had always dreamed of having my own. Nicholas and I like the same things, so whenever we find something, we’re both excited because we know we’re going to love it. Very rarely do we pick something one of us doesn’t like.
Nicholas: Our approach was very much a sense of bringing a gallery to Tunbridge Wells and setting up the artists and art that we believe in, that we’re passionate about and that we think people would love. All the stuff we’re passionate about is here and we want to sell it because we like it.
How do you go about finding the artists you work with?
Nicholas: We’ve got a lot of friends who are artists and we’ve both been collectors for quite a while. We have a lot of painters who are established already and who we’ve known through galleries in other parts of the country.
Gill: We’ve been collecting art forever and we know a lot of artists, so that’s halfway there; it helps having worked in a gallery and got to know lots of people. There’s an amazing amount of budding artists in Tunbridge Wells and a vast amount of people wanting you to sell their art.
Was it a challenge opening up a new business?
Nicholas: We were a little naïve when we started in that we just did what we believed in – I think that will pay dividends and has been the right thing. We’ve been quite ambitious; we set out to have an art gallery in a big space with a real mix of artists rather than something quite niche or safe.
Having been open almost a year, how have things been from a financial point of view?Nicholas: There have been strengths and weaknesses to being quite naïve. One of the strengths has been having a very strong view of what we want to achieve, setting out to achieve it and finding it to be quite successful, with people really responding to it. Part of that is not being particularly focused on the brutal bottom line.
Gill: We both agreed that the first two years were going to be tough, because everything costs so much. The rates in Tunbridge Wells don’t help someone starting up a business; it’s a massive chunk, so it’s hard and a big challenge for anybody starting out, because everything’s against you. I’d be much better off if I didn’t own the gallery, just rented the premises, but we love what we’re doing and would love to see more customers.
Nicholas: There are a number of industries where you can do market research and set your estimates and have an idea, but with an art business, it’s incredibly difficult to know, and we’ve learned a lot quickly. For a start-up business less than a year old, everything is growing.
What do you do to increase footfall?
Nicholas: There’s a diamond effect where you need to cast your net wide to pull people in, but an art gallery is quite an intimate business; you haven’t got lots of people who are going to want to buy a painting for £2,000, so you want to find the people who are interested. We put a lot of effort into the building and the space, but we need to get people through the door rather than just having them walk in.
In what ways do you go about doing that?
Nicholas: We’ve both been collectors who are passionate ourselves, and we’ve loved having that very intimate relationship with certain galleries. We want to create that sense of family because we’ve been part of it ourselves. At the same time, to build up a small family of people who are really interested, you have to go wide.
The internet and social media is really exciting, because getting the stuff out there in different ways means people can be drawn in. There’s always a way in for everyone.
Gill: The people who buy something always come back and feel like they’ve loved buying the piece, but actually getting yourself into the art world is very hard. People don’t always know what they want but if you come and have a look, you know what you like and what you don’t. Some of our biggest sales are people who have seen things on the internet; it’s not necessarily the person walking through the door. That’s what we’ve got to work on, but our private views are lovely because we’ve now got a group of people who love coming in and having the experience.
Nicholas: I never used to walk into an art gallery because it wasn’t for me and I felt intimidated, so I’ve always hoped we can try and counter that. It’s a very difficult thing, because sometimes it’s nothing to do with you. That’s a challenge because a lot of people are afraid to come in, and I understand that, so we love to be a welcoming gallery.
Is being so close to London an issue?
Nicholas: It’s slightly different in Tunbridge Wells, because people live here and commute to London, but we’ve been trying to get that sense that this is a gallery in its own right and that people will travel here to a destination. That’s something you build up slowly through word of mouth, so we have to work twice as hard to make people who might go to London realise there’s something for them here.
Gill: It’s good, in a way, because it gets people interested in art, and anything that makes somebody think about art has to be a good thing. We’re lucky we’re this close to London because people can come and visit us.
With so many art galleries in Tunbridge Wells, is there room for everyone in the local market?
Gill: If you look at every coffee shop or restaurant, there’s art on the wall now.
There’s a lot of art all around you and a lot going on; I don’t know how you would pull it together or if you need to, because it’s all individual. Nicholas: When you have oversupply, you’ve got to be very confident about the quality of your product. It has to be distinct and you’ve got to believe in it, because it’s easy to feel that there’s art everywhere.
Are there changes that could be made to the town’s culture?
Nicholas: In Tunbridge Wells, there isn’t much arts leadership. When people do bold and ambitious things, people come, which is what I like to see. People sometimes talk about an accessibility problem, but I think it’s more a case of making it relevant, exciting, bold, vibrant and interesting. You never have a problem with accessibility when there are great spaces that are really exciting and that people want to go to. I think it could have a bit more boldness.
Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the gallery?
Nicholas: We’re doing a lot of work on revamping our website so everything we have is on there, which will change the way people can interact with us and mean we can open ourselves up more. It’s us linking into communities of interest and continuing to do what we do well, by getting more and more people seeing that we’re an ambitious gallery in Tunbridge Wells.