After roles at Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Casula Powerhouse and recently as the Gallery Manager of Australian Galleries, Will Sturrock has taken residence as the Gallery Manager of the young and uber- contemporary Gallery 9. Will took some time out from his day to chat about the practical realities of working in a commercial gallery and working with artists.
Interview by Alex Bellemore
What are the challenges of working with artists in a commercial gallery context?
There are different challenges faced by different artists according to what stages of their careers they are at. I think one underpinning challenge of recent years has been a sense of frustration with artists simply not selling work, this can be manifested in a bitterness which can end in a dissolution of a good working relationship or friendship. For me personally I haven’t experienced this but there have been some significant departures of artists from galleries who have not supported them and vice versa.
Given the brief of working with younger emerging artists, financial stress can cause unnecessary and unnerving frustration for all involved. This has meant that people have had to become more resourceful, more proactive and in a sense more driven because there are no easy sales for anyone.
How do you balance personal relationships with business relationships?
Honesty is always a virtue which has to be handled and managed properly. I think letting your emotional response to a body of work or the state of an artist’s studio overwhelm a situation can be incredibly detrimental. I haven’t experienced it personally but I have heard absolute disaster stories in this respect and it can be hard not to engage in an emotional response when you work in visual art. I think approaching the profession with objectivity and a desire to fill the needs of the artist, client and gallery is a difficult job and it’s about learning those balances.
You have to also stand back and not allow yourself to be involved in any disputes going on in the highly political and highly sensitive world of artists and studios, and also in talking with artists from other galleries or other gallery workers.
What are the major ‘do not’s for an artist dealing with their representative gallery?
What underpins the entire point of having a gallery represent an artist, or what keeps us afloat is the fact that there is some degree of exclusivity and that commission is maintained. What I mean by that is in this world of high interaction in social media, web sites and online e commerce, the referral in interest from clients should always come back to the gallery. I think it is just too easy for that information to not be handled properly. People in commercial galleries have a degree of expertise in developing client relationships and client management, in the same way that within a company it’s quite distinct that you have different departments. If you could use some essence of that business model and apply it to an artist/ dealer relationship I think it makes sense that the gallery is left in charge of dealing with the commercial activity and the artist remains in control of their artistic careers.
What core skills do you need to develop to work within a gallery?
The ability to approach new art and new artists and their work with completely open eyes and a great sensitivity to the hard work and dedication that they put into their practice is very important. I think remaining objective and critical without necessarily being vocal about it is a skill I am grateful to have acquired early on.
The ability to be able to expand your skill base is vital, once upon a time we could have contractors to do everything and in tougher times you have to be the web designer, print and graphic designer, then jump straight into a conversation with an executive client and then the next minute counsel an artist. There is a degree of psychology involved in it which you have to take in your stride. The ability to multitask and a willingness to learn new skills is potentially the most important skill. I cannot stress how important this is as often there is no one else to do it.