Gary Churchward Interview: Online versus High Street – crunch time for art galleries
By James Brewer
The future of the fine art market is in your hands – or, more precisely, in your internet browser.
Online art sites are challenging the traditional way of buying and selling, as the cost of running gallery property and maintaining adequate staffing continues to rise.
London businessman Gary Churchward, who has tested both the premises-based and the online options, has come down firmly in favour of the latter. His venture, www.thechurchwardgallery.com is ringing up steady sales of mainly contemporary prints and paintings.
While bricks-and-mortar galleries have long flourished thanks to the face-to-face relationships of proprietors with customers, virtual platforms offer flexibility and ease of transaction, and generate new audiences for artists, galleries and private sellers. It is little wonder that many old school galleries now include an online purchase facility.
Research in 2013 by insurer Hiscox revealed the growing trend for buying art online – with, at that stage, 71% of contemporary art collectors surveyed having bought artwork on the strength of a JPEG image. Buying art in that way has become the norm rather than the exception, said the insurer, although its study found that the majority of traditional galleries had resisted the move to e-commerce.
Mr Churchward relates how he came to be a champion of the online choice. He said: “Ten years ago or so, I started collecting art purely for personal enjoyment, meeting and building relationships with some of the artists along the way. One thing led to another and the next step was to operate my own online art gallery as the amount of stock I had compiled had become substantial, and the contacts I had made encouraged me do so.
“I had opened ‘pop up’ galleries in Shoreditch and in Southfields, different parts of London. Both had elements of potential success but also paved the way to showing that a high street presence, although wonderful to operate, costs a vast amount to sustain. I came to the conclusion that a viable high street establishment would be incredibly expensive, and highly risky without a good deal of investment backing in place.
“Continuing investigation including talking with gallery owners and others in the arts world confirmed that the role of shop-fronted galleries is on the decline. Furthermore the sales from those galleries are coming from the framing and not from art sales. The need for such galleries to find some £40,000-plus per annum to run their premises underlined the volatility of the financial element.”
Mr Churchward declared: “Online presence is the modern option. Costs are now affordable, the need to hold stock is greatly decreased and the ‘shop’ is open 24/7. For a worldwide audience this is an essential requirement as part of a modern shopping environment.”
A buying decision based on a computer image might make some customers uneasy that they are missing out on a critical part of the process. Mr Churchward admits: “With the lack of touching or viewing some art, the buyer is in the hands of the gallery to offer a genuine piece of art as described. This, I believe, may be the biggest concern to the online buying market today.
“In fact, mid-range pieces (priced at £500 to £3,000) are selling well online. These pieces are generally known to the buyers and there seems to be a fair amount of confidence in their purchase. The even more affordable artworks (£50 to £500) trade very well. I assume this is down to what buyers feel they can afford to spend without risking much capital.”
He added: “People at the top end of the market in terms of price (at £3,000-plus) tend to want to view in person each piece. This is easily arranged. If a client wants to view a particular work I will hire an easel within a London gallery to show the piece. In that setting, a surrounding that befits it, there will be no doubt that it will be seen to advantage. If a client is overseas they tend to send a friend or colleague to view. For expensive pieces this is an option I am more than happy to offer.”
How do online galleries procure their wares? Mr Churchward said: “Sourcing works to sell online is as convenient these days as it could be. I use different methods. I source directly from the artist; I source directly from a publisher; I source through the secondary market (art bought and held to be resold); I source to order to meet the specific needs of clients. After a client contacts my gallery with their request, I forward the order using one of these methods. Finances are arranged and the works are sent to the client. It’s a very crisp way to transact.”
His current artist base comprises both emerging and established artists. He says that the emerging fraternity “need the profile. In saying that, the established market is where the higher priced pieces sell, but I am hoping that in a short time demand for the work of the emerging artists will gather pace and that prices will rise accordingly.
“As sellers of art we don’t want just to sell whatever we can to whoever they are. My love of art drives me to educate new collectors about good quality works.
“To sell a very affordable piece to a happy client is great. To sell a very good, original one-of-a-kind piece to a new client is where the buzz comes from. I know then that I have brought another collector into the world of art investment.
“I use the word investment advisedly. I really do believe that art will be the next ‘best investment vehicle.’ Not only is much of it affordable to everyone but it also a wonderful, tangible investment. If you get the right piece you can sit there and watch your investment grow as it hangs on the wall.”
Currently The Churchward Gallery is supporting a large group of emerging artists. “They produce some exceptional pieces that already adorn properties across the globe,” said Mr Churchward. “Pricing is from a very modest £195 to £3,000 and the works are as varied in style as they are in price.”
He says: “I think my first love is in the new work coming through,” and refers among others to Sara Pope, Alain Magallon, Martin Burton and Jane Bristowe.
Sara Pope worked as a shoe designer for high-end brands and catwalk projects. She now takes much inspiration for the themes of her oils and acrylics from her commercial experience, touching on the foibles of fashion, beauty, consumerism and the media. Her pop art, such as the Celebrity Lips series, subverts advertising styles.
Alain Magallon also works in oils and acrylics, taking his cues from 17th century paintings through Baroque, Pre-Raphaelites, pop art and surrealism to present day output. He says: “My intention is to manipulate images from different periods and techniques, then to marry them together and give them a new reason to be within an image.”
Martin Burton, who works under the name martinart, produces portraiture and has been influenced by artists ranging from David Hockney to Banksy. UK-based Martin has work on permanent show in New York and clients in many countries.
Jane Bristowe, who exhibited a lino-cut entitled Meerkats at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2010 and who was short-listed for Wildlife Artist of the Year 2008, is considered a leading exponent of animal images. Her prints in the relief technique using bold, single colours capture the appearance and character of many species.
Mr Churchward said: “Online or High Street? Only time will tell us which will prevail, but for the present I believe that if you don’t have sufficient financial support behind you the risks associated with permanent premises may be too high.”
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