In 1842 the firm of Aitken Dott established Gilders, Framers, and Artists’ Colourmen on South St David Street in Edinburgh. They exhibited and sold work by leading contemporary artists of the day, and still do, 175 years later, when we walk into their bright, welcoming premises on Dundas Street (now called The Scottish Gallery). We are warmly greeted by the team, who take the time to chat to us even though they are surrounded by huge piles of exhibition catalogues ready to be stuffed into the equally huge piles of franked envelopes.
We’re here to talk to the gallery’s Managing Director, Christina Jansen, who is celebrating her twentieth year at the helm of this 175-year-old organisation. We’ve got time to take a few photographs of the gallery and their sculpture garden before questioning her about her life, art, craft and running a commercial gallery.
Christina initially graduated with a degree in Industrial Design. “I decided very, very quickly after graduating that I wanted to work in the arts, and I didn’t want to have to do technical drawing or justify making something that had to fit within industry”. So she left the making to the artists. “I wanted to go into the arts where people made work for no other reason apart from that they were obsessive and passionate”.
Christina relocated to London, where she worked for the Crafts Council, both at their shop within the V&A and at their headquarters on Pentonville Road. And she undertook a postgraduate in Decorative Arts from the University of Glasgow, whilst still freelancing for the Crafts Council. She tells us how Dorothy Hogg recommended her for an interview at The Scottish Gallery after she met the renowned Scottish jeweller through her work with the Crafts Council. “I don’t know why I just started having a chat with her, and she was writing something down and I said ‘well you must be an artist’ because she had such fabulous handwriting”.
Christina’s huge backlog of experience all came together to make her the ideal candidate for running the prestigious Edinburgh-based gallery. “The Scottish Gallery being both fine art and objects was just a brilliant opportunity. And then all the history that I’ve learnt from my decorative arts – because you know objects don’t just pop out, it’s all part of this long history.”
It’s not just her background; her reverence for the artists The Scottish Gallery showcases and her appreciation for their audience make her perfect for this role. And even with all of her knowledge, experience and incredible enthusiasm, Christina still turns to the support of the team in The Scottish Gallery. When we ask what craft means to Christina, she immediately thinks to ask for a second opinion. “Oh, gosh. That’s a really difficult question. Kirsty, can you answer that?”
Kirsty Sumerling, Assistant Director and Elizabeth Jane Campbell, Gallery Assistant both studied Jewellery & Silversmithing at Edinburgh College of Art. Their attention to detail and knowledge base are fundamental to The Scottish Gallery’s success. Elizabeth is part-time, and very much a practicing artist. Having someone who’s right there in the thick of it is a tremendous asset, and the gallery can offer her the necessary flexibility. “And Kirsty, you’re devoted to the gallery aren’t you? Well, we all are. You have to be, it’s all about devotion,” says Christina. Kirsty came to the gallery having spent three years working at the Dovecot in Edinburgh, has worked on international exhibitions and is a Scottish graduate (from the Edinburgh College of Art). While we chat to Christina, Kirsty gets on with stuffing what looks like several hundred of the envelopes we saw earlier with exhibition catalogues, sells a piece of work to an adoring client and happily juggles seven or eight additional tasks. The devotion is obvious.
We go on to talk about craft being a tricky thing to define now. Christina tells us that she works with talent, rather than differentiating artists from makers. A large portion of individuals don’t call themselves what they are (potters, painters, directors) anymore as this can limit them from grant applications. Instead, everyone is a visual artist. “So I now have a more difficult job, in that I just look at everything, and then I’ll just pluck out what I think an audience will appreciate and value”. This is no small feat; with its long and prestigious history choosing what to showcase in the eminent gallery must be a daunting task. “I deal with things that I love, and I deal with artists that I think are incredibly talented and I try and put that within the context – in a place that brings in a public audience all the time.”
Our talk frequently comes back to the gallery’s audience. The Scottish Gallery is a commercial venture. It’s a private, independent gallery; they only exist if Christina can sell pieces. “Selling work, it’s such a subtle game. And it’s so important to artists to know that their work is relevant to others by buying it. And that is through a lot, the presentation, photography, your website, the way that you behave on the shop floor. It’s so subtle; it’s very important to artists that there’s somewhere out there that’s private and independent and champions their work.” And from Christina’s point of view, the highest compliment you can pay an artist is to buy their work.
She talks intensely about the emerging artists the gallery works with, and her one hundred percent lovely tingly feeling that she gets when she finds a new artist whose work she absolutely has to exhibit now. With other artists, it’s more like wine. “You’re waiting for that right moment. Some artists just need a little bit longer to come to maturity. Occasionally you immediately pull [new graduates] in and for others, they need to live in the real world for a few years before they find their feet.” It means she has to do a lot of rejection, but she has accepted that as part of her role.
If you are a maker who wants to showcase your work in the gallery, Christina encourages you to get in touch. “Just do it! Come into The Scottish Gallery and say hello!” And don’t be disheartened if your work is not accepted immediately, “because if you show everything, then nothing is good. And as I say, there’re some things that you know are not right for your gallery but that doesn’t mean that they’re not good.” Rejection is positive.
To celebrate its 175th year the gallery is crossing every part of Scotland, both geographically and by exhibiting emerging, mid-career and well-established artists. Over the course of the gallery’s 175 years they have literally shown thousands of artists, so including everyone was always going to be a challenge. “Because the longer you’re here the harder you have to work for what you do and not being taken for granted either. So some people think we’ve been here for 20 years, other people know that we’re very long established. But you’re always trying to communicate and make sure that you’re still relevant and make sure that we don’t take ourselves for granted and don’t take our audience for granted. And that’s how The Scottish Gallery has survived – because we haven’t stayed the same.”
The birthday celebration exhibition, 175 Years of Art, is about the gallery being as inclusive as possible. They also commissioned over 50 artists to make a small work of art that was 175mm by 175mm. For this Christina wanted to include a lot of local artists – so asking them each to make a pin is a very sophisticated, on-trend solution. They work with such a lot of jewellers, and are always trying to get men to wear jewellery, that it seemed natural to commission a range of wearable art pieces. Artists like Andrea Walsh have produced something completely different to their usual work, but still using glass as her material.
Adi Toch has made the smallest vessel she’s ever made (created from gold-plated brass, 24ct gold leaf and freshwater pearls), and Adrian Hope has made a small teapot (carefully crafted from silver and boxwood).
The exhibition gives a fantastic reflection of the living artists that are shown in the gallery and showcases Scotland’s strength in jewellery designers.
The current exhibitions are on display until 3 June 2017, and you can check out The Scottish Gallery’s full programme on their website.