Over morning coffee, it was just like a chat with friends, although I’d not met them before. I guess that’s because they are not ‘gallery people,’ if there is such phrase. They are a couple that are following a passion and a hobby following long careers on more recognised and established paths.
Cathy: “I was a nurse for thirty years.” Ian: “I was a reluctant pensions administrator.” To me ‘The Reluctant Pensions Administrator’ sounded like a good title for an Evelyn Waugh novel.
Although later in the conversation Ian cited his fascination with 20th century art and writing, his bedroom wall at the age of fourteen was (rather oddly I commented) adorned with Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali posters, rather than the usual teenage visual fodder.
He also loved the Beat Poet Generation writers and so I accused him being the ‘Jack Kerouac of pensions.’ Cathy said, “On the Road’s well thumbed in our house!”
So, as a nurse and a pensions administrator they nurtured the idea of maybe establishing their own business together one day.
What kind of business they weren’t decided, but then as Ian’s interest in art brought Cathy into his hobby of visiting galleries and exhibitions, the couple occasionally buying works – which included artists such as Andrew Salgado and Andrew Hunt – “When we could afford them,” things seemed to crystalise into the vision for their ambitions around seven years ago.
“There didn’t seem to be enough galleries in central Manchester,” Ian said, “they were mostly in the suburbs. And so we started looking for a space that might work.” Cathy interjected, “We have no professional art qualifications. We just enjoy art. We’re very different personalities. Ian is good at finding art and I guess I’m good at curating space, knowing how to make the space work. I’m more of a risk taker and so I said to Ian ‘if we run out of money we’ll go and live with your mum.’”
Ian said, “That would be a sacrifice and a half….”
So they started to look and Ian told me that they somehow envisaged a ‘dark and dingy’ cellar in Manchester somewhere (maybe that would have suited the Kerouac in him), but after several false starts they came across Railway Cottage, just behind Eastgate in Castlefield, being offered as office space.
“We really couldn’t believe it when we walked in. It was a ready-made gallery space. The only thing we had to do was change the flooring and put a hanging system in.”
Then the question of whose work to exhibit. Given that they were collectors not art professionals the only approach that they could take was to, “Ask our ten favourite artists if we could show their work. It was effectively cold calling. We knew them, but they didn’t know us. The response was great, with the pull of a central Manchester gallery counting for a lot. The first artist we asked was Mandy Payne, she said yes and it went on from there.”
All set and the Saul Hay Gallery opened two and a half years ago with a show of Cathy and Ian’s favourite artists. I suppose the ultimate for art enthusiasts and collectors, to have their favourite artists in their own gallery.
“It was a very busy launch. We called it ‘One,’” Cathy said. A good title I nodded. “And Carl Austin-Behan came along. The sexiest Lord Mayor in the Country! All our friends and family, the artists’ friends and family. But we didn’t sell anything. In fact we didn’t sell anything for a few months. But then it’s about nurturing clients, getting to know them and them getting to know us. It was really only towards the end of last year that we really felt established. Although we still feel that we’re chasing behind things, learning and trying to catch up.”
Ian added, “We’re not selling nuts and bolts, or sandwiches. We’ve become more discerning. Now artists come to us and we’ve had to learn to say no if we don’t believe in their work ourselves. We want clients – maybe with jobs and careers like we had – to have access to fine work that they can afford, when they can afford it.”
And Cathy said that she worries about what happens to work when it’s bought and leaves the gallery with new owners. “Yes,” Ian said, “we should tell clients that they have to have an interview with Catherine before we let them buy anything, to make sure they’ll care for it.”
“And then check on them again every five years,” Cathy added.
The work at Saul Hay Gallery is eclectic, well balanced in offering and interesting. Cathy and Ian would, of course, not have it any other way.