Picture perfect

Picture perfect

How do you make sure that Scotland’s oldest art gallery is fit and ready for the 21st century? Newly-appointed managing director Christina Jansen tells Peter Ranscombe how she plans to keep The Scottish Gallery relevant as it prepares to celebrate its 175th anniversary.

Walking down Dundas Street feels like stepping into the heart of Edinburgh’s art scene. From Anthony Woodd and Open Eye Gallery at the top of the hill, past the lavish exteriors of The Fine Art Society and The Dundas Gallery and on down to The Sutton Gallery, The Edinburgh Gallery and Greyfriars Art Shop, the road is bustling with delivery vans dropping off or picking up canvasses.

Nestled at the heart of the artistic quarter sits The Scottish Gallery, which moved to its Dundas Street home in 1992. Its history stretches back much further though. The company was founded in 1842 on South St David Street by Aitken Dott as ‘gilders, framers and artists’ colourmen’. The business expanded into larger premises on Castle Street in 1860 and added a dedicated showroom in 1897, which was christened ‘The Scottish Gallery’, with the firm also spending time on George Street.

Nearly 175 years after it was founded, the gallery is best-known as the home of the ‘Scottish Colourists’, a group of four artists – Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, John Duncan Fergusson, George Leslie Hunter and Samuel John Peploe – whose work in the early decades of the 20th century earned them their reputation as arguably Scotland’s most celebrated painters. Their movement is closely associated with the gallery, which exhibited their work right from the very beginning.

There’s a family connection too. Guy Peploe, who stood down this spring after 33 years as managing director, is SJ Peploe’s grandson and the son of artist Denis Peploe. Stepping into his shoes is Christina Jansen, who joined the gallery in 1997 and has served as a director since 2008 – and who is also married to Guy.

“Ironically, it wasn’t Guy who hired me,” laughs Jansen. “It was one of the previous directors who wanted me to work here because no one else in Scotland at that point had enough experience of working with objects.

“Guy and I got together as a couple 18 years ago and we got married last year, but we’ve kept our separate names. He’s successfully managed the business for 33 years. Guy has a lovely style. He’s old Edinburgh. He’s very much part of the establishment. I’ve been his ‘right-hand man’ – but we have very different styles and approaches.

“Guy is still very much an important part of this business. I’ve still got a huge amount to learn from him. His is an encyclopaedic knowledge of art and in particular the Scottish Colourists and Scottish art in general. His knowledge comes across as effortless.

“He’s stepped down to develop the Scottish Colourists Foundation, which will be complementary to the business but will be a separate non-commercial entity. He’s not looking over my shoulder though – he lets me get on with running the business.”

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Part of that contrast in styles comes from their differing routes into the world of art. “I look and I sound Scottish, but I was born in Germany and have a German name,” explains Jansen. “I’m also one of these strange types who’s been brought up from the age of two on both the West Coast and the East Coast – and, for a lot of Scots, that’s often more puzzling than being half-German.”

She remembers falling in love with art when her mother took her to London when she was 11 to visit the National Galleries. “The picture that really stuck in my mind was ‘The Ambassadors’ by Hans Holbein the Younger,” she says. “I still find Holbein an extraordinary person and talent – there’s a touch of witchcraft in his work. If there’s a Holbein painting on display then the portrait will follow you around the room.”

Jansen chose to study industrial design at Manchester Metropolitan University, but turned down the offers of two apprenticeships and instead headed to London to work in the press office at what was then the Tate Gallery, now Tate Britain. “I lucked out because I was working there in 1995 when Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize for his cow and calf in formaldehyde, which was going on show at the Tate. I was beginning to see how the whole art market functioned, even though I was just stuffing envelopes.”

From the Tate, she headed to the Victoria & Albert Museum, where she worked for the Crafts Council, before completing her master’s degree in the decorative arts at the University of Glasgow. Her dual training in both industrial and decorative arts and her experience in London led her to The Scottish Gallery, initially to cover a two-year sabbatical for one of the directors.

“That’s where I had an advantage – my initial background had been in selling objects in contemporary applied arts, which are luxury, non-essential items and it’s brutal training because they require a huge amount of work to market and sell,” she says. After her initial contract ended, Jansen spent a couple of years working in events production, doing stage and lighting design, while still keeping in touch by carrying out project work for the gallery.

Jansen has been the driving force behind streamlining the business’s operations, moving from separate departments into a simpler system. “The Scottish Gallery is an early model of a department store,” she says. “We started off as gilders and restorers and then people wanted to get their artwork framed. People also wanted to buy prints. Then artists came in and wanted to buy art materials. The artists also wanted to rent a room as a studio and if they could buy their art materials here and frame their work here, then could they sell their work here too? The gallery grew by demand.”

Understanding the gallery’s history and its evolution is clearly very important to Jansen. She points to various examples of how the business has weathered economic storms – from the First World War to the Great Depression and onward through the Second World War – and has clearly studied how previous managing directors have steered the company through troubled times.

Learning lessons from history helped The Scottish Gallery to weather the global financial crisis. The company has made a profit each year since 1994, with the exception of 2010. During the past financial year, the gallery sold £2.3 million-worth of goods, bringing in revenues of £1.3m and allowing it to make a pre-tax profit of £165,000, which in turn led to a £47,300 dividend for its 29 shareholders.

The gallery’s shareholder register at Companies House reads like a Who’s Who of Edinburgh society, including former BQ Scotland cover stars Sir Jack Stewart-Clark and Chris Tiso. Its chairman, Will Whitehorn, is the former president of space tourism outfit Virgin Galactic and current chairman of the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) and vice-chair of London-listed bus and train operator Stagecoach.

“After the financial crisis, the contemporary art market disappeared overnight,” Jansen remembers. “The UK became ultra-conservative, so post-war art became popular, and people returned to the Scottish Colourists too.

“It was very difficult for us to maintain mid-career and younger contemporary artists. There were lots of artists who were doing very well but they tended to be more-established artists with years of experience under their belts – they were a safe bet. No one wanted to celebrate the period of time around the financial crash, so it was very difficult for contemporary artists.

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“Our strapline is ‘Contemporary art since 1842’. We have to keep all of these things in balance. Contemporary art is at the heart of what we do.”

Balance is a word that turns up many times in conversation with Jansen: the balance between contemporary art and historic pieces; the balance between making material available online for customers while still producing the high-quality sales catalogues and other publications for which the gallery is well known; and the balance in the triangular relationship between the gallery, its artists and its clients. Like a butterfly in a meadow, she flits between topics of conversation, with a question about her role as managing director leading into an enjoyable detour about an artist who has recently exhibited on Dundas Street and then onto an Australian customer who came in with a ‘shopping list’ of items they had compiled using the gallery’s website.

And like any good managing director, she recognises that the artists and the clients are not simply people who she does business with, but can also be people who can help grow and enrich the company. She explains that going to an artist’s studio to speak to them about their latest work can lead into conversations about other artists, while going to hang a painting in a customer’s house can expose staff to previously-unknown artists or objects.

“What’s my day like? It’s pretty varied. It’s about trying to fit in everything and trying to be here on the shop floor, saying hello to people. And detail. No matter what it is – whether it’s working in banking or working in a gallery – it’s all about detail.

“When people think you just sit there and polish your nails behind your desk in the gallery and they say ‘Isn’t this a nice place to work’ then I take that as a compliment because we don’t want anyone to feel the stress that sometimes goes on behind-the-scenes. We have a very hard working staff and I’m aware of that because I’ve worked my own way up from the shop floor.

“I don’t like being divorced from the shop floor. If you lose personal contact with the people coming through your door then I think that’s really bad – but that’s becoming more and more of a struggle to maintain that personal contact. I’m the person really cracking the whip. We have a high quality, phenomenal timetable of art and you can’t ever let that slip.”

That attention to detail includes looking out for what’s coming next over the horizon. She points to the trend for young people to engage with art through their computer screens or tablets or mobile phones instead of going to see pictures in a gallery.

“Take photography for example: everyone has a camera on their iPhone now so they think they’re a photographer and so the whole market has been hit really hard,” she says.

“Filming is another. It takes a big personality or a very skilled individual now to make it in those areas where everyone thinks they’re a master.

“We get asked more and more often now ‘Who funds you?’ – I find that slightly depressing. We are the masters of our own fortune. There’s no safety net for us. That’s what makes us good, actually – being a little bit scared because we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we take nothing for granted. It’s a business that’s like gambling – it’s 100% risk. But our expertise has been developed over a long period of time and we also use external expertise where appropriate, and that’s how we keep going.

“That’s what we do. We really love art. We understand art. It’s not something you can possess. You have to respect it. For us, it’s not just stuff for sale, despite the fact that all our livelihoods depend on selling art.

“We just don’t know what the younger generation will think. Will they think that an art gallery is a worthwhile experience, is it relevant? That’s the problem we face.”

While the philosophical questions over the future of art galleries in general remain to be answered, Jansen has taken the bull by the horns and is in full control of two more immediate challenges. She is renovating the gallery’s main premises on Dundas Street and is creating a second private gallery space in the heart of the New Town, which will allow the firm to show pictures to clients in a more private setting and will also provide space for Guy’s foundation.

“We’re like a Tardis – we’re a much bigger gallery than you think,” Jansen laughs. “Often it’s like Piccadilly Circus in here. We’re a popular gallery and I will never complain about that because that’s testament to us still being relevant.

“Clearly we have a lot of art on the walls here during an exhibition but that’s just the tip of
the iceberg. Even with all of this space, people think we have hidden gems squirreled away – and in fact we do. Having an additional space means we’ll be able to show more art or bespoke projects.”