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Barbara Stanley Landscape

Illuminating Ireland: an interview with Barbara Stanley, Gallerist and Art Consultant

Barbara Stanley founded her gallery in 2002 with the mission of bringing contemporary Irish art to London. Hailing from Western Ireland, it is no surprise that she is committed to representing the country’s top painters and sculptors.

Barbara Stanley Gallery promotes a dynamic selection of works on its website and aims to showcase them to an international audience. Having established herself as London’s leading specialist for contemporary Irish art, she has recently launched a new print website that offers high-quality prints at affordable prices by many of the gallery’s regular artists. Drawing on Barbara’s 16 years of experience in the field, she offers consultancy services to private and corporate collectors. //

Services offered include art advisory for private and corporate collections.

The gallery exhibits in various locations across London.

Stephanie Yeap spoke with Barbara at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London…

 1. Describe your business in 5 words:

Promoting Irish artists in the London market.

2. What inspired you to pursue this career? 

Really, it was a love of art and the ambition to showcase Irish artists in the London market. When I opened in 2002 there was a notable absence of contemporary Irish artists available, so I identified that niche and it became my passion. My goal was to support emerging and mid-career artists and act as an agent for them, proactively manage their careers, and showcase them at fairs. What I have noticed recently is a growing number of Irish contemporary artists who are represented by galleries in Ireland being showcased in London, which is very encouraging.

3. What’s the most wonderful thing about the profession?

There’s always an element of excitement when you are effectively the middleman between the artists and the purchaser or collector. In 2002, I introduced Irish art to an audience who weren’t really familiar at all with the concept. The message I kept hearing from viewers was that they knew about Irish literary figures, dances, and music but they didn’t know about the visual arts, so it was exciting to introduce that.

I’ve worked in both domestic and business settings, but today I work more with people to their budget and having a whole collection of Irish art is really very exciting. And in the home, I would have people who have an affinity with Ireland, who might be Irish themselves or not. One of my biggest collectors is a Chinese gentleman who had spent some time in Dublin and he has a lasting memory of that and loves Irish art, so it’s that satisfaction in placing the art and seeing the joy.

Really, it’s a win-win situation: the artist is happy, I’m happy, and the customer is happy. It’s exciting when you know someone on the other side of the Atlantic has bought a painting and the work of one of my artists hanging in the boardroom of a large corporation where lots of people get to see it.

4. And let’s get real… What’s the most challenging aspect of the profession? 

Well, you probably know that my business is now in transition. For 17 years I had promoted the art of Irish artists in the London market and now I’m working more on providing an art advisory service. I found it challenging in the years where I was promoting the many artists I represented. I wanted to do the best I could for lots of people but running back-to-back exhibitions and increasing the artists’ visibility at art fairs is a very demanding role. There’s a lot of marketing involved and you finish one show and start on another; I think you do have to be very discerning.

One of the hardest things is to say ‘no’ and to acknowledge when you’re young and in the business that you can’t be all things to all artists, and that you have to take the position very seriously if you are launching emerging artists and managing their careers. I found saying ‘no’ very hard, as I always wanted to help as many artists as I could but actually, the reality is quite different, so that can be a challenge. It’s important to recognise your own limits and the feasibility of doing certain projects.

5. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given? 

I would say that was finding a niche, and as Peter Drucker, the American management guru, wrote, “stick to the knitting.” When you identify your niche and your gallery style, stick with it and become the best you can in that particular arena. So if pop art is your scene, become a specialist. Whatever it is you do, become known, single out one aspect and focus on that.

Art has now become such a tradable commodity but we still have to go back to the basics, that people buy art because they love it and want to support artists from their own country. But art can be fashionable, and if we start following trends and deviating you can end up in a very precarious situation: you have no identity then. You need to be true to yourself and the artists you represent.

6. What do you now say to someone who is just starting out? (Maybe it’s that one thing you wish someone had told you!) 

Based on my own experience, when you’re setting up it’s very easy to gloss over the important procedures and operations. No matter how small a business is, having procedures and systems in place is critical to its success. All these little factors such as good accounts, packaging, managing the way you market your business, and your terms agreement with your artist.

I come from a very strong operations background and I think at first some artists were daunted by my discipline, the way I documented everything, run checks, and pay every Friday back in the day, though now, of course, I pay them online. But it’s very very important to have those procedures in place, so everybody knows where they stand and they’ve got direction. And it can become diluted when people are so busy focusing on the marketing side that the operations side sometimes gets forgotten.

If you have an efficient business model, people respect you and know what you do. People know where they stand, and there’s no deviation. Particularly when you’re dealing with artists in Europe, as I do. So to account for the fluctuation in currency, we have to pre-empt what might happen if you have one price on the website and the exchange rate changes. What you write, what you read, and getting letters signed, all these little operation issues then become very important and you have to keep them in check.

7. What challenge is the industry facing that art dealers need to address? 

Well, there are lots of changes to the whole profile of how art is sold. Traditionally speaking, we have galleries and art fairs. The market has grown phenomenally in the last 15 years, certainly since I came into the business, and I think now things have changed with the presence of 2 things: the online gallery and how that enables artists to sell directly, thereby reducing the need for an art gallery, to an extent. It also means that with the rising costs of premises on the high street particularly in London or any capital city, owning a space becomes prohibitive. So it’s remaining competitive and having a presence, going with the flow, and being ahead of the game. Making sure that you have a good online presence and that you are set up to sell online, and that you’re aware of what happens, understanding that your artist may be selling directly, and having price transparency, all of that.

In my experience, it boils down to good customer care, because our role now is to introduce our clients to the artist, you know? There are many artists out there so what I’m doing as an art advisor is helping people build collections of Irish art. They may not know the artists I’m introducing to them, they might have heard of the more established ones but not those emerging, and it’s being in a position where you can provide something. You know the artist and what their standard of work is like, so it’s on their reputation. So we still have a good role as advisors, which is important.

8. If you had to be one work of art, what would you be – and why?

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‘Garden Green’ (1962) by Norah McGuinness. Image from

Now I struggled with that question a little bit! There are so many works of art that we admire, but to be one of them, I chose a piece by a 20th-century Irish female artist called Norah McGuinness. The painting I chose was called ‘Garden Green’ (1962). At face value, it’s a very simplistic painting, it depicts a domestic scene, just a table in a kitchen, but there’s a view out to the garden and a very wide, big window. At the bottom of the garden, there’s a lady walking away from the house.

Actually, what we understand is that Norah lived her life back in 1930 in rural Ireland, and she actually left the domestic setting to live in Paris, which was a very brave thing for a female artist. She was divorced, she had children, but she managed all of this and to get away when the time was right. So there are always those two worlds for her, which kind of describes the entrapment a lot of women had with that association with domesticity and not being able to pursue their careers. And what she did was amazing, because she was one of the first female artists from Ireland to be represented in the 1950 Venice Biennale. Then she went on to form the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, which still exists today, which really again gave female artists from Ireland a voice.

The empowering story behind this simple painting just holds a lot of attraction for me. And I think also, the important thing is that the piece is not just about what was happening to women in rural Ireland, but what’s still happening in parts of the world today. It’s identifying with that struggle women had, but understanding that this is something you can overcome that and change your circumstances.

9. What do you personally believe are the best advantages of being part of an association like AWAD, and how have you benefited? 

My feeling, having worked with a large corporation, was that you can feel quite isolated as a gallerist. You’re on your own with your little team or some freelancers, but a lot of time you’re on your own, so it can be an isolating kind of career. Connecting with others in the industry is very beneficial, I’ve always felt that being connected with Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD) ensures that you’re always aware of the best practices, best legal perspectives, shipping, and all the things we need to know.

Another great aspect is that other members tend to do business together, share premises or stands at art fairs: now that’s how I’ve benefitted. For 3 years I’ve shared a gallery in Connaught Street with a former member of AWAD. That happened during the 2011 recession when economically we were forced to make some pretty tough decisions, so coming up with a model like that worked pretty well for a few years. I’ve also shared space with other members I’ve met and dealers like Cynthia Corbett at London Olympia, so I can’t say enough about the benefits of being a member of AWAD. It also makes good sense economically, when you’re trying to cut back to see if you can do business with others and maybe share premises. It’s very practical. 

10. How can you make the most out of being a member of a professional network? 

Connecting regularly and getting to know the members is really critical because, in any organization, you get from it what you put in. So if you show regularly, you’re going to see the same faces and what people are doing. Sadly, we get totally immersed in what we do and I know Susan (the Founder and CEO)  has looked at different ways of doing things, but it is critical to stay in touch and I do feel that’s when you can partner with other members on potential projects and exhibitions.

Connectivity is often the success behind running a business, as the more people you know the more you get to keep ahead of what’s going on. But to be part of a professional organization, I think that knowing precisely what the changes are and being prepared gives you an advantage, whereas when we’re on our own we’re not always aware of what we should be doing, or we’re aware but not taking action. This way, you get to feel more proactive through the membership. //
Facebook @BarbaraStanleyIrishContemporaryArt // Twitter @BarbaraStanley // Instagram @Barbarastanleyirishart

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