It’s late on Friday afternoon here in London and we’re catching up with Niamh Coghlan, Director, Richard Saltoun Gallery about how she’s getting on under lockdown, the amazing year long initiative 100% Women, which ran from March 2019, to show only women artists, and what we can look forward to in the future. I joke that Friday afternoon isn’t an ideal time to schedule a meeting, but it’s 8 am for Niamh, who is under lockdown on the West Coast in Canada.
WIA: You’ve been with Richard Saltoun Gallery for some years. Can you tell me how you got to this position? Had you always wanted to work in the art world?
Niamh Coghlan: I’m originally from Canada and after completing my art history degree at the University of Victoria, I moved to London to do my Masters in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. I then worked in galleries and as a writer for Aesthetica Magazine.
I met Richard Saltoun when a friend of mine was working with Karsten Schubert, who passed away last summer. Karsten worked with lots of YBA artists, before they really took off. He was pivotal in fostering that movement and giving them shows when they were quite young.
Richard was dealing on the side, but hadn’t started a physical gallery just yet. My friend put us in touch to see if we would be a good fit for each other. I started working with him and about six months after we started working together, he found a physical place on Great Titchfield Street, where we were for five years, we’ve been in the new gallery (in Mayfair) for two years. I’ve been very luck to work with Richard. He’s very actively supported me within the role within the gallery and my own interests and passions. He’s been a very important person for me and my career.
WIA: One of the things I really like about the Richard Saltoun Gallery is your roster of artists, which is heavily weighted towards women artists, and feminist avante-garde artists working in conceptual and performance art which is still quite unusual. How do you go about building your roster?
Niamh Coghlan: It comes out of interest and research. Over the last two years, the programme has started looking at a younger generation of artists, prior to that it had been quite firmly fixed in looking at artists of a certain generation, working between 1950 to 1980. We are definitely expanding that. The idea of feminism is being something that is tied to one generation is ludicrous, it’s a shifting movement.
WIA: What advice would you give to an artist seeking gallery representation?
Niamh Coghlan: Make great art and work hard to get it out there. Social media is a good platform and it’s about making connections. Make great art and work hard to get it out there. Things do come out of contacting galleries, sending portfolio’s and ringing them up.
WIA: How did your year long, women only program, 100% Women, come about?
Niamh Coghlan: I have to give my colleague Alison Thorpe credit for having the ability to look at our programme and pick that programme out of it. She works in PR now and had just joined us at the time. We were looking at the programme for the next year and she said to Richard and I that as 80% of the programme was female artists, it would be really interesting to focus all our energy on only female artists, including art fairs. It felt like it was the right moment. It was important for us to foster the identity of the gallery around the feminist artists that we have.
It became much more than 100% woman programme of gallery exhibition and fairs. It was really encouraging to see the reception from not just collectors, but everyone, from the Freelands Foundation to the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. It was so important to foster a support network not just for artists, but generally across the arts industry and to talk about what we can do to activate change. For us as a gallery, it is buying art by women, whether it’s art museums, institutions or private collectors. It’s about re-education at grass routes level, teaching children about who the great women artists were, on the same level playing field as the male artists.
WIA: Do you think the industry is male dominated?
Niamh Coghlan: It’s still skewed. You can tell this just at a basic level by looking at the prices that are achieved at auctions, the representation of artists, female vs. male, in major European exhibitions, collections and shows. I think there’s a lot of work to be done. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Particularly in museums, you can’t just even out the collection bias. If people are aware and are actively working towards changing things, then I’m quite positive that we will start to see a shift.
In the last two years I’ve certainly felt there has been a huge movement towards change happening, whether it’s through the Baltimore museum who famously decessioned several major works last year to fund the acquisition works by female artists and different ethnic minorities. That’s so important. I’m not saying every museum needs to do that, but that benchmark really showed what could be done and that’s a great positive example.
WIA: Can you tell me a bit about future programmes for the gallery? And how the gallery will navigate the challenging times ahead?
Niamh Coghlan: We’re going to start introducing a few more online exhibitions into the core programme that we already have, which is one online exhibition every two months. It’s looking forward to understand which exhibitions make sense for us to be online and which need a physical realisation. With photography it’s much easier to have an online exhibition, with sculpture of minimal art, it’s much harder.
WIA: Can you tell us a bit about any other projects you might be involved in, for example as the judge on Mother art prize?
Our last two exhibitions of the 100% women programme were on the idea of motherhood, Matrescence curated by Catherine McCormack. We met Dyana Gravina, who is one of the founders of Procreate Project and the Mother Art Prize, at one of the events that we hosted. We offered the opportunity to have an exhibition at the gallery as one of the prizes. More than ever people are realising now how difficult it is to be a mother and an artist, especially in lockdown. It will be interesting to see how much more attention will be directed to this issue and what supports are in place. I’m curious to see how things will change in the future.
WIA: If you had to pick a favourite, who is your favourite artist, living or dead.
Niamh Coghlan: This might sound biased, Renate Bertlmann, who we represent. I think she is a witchdoctor as an artist. She can use and work with pretty much any media and she does it in the most sophisticated and informed way. I just find her to be compelling in what she deals in and the way she deals with it.
WIA: How do you relax or switch off?
Niamh Coghlan: I walk, without music and without podcasts. For about a few hours everyday and it is my sanity.
Niamh Coghlan, Director, Richard Saltoun Gallery.
Current exhibition (online) Bodily Objects Group Show to 30 June 2020
Current exhibition (Richard Saltoun Gallery, by appointment only) Annegret Soltau: Spider. to 30 June 2020