Art Loves Carrie Neely
Award-winning art consultant on setting up business as a single parent during the recession, the hard slog of the jet set lifestyle and rebranding for the global market
You are a well-known name in the Northern Irish visual art world, but how did you come to work as an art consultant?
Art is in my blood. My parents met at art college in the 1960s, and I grew up with art books and paintings covering every wall. I graduated from the Belfast College of Art in 1997 with a degree in visual communications, specialising in illustration, and there really was nowhere to go after that in Northern Ireland, as we did not have the online networks that artists have access to now.
I moved straight to London and started working for a start-up e-commerce art company called Easy Art, where I set up a B2B arm of the business, and I got hooked on selling art. Throughout the 2000s, I worked for well known art companies and galleries in London and New York, eventually setting up my own consultancy and gallery in London.
When did you launch Carrie Neely Contemporary Art?
I set up my art consultancy business in 2009, after having two babies and settling back home in Belfast.
Was it difficult in the beginning, operating alone?
Yes. I not only set up during the recession, but I was a single parent of two on Income Support. I fought hard to build a business out of nothing, at a time when I could not even afford to take a client out for a cup of coffee, but I had done it before and knew I could do it again. It was just circumstantial, and even though some people laughed and asked if it was ‘a hobby’, that made me even more determined to make it work.
What was the art market in Northern Ireland like at the time?
It had fallen hard. I came from London, selling British and American art at high prices to wealthy clients. Irish art had dropped in value by up to 75%, in some cases, and clients who had invested heavily in paintings had lost a lot of money and were very reticent about spending more money on art.
Luckily, I found a gap in the market, when I realised that a lot of the galleries here were not selling affordable art – clients that would previously have spent tens of thousands were now happy to pay £1,000 for a painting they loved. I also realised there were so many amazing artists here with nowhere to go, as the galleries would not take them on, so I started to put on large group exhibitions for emerging artists and grew my portfolio. I now have nearly 800 artists on my books.
What did those early days in business working in the creative industries teach you?
To ignore the bulls**t and get on with it, and that you can do whatever you put your mind to.
How did you expand your business?
I have grown my business organically, no credit cards and no overdraft. I normally just do what I can within the means of the business at the time, but I had a moment when I had to decide to either stay stagnant or go for it. I realised that I had a massive portfolio of work tucked away and not on my website, and when I received CIIF funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, it gave me an opportunity to re-brand my whole business.
Can you remember a particular high point when you might have thought, 'I've made it!'
I was standing in a shop queue a few years ago scanning the magazines and nearly fainted when I saw myself on the cover of NI Homes & Lifestyle magazine! Also, in 2011 I won the Ulster Tatler Personality of the Year award. As the underdog, I was very surprised to win at the time.
You are now relaunching your art consultancy business as Art Loves. Why the change?
Over the past six years I have called all my exhibitions ‘Art Loves...' (whatever the particular theme of that exhibition was), and it just kind of stuck. It seemed like a very strong brand name, as I can take it anywhere in the future. Art Loves Editions, the complementary website featuring work by all my artists, where clients can purchase work, strengthened this.
Will your services and priorities change in any way?
Not really, although I am doing much more large commercial work, corporate work and hotels now, whereas most of my revenue before came from private clients and collectors. I think it will make it easier for everyone to see our services from the new website, so we might attract new clients. Art Loves Editions is an addition to the business, created to give local artists a better platform.
You now have a portfolio of artists and clients from across Northern Ireland, Ireland, the UK and Europe. Is it a jet set lifestyle?
I now get most of my business through word of mouth, and I have a few very well known clients who know I will be discreet. I’m lucky as I get to travel a lot, but to be honest I try to work as close to home as possible, as I have three young children. The Internet makes everything so much easier. I can now have clients in the US or in the Middle East and can do business very easily via email and shipping. This is part of the reason for setting up Art Loves Editions.
How are Northern Ireland artists faring on the global stage at present?
Some well-recognised Northern Irish artists have done extremely well globally, but a lot of them had the means and help to get there, as galleries and agents used to pay for International exhibitions and publish books for artists. Now it is very much down to the artists themselves to create their own hype, which is a very difficult thing, as most are baring their souls in their work and therefore asking the world to critique their very beings.
Northern Irish artists have a much harder time than artists who attended London colleges like Goldsmiths, St Martins or the RCA, no matter how talented they are. People have a preconception that Irish art is all sheep and white cottages. It's time to change that.
For those artists hoping to get noticed in the current marketplace, what advice would you have for them?
The very first thing I would advise artists to do is to have their work photographed professionally, as it can make a massive difference. Then I would suggest thinking about their USP (unique selling point) – what makes them different? And a logo of their name will always look more professional on business cards and websites.
Everyone can create their own websites easily now through wordpress or WIX templates (I created the Art Loves website myself). A 100 word biography is all they need if the website is strong enough, always written in the third person, and if possible get someone else to do it or to read over it.
I would also advise artists to invest in PR for exhibitions, if possible financially. I do a lot of artist mentoring, and these days artists not only have to be an artist, but they need to know PR, marketing, finance, business and sales. I know how tough it is out there.