Please meet Liezel Strauss and Kitty Dinshaw, the two great women at the core of Subject Matter Art, a London-based online gallery for new photographic art. In this interview, we spoke to them about their goals, their challenges, and what drives them to make a positive change in the art world.
Marina Trancoso: Hi Liezel, Hi Kitty! Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how did you arrive at where you are now? How did the idea to set up Subject Matter come about?
Kitty Dinshaw: Hi Marina! So excited to be involved with Impressa, we love the platform and think you highlight some incredibly talented photographic artists. Thank you for inviting us!
So…both of us have “non-traditional” art world backgrounds, although Liezel would have loved to become an artist and develop an artistic practice when she was younger. I read English Literature at Oxford and grew up surrounded by culture of different forms. We both always had a deep love of photographic art, an interest in the art world, and a desire to encourage people to buy art!
Liezel Strauss: My husband and I started buying fine art photography around ten years ago and we always believed there was a strong market out there for people wanting to buy pieces for their homes, not just formal collections. While living in Tokyo, I set up a project to raise funds for the victims of the Fukushima disaster, called “My Japan”. Posing the question “What does Japan mean to you?”, I crowd sourced hundreds of photographic images of Japan and sold them as prints to raise money. Immediately I saw how others also responded to photographic art, and this led me to set up Subject Matter in a gallery space in Tokyo in 2011.
Kitty Dinshaw: I joined as Artist Director in 2015 after Liezel and I met in London. Subject Matter soon after became an online-only gallery. The decision for the gallery to go online came about due to a variety of factors: the cost of gallery space in London, a desire to be part of a growing online world – and because we both have young children and this gives us the flexibility we need!
MT: How would you describe “Subject Matter” to a new client?
KD: We’re an online gallery that specializes in emerging, established and award-winning photographic artists. That’s only the surface though – if you spend time on our website you’ll discover more: our aesthetic, our curations, and our service. It’s important to us to bring something a little “extra” to the art-buying process, be it a Skype call with an artist you love, or a handyman to help you hang your piece. We say we make art-buying easy and we mean it!
MT: I’ve recently read a very interesting study about the notion of “art intimidation” and why most people have never purchased an artwork. According to this report, the key reasons for not buying art include believing it is too exclusive and too expensive. How do you respond to this challenge?
KD: Wow, Marina you are speaking to our souls with this question! We firmly believe that the last thing art-buying should be is intimidating, but sadly it is still the biggest barrier for first-time art-buyers. People want to take pleasure in their purchase: buying a piece of art, whether it is your first, or your tenth, is always a very special moment.
This challenge is actually part of our mission: to encourage new art-buyers, not just for their own pleasure but also so more artists can thrive. A world with more art and more artists in it is only a good thing! The current sense of intimidation around buying art does no-one any favors, apart from a few wealthy collectors, galleries, and artists.
On a practical level, being online helps our accessibility – we have clients all over the world. We’re only an email or phone call away so we can assist with any questions or concerns. We offer free shipping and free returns, so the client doesn’t feel the pressure of “what if I don’t like it on my wall?”.
We try to keep our prices as low as we possibly can, while still making sure we get a fair deal for our artists. We are also applying for a scheme where you can pay for your art in monthly installments, which breaks down one major barrier straightaway. Our clients are like friends and family to us, it means a lot to us that they trust us to help them choose art for their home. A piece they will see every day of their lives!
MT: You’ve mentioned that being an online-only gallery helps your accessibility and allows for the flexibility you need in your daily lives. Yet, I would assume the online art market also its own challenges, doesn’t it? Could you tell us more about that?
LS: There is still snobbery around online only representation, mainly from dealers and art fairs – as you can imagine that frustrates us deeply. However, we also understand that what we think of as hostility is often a fear of the unknown. I guess we are disruptors of some sort and some people in the art world like things to stay the way they are. We believe in a more open and inclusive art world, a view which is not always shared in the industry. We see the landscape changing all the time, however, and we think acceptance and collaboration from bricks and mortar galleries will follow. We hope so. We recently spoke at Sotheby’s about these changes and we believe more conversations like that will help the health of the art world in general.
MT: By following you on Instagram I’ve realized that collaborating with and supporting women working in the arts plays a key role in your business culture. As young and successful female entrepreneurs, what are your tips for staying in business in the art field?
LS: This is an essential part of our business and mission, we will always be very vocal about our support of women, equality, and fairness. Wow, successful is such a strong word and I’m not sure we can be branded that yet! But we are certainly trying.
My biggest advice is to keep going. As long as you have the passion, the cash flow (even if you have to borrow!) and artists you believe in, then it must gain momentum at some stage. And I would say, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Kitty taught me that, she is not afraid (or she hides the fear well!) to ask for something and then to follow up to get what she asked for.
KD: I hide the fear well! I think we are one of the first generations where a substantial number of women – particularly after having had children – are opening their own businesses. So that sisterhood amongst fellow female entrepreneurs, in whatever field, is really important to us. My advice would be not to look just at the art-world for collaborations, look at businesses and women whose ethics and ideals match your own, in whatever field they might be. You’ll find a new audience and hopefully speak to new art-buyers too!
MT: Let us change the topic for a moment and talk about your curatorial concept. How do you select your artists? How do you find new photographers, and how do they find you?
LS: This is the question we get asked the most! It’s a difficult one to answer as we have no method, although people are always saying they can see our personal aesthetic through our choice of artists. It is always a gut feeling. If it doesn’t make our heart sing, we will not sell it. Kitty and I are very lucky that we have similar taste, so most of the time we agree on the direction of our business and the curation.
KD: There are so many talented photographers out there, we’d love to represent way more than we ever could! Most of the time, we find artists at graduate shows, online through blogs and recently we’ve even spotted someone through Instagram. Friends of ours in the art world often suggest talented photographers as well. Finally, artists also email us and we consider every application. One of our newest artists, Jenny Woods, emailed us with some work. It absolutely blew us away, we fell in love immediately. It turns out she had been trying for years to find a gallery to represent her and was on the verge of giving up.
MT: Do you have any advice for young photographers looking for gallery representation?
LS: Email and call the gallery you are interested in. A call goes a long way and so few people call these days. If you prefer to email, make sure you follow up if you don’t hear back. Currently, I have almost 2000 unread emails, so unless I see an email from someone I know or a follow-up email, I simply don’t get to it.
KD: If it is a brick and mortar gallery, visit the gallery in person and speak to the curator if you can. Be polite but not too pushy. If your work is strong enough, they’ll be interested, if it isn’t, no amount of pushing can make it so.
MT: I guess by now we are all curious to know more about your workspace. What does a typical day at Subject Matter’s office look like?
LS: We work in shared office space in Somerset House 2 days a week. Kitty and I are both parents, so we need to be flexible. But we tend to work there Mondays and Tuesdays. We work in a big green room, and everything is green, the sofas, the walls, the carpets and even the art on the walls! It is quite something, especially compared to the beauty of the public spaces in that building. But we love it, it’s a creative community and a really friendly and relaxed environment. London sometimes feels like a start-up washing machine, it goes on and on and the start-up noise can be unbearable. We need to be removed from that and to stay focused on what we are trying to do, which is to sell art and take care of our artists.
Kitty and I take Fridays off to spend with our kids. The other two days we either work from home, visit studios, or meet in a cafe. We like to change it up!
MT: Lastly, what plans are you working on? What can we expect from Subject Matter in the upcoming months?
LS: We have been asked by a few people to help with their existing collections or to help them to start buying art, but not just fine art photography, so we might look into more consultancy work.
KD: We’ve also co-founded a project, Unfold, which will take place in London during Frieze Week in October. We’re creating two galleries, and a working artist’s studio, with a series of talks and workshops designed to encourage people to meet artists and interact with their art. The galleries won’t be the usual white boxes but instead will look like people’s homes, to create an immersive experience that we hope makes people feel closer to the works.
To find out more about Subject Matter, head over to the gallery’s website or follow them on Instagram!
© All images courtesy of Subject Matter.