How to curate art for your home - ideas from an expert.
"A decision to commit to buying an artwork is an emotional one, a gut feeling more than anything else."
How did you get into the art business?
I set up the gallery with John Zimmer in 2003 after moving to Arundel from London in 2002. Prior to this I had been an accountant for creative businesses for about 20 years, and my experience of the art world up to that point had been as a keen visitor to galleries, both public and commercial and as an art buyer!
Working with creatives for so long definitely rubbed off on me, and this has helped a lot in working with artists. As an accountant you get used to meeting deadlines and budgets, but this is not always feasible when dealing with artists!
James Stewart in front of the Zimmer Stewart Gallery.
The first year of running the gallery was a steep learning curve. I was fortunate to exhibit the work of two well established artists: Keith Milow and Ann Sutton. The former I knew from a Buckinghamshire sculpture trust I had help set up and manage, and the latter through mutual friends in Arundel. Our opening year actually coincided with Ann’s major retrospective at the Crafts Council!
This helped the gallery get noticed, and this meant we were suddenly approached by lots of new artists wanting to show their work with us. It was hard to say no at the beginning, but slowly I got better at selecting artists to work with and curating exhibitions. So, by the third and fourth years, Zimmer Stewart Gallery had a stable group of artists and an established gallery style which was drawing in collectors.
How did things grow from there? Zimmer Stewart is now celebrating its 15th year of operation isn't it!
Yes! This year Zimmer Stewart celebrated 15 years and I am pleased to say that we are still working with some of the artists who started with us, as well as a few new ones who have joined along the way.
After our first few years the ‘art world’ opened up more and I was invited to judge in several competitions (National Open Art and Sussex Young Artist of the Year). We also took part in the London Print Fair at the Royal Academy; and, put on several ‘pop-up’ exhibitions in London: in Fulham, under the arches of Hoxton and on Redchurch Street, Shoreditch amongst others.
In July 2018, I was also privileged to be a judge on the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition alongside an art critic, a director of Dulwich Picture Gallery and two artists. This was a huge privilege and a great learning experience.
So, we know you have an eye for art, but how do you go about choosing art for your clients? What's your starting point?
Well, the brief is key, but not always final!
I find that taking a brief from a client is more of a dialogue. They may have a fixed idea of what they would like, but after some discussion it may change and evolve. Often when presenting clients with work that meets their criteria, it is not right, but another piece completely outside the brief’s guidelines works perfectly!
The key thing for me in curating artwork is that I have to like it enough to want to own it myself. I find that I cannot be enthusiastic about something that I do not respect or appreciate fully, and clients pick up on this.
Secondly, my relationship with the artist is also important. Working with artists is quite special and not like any other business partnership. I visit artists in their studios to see work in development and to discuss the inspiration behind it. This gives me a better understanding of them, which helps me match their story and work with the buyer.
So selecting work for either an exhibition or to meet a client’s brief is an art in itself and not a science!
Bronze Sculpture by Christopher Marvell. Photography by Haymarket Press
How important is the existing decor when choosing a piece? Shouldn't it be all about choosing artwork that you love?
The common view is that if you love a piece and it stands on its’ own merits, that should be enough.
However, who the artist is, is important, because it is their training, knowledge and experience that has enabled them to create the piece in the first place. The status of the artist will also have a bearing on the price and availability of particular works.
The style of the work is also important (landscape, figurative, abstract etc). Clients often collect work from particular artists or art periods or specific mediums, and in all of these considerations the placement of the art has yet to come into play...
So, I would say that there a whole range of important factors and placement is inevitably just one of them!
If you are looking for a piece to go above the sofa it must necessarily “work” with surrounding pieces and the upholstery. Otherwise it will simply detract from the piece or create an odd juxtaposition of colour or style.
At the end of the day though, I find that the client’s decision to commit to buying an artwork is an emotional one, a gut feeling more than anything else. It means something to them, it reminds them of a trip, it reminds them of a person or it could just be to celebrate a moment in time.
A portfolio of etchings from Sir Terry Frost. Photography by Haymarket Press.
Do you go by any rules of thumb for placing artwork around the home?
From a practical sense, you would for example avoid placing unglazed paintings, ceramics or sculptures in a steamy bathroom. Or perhaps you might in most cases say avoid bright, bold or dramatic compositions in a bedroom, because the aim is to create a more calming or tranquil atmosphere.
However, it's ultimately up to the client, their personality and what the work means to them! They might be someone who likes to have something bold or provocative in the bedroom!
There's no real rules and I would not limit or restrict work for a particular room. It's more about matching the artwork to the moods you are trying to achieve.
In my opinion, I feel that artwork should be stimulating and give “dividends” on its investment all the time. You know you've achieved that when clients come back to you to say that their friends/family always comment on a particular piece.
Beach Painting by Nick Bodimeade. Photography by Haymarket Press.
How do you choose the art and artists that you represent? What's your personal collection like?
I choose artists that I can work with easily and who enjoy working with me. I like to work with artists who have interesting way of looking at things. Phil Tyler for example, in his South Downs landscapes - usually the land occupies just a small part at the bottom and the rest is dominated by the atmospheric skies full of movement and even a sense of foreboding.
My personal collection is quite eclectic and is full of works by the artists we exhibit as well as others including paintings by Maggie Hambling and John Kirkby with editions by Tracey Emin and Howard Hodgkin. I like to mix quite different work together and hang pieces close to each other.
Every so often I will rehang pieces, and this is quite exciting because neighbouring works interact with each other and changing this, changes how you view them.
Certain colours, shapes or elements become more prominent and you see the piece anew. The same effect can be seen if you simply change cushions on a sofa for others of a completely different colour from another painting.
Landscape Painting by Phil Tyler. Photography by Haymarket Press.
What top tips would you give to buyers looking for artwork for their own homes?
The main tip I would give to buyers is to not hesitate in purchasing if you really like something. Chances are when you come back later someone else will have fallen for it too, and you will have missed out!
Secondly, a good way to add to a collection without breaking the bank is to look at editions and specifically ‘original prints’. These are artworks in their own right, created as a print in a number of mediums (lithograph, screen print, etching, woodcut etc) and always where the artist has had a hand in the creation of the work. (Browse original prints here). Reproductions of paintings, giclée and prints in large editions should be avoided if at all possible.
Thirdly, do not be afraid of ceramics. Many clients avoid pottery because they are worried about breakage. They are fragile, but handled/placed sensibly they can be a wonderful way to add to a collection.
Finally, I would say look at sculptures in carved stone or wood and bronzes. If your walls are full, but you still have an urge to buy something creative, this is a good way to discover new artists and mediums. Smaller sculptures work well inside, but larger pieces can create a real impact outside that can be enjoyed from both inside and out of the house.