Cupola Contemporary Art is celebrating a rather incredible twenty five years in Sheffield this month so we sat down for a chat with the lady who started it all, none other than Karen Sherwood. And if you haven’t paid Cupola a visit, you should do so, pronto.
Can you tell us a little bit about Cupola, and how you started it back in 1991?
I was a Fine Art graduate from Sheffield Hallam University and was pretty horrified by the lack of anywhere to show or sell contemporary artwork in Sheffield, despite there having been an art college in the city for one hundred and fifty years, plus at least four working artist studios. It seemed to make no sense and there was no confidence from anyone that such a venture was possible, let alone achievable.
‘People in Sheffield won’t and don’t buy contemporary artwork,’ they said. I refused to believe them and put on a small exhibition of contemporary work with another art graduate friend in a flat above a butcher’s shop on Wostenholm Road. To our delight this was a success. Following this I tried to gain support to open an art gallery but there was none to be had from any quarter – neither from Arts Council England, the Prince’s Trust, the business community nor the bank.
However, a number of events conspired to make my dream a reality. In a nutshell, this is what happened… I was contacted by a client about some potential work. The client told me he was closing his business and selling it off cheaply – it was a picture framing business. I unexpectedly received an inheritance and wondered whether it would be enough to buy the business and support a gallery.
The owner said he wanted £10,000 for the business. I had £6,000 but the landlord said if I rented next door as well he’d do me a deal on the rent. So I offered to pay £6,000 up front and pay off the remaining £4,000 within the first year of running the business. He agreed, and in the meantime I ran off to Scotland, got married, came back, learnt how to frame pictures in a fortnight and opened a gallery. And the rest, as they say, is history!
You’re celebrating Cupola’s 25th anniversary this month, how will you be celebrating? Are you putting on any special events to mark the occasion?
I wanted to do something ‘bigger than me’ to give back to the community that has supported me over the last twenty five years, and Hillsfest was the perfect opportunity to deliver an ambitious event to help change some of the negative perceptions that still exist around Hillsborough. It was incredibly successful and there’s a huge desire to see it happen again, and although it was an insane amount of work, I think it more than marked Cupola’s anniversary. We, of course, will try extremely hard to have even more fun than usual throughout the whole anniversary year which officially started on 1 August 2016.
Who have been your favourite artists to exhibit in the gallery, and why?
I set up the gallery to give artists a venue to showcase and sell their work and since its launch Cupola has displayed the work of over 10,000 artists. It’d be impossible to pick favourites, although many artists have stayed with me for as long as I’ve been open, which is very rewarding. I’ve made many deep and lasting friendships which is wonderful and have been able to support and nurture new talent which of course I enjoy very much.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an independent gallery?
It’s always been important to me to show high quality work. I don’t choose work on the basis of whether or not I think I may be able to sell it. The integrity of the work and the vision is much more important. Clearly this has financial drawbacks but I need to stick to my principles in order to keep the passion in what I do, without which the gallery would not survive. The gallery is located in what many consider ‘not the right side of town’, which, although that perception used to bother me, it really doesn’t any more. On a practical note, the area was hit very hard by the construction of the Supertram during my early days of trading which did take trade away from local businesses.
Who or what are you most excited about at the moment in the contemporary art world?
I like the rebels. I like the trouble causers. I like the things that don’t ‘fit’. The internet and other disruptive technologies have changed the art world and allowed people to work across disciplines and in collaborative ways that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. As the distance between artist and buyer decreases, people are really pushing boundaries, unrestrained by the desire to gain approbation from organisations and institutions.
Twitter: @CupolaGallery / https://twitter.com/cupolagallery
Interview by Felicity Jackson
Images courtesy of Cupola Contemporary Art