Artist Sarah Clemson opened Longitude Art Gallery in November with business partner Andrew Schofield. With the recent recognition of a Creative Business Award and a visitors book filled with enthusiastic testimonials, Sarah is fulfilling her vision to have a Tate-like gallery in the Ribble Valley.
One half of a pair, Longitude shares its location with partner company Latitude Design and Marketing in a vibrant creative space, just off Castlegate in Clitheroe. They bring together design and art. The collaboration of businesses has produced some innovative initiatives to engage people with art, provide opportunities for local artists, and help in establishing a widespread reputation that this area is the place to come for high quality pieces.
How would you describe your vision for the gallery?
I always envisaged that it would be more like a Tate gallery than a shop. So that’s the feeling really of the space and the caliber of the work. We maintain the quality of the artwork. We have sculpture as well as original art and a small proportion of prints, photography and print-making in the room. We didn’t go down the publishing house route which lots of inner-city art galleries do where they have certain artists which they represent. That means that we’re very much in control of our own ship here and we change exhibitions every two months. There’s always something new for somebody to see when they come in. The work changes, the artist changes, the work they show changes, and we’re constantly introducing new artists. I think we have this sort of funky creative space which people can just wander into, and of course we have that incredible view of Pendle Hill.
We’re sort of trying to put Clitheroe on the map for art. It’s here for food, the Ribble Valley is very much well-established for food and cycling and walking and tourism, so I think we want to elevate art to that same sort of feeling.
Was it always your hope to spark greater interest in art and draw in new audiences?
The one thing, we wanted it to be in here is very relaxed. Art is quite a niche area on its own without it becoming either snobby or highbrow or foreboding, so anybody can come in here. It’s a free gallery, we’re open to all. We’re happy to have families, dogs, young kids, it’s completely open. I think we particularly want people to come in and enjoy the art and in a relaxed way. To not feel obliged to buy. Obviously we are selling, we’re not a charity, but equally we want people to come and appreciate art and get something out of their visit – Enjoyment, appreciation, knowledge of art.
I fly the flag for art and design any day of the week. I feel very strongly about both of them. Art, in sense it elevates, it’s universal. It’s a funny thing because I think the government on occasion very much put forward sciences and obviously I can understand why they would do that but you can’t ignore the arts because it’s not just a frivolous activity.
With your welcoming approach do you attract many younger visitors to the gallery?
We get a number of people coming in from senior schools who are doing art. They come to praise what’s here and talk about their own work. We also have schools come and draw through the year. They sit down on the floor and draw the sculptures or certain aspects of the artworks. We’ve had a number of local school groups of different ages, from GCSE students, to real youngies, primary and junior school kids who come in to just say ‘Wow yes this is what a gallery looks like’. They get to see that what’s around them is very varied.
It must be great to see visitors engaging with the gallery in that way.
There is the language of art when you’re in a gallery. The catalogue as to why an artist does something can perhaps be deemed too heavy. I suppose we’re bridging the gap here between what could be deemed as an elitist, not for everybody, type of gallery and the shop where you want to buy art. We’re somewhere in the middle, hopefully being quite informal and approachable.
You also work on a number of initiatives to support local creatives. Can you talk a little about how you’re opening access to the art world for aspiring artists?
We do an amateur art exhibition each January where we give the room over to an amateur arts group. This year was Pendle arts group and next year it will be Whalley arts group. Chris McGloughlin, does a painting school and he’s bringing his students with Whalley arts group. It’s giving people a professional space to exhibit whereas they probably wouldn’t normally put together an exhibition of this size or stature really. We like to help them and it’s more affordable art. It works really well because they work hard to get people in the room, and the people in the room hear about us and the more people who see in here the better.
We’ve worked on another initiative with Catherine Rodgers, who is the arts development officer for Ribble Valley Borough Council. It’s called RVArts and it’s basically an online platform for artists to create a profile. It’s not just fine art and craft but also dance, poetry, music – it’s an arts centre. We created the website for her and a brand. It’s free of charge and a one-stop shop for artists.
Was it your intention when opening the gallery to provide a platform and opportunities for local artists?
Our remit for the gallery is to have a special emphasis on promoting local art, professional artists who make their living from art. I think emphasis as well on finding new artists and bringing them to the public’s attention. We want to give a professional platform whether they’re known or unknown to people in this particular locality.
There have always been artists here but they’ve probably had to display further afield. If you take Donald Holden who’s been painting for a long while, he’s displayed in Skipton and Colne and I think probably Ilkleyish way, I think he’s also done art shows further afield. Now we’re one of the main places he sells his work. We sell a great deal of it. He’s very popular and has a lot of followers and collectors who come here to add to their collection.
Donald Holden has been the guest artist at one of your Art Dinners hasn’t he? Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, we’ve turned the gallery into a private dining experience. We have a really good chef called Paul Dixon from Paul’s kitchen. He’s a really wowy chef, from Barrowford, makes amazing scotch eggs among other things. He basically turns one side of the room into a kitchen. He brings his ovens and kitchen to plate everything out for 30 odd people and Whalley wine shop do the wine. We do wine pairings with food and an artist does a talk about why they do what they do. We’ve had Donald Holden in the past. He’s in his mid-70’s and has been painting all his life. He has these incredible sketch books of scenery and landscapes which he passes round. He’s a real character and a really good speaker.
Looking around the room I see that Pendle Hill and its surroundings have inspired a number of the works by local artists. Why do you think it is so appealing for people to have locally inspired artwork in their homes?
It’s just how it evokes that feeling of being outdoors. It’s a memory isn’t it. Often we have local artists because people want to find local scenes. They want to connect with what they love. Pendle Hill is a big force. I think we are so lucky to have such a picturesque landmark. Be it Pendle, the coastline, or the rivers by the Whitewell in the Trough of Bowland, we’re celebrating where we live in an art form.
We did kind of say at the beginning that we wouldn’t be the gallery which just has Pendle Hill pictures and so it’s kind of more subtle than that. Steve Rostron for example paints in the whole locality but it’s not exactly that apparent because it’s contemporary art. For most of the pieces you can see in the room they’re a completely new take, they’ve got personality and individuality. They very much have the artist’s distinct style running through.
Do those new interpretations make what you do more exciting?
Absolutely! We did an exhibition in August called Art at the Inn, which we co-ordinated in a marketing and a gallery sense. We approached 50 professional artists and got them to the Inn at Whitewell an iconic building, well-known and well-loved. Some artists painted there and some went off into the scenery. After that we gave them three weeks to dry, frame, and bring it back for a dual exhibition with the Platform Gallery. It culminated here and we had a launch party. We had 50 pieces of art, all the same subject on the same day but every single interpretation of the Whitewell was unbelievably different. One painted the kitchen and one painted a hill, one painted the exterior of the building and one painted the river. It was so diverse.
That was to raise money and awareness for a prostate cancer charity called Mancheck. It was really successful and we realised what a community of artists we have. They all know each other and the ones who didn’t got to talk to each other. The room was electric both on the painting day and at the launch party.
Your background is in art, had you always hoped to open your own gallery?
I did a fine art degree way back at 18 and I was 50-50 between art and graphics. I’ve sort of painted and drawn all my life. I suppose the reason I’ve brought art and design together is I was originally a graphic designer. I’ve been in business since I was 24 though so now I’m more used to dealing with strategic marketing advice and client liason than physically being on a computer like my staff here.
I sold a marketing business in Manchester in 2005 and moved back to the area. I’m from here originally. I completed an MA in fine art at UCLAN in 2011, started painting again and was at a bit of a crossroads whether to start a marketing business again or a gallery. I’d always wanted to curate a gallery and wondered whether that would be down the employment route or whether I would do it myself as here, but I also wanted to paint.
Having your own space sounds like a great way to fulfill both aspirations of curating and painting. Do you put much of your own work in the gallery?
My thought was that I could have the marketing business pay for the room, the gallery would be my curating indulgence and I would be painting in the corner. But my paints are very messy and very big, big landscapes. I thought no, there’s no way I can ruin this floor and have the mess when people are coming in. My painting is definitely the thing that’s on the back-burner at the moment. I do still paint but it’s once every bluemoon. I did put something in here recently though which sold so I should really try to get back to it.
You say that the marketing business pays for the space, what impact does that have on the gallery?
We wanted to stay true to the artists and I think that because we have the marketing business in the room, financially we’re solid and we don’t need to change. We can stick to what we do here. We’re not compromised by commercial realities really. That’s not to say we’re not commercially minded but we can stay at the level which I feel we should be at. We do refine that level, we listen to people, what the public buys, what the public wants, so we’re constantly appraising what we do but we can stay true to our original goal of four years ago. We wanted to be different and we wanted this gallery to be different. I mentioned that in terms of atmosphere, we’d prefer it to be like a Tate than a shop. There are a lot of galleries around here which are like retail shops, which is fine, no criticism of that at all, but we just had an opportunity with this large space to do something different – the size and big space that we have here gives lots of possibilities.
And the space isn’t just multi-functional in the sense of the two businesses, what other events have you hosted to bring people into the gallery?
We do other things which are completely nothing to do with art. We market Clitheroe Food Festival at the Latitude side of the room and from that we have had wine and beer tasting in the gallery. We’ve had carols, we’ve had fashion shows, we’ve had Ribcage Theatre Productions do a play in here. The space can fit 60-80 people seated and about 100 stood and we’re in a good position right in the centre of town with car parking, which is really one of the reasons why we picked it centrally located.
Was it a natural decision to start your new business in this area?
I’d worked in Manchester for years, I did the commute from Sawley originally but then Whalley latterly, so I was doing sort of 3 hours travelling every day. I’ve lived in this area all my life even though I have worked away so when I thought about the marketing business/gallery combo studio, I thought I love this area and I want it to be local. It has all the assets, not just the small commute but to be where there are people I know and people who know me. I always wanted to work in Clitheroe and it ticked all the boxes for us in the fact that we have a high level of tourism and we’ve got all the amenities for visitors and staff and ourselves. So yes, it was instinctive really to come home, to be in the Ribble Valley. We love being here and we won’t move – it’s great!
You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you hope to put this area on the map for art. Do you think that that is being achieved?
It’s definitely happening. We get a lot of people come in from far a field. We’ve noticed Bolton is a particular one and I think it’s because of the direct train line. We also had a couple from Cheshire who came in recently and said they were trying to find art because they’d just moved. They said they’d never seen so much art in one small place and couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t get over this space, the view of Pendle and Clitheroe itself, and were raving about it.
Another couple heard about Clitheroe whilst holidaying in France. They were talking about looking for art and somebody suggested Clitheroe’s Artwalk. They live an hour and a half away but decided to drive over to have a day out here. They thought it was fantastic.