The Big Interview: Christina Jansen, The Scottish Gallery

It's been said that the art of life 'lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings'.

Christina Jansen stands in front of a painting by Geoff Uglow, whose works are on display at the gallery. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Christina Jansen stands in front of a painting by Geoff Uglow, whose works are on display at the gallery. Picture: Ian Rutherford

And so too, it seems, is the business of art. The Scottish Gallery, located on Edinburgh’s Dundas Street, has been trading since 1842 because of its very ability to adapt, according to managing director Christina Jansen.

She says its title is well deserved as it is older than the National Galleries of Scotland, which first opened in 1859 – indeed it is the oldest privately owned gallery in the UK.

“We feel lucky that we’re still here,” says Jansen, acknowledging the cultural upheaval in Scotland in the intervening years. “It’s a business that has constantly undergone change to survive the times, so being here for 175 years is a testament to that. We don’t take it for granted because things can change at the drop of a hat.”

Art is certainly an unpredictable field in which to operate; dependent not just on profit and loss but on an emotional transaction between the buyer, regardless of budget, and the artist.

It isn’t just an artwork that’s for sale, “it’s a person, it’s a way of life, it’s a part of history and so on,” Jansen believes. The gallery focuses on contemporary and historical artists, and operates on an “ideas first, business second” basis, she adds.

“Art is our business – but it’s very, very complex. People come to us for all sorts of different reasons and you buy things sometimes very specifically because you’re a big follower of an artist.

“And other times it’s totally by accident because you came in to see an exhibition and then you got totally distracted by something else that happened to be in the gallery.”

The company is registered as Aitken Dott, harking back to its origins. It was established in South St David Street by Aitken Dott as Gilders, Framers, and Artists’ Colourmen, also exhibiting and selling work by Scotland’s top contemporary artists. As its operations grew, a larger site was found in Castle Street in 1860 and a dedicated gallery space opened up in 1897 as The Scottish Gallery.

It has been on Dundas Street since 1992, specialising in national and international ceramics, glass, jewellery, metalwork, sculpture and sometimes textiles.

Jansen describes art as “a very bizarre area to work in”, adding that The Scottish Gallery “can make calculated risks based on experience, but art is 100 per cent risk so you don’t know any month whether it’s going to be successful or not. You have to have a foundation in place for everything that you do… It’s a brutal business and you can’t get it wrong.”

None the less, the gallery has made a profit every year since 1994, with the exception of 2010. In the past financial year, it sold goods worth £2.3 million, bringing in revenues of £1.3m and enabling it to make a pre-tax profit of £165,000, which led to a £47,300 dividend for its 29 shareholders.

In terms of the bottom line, “everything we do makes a contribution”, according to Jansen. “We work really hard. There’s no safety net for us so that actually affects all the decisions that you make.”

She stresses that the gallery is susceptible to broader economic turbulence, and when the financial crisis hit in 2008, “everything changed”.

That certainly posed challenges, but then so does the current economic outlook, in her view. “You have to take that on board and not live in a fantasy world that it’s all going to be plain sailing, but you’ve still got to be dynamic and take a lot of risks during hard times.

“[There have been] times when it’s been difficult for everyone and we’ve pulled through. We’re not in that position at the moment. You have to be knowledgeable about the indicators and what’s going on out there and what might be appropriate at different times.”

The strategy must keep changing, “but one thing that’s true is showing quality artists and staying true to certain values. That’s kind of worked for us so far.”

Yet despite macroeconomic uncertainties, there are signs that 2017 “may actually be a very stable, nice year” for the global art market, in the opinion of Doug Woodham, former Christie’s president of the Americas.

He was commenting in this year’s ArtTactic Global Art Market Outlook, released earlier this month.

It surveyed 182 art world participants, including collectors, advisers, dealers, and auction house professionals and found that about 60 per cent saw the global outlook for this year as positive, after what was deemed a very troubled 2016. The figure was up from 41 per cent a year previously and just 8 per cent said their expectations were negative for 2017.

Woodham was quoted as saying that people “need to feel comfortable with their wealth position to buy art”.

The Barclays UK Prosperity Map published in August reported that Scotland’s household wealth grew the fastest in the UK since its 2015 study, rising 13 per cent and outstripping London and the South East.

However, the number of millionaires north of the border fell by 10.4 per cent 
to 43,000, in line with the wider UK trend.

The Scottish Gallery’s outlook and profitability inevitably depend on its success at bringing in new customers. This is why it tries its utmost to make the gallery space itself welcoming and to instil the trust of its clients, Jansen says. “Other things come and go, but you can have faith in us as a brand — that’s what people buy into and we really believe in quality.”

It faces the same pressures as other retail environments. “You’ve got to be relevant, so that’s what we’re fighting for. Some people come in almost daily, others every couple of months, and we try and create a really interesting environment.”

And as in other forms of retail, e-commerce has become an increasingly important part of the gallery’s operations. Jansen has driven its embrace of the digital world, “determined to modernise the gallery both physically and also in terms of print and technology.

“I’m very mindful of our contemporary programme, which has to reflect current talent whilst holding on to our wonderful history.”

Born to a Glaswegian mother and German father, from Berlin, Jansen’s first degree was in industrial design at Manchester Metropolitan University.

“That was really hard. All our projects were live because you’d have to be trained so quickly for industry,” she says, noting that getting a drawing wrong by “a fraction of a millimetre” could cost £150,000.

She also did a postgraduate course in decorative arts at the University of Glasgow, and says her two degree subjects are an unusual combination that has “served me so well. I’m both creative and mechanical – that’s been very useful”.

At Manchester Jansen was told that because she was a woman, “it was not possible for me to think in three dimensions – which motivated me to learn to do so. Whilst I loved my course at Glasgow, it was my first degree that has been the most valuable in terms of how to think and practical skills.”

Her CV includes a spell in London, working for the Crafts Council within the renowned Victoria & Albert Museum, which is set to open its Dundee arm in 2018. It was this experience that led to The Scottish Gallery.

“The objects here are really quite special and my previous director couldn’t find someone to take her position for two years that had enough specific knowledge, because there really wasn’t anyone in Scotland at that time,” she explains.

“I got a phone call through a recommendation. It was good timing and luck, and just having a little bit of knowledge in an area that was very important to the gallery. You couldn’t just have it babysat by anyone.”

At present the gallery has five full-time staff and an “army” of part-time workers. “We’re really quite a small, specialist team,” says Jansen.

Looking ahead, she stresses that the gallery doesn’t have a “magic formula”, and admits some nervousness over signs that others in the field are feeling the pressure.

But she adds: “We’re always just trying to do our best for the artist, and if we’ve done well for them, we’re successful, we’re making a profit – but it’s such a strange business.”

Rather than focusing on spreadsheets, its attention is on elements such as having the right artists and managing events staff. “If we’ve got all those things in check and in balance then we’ve got a business that’s doing well.”