Urbis Magazine: Art in all the right places

Curator Sophie Wallace returned home from her time at Pace Gallery in New York to open Hastings’ newest gallery, Parlour Projects. Urbis caught up with Wallace to chat about her endeavours and the region’s cultural vibrancy.

Sammy-Rose Scapens: What is Parlour Projects and why does it exist?

Sophie Wallace: Parlour Projects is a new gallery in Hawke’s Bay that exists to bring influential contemporary art to the region. It is mostly a space for locals and visitors to enjoy contemporary art and learn about its wider purpose.

SRS: What was the drive to open a gallery in Hastings?

SW: Despite its location, the gallery has a national outlook in terms of exhibition programming and audience engagement. In addition, Hawke’s Bay is becoming world-class and younger people are increasingly migrating here. Regardless of these things, I felt that in order for us to keep up to date culturally with the rest of New Zealand and the world, we needed to have a strong contemporary art voice.

SRS: Did you consider other places before?

SW: The more obvious location for a gallery would have been Havelock North or Napier; however, a space became available in Hastings in a newly-renovated industrial factory that was too good to ignore. It had an eight-metre stud, natural light and concrete floors. It was also connected to Opera Kitchen café, which already brought people to the area. The Public Library, Hastings City Art Gallery and Opera House were on the same block, and all of a sudden great bars, eateries, bookstores and fine arts supplies stores were opening nearby. I also noticed that artists were relocating their studios to empty buildings in the neighbourhood. What the gallery inadvertently became a part of was a resurgence of Hastings, with the area around the gallery starting to be referred to as the Arts Precinct. It’s exciting to be contributing to that.

SRS: Did you always want to be a curator and gallerist?

SW: I’ve studied and pursued art, almost religiously, for as long as I can remember. I kept my options open at university by studying Law, Art History and Film & Media and although I enjoyed law immensely, I kept coming back to art. I spent a summer at a corporate law firm and accepted a graduate position in the Litigation department, yet I found myself visiting the Auckland Art Gallery on lunch breaks, and exhibition-hopping during weekends.

SRS: How did you end up in the art scene in the United States?

SW: In 2014, I decided to take advantage of the J-1 visa, which enables New Zealanders to live and work in the United States for 12 months within one year of graduating. This was contemporaneous with my decision to pursue a career in the arts, so I undertook a three-month internship at Pace Gallery in New York. It was extended into a full-time position for the duration of my visa and from the end of my first day there, it was clear that I would devote the rest of my career to the arts.

SRS: What do you think you gained from that experience that you’ve now brought back to Hastings?

SW: I wouldn’t have been able to open a gallery when I did if it wasn’t for my time at Pace. I was propelled head-first into the art world, working on shows by Picasso, David Hockney, Isamu Noguchi, Saul Steinberg, James Turrell, Richard Tuttle, Lee Ufan, Sol LeWitt, Maya Lin, Tara Donovan and many more. These were artists I had read and dreamt about for years. It was a crash course in contemporary art, and the knowledge I gained in that short amount of time would end up serving me for a long time – it is by far the most transformative experience I have had to date. I also worked on the Auckland Art Fair when I got home, which provided a great, comprehensive sweep of the local art scene.

SRS: New York must seem worlds apart from Hawke’s Bay’s art scene!

SW: It’s hard to compare any city’s art scene to New York’s, let alone Hawke’s Bay’s. But what I did notice is how critical art and culture is to the fabric of New York; the place would be nothing without its artists, galleries, museums and theatres. However, New York already has its galleries and it didn’t need mine, whereas Hawke’s Bay does need galleries, and here I can contribute in a meaningful and significant way, even if it is on a much smaller scale. It is an opportunity to define the landscape of an area I am very connected to and passionate about.

SRS: What are some of the challenges of running a gallery in a smaller town? 

SW: It’s important to consider how I might sustain the community’s interest over a long period of time. I have to find the right balance between presenting exciting and innovative contemporary art, while also ensuring it’s digestible to its main audience. Social media, emails and the website make it easier to communicate with clients outside of Hawke’s Bay, but it’s a challenge when the art can only be viewed by image rather than in real life. It’s a (rewarding) challenge helping people to understand the value that art can add to their lives, over and above being a purely decorational commodity. We aren’t exposed to it day-to-day like we might be in other art hubs around the world, so I have to find ways of getting people into the habit of visiting galleries and spending time with art.

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Urbis Magazine: Art in all the right places