After studying painting at university, Sarah Birtles knew she was heading in the right direction. Working in art galleries not only proved to be the ideal next step but brought exciting career opportunities.
“I spent a decade working in commercial and public galleries, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and Penrith Regional Gallery,” says Sarah. “I started in education and moved onto audience engagement then gallery management in the Blue Mountains. It was only when I started managing a commercial gallery that everything clicked for me.”
Sarah’s decision to work independently came directly after losing her job and realising that she had accumulated enough knowledge and industry respect to forge a new path.
“During the pandemic, the commercial gallery I managed downsized, and I was let go,” she explains. “Encouraged by artists and my family, I started my own business with a clear vision that it would be different to a traditional gallery, and I would describe myself as both an art dealer and art consultant.
“SARAH BIRTLES art + advice was founded with three key goals in mind: I wanted to keep my artists thriving in their studios, allow my clients to collect art with confidence, and be commercially successful.”
Since 2020, Sarah has established a successful business that features a growing collection of artists and a comprehensive international client list, and she will be working with artists to curate collections for four art fairs in 2024.
We asked Sarah how she decides on the artists she represents, the benefits to artists of participating in art fairs, and where to start if you think a fair would be ideal for progressing your career.
Interview by Lisa Doust
What is the main focus at SARAH BIRTLES art + advice?
My overarching service is to connect people with art. I sell online and at art fairs in Australia and abroad. I also visit my clients in their homes and get to know their tastes, their spaces and budgets, and I help them find the very best pieces.
It became clear to me early on that clients often find it stressful imagining what a painting would look like in their home while standing in a gallery space. That’s why I offer in-home previews – clients get to try before they buy, and it removes a lot of stress for them. If they love a painting, we hang it for them too, so all they have to do is relax and enjoy it.
I think you can see the success of this model in our repeat buyers and personal recommendations.
How do you select the artists you work with?
It’s really a gut feeling about artists, and I’ve learnt to trust it. For an artist to stand out to me, above all else there has be a pull on my heart – I have to feel some excitement about the artwork. I look for a distinctive style, a practice that is continually developing over time and evidence of skill.
I usually like to observe an artist from a distance for a while before approaching them. I keep a list on the pinboard above my desk, and if I continue to be attracted by their work on Instagram and at exhibitions, then I know it’s a good idea.
Pricing also has to fit with my client base. Then it’s about whether we can work together professionally – we need to be able to trust and rely on each other as a team.
How has your business evolved since you started out?
When I first started during the pandemic it was all online. I planned the first fair three times, and each time it was postponed! This year my team and I have committed to four Affordable Art Fairs – Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Singapore. I’ll also be doing two online releases with beautiful print catalogues for Fiona Smith and Melanie Vugich.
My word for this year is ‘longevity’. I feel like our brand is now recognised and respected, so I’m moving from establishing the business to making decisions for the business to be successful in the long run. This is, of course, built on the longevity of my artists’ careers and clients’ collections, so it benefits us all.
What do you most love about working with art and artists?
My work really energises me, and I feel fortunate to have found a winding path to my dream vocation. One of my favourite things is studio visits – the smell of paint and seeing behind the scenes gives me a real high! I studied fine art at uni, so I’m always asking: ‘How did you do that?’ and ‘Which paint/canvas/brush have you used here’.
There’s also a real thrill in seeing clients fall in love with artworks. I love that, in this age of mass production, many people still crave skill, originality and connection with another human.
You have a busy Affordable Art Fair schedule this year – what do you most enjoy about representing your artists within the fair environment, and how do visitors respond?
I love the creative side of curating the collection for each fair months before. I don’t just take whatever is in the storeroom – it’s all carefully planned out with my artists to meet the audience.
For me it’s about honouring the work the artists have done and helping visitors to see the work in the best light. I’m quite pernickety about making sure no matter how crazy the fair gets, we maintain our attention to detail with fresh flowers, clean walls and level hanging. Then we pack it all up after four days and we get to something totally different next time!
Special projects are another one of my passions. Phillip Edwards has painted live for me twice at Melbourne, and Ben Tankard created an amazing installation last year, with another to come this year. At Brisbane I’m planning for Melanie Vugich and Darren White to be featured.
The response from visitors has been incredible since our very first fair in Sydney back in 2022. Visitors tend to linger on our stand – they stay, chat, laugh and then often bring their friends back. Our only problem has been meeting the demand and we’ve had bare walls by day four a few times now. It’s a good problem to have!
Aside from Singapore, do you have any plans to attend fairs anywhere else outside of Australia?
Affordable Art Fair Singapore was so successful for us that I’d like to eventually add two or three international fairs a year to our calendar. My artists are very interested too, so I feel like it’s a strong direction for us to head in as a team.
What are the benefits to artists of participating in art fairs?
You’re partnering with a larger network to amplify your reach. In 2023, 17,000 visitors attended Affordable Art Fair Melbourne – that’s a lot of eyeballs that could potentially land on your stand!
Artists also get a lot of feedback in four days that might otherwise take months. This can help you make decisions about framing, sizes and subject matter, but you do need a perceptive gallerist who will distil that information for you and pass it on.
Do you have any advice for artists who are interested in showing at art fairs but don’t know where to start?
The first step is to visit the fairs. Take a good look around and see if you think your work would fit in, in terms of genre, career stage, price and size. Remember, you want to fit the market but you don’t want to be showing work too similar to anyone else – you want to stand out.
Then it’s really about choosing the right fair for you. In Australia there are three main tiers: The Other Art Fair is for unrepresented artists, the Affordable Art Fairs are for galleries in the mid bracket, and Sydney Contemporary and The Melbourne Art Fair are for galleries in the upper bracket.
My hot tips are:
- Don’t try a long-winded approach with galleries in a fair environment, as they won’t appreciate it. Months of work and a large investment goes into each fair, so exhibitors are looking to sell and need to use time wisely.
- Do stop and say hello, sign up for mailing lists if you haven’t already, and then follow up after the fair.