How the Norman Rea Gallery breaks through the walls of the art industry

I was recently invited to attend two events at Galerie Norman Rea: their pop-up sale and their Cache Money exhibition. The gallery is the first of its kind – the only student run gallery in the UK. This would be my first visit to the gallery and I intentionally kept my research to a minimum. It was an ethereal yet tactile and sensual experience that prompted me to mark the dates of their upcoming events on my calendar immediately.

The first event I attended was the pop up sale. I spoke to the event’s organizer, Amelia Stallworthy, before talking a bit about what the event would entail. Amelia described it as a sale for student businesses that sold items from beloved clothing to paintings and prints. I wasn’t quite prepared for how atmospheric it was going to be. Everything was beautifully lit and there was a student DJ. Because of that, it felt as much of a social and networking event as it did a sale. When I wasn’t shopping I was either chatting to the vendors or listening to the music.

I ended up walking away with a Nightmares York t-shirt and an Ottyallum oil painting. Later, when I took off my t-shirt or had guests at home, people would ask me where I got the stuff or tell me they recognized it. It was here that I saw the value of community and word of mouth for these sellers: the items stood out as unique, which lends itself to the social nature of the gallery’s events. This was the first time I had the opportunity to interact directly with student companies and it was really refreshing to be able to buy from companies that have such direct insight into what appeals to students.

Pop up shop at the Norman Rea Gallery. Photo taken by the author.

Amelia kindly introduced me to some business owners and I was able to learn a little about her craft. I set up a real interview with Tash Crane of Tash’s Bags to get a little more insight into the gallery from the perspective of a business owner and a committee member. Tash makes and sells crocheted bags and actually sold out that day.

Tash began making her bags in 2020 as she found that the tactile experience of crocheting offered a respite from the anxiety we were all feeling at the time. From here she developed her brand. At university, Tash became Norman Rea’s gallery assistant and was able to quickly apply her business experience and contacts to events including pop-up sales. Tash explained to me that the nature of small online businesses means that social media networking is something that is of great use to them.

Tash’s bags, handmade from recycled t-shirt material. Photo by Tash Crane.

Tash spoke highly of the gallery. She explained that museum collections are an incredibly difficult industry to break through and that it relies on people-to-people connections – who you know. Therefore, the gallery offered the students a new opportunity to break through the industry, an opportunity that they can create themselves. Here, Tash quoted Tracey Emin who is on the podcast Great women artists, says: “If you can’t open a door, break it open”. This really showed how the people involved in the gallery were the next generation of art and fashion. Tash and I talked a bit about what we think this bodes for the future of the industry. As a generation, we have an increased interest in vintage and second-hand fashion. However, to break into mainstream fashion, Tash explains that you have to adhere to very specific standards. Because of this, she believes
that many small businesses will continue to be small and will target very specific niches, and that in itself is a major achievement. The gallery naturally creates a platform for this.

I wondered how Tash found the gallery, both as a committee member and as a business owner. Instead of two specific experiences, Tash explained that it suits well. Before Norman Rea, Tash found she struggled to find a place to sell that felt truly authentic to her as a business. This led to her passion for organizing a pop-up. Again, their networking skills allowed them to bring together a wide range of student artists and business owners. The committee, being students themselves, was able to create a fun and convivial market suitable for both the vendors and the students.

Creative piece at the Cache Money exhibition. Photo taken by the author.

This mix of fun and socializing with the function of displaying art really came into its own at the next event, the Cache Money exhibition. The exhibition featured art ranging from paintings, digital art and physical exhibitions. It was again beautifully lit and very atmospheric. Everyone was greeted at the door with a complimentary drink and the chance to scan a QR code and read a guide to the art on display. I arrived very early, about five minutes after opening. The exhibition was already buzzing with activity and conversation. The setting of the event made it possible to enjoy the art in silence or use the piece to start a conversation.

The exhibition Cache money and the pop-up sale demonstrated the range of the gallery as an event location. However, both events showed a clear brand awareness. Both functioned perfectly as a sale and display, offering a vibrant aesthetic and convivial atmosphere. I remember what Tash told me about the gallery offering a new way to enter the industry with a firm focus on the student market and experience.

Norman Rea Gallery is currently looking for a new gallery assistant. I am already looking forward to the next event and urge aspiring artists, business owners and anyone interested in the art or fashion industry to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

Written by Lily Mason

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