Parnell Gallery, one of the country’s leading art galleries, has business down to a fine art. It has been through 40 years of business, three recessions and an owner’s cancer diagnosis to come out stronger than ever before. Elly Strang hears the story behind it.
Running a business for four decades is not without its challenges.
Parnell Gallery owner and prominent supporter of New Zealand art, Sally Souness, juggled business with raising a family, stuck it out through leaner times financially and even overcame breast cancer – but she never once thought to call it a day.
“I had no doubt. There was never, ever a time that I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve had enough’. Not once,” Souness says.
Souness grew up surrounded by a creative family who painted and sculpted, which inspired her own keen interest in art.
She says she never wanted to do anything else.
“I knew from the age of 16 that basically, I wanted to be in the art world and I wanted to have a gallery."
History repeated itself when Souness’ daughter, Anna Silcock, returned from working in project management for six years in London and began working at the gallery.
Silcock grew up working part-time at the gallery during school and often received pieces of art as presents for special occasions, like birthdays.
“Because I’ve grown up around art and because Mum’s always been so passionate about art, I’ve kind of absorbed that without realising,” Silcock says.
“I’ve always been drawn to the gallery and Mum has always been keen for me to be a part of the business. So I came here, and the rest is history.”
The mother-daughter duo runs the gallery together, with Silcock taking on the role of gallery manager and Souness as the managing director.
Souness says her daughter joining her was one of the best parts of the gallery’s 40-year history.
“That’s more than a highlight, because that’s seeing Parnell Gallery going forward into the future once I finally retire,” she says.
How it all began
Parnell Gallery was originally called The Hang Up Gallery and was founded in 1976 by 23-year-old Souness.
Its Parnell Rd space was a dress shop in its former life. Souness took over the upstairs level and used that and the front-of-house part for the gallery, renting the back part to an ad agency.
The interior of the gallery has continually evolved, Souness says, so much so that she’s moved the stairs three times.
Souness would travel to places like New York and London to source limited-edition prints for the gallery.
In 1996, she decided to rebrand the gallery to the Parnell Gallery and deal in solely New Zealand art.
“The business had grown and the New Zealand art scene had grown in terms of buyers,” Souness explains.
“If there was a lack of talent, we’d want to go and look further afield but the level of talent in New Zealand is just incredible. We get that feedback all the time from overseas clients.”
Parnell Gallery has regular customers based in all corners of the world, from Spain, to the UK and the USA.
Some of the gallery’s clients have been involved with the gallery right since the beginning.
Others that are based overseas purchase pieces without even seeing them, Souness says, as they trust they’ll like it knowing the high calibre of the artists.
It hosts monthly exhibitions featuring both established and emerging artists.
Renowned artists include Neil Driver, whose paintings draw inspiration from the landscapes of Central Otago, and Matt Gauldie, who is the New Zealand Defence Force’s official artist.
Driver’s work will be on display at the gallery from Tuesday November 3, while Gauldie’s work will be on show from Tuesday November 17.
Parnell Gallery also hosts a unique annual Christmas exhibition featuring works by both emerging and established artists at a far more affordable price point.
The small format pieces are $200 for 200 x 200mm or $300 for 300 x 300mm.
Souness says the exhibition is to help first time collectors get their hands on an affordable piece and gives something back to the community.
The Christmas exhibition will be held on Saturday 28 November. It has previously seen early morning queues out the door by customers keen to get their hand on a unique, affordable piece.
Young blood, new ideas
When Silcock joined the business in 2011, she brought fresh ideas with her, including social media smarts.
Parnell Gallery now has a dedicated Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest page which Silcock uses to promote the business.
She also updated the business’ administration practices, which both Silcock and Souness say were well due for an update.
Souness was handwriting the details of stock on index cards, handwriting invoices and doing all the payments by cheque.
Anna (left) and Sally on the Parnell Gallery's second-level veranda.
One of the highlights of the whole experience has been fostering young, local artists and seeing them go on to have successful careers, Souness says.
“When you take on a young artist and they’re successful and you can see the growth of them over the years, that’s very rewarding,” she says.
The young blood coming through also bring different ideas for art to the table, she says, which keeps things interesting.
So, what’s the secret to Parnell Gallery’s success?
“For me, it’s to enjoy what you do,” Souness says.
“To love what you do. You’ve got to have a passion for it and I have lovely relationships with the artists and clients alike. I enjoy coming to work every day, even after 40 years. Anna still can’t get rid of me.”