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Meet the Gallerist: Denise Donnelly of the Doorway Gallery

The owner of the Doorway Gallery in Dublin was determined to alter the general image of art galleries as elitist and pretentious


20th June, 2021


Denise Donnelly, owner of the Doorway Gallery: ‘I wanted to change the way galleries are perceived.’ Picture: Bryan Meade

What (and when) kick-started your interest in art?

I grew up in the art world, surrounded by my whole family, so I was always immersed in it. As a child, I was discouraged to be involved with art, because of how difficult it had been for my mother as an artist. Our means were always very tight. At that time, being an artist was more commonly viewed as a hobby, than an actual career.

Times have changed. There is a greater appreciation for art and it has evolved into so many different forms. Art is now more respected as a profession and artists can command respectable incomes.

What made you choose the route of having a gallery?

I wanted to change the way galleries were perceived. There was always an element of stiffness, and gallerists were portrayed as being unapproachable. I recall asking a gallerist the price of an Arthur Maddison painting in the window. The reply was “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

That was a defining moment. It inspired me to open a gallery with the objective to contradict the general consensus that all galleries are snobby and pretentious. I aspire to make customers feel comfortable when visiting the gallery, with no sense of pressure. I never make an assumption as to whether somebody is a buyer or a browser.

I have a sign hanging in my gallery window, saying “browsers welcome”. People have often dropped into the gallery just out of curiosity, and returned weeks later to buy a painting they remembered liking so much.

What do you like best about having a gallery?

The journey art takes you on. Paramount to me is building close relationships with my artists, seeing them develop their self-confidence, and how their work can change direction in style over the years.

I take great satisfaction in selling art, as there is always a backstory relating to the piece, and seeing the emotional reactions from customers is such a warm experience to be a part of. Clients have cried because of the connection that a piece of art has for them. There is also the excitement when clients are purchasing their first-ever painting.

You can get so involved – it’s contagious. During Covid-19 lockdowns, the gallery website was visited by many new clients purchasing art who had never bought a piece before. People are looking at the blank space on their walls and realise a painting or sculpture would be nice to fill it.

What do you regard as the high point in your career?

When I began doing international art fairs. The costs are high and it requires a great amount of organisation to get there and exhibit. You have to prepare months in advance and make certain to select the artworks with the best selling potential for each show.

A show in Amsterdam is very different to a show in New York. You need to possess a very good knowledge of each market or you risk making a huge loss. My first exhibition fair, in London, was very successful. It was a difficult decision to break into the international fairs. With the amount of expenditure involved and the effort required, the risk was enormous for me if I had an unsuccessful event. I had to take out a large loan, but the risk proved worthwhile, and the trip was a great success.

Pre-Covid-19, I was doing between seven and eight shows annually. Our artists are so well received abroad, which gives you the confidence that you know your business.

What was the low point/ your worst mistake?

A low point was certainly the recession ten years ago, where I was still in a position that I had to pay my monthly lease and rates, regardless of the difficult times. The silver lining was that it made me focus on doing international art fairs, which enabled me to keep my gallery in business with the revenue gained. As a result, I gained a greater understanding of the international art scene, for upcoming exhibitions.

What skills make a successful gallery owner?

You have to have a good relationship with both your artists and customers. A number of my artists have exhibited with me from the very beginning, for almost 20 years now. Then I have my long-time, regular customers, who continue to buy from me, and will always pop into the gallery whenever they are visiting Dublin, if sometimes just for a quick catch-up.

What advice would you give to the novice collector?

Buy what you like. If you feel that connection with a painting, and find yourself lost in a nostalgic moment, that painting is meant to be yours. You can ask the gallery to reserve it until you have made a decision. We also provide our ‘try before you buy’ service to anyone who resides in the Dublin area. We deliver the artworks to your home for a few days (fully insured) so you can view the works in different lighting and different rooms. The service has received a great response from buyers, and many clients are availing of it.

What is your favourite artwork in a public collection?

I specifically enjoy dropping into the National Gallery, to see Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864) by Frederic William Burton. I get completely lost in this and could stare at it for hours.

When you win the Lotto, what will you buy?

Everything in my gallery. I can’t sell anything that I personally don’t like, although art is subjective to individual taste. I stand over my own artists’ work and sell what is my knowledge of amazing art.

What, if anything, has the pandemic taught you?

To allow the appreciation of art to absorb your thoughts. I have also learned that to survive during the current climate, you need to be inventive with your business direction, so I’m placing more emphasis on the online facility of my gallery, while investing a lot of money in the development of the new Doorway Gallery website.

The investment paid dividends, as we received many website visits from new customers, who enjoy browsing art. We also have a new facility, thanks to an art visualiser app, which allows people to visualise the artworks on their own walls. It measures the exact size of the paintings so the customer can get a really good feel of what it will look like on their wall.

Through the pandemic I have provided weekly online shows so my customers could get an insight to my artists. We provided a lot of content from artist talks, studio visits and live discussions and these online shows have been so well received. I wanted to provide my customers and artists with a pleasant distraction from the current situation.