Kitty Dinshaw and Liezel Strauss founded Subject Matter Art, a London-based online gallery, in 2014.
“The whole model of an online gallery supports women artists by being much more forgiving of life choices.”
For the next installment of ArtTactic Editorial’s “Women You Should Know” series, we interview Kitty Dinshaw and Liezel Strauss, founders of Subject Matter Art. Kitty and Liezel founded Subject Matter Art in 2014 with the goal of making the art-buying experience easier by abolishing the current intimidating gallery model. A London-based art gallery that operates completely online, Subject Matter encourages more people to buy art and support talented and struggling artists. Collectors can browse the gallery online, speak to an art consultant, and even talk to the artists. Kitty and Liezel believe that Subject Matter Art can help anyone become an art collector.
Kitty and Liezel represent more than 15 artists and frequently curate exhibitions in London. They are both co-creators of a program with the Royal College of Art to help educate young art students on the business side of the art world. Their most recent exhibition in the Hospital Club in London, “We See You, We Hear You”, celebrates the work several generations of up-and-coming female artists. Liezel is also the founder of Art Girl Rising, a venture that aims to give female artists more visibility in mainstream media.
ArtTactic Editorial speaks with Kitty and Liezel about their careers, their businesses, and how they use social media to give female artists the coverage they deserve.
Kitty, How is Subject Matter Art’s business model disrupting and improving the current state of the art world?
Liezel and I believe, first and foremost, in encouraging new art-buyers. We want people not to feel intimidated by buying art, but to enjoy the process, and to feel a connection both with our gallery and with the artists. Openness has not always been one of the art-world’s strengths! We’ve all been into silent, white-walled galleries where no-one has spoken to us and where we have felt uncomfortable and suddenly unintelligent.
We simply do not agree with that. It is outdated and it doesn’t help artists who need to sell work in order to pay their rent or buy materials. Our platform is welcoming and I hope makes people feel at ease browsing the art we curate. Many online galleries choose to have a large selection of artists because the online model makes it easy for them to do that, but we have chosen to keep it small and only represent artists that we truly believe in and whose work we are passionate about.
Kitty, how does technology make Subject Matter an innovative and dynamic art world business?
First of all, the internet gives us greater visibility around the world than we otherwise would have. That is essential for us and our artists, and means that we can literally sell art to anyone with an internet connection, a credit card and a shipping address. Liezel moved to Kuala Lumpur last year and I am still based in London, so technology underpins our smallest interaction. I think we use WhatsApp more than the founders themselves! Ever since we began, we have used online accounting software, project management tools, payment processing software…you name it, we will have tried it at some point. It’s essential for us and it enables the business to be what it is today.
Technology also helps us be a flexible business, one that can try new things. We’re proud to say that we pioneered the idea of “Skype with an artist” where we can set up a Skype or WhatsApp call between a potential collector and an artist, so they can meet virtually and chat. Collectors love talking directly to the artists and for the artists themselves, it is nice to have a more personal and direct relationship with a collector.
Liezel: What is the Art Girl Rising Movement, and how did it start?
Art Girl Rising is an initiative I started last year and is separate from Subject Matter. I was inspired when, last year on International Women’s Day, I saw the hashtag #5womenartists being circulated on social media. I researched the hashtag and found that it was a challenge that came from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. On their website it states: “Women constitute just 3-5% of major permanent collections in the US and Europe. We hope that moment of shock will inspire people to share the #5WomenArtists challenge and start questioning why the disparity exists and persists.”
I had always known about the underrepresentation of female artists, but I didn’t know the numbers. When I did more research into, I was both shocked and sad at the same time. I knew I wanted to contribute in some way, so I raced home and made a sample shirt, and then reached out through Instagram to other inspiring women who I thought might be interested. Fast forward to a few months later, and even Jerry Saltz was posting a picture of himself wearing the shirt to his Instagram!
Overall, I am really thankful for the community that has supported the project, especially the community that has formed through Instagram. And, of course, I am happy that I am able to support women through the sale of the shirts, with £5 of every sale donated to the charity Women for Women.
Finally, Kitty and Liezel, how does Subject Matter use technology to support women artists?
The whole model of an online gallery supports women artists by being much more forgiving of life choices. Let me explain: in traditional gallery set-ups, you create new work, and have a solo show. You’re invited to group shows across the world and throughout the year, but other than that, your profile is dependent on constantly working, on taking every single good opportunity you can. But what if you can’t do that? What if you have children or have to care for an elderly parent? We know that society’s caregiving burdens largely rest on women and I can see how a female artist with a more disrupted career than a male contemporary would suffer.
The online model is different. We occasionally announce new work when we select it, but we still curate collections around the older work too. If it is good work, it is present. There isn’t that same pressure for “the new”, people are often visiting our site for the first time, so for them, everything is new. If they love the work, they love the work.
More directly, we are able to use Instagram as a platform where we can really share what we stand for and what we, as two women in business, believe about gender equality and female empowerment. We are proud to stand up and make that statement; and we act on it by using Instagram to promote women artists that we love, not just those represented by Subject Matter.