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19 Dec 2018
Annabel Sinclair-Thomson treats her work as her hobby, and this may well be her secret to success. Annie Pokel gets ready for a trip to Te Awanga to find out more.

I’ve always assumed that location was absolutely key to a gallery’s success. To see and be seen, to be in the buzz of it all and connected to closeby galleries. Lots of competition for sure, but at the same time, feeding off each other for inspiration and tactics makes sense. After all, were I an artist, wouldn’t I want to be represented by a gallery that was well-known, had a vast network and was accessible not only for the potential buyers, but also the media and the ever-growing hipster crowd of Instagram-accounts that would ideally find my work worth-talking about? Wasn’t it essential to be part of the big smoke, to network at every opening (don’t forget that there’ll be the wine, too!), and to put myself “out there”, constantly?

In short, I was convinced that a well-placed big city location plus the right mix of artists equalled gallery success and great business. (And probably a fair amount of pressure and stress, let’s be honest.)

Te Awanga by the sea

Annabel Sinclair-Thomson’s Paper-Works Gallery in the small seaside town of Te Awanga in the Hawkes Bay surely proves my theory wrong. Yes, networking is essential, but living and working in a big city is not. Starting off in 1980s Wellington with a keen interest in art history and visiting galleries, Annabel quickly realised the potential for two key loves - contemporary art and the ability to match people with the right piece of art. From a friend, she took over Rent A Picture*, a business facilitating the loan of original artworks to corporate and private homes.
The ideal networking opportunity really, as she was able to connect the dots by working with art lovers (who often grew from art-renters to art-buyers), gallerists and artists. Whilst providing exposure and income for the artists and galleries, she was setting up a gentle introduction into the art market for those who were hoping to build their own art collection. With this background, Annabel also started setting up exhibitions on behalf of the artists whom she worked with for Rent A Picture, and moreover received commissions to buy art works for larger corporate organisations and also private buyers.

Moving from Wellington to the Hawkes Bay in search of a different lifestyle, Annabel set up a gallery on one of the main roads in central Napier: “I set myself a challenge: I thought if I found a space on Tennyson Street and some print drawers, then I would open a gallery showing works on paper. So for all the people coming through, the visitors to Hawkes Bay, it is a more transportable and affordable medium. And that’s how it started.”

“I set myself a challenge: I thought if I found a space on Tennyson Street and some print drawers, then I would open a gallery showing works on paper."

Whilst benefiting from the foot traffic of both locals and tourists and a creative community vibe, the constant roadworks soon made the inner-city location more dreadful than fun. Another shift was in order, and yet again definitely a lifestyle decision: in the double-garage of her house in the beachside settlement of Te Awanga, Annabel found the now-home of Paper-Works Gallery, and her existing clients and artists were most happy to move along with her. “It’s quite ideal, really,” says Annabel. “Those who know me are happy to come out, and it helps that Te Awanga has become quite a popular destination for walkers and cyclists who call in. A good database is also great help.”

Mixing established artists and emerging talent

Paper-Works hosts quite an impressive line-up of well-established artists (Bill Hammond, Gretchen Albrecht, Gavin Chilcott, Euan Macleod, John Reynolds, and John Pule, to name a few) and Annabel is well-known for having a knack for discovering some great emerging talent: “You do have to stock what you like yourself.” So, what’s the appeal for these artists to be represented by a small gallery off the beaten track? “It’s an existing relationship with a majority of them, but not all. When I was in Napier, several approached me – but because of the size (of the gallery), I couldn’t take them all. And since the move here, I’d have to  trim a little bit, too.” Thanks to her location, and to her selection of works, Annabel can also offer her artists the possibility to be more widely represented across the gallery sector, and not be limited to having all their works with one gallery only.

A four-legged receptionist

And while Te Awanga is becoming more and more of a destination, it’s not just the town itself, but Annabel’s personal touch to the gallery, which makes it stand out and grow into one the very reasons to visit the area. “It’s a lifestyle (for me), really. But it is also good for the people coming in – the clients who’re coming in to look at the artwork. It’s not a white wall space, like you have in the big cities, where it can be a bit daunting for the people who are not familiar with the artists. Those who want to buy, but don’t necessarily know what they want to buy.” Annabel chooses to mostly exhibit group shows, to offer her clients a wider selection in trying to find something that speaks to them. Another great advantage to building a close relationship with her gallery visitors is the ability to have her gallery within her own house, she says: “It is my home, and it is definitely a bit more casual, and I’ve always had my dog here – which can definitely help break the ice.”

“I was accused many years ago in Wellington, of treating my business like a hobby, and I said, aren’t I lucky? Because it is my hobby."

At this point in our conversation, I’m ready to pack my bag and head out to explore Te Awanga, which seems to be growing in appeal year after year. It is this spirit of giving things a go, the courage to walk on the road less travelled, and Annabel’s enthusiasm for her work that I find so appealing and that should be one of the main reasons to put the town on your travel bucket list:

“I was accused many years ago in Wellington, of treating my business like a hobby, and I said, aren’t I lucky? Because it is my hobby. It is very much my life, and my passion, essentially. Aren’t I the luckiest person?”

I think you quite certainly are, Annabel - you can expect a visit from us this summer!


Our portrait of Paper-Works Gallery marks the start of a new column, Art off the beaten track. We will be visiting galleries in the less obvious locations around Aotearoa, and talking to artists and gallerists about their inspirations and aspirations. Let us know your favourite places and hidden gems via email.

*Note: Rent A Picture loaned the original works on behalf of the artists, who received a commission.

Artworks pictured:
Donna Marie Patterson, Dancing Memories (2016), Ink Pen on Arches Aquarelle. 
Gretchen Albrecht, Pink Clouds (Sunset) (2016), Polymer photogravure etching.
All artworks courtesy of the artists and Paper-Works Gallery.