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Come into my parlour

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

It’s been open for just over a year, but Hawkes Bay gallery Parlour Projects has already hosted some of New Zealand’s big names. Owner and curator Sophie Wallace talks to Michelle Duff about regional success, the importance of relationships and how optimism helps.

Sophie Wallace. Photography by Heather Liddell

As a young lawyer, Sophie Wallace was practicing at one of Auckland’s best-known firms. But the highlight of her day wasn’t poring over litigation, or meeting clients. It was lunchtime, when every day she would walk the short distance from Shortland Street to the Auckland Art Gallery and spend an hour immersed in art, wandering past the McCahons, pausing at the Hodgkins and Hotere.

So when an opportunity came up to apply for an internship at New York’s prestigious Pace Gallery, Wallace jumped at the chance. She abandoned her law career for a year in the States. Upon her return, there seemed to be a logical next step – to open her own art gallery, Parlour Projects, in Hastings.

‘It’s not something that I planned to do throughout school and university, but I quickly figured out that I wanted to do my own thing,’ Sophie laughs down the phone. She’s in her gallery today, and our conversation is occasionally interrupted when someone wanders in. ‘Working at the Pace Gallery made me realise that I really wanted to devote the rest of my life to the arts.’

In the 16 months since Parlour Projects has been open, it has made some major inroads. The first exhibition, in April last year, held in collaboration with Wellington’s Suite Gallery, featured Ans Westra and Wayne Youle. Since then, the roll-call of artists would be the envy of larger and more established galleries; it has included sculptor Brett Graham, photographer Jono Rotman and Venice Biennale star Lisa Reihana.

This is, I say, an impressive lineup of artists.

‘I’d met a lot of the artists who have had shows here before I opened the gallery, so we already had a friendship or trust and were familiar with one another,’ Sophie explains. ‘But there have been artists I’ve just met in the last six months. So much of it is based on conversations and trust, and the general sort of feeling you get from one another.

‘And I think because the space is isolated from other cities, artists see it as an opportunity to be a bit more experimental.’

When we talk, Sophie is preparing for the opening of an exhibition of new work by Palmerston North artist Shane Cotton, New Heads. It’s a continuation of his work with toi moko, or preserved Maori heads, and promises to be darkly spiritual and thought-provoking. She met Cotton by arranging a visit to his studio, and they hit it off. ‘I feel lucky that he trusts me enough to show in a relatively new gallery,’ Sophie says.

Grace Wright, installation view

Born in Palmerston North, Sophie was raised in Hawkes Bay and went to high school at Woodford House. She studied humanities and law at Otago University, before heading to Auckland and her first job in law. After her three-month internship at Pace Gallery, she picked up a full-time position in the marketing and communications team there. This allowed her to soak up skills that would prove invaluable for her business.

‘I was working on shows by major artists that I’d always sort of read about – people like David Hockney and James Turrell – and it was a lesson on how galleries are run but on the other end of the scale because they have hundreds of employees. I learned so much.’

Back in New Zealand, Sophie spent six months working for the Auckland Art Fair and quickly realised there was no way she was returning to law. ‘Working for the fair gave me a really good understanding of the New Zealand art scene and what was happening,’ she explains. ‘It opened my eyes to regional galleries and what they were doing. It made me think about the Hawkes Bay a lot, and every time I came back here I noticed that there was a real gap here, and a need for a contemporary art gallery.’

She began looking for a space, and soon stumbled upon Parlour Projects‘ new home – a large, airy building, with high ceilings, a massive 11-by six-metre feature wall, and a mezzanine floor perfect for viewing. Using her savings, and living with her parents to save money, the 27-year-old flung herself into her new work.

‘I started planning the first couple of shows, got the website up and running, started building a database, and then once I got the doors open I started to trying to figure out what kind of gallery I wanted us to be,’ Sophie says.

‘I think it’s good that I was a bit naive, because if I’d thought about it anymore and what had to go into it I don’t think I would have done it. I would have felt too intimidated.’

As it is, Sophie is pretty much a one-woman band. A typical day might see her rise at 5am to write a press release, head into the gallery, meet an artist, update social media and the website, and liaise with visitors. She has one other staff member to help on the gallery floor.

Parlour Projects has a prominent social media presence on Instagram and Facebook. Sophie says this is an important way to engage a younger audience, and give the gallery relevance outside of the region. She has also begun an art-collecting initiative, Cultivate, as a way to immerse locals in contemporary art appreciation. The programme signs on ten people at a time. Each novice collector receives a new artwork every six months for two years. Each work comes with an academic essay and explanation, which Sophie hopes will empower people to feel confident establishing their own collections.

She has also launched an artist-in-residency programme, of which young Elam graduate Grace Wright was the first recipient. ‘Art and art galleries are vital to the fabric of any city, however small, I think especially in this day and age. It’s easy to overlook arts and culture but I think it’s important to have a space people can come to learn about contemporary art.’

In the immediate future Sophie is focused on Cotton’s exhibition. She admits working on it is ‘kind of surreal,’ as Cotton was one of the first artists she studied at school. ‘I’m in complete awe of him and his practice. I always have been. I studied his early grid paintings and I remember it so clearly, so it’s amazing now to be showing his work, and it’s all new work.’

If you weren’t already interested in visiting, Sophie is happy to sing the praises of Hawkes Bay and its rising art scene in general. ‘People are continuously getting pushed out of the cities into these smaller places so they are getting more and more creative by the day. The Hawkes Bay is really exciting – there are galleries, wineries, beaches, climate, cool little digital agencies, and events. It’s just a really good time to be here.’

First published ArtZone #71


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