The Story Of Shaftesbury’s Original Pop-Up Art Shop

Pop up galleries have become trendy recently. But Shaftesbury artist Kate Toms was ahead of the curve when she launched her annual art sale, nineteen years ago.

Kate believes that more places to buy art could boost our town’s tourism economy. ThisisAlfred paid Kate a visit.

St Peter’s Church Hall, at the top of Gold Hill, has been transformed into a gallery space. The event runs until Saturday 8th June, even though its name could be misleading. “That’s the joke really. It started off as ‘Art in May’ and then we extended it another week,” said Kate.

“I trained in textile design at Winchester and got a BA Honours degree and then went into the fashion industry doing textile designs,” she said. “It was hard graft to begin with. I couldn’t sell enough to make my rent, so I worked as a temp and did lots of other jobs, but I kept on designing and eventually I got there after four or five years. I used to do two main collections a year, selling to all the main shops, which was great.”

Kate Toms with some of her artwork

Kate decided to leave the capital and head down to North Dorset. “After twelve years in the centre of London, we wanted to have a family. My husband had set up his own business doing joinery work, making furniture, so we moved down here. We met at art school in Salisbury when I was 18, and he was 20-something. We never even knew Shaftesbury, although we were 35 minutes away for a year!”

The ‘Art in May’ concept was conceived on a train trip, returning home from the Cornish coast. “A girlfriend and I went down to St Ives on an art course and on the train coming back, I said to Catherine, ‘we’ve got to have a show’, because otherwise, all this wonderful stuff that we’ve learned will go to waste. So we evolved ‘Art in May’,” explained Kate.

“The event moved between different venues in its first few years. There was a wonderful café in the Italian restaurant called Terra Firma. It started there, then we did a year in Gillingham. My husband I were sitting at the Salt Cellar and Trev looked across the way and said, ‘that looks like a really good hall’, so we asked the church if we could hire it.”

For the past fifteen years, St Peter’s Church Hall has hosted the art show and Kate loves the space. “This is a wonderful hall. It was a Quaker Hall originally. It’s now a Church of England Hall. There’s a great feeling in the place,” she said.

Kate’s life took a different direction for a few years. After leaving her first Dorset home in Twyford, she moved to Shaftesbury, buying a property in Bimport and starting a B&B in her home. Kate operated the accommodation business for eight years and quickly realised how art and tourism co-exist in a destination like ours.

“It’s a very old Georgian house. I think it attracted people that wanted to visit a place like Shaftesbury to begin with. It is steeped with history. Once they sat in the dining room, with all my pictures up on the walls, there was a really good connection.”

“I’ve always kept the art going, even when I had the B&B,” Kate continued. “Once you’ve started working and being creative, it’s almost impossible to stop. You might ease back and do slightly less, and events in your life mean that you have to do that now and again. It was quite a good combination because I made the beds and then went upstairs and started painting again,” she laughed.

After eight years of work as an accommodation provider, Kate decided that she wanted to ‘enjoy’ her home and stopped taking paying guests. This new found freedom has given her more time to experiment with her art. “My work tends to be predominantly flowers. Every year I try to change my style a little. I’ve done some embroideries and then some scarves. Most times, when we do the show, I ask the other artists to put in new work. And sometimes their style evolves,” she said.

It is a fine balance between keeping regulars happy with a consistent display and adding new elements so returning browsers don’t get bored. “Sometimes we get people coming in and being quite honest and saying, ‘Well, I think I preferred it last year’,” said Kate, adding that she thinks that is ‘great’. “But because I know local people are going to come in every year, we do need to make it slightly different and maybe a bit challenging one year.”

Not everybody buys, but Kate seems pleased with her footfall at the top of Gold Hill and the exposure the show offers her artists. “Yesterday, we had something like 85 people,” she said, referring to the Bank Holiday. “They just come in and stroll around the table. Not many buy but there is a huge interaction between the art and the people. As long as you can encourage people to come in, even if they are not purchasing just to look, I think that’s vital.”

Some of the local art is bought as a Shaftesbury souvenir by regular visitors from London. Visitors also buy pieces and many locals are loyal customers. “I think it’s a huge mixture. We had a gentleman come in last year and he bought one of Pat’s wonderful boats. He ended up buying five and went away with a flotilla under his arm to take back to London.”

Most of the artists that Kate invites to take part in ‘Art in May’ live nearby, but not everyone is local. “I think you have to be a little careful that you don’t get a little cliquey. So sometimes it’s quite good to open it to someone from further afield.”

Kate says that local scenes can prove popular, but there needs to be variety in subject matter and setting. “You’ve got to be a bit careful that you don’t just have pictures of Gold Hill. You’ve got to try and get a good mixture. It’s important to have the connection to the locality, but also to get a little bit of a mix going on.”

Recently it has become more difficult to determine what will sell. “Things have changed hugely, probably over the last five or six years. We can’t really predict it at all. Your options are scarves, jewellery, some beadwork and pottery. We’re trying to give as much choice as possible, really,” said Kate.

With eight years of accommodation experience, Kate understands how additional art shows, galleries and shops could add to Shaftesbury’s tourism offer. “We are a small town. We have the best attractions with Gold Hill, the Blackmore Vale, the walks and the Abbey’s history. There’s a huge amount already. But I think if we can add art into that, it would mean another point of visit. I think it would be very important.”

Some seaside destinations are renowned for their arts focus but Kate says Shaftesbury can learn from some inland towns nearby, too. “Down in Cornwall, of course, you’ve got St Ives. Locally, you’ve got Frome up the road. Frome has a very good balance between independent shops and galleries and a very strong art community. I think it would be brilliant if we could do something similar here.”

Kate feels that another full-time arts outlet would be good for the town, but she accepts that staffing and stocking another gallery may bring some challenges. “It would be really great if we could have a permanent fixture on the High Street. But again, that’s a cost involvement. I’m not sure how many artists would be able to commit to that,” said Kate.

She says that she is pleased that ‘The Shaftesbury Group’ of local artists has launched a monthly arts sale in The Town Hall. “That’s a really good thing to start happening,” said Kate, but she warns that artists may become stretched if there is an additional outlet. “That is tricky. To produce new work on a monthly basis is quite a pressure on an artist. For the artists that exhibit here with me, we do tend to build up work over the year. They have other shows and exhibitions, but for Art in May, it tends to be a yearly build up.”

In the time that Kate has been in the Shaftesbury area, more artists have emerged and many take part in the county-wide trail around studios and workshops. “Dorset Art Weeks has grown hugely since we first did it twenty-odd years ago,” she says. More artists will enlarge the event and heighten its profile. The flip side is that there is more competition for art-buyers’ money. “That could be an issue because there is only a finite amount of money that people have to spend,” says Kate, who says that there is only a finite amount of space in most homes, too.

If you have bare walls crying out for some colour, ‘Art in May’ is open at St Peter’s Church Hall between 10am and 5pm each day until Saturday 8th June. Homemade cakes and refreshments will be on offer on Sunday 2nd June.