The Artful Entrepreneur

January 10th, 2012 § 0 comments

Maria McMenamin is a woman at the top of her game. In seven short years she has defied all expectations and revolutionised the way art is bought and sold in Ireland. She is the tour de force behind the country’s only commercial art fare, the ubiquitous Art Ireland.

Speaking with her on the phone, I imagine a bourgeois art lover, a lady who likes to lunch while dropping the names of her husband’s Golf Club friends. Her refined brogue and reputation are all the evidence I need.

But within seconds of meeting her, my preconceptions are shattered. In person she is easy-going and completely devoid of pretension; rare qualities in an industry that lauds the ability to build up an image and then live up to it.

Disarmed by her youthful looks and radiant smile, I can’t picture her taking the Irish art world by storm. When I tell her so, her response is characteristically animated while her humour is self-depreciating.

“Can you imagine me at twenty-four, twenty-five,” she says, leaning in closer, emphasising the ‘me’ and dramatically pointing to herself, “approaching established art galleries and telling them I wanted to host an art fare. But no, I have no experience, and no, I’ve never done anything like this before. They didn’t even laugh at me, they just ignored me. That made me want to do it more.’

From a young age Maria knew she wanted to run her own business. She went to UCD and completed a degree in Business Studies with that objective in mind. After college she moved to London. It was there that she discovered art markets. Immediately she loved the buzz.

“I’d been to galleries in Dublin and just found them so snotty, completely unapproachable and of course way out of my price range. But in London it wasn’t like that. Here were these huge weekend markets where you could go, talk to the artists and buy affordable but original art.”

She was inspired.

“I thought why don’t we have anything like this is Dublin. It seemed like a huge market opportunity to me.”

From that point on, the lengthy process of finding an exhibition space and filling it began. Quickly she realised that she was on to a good thing. The dismissals she received from the galleries were outweighed by an overwhelming support from artists.

“The artists loved the idea. They were just so happy to have a way to reach the public that circumvented the restrictive process of dealing with a gallery. The vast majority of artists simply cannot afford the 50 percent commission that galleries demand. With Art Ireland their only outlay is in the stand. They are in control and they really appreciate that. Also London galleries were hugely supportive from the beginning. Many of them are still taking exhibition spaces today.”

That first year every spare penny went into promoting the event. She’d convinced the artists to come on board but unless the public came with money in their back pockets, she knew the whole thing would be a pointless exercise.

“I will never forget the doors opening that first year and seeing a queue at the door. What a relief that was!”

For the next three years she continued to work full-time in London, selling software for Iona Technologies and organising the fare during every spare moment.

‘I’d be on my way to a sales meeting for Iona and taking bookings for the fare. I had a few mobiles. I’d be talking to an artist, get to my client’s office, switch off one mobile, set up my presentation and talk software. But Iona was fully aware of what I was doing and had no problem with it.”

This hectic pace continued up until four years ago when she made the decision to move back to Ireland and dedicate all her energy into Art Ireland.

But slowing down is not an option for Maria. Within two years of moving home she got married, expanded Art Ireland to Cork, added an additional date to the Dublin calendar and had a baby boy. And in the two since, she’s had another baby, a girl, and this year sees her launch the show in Galway.

Her success, it would seem, is unstoppable and I wonder why she has succeeded where so many others have failed.

“A few things are important,” she explains, “location for one. That’s why the RDS in Dublin works. There’s parking, catering and public transport, all things, which make it easy for the visitors to come. But the artists have to sell work. If there are no sales, it’s just a pointless exercise for everybody.’

In 2008 her efforts will come full circle when she launches the Dublin Art Fare, an event exclusively for Dublin’s galleries. Now, not even they can snub her hard-earned influence. Just as the success of Art Ireland cannot be overlooked, few can ignore the sheer determination of this skilled business woman or deny that her indomitable entrepreneurial spirit is artful.

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