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Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Katherine Oliver

Oliver Projects founder Katherine Oliver has amassed over 20 years’ experience in the art world. In 2019 she launched Oliver Projects, a nomadic art gallery and online shop specialising in contemporary works on paper, with an aim to make viewing and collecting art accessible to all.   

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

The majority of my career has been spent in the non-profit making sector working in art organisations such as the Barbican and the Royal Academy. My roles included exhibition management, curation and sales, in a non-commercial context, dealing with members of the public who loved art, as opposed to high-tier collectors. This experience gave me a unique perspective when I decided to go solo and create Oliver Projects; I always have my exhibitions hat on first and foremost – with a view to making our shows and online presence feel warm and approachable.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

I had been organising pop-up exhibitions in various non-gallery spaces in my spare time and also had two small children, so was looking for a more flexible work pattern. I noticed that people loved to come to exhibitions held in unexpected places, for example an unusual family home or an empty retail space – the experience felt more welcoming and unique than many contemporary galleries do today. Frankly, the art world still feels very elite and impenetrable to most. I wanted to start a business that made viewing and collecting art feel friendlier.

How did you achieve awareness?

I started with virtually no client-base so had build it up from scratch. In the beginning the business was very local, focusing on attracting collectors by organising exhibitions with local artists in non-gallery spaces including my own home. We did lots of flyering, invited friends and parents from my kids’ schools and partnered with local businesses. I also worked on building my personal profile for example by taking part in panel discussions at art fairs.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

The business is intentionally small and has always been self-funded. Additional income has come from freelance projects that I have taken on, and I keep costs down by working from home (we do not have a permanent gallery space). The launching of our online shop (which I built myself, with a little help) in 2020 really helped the business grow, in tandem with a strong social media presence, word of mouth, and the nurturing of our existing collector-base. All of these efforts have helped us begin to reach collectors all over the world.  

What are the key successes?

Building a community of loyal artists and collectors is incredibly gratifying. The art world is competitive but there is genuine support between the smaller galleries; I am proud to have found a place in that network. Being featured in Harpers Bazaar in 2023 as one of a new wave of galleries run by ‘discerning female founders’ was a highlight. It is also wonderful to be able to directly support artists in the development of their careers, whatever their age or experience. I still get excited whenever I sell something, however small.

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

My husband always says – you have chosen an incredibly difficult way to earn a living! It has become even harder in recent months to sell art – which is essentially a luxury item. Two years ago, online launches worked really well but now collectors want real-life experiences. I recently chose to subscribe to a certain online art platform which was a financial disaster. I did the year I had committed to and cancelled – you just have to get over it.

What are your plans now/for the future?

To continue reach a wider collector-base without compromising on identity or quality. We do one UK art fair per year and I have now started looking overseas to try out some fairs in the US or Europe. The most important thing is that we are positioned amongst galleries and artists who we admire. I need to start being braver and take more risks.

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

You don’t need a business plan or a huge amount of funding if you want to work for yourself. Refuse to compromise on the quality of what you are doing. For me, it is about staying focused on something that has a unique boutique quality rather than trying to dramatically scale the business up. I would rather work with ten really good artists than fifty mediocre ones.

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

Ask me in ten years time! But for now – just keep doing what you are doing. If people see that you are active, they won’t forget you. Even if it isn’t the right moment for them to buy or enlist your services, you are planting a seed. Also – do not underestimate the power of a hard-copy invitation to a special event. It’s good to be old-fashioned sometimes.

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

I am a big fan of supporting local businesses and am hugely inspired by several women founders in south east London who have all forged strong identities for their businesses. For example, Laura Stephens, who runs her own interior design business, Yolanda Chiaramello, the florist, who is also a talented documentary photographer, Lizzie Dixey who runs the impeccably presented art consultancy The Art Register, Jo Johnson who runs Peckham boutique Form SE15, and Ocki Mcgill, founder of Blue Shop Cottage.  

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

Don’t sell anything that you wouldn’t buy yourself and work only with people you enjoy (Charlie Munger).

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing (Georgia O’Keefe).

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?