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Muddy Meets: Elaine Dye, The Byre Gallery

Cornwall attracts creative people, many of whom are women, says gallery owner Elaine Dye - but lockdown changed the way we had to work. We talk female owned creative businesses ahead of IWD.

Tell me a bit about your background and what you do – and how you came to do this?

I’m the director of the Byre Gallery which I founded in 2014. My background was in PR and communications in the arts and in then TV. I’d always liked the idea of owning either a gallery or a book shop – both places where I spent a considerable amount of time and money. In 2006, my husband’s work took us to live in Sydney, Australia for two years and I took up pottery classes. I soon realised that my contribution wasn’t going to set the ceramic world alight but my tutor ignited my interest in curating.

When we came back to the UK we decided to make a permanent move from London to our holiday home in Cornwall and to build a new home on the land we’d bought before we went to Australia. As the plans for that came together we realised that there was scope to have a gallery at the end of the house. At the same time, Plymouth College of Art announced a new MA programme where you could develop your own specialism – I applied and said, ‘I want to be a curator.’ I then spent two really interesting years working out my ideas for the gallery, graduated in 2012, the building work was completed the following year, and we opened in spring 2014.

What is your day to day working life like?

Even during lockdown no two days are the same which I love. Most days start with a dog walk on the coast which is a great time for problem solving and coming up with new ideas.

If we’re getting ready for a new show I might be re-painting the walls, hanging paintings and putting the rest of the exhibition together; or if the gallery is already full of beautiful things I’m working on plans for the next show, talking to – or going to visit – artists and makers, photographing work, updating the website or packing up pieces that have sold ready to be shipped.

When the gallery is open, I’m here to welcome visitors and will happily put my to-do list to one side to tell them about the work in the exhibition. Or if Emily (our gallery assistant) is here, I can leave the gallery in her capable hands and get on with the other work, but we always make time for a forward planning session – as well as having several coffees! 

Has that changed at all during the various lockdown / pandemic and if so, do you think it has highlighted any need for change?

When we weren’t able to open the gallery I very much missed seeing visitors. I love introducing people to an exhibition: catching up with clients and meeting those who’ve found us for the first time is one of the favourite parts of my job.

What was key for me last year was trying to give a little bit of the Byre Gallery experience virtually. Our website became the real focus of the gallery business. We were lucky we had an online gallery already in place on our website so as soon as we knew we couldn’t opening we were able to get all the exhibits online and create some films to introduce the work in the exhibition.

Our online sales really took off and that’s definitely an area we’re looking to expand. It was fantastic to see an increased consumer confidence in buying art and craft online. 

What are you doing to promote women/equality in your every day?

I’m delighted to say that about 90% of the work I show in the gallery is created by women.  The art and contemporary craft world has always attracted women and I love being able to celebrate the amazing work they create.

Whats it like being a female business owner (and do you think it differs in Cornwall to UK generally)?

Cornwall attracts creative people – whether as artists or makers or in a related industry – and as I said before, there are a lot of women in that world so I think it’s a great place for a woman to run a business. I do think some people forget that being an artist or a maker isn’t just about creating beautiful things, it’s about running your own small business: establishing your brand, building a website, promoting your product, dealing with galleries or shops; and the women artists and makers I work with do it very successfully. 

What more is there to do in terms of equality / parity in Cornwall generally?

I’d like to see more women artists – and makers – being represented in major collections and galleries in the UK and overseas. There are some hugely talented women who deserve wider recognition.

Whats the general vibe among women business owners. Are people supportive? Good networks? 

Very much so: I think women instinctively want to support other women in their businesses because we understand the obstacles in the way, and if you need support or guidance, you know by asking a woman you will be pretty much already on the same page. Helen Round – of Helen Round Designs – and I started our businesses around the same time and we’ve continued to share advice and support, which I’m really grateful for. 

I’ve worked with – and for – some amazing women and I think they’ve all inspired me in different ways and I like to think I’ve learned something valuable from them all. 

What’s your favourite Cornish beach / view?

Whitsand Bay, and especially Tregantle Beach. It’s a steep walk down – and up – but even at the height of the summer it’s never too busy. Walking west you look down the Cornish coastline towards Looe and beyond, and on a clear day you can see the Lizard; head back east and you’re facing Rame Head, one of my all time favourite views.

I love walking especially round the coast path close to us here on the Rame Peninsula and I would love to do all of the South West Coast path at some point – we’ve done a few sections and when time permits will definitely tackle more. I love that we have so many safe swimming beaches near us. I’m a bit of fair weather sea swimmer but do love it once I’m in – I keep vowing to buy a wet suit so I can brave the sea in all seasons… maybe this year.

When your first visitors arrive in Cornwall post lockdown, where do you take them first that shows Cornwall in all it’s beauty?

A walk up to Rame Head. Not only does it look so wonderfully majestic as you approach it, once you’re up at the top and can see the coast in both directions: east towards Devon, and west down the coast of Cornwall it feels like you’re standing on a 3d map; it is truly breathtaking.

And what about food – where are you heading first after lockdown?

For some of the best food in Cornwall from chef/owner Matt Corner as well as a picture perfect view of Rame Head as well as the coastline to the west – you cannot beat The View restaurant overlooking Whitsand Bay. 

Find more ideas here

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