December 31, 2006
Henry Moore 'doodle' sets off a blue-chip art business
by Rose Costello
HOW I MADE IT John Daly, gallery director, Hillsboro Fine Arts
THE bells that ring out at midnight on New Year’s Eve can serve as a wake-up call to many who have ambled onto the wrong path in life. For John Daly, it was the approach of a milestone birthday that set him thinking about what he was doing with his life. “I realised I was hitting 40 and I wanted to do stuff while I still had energy.”
Daly was forging a strong career in publishing, in charge of secondary school books at CJ Fallon. “It was a great job, dare I say a cushy number,” he said. “I could be managing director now had I stayed.”
What little free time he had — he was also studying for an MBA — was spent indulging his passion for art. Since 1991, he had staged small exhibitions several times a year at his home in Drumcondra. In 2002, he went full-time and has now built up a business that enjoys turnover of about €1.2m.
“At 15, I spent the whole summer’s wages as a barman at Fagan’s on an etching by Henry Moore. My parents wondered why I was spending so much on a ‘doodle’. It cost about IR£900.”
After school, he joined his parents’ pharmacy business for four years. “I turned it around and upped turnover. I could have made a lot of money but it was very boring.”
So he went to Dublin City University to study communications and then social anthropology in Oxford before finishing a PhD on James Joyce. This lead to a career in publishing at HW Wilson and then CJ Fallon. “After too much time in publishing, I needed a new challenge. I felt the timing was right. The visual arts culture in Ireland is maturing with astute collectors now expecting informed advice and access to top-quality artwork from major artists.”
The biggest sacrifice he had to make initially was living in straitened circumstances. “I was leaving a well-paid, secure position with great prospects. In addition, I was switching from (a small) gallery business that had little or no overheads to a venture that had no income and huge overheads.”
There are no regrets, however. “I probably put in more hours than ever but it does not feel like a job.”
Daly’s initial step into a new life was a measured one as he continued to operate out of Hillsboro, the family home his grandfather had built. “I got in new floors and lighting, that’s all.”
His next move was to open an 800-sq-ft gallery on Anne’s Lane behind Grafton Street two years later. “It was a great location but the room had no height.”
He has now moved to a restored Georgian building on Parnell Square.
Daly always had an eye to the future. “As the business started to do well, I bought work from each exhibition instead of taking a profit and thus built up a collection that can be viewed on the website now.”
Although he makes sure to have the most up-to-date security systems and shutters, insurance still costs him about €10,000 a year.
Building strong relationships with artists has been key to the success of the business. At a party in the Chelsea Arts Club in the early days, artist and friend Terry Frost introduced Daly to some of Britain’s top painters as the owner of “the best gallery in Ireland”. They took him at his word and let Daly show their work.
When it comes to making art pay, he says it is important to know the rules and when to break them. “For example, I have put on a number of exhibitions that seem to make no business sense but they are crucial in defining the ethos of the gallery.”
This helps to build credibility with patrons, press and artists alike. These exhibitions must be alternated with those that show work that is “accessible and saleable at high prices”.
A gallery owner can keep the coffers full, he says, by making sure to have a balance of “blue chips”, in other words pictures by established artists that nobody has to be persuaded to buy.
Daly is proud of the success he has had introducing important international artists to this country, such as David Hockney, and showing them alongside some of Ireland’s best. He also promotes Irish artists abroad and will have a stand at the Art-Miami fair this week.
Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.