With a new flagship gallery in the Mailbox and 40 others across the country, the Birmingham-based company, Castle Fine Art is delivering on its promise of bringing contemporary fine art to all
The art world can be a challenging and daunting place for us mere mortals. Our experience is likely limited to visiting some of the best-known galleries and looking at works by great masters, while trying to give the impression that we actually know something about the subject!
Apologies if we have insulted your knowledge here, no slight intended. But even experts who ‘know their stuff’ – such as Ian Weatherby-Blythe – admit art people can act in a way that is “pretentious and superior”. Ian is committed to changing all that. And he’s been very successful at it through Castle Fine Art, the Birmingham-based business he founded more than 24 years ago.
Since its launch in 1995, the company has experienced rapid growth, developing from one outlet in Stratford-upon-Avon to a nationwide network of 40 galleries with avid collectors all over the world. What makes Castle Fine Art unique is Ian’s ethos to open up great art to everyone, whether with a small spending budget or a larger one.
Founder and managing director Ian said: “Before Castle opened, I felt there was nowhere that ordinary people could get access to great art – so often confined to the homes of private collectors, never to be enjoyed by the public. So I decided to open an art gallery that delivered quality art works at affordable prices. Our aim is to give everyone the opportunity to own beautiful art – and over the last 24 years we have succeeded in bringing the art world’s contemporary talents to the high street.” These include works by some famous names who you might not readily associate at first with art – such as Bob Dylan, Billy Connolly and Ronnie Wood.
“Contemporary art means to me, living artists,” said Ian. “All of our editions are hand signed by the artists. Branded art is massive. People like Bob Dylan, Ronnie Wood and Marvel attract people to a gallery who probably wouldn’t otherwise go in. We have also worked incredibly hard to ensure that we make all our galleries warm, welcoming, friendly places that you want to be in. We spend a lot of time so that our staff are trained to be expert.
“Our presence in shopping centres and malls is very important so people get the chance to come in an browse, even if they then choose to buy from us online. Because the high street has been struggling in general over the past couple of years, we have had an opportunity to take advantage of that.”
The business has seen growth of more than 10 per cent in the last 12 months, with more than 300 people now working for it at the 40 galleries spread across the UK – from Glasgow to Brighton and Norwich to Cardiff – and boasting the very smart, chic new flagship gallery opened recently in the Mailbox by Birmingham’s Lord Mayor. Castle is also at the forefront of the online art market with on-going, significant growth in traffic to its website.
Ian is keen to keep the business expanding moving forward but says: “Depending on Brexit and how that works out. We buy in US dollars and every time the pound takes a pummelling that effects what we do.”
Intrinsic to the business is Washington Green fine art publishers who Ian teamed up with 15 years ago to source the art needed for his galleries. The successful relationship led to Castle and Washington Green merging with Ian heading both.
Ian said: “First and foremost, I am a retailer and I want to make art accessible to all. Art can be so pretentious, but actually good art is just what you like as an individual. Opening up art to people has meant bringing our galleries to places where they shop. No one did art on the high street, other than the John Lewis-type of thing, before we did it.
“Our art starts from a couple of hundred pounds and can go up to a couple of hundred thousand if that’s what you want. Most importantly, you get the same level of service and care whatever you spend.”