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Interview with Sonja Heath Founder of Circus Gallery

Sonja Heath is an entrepreneur and Founder of Circus Gallery

Sonja health at an art fair
Sonja Heath Founder of Circus Gallery

How did you get into this line of work?

I have always been creative, my father is an artist, and art was my favourite subject as a child, and when it came to choosing a diploma for college I selected Fashion Design. I attained a degree in Fashion Design, specialising in Menswear Tailoring, and then soon after this another degree in teaching. Throughout the years I always maintained a job in hospitality, whether this be in the evenings or weekends. I enjoyed interacting with customers and learning about people.

I was given the opportunity to move to New Zealand with an ex. Boyfriend (many many moons ago) whilst he worked on the film ‘Avatar’. It was here that I stumbled across a part time job in an Art Gallery, and I absolutely LOVED IT. It felt so natural, and I was able to combine my two passions of creativity and customer relations, and I was good at it.

After the film was finished I moved back to London, which is where I began my next chapter in the art world. A world of targets and pressure and dog eat dog. And again, I LOVED IT and soon worked my way up in the business. Eventually I lost the love for the company I worked for and its business model. It was/is the UK’s largest Art Publisher with almost 100 art galleries nationwide. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the sales and making money, but after a while the sales patter felt fake, and customers weren’t happy, and nor were the artists.

So this is when I decided to start Maze Gallery, which I ran for 5 years. This experience taught me a lot about artist selection, building relationships, my strengths, weaknesses and what I wanted for my next gallery, Circus Gallery.

Why did you decide to open your own gallery?

Ultimately, I wanted full control, and above all I wanted the art we sold to be rare, not mass produced and not readily available in galleries up and down the country. For me, art is a luxury and should be a rare commodity. When the same artwork is available in 50 galleries along with ‘limited edition’ prints, it soon becomes unremarkable and not special at all. I wanted to educate the people that visited the gallery and advise them to invest in artists that painted original works, and that an independent gallery is where you will find unique, special and authentic works of art. Would you rather buy from a boutique shop or a chain store?

How do you find artists?

I’m asked this a lot. With Maze Gallery, I had a partner who would look at galleries in Europe for many of the artists we worked with. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I took more of a key-role in sourcing artists. It was at this time I connected with Daniel Hooper, Golsa Golchini and later on with Tabitha Millett. All 3 ended up being our best selling artists. All 3 were completely different in style, but all had one thing in common, absolute determination to succeed as an artist and make a living from it.

This is how I continue my search for new artists to Join the Circus, and a perfect example of this is Abigail Bowen. Since she started work with us she has sold out her work each time. She believed in us, and we believed in her. She will always recall that I picked up the phone to call her to discuss us working together (rather than email), she appreciated that, and that makes me happy.

It takes many hours and days of searching instagram, art fairs, and other platforms to find an artist. And then you need to meet the artist and see the work in person, and to see if you are both on the same page. There are no gimmicks with Circus Gallery, no investment ‘guarantees’. It is purely about being unique, original, authentic and rare.

The concept of Circus Gallery is to travel, can you tell us more about that?

The high street is dying, and footfall is at an all time low. When I decided to close Maze Gallery, I saw the opportunity to have more freedom and this is when we decided to focus on art fairs and pop ups. Rent is expensive, especially in an affluent area, and it is hard making a profit on footfall alone, we wanted to invest that rent into art fairs, and multiply our sales opportunity and exposure for the artists. By being a travelling gallery we are able to meet new audiences and interact with lots of new collectors. It's very exciting for us and our artists!

You mention that Daniel Hooper was your best selling artist at Maze Gallery, how did it come about that you founded Circus Gallery together?

I admired Daniel from the first time we met. He had an unwavering motivation to paint & sell his work, and no matter what I asked of him, he would deliver. Daniel appreciated that I believed in him and that I gave him a leading role at Maze Gallery, and in return I would always be given the newest work and eventually he dropped his other galleries. We worked so well together as Artist and gallerist, that it was a natural progression that we would eventually set up a business together.

What do you love most about the art world?

The colourful people that fill it. Everyone has such different tastes and attitudes. I love people watching at the fairs and finding a pattern in the demographics that purchase certain styles of work.

What do you dislike most about the art world?

Ultimately, my biggest dislike are Publishers, and mass production.

Secondly, gallerists who work with publishers, instead of spending time finding independent artists to represent. I understand it is hard competing with publishers, but there is so much talent out there, and it's a shame that so many galleries stock the same artists.

Thirdly ‘magpies’ (the galleries that see your success with an artist and then approach them, thinking they’ll make some easy money)

And lastly, CONTRACTS - this is such an archaic procedure between galleries and artists. I prefer to work on the old fashion notion of loyalty.

Plans for the future?

2024 is already mapped out with fairs. Potentially we will be looking for a gallery space in 2025, depending on the market. I still long for a space to showcase artwork daily, I love hosting events and solo shows for the incredible artists - watch this space...

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