Sarah Hassett (National Sales & Marketing Manager of Heidelberg Fine Art) sat down with our Sales Director Rachel Rowe only days before lock down. Sarah was over from Melbourne visiting suppliers including Cranfield and at that stage Sarah looked forward to returning ‘Down Under’ for a busy spring of travel commitments around Australia.

So when they caught up with one another again in October, Rachel started by asking how Sarah might score 2020 on Trip Advisor…

Well…Australia went into our first nationwide lock down in late March and most of the industry experienced panic buying.

Before our first lock down there was an assumption that fine art stores may be forced to close if they were classed as non-essential retail. While importers may be unable to import from countries that were experiencing their own lock downs. With a fear that materials might be unavailable, this prompted many to stock up and bulk buy. Even once it became clear that art stores would not be closed, panic buying continued as professional artists worked from home, amateurs needed to fill their time with their hobbies and children needed to be kept entertained! It seemed everyone for one reason or another needed their materials. The initial panic buying stage has now calmed but we are still experiencing strong stable sales across Australia.

It has however been tough for stores who have no online offering and rural stores who relied on tourists. Like many industries, the biggest change has been an overwhelming increase in online sales. I suspect this trend will continue beyond Covid as customers get used to this service. The types of materials that people are buying haven’t changed, just the volumes in a single transaction as people are trying to minimize trips to the store or save on freight. Our stores cater for professionals so we have always had a lot of technical questions from customers, and this hasn’t changed.

Some stores have given feedback that drawing materials have increased (oil pastels, soft pastels, pencils, charcoal, pads etc. However most of the industry are reporting that demand for all media has increased, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘stand out’ discipline.

You are an artist yourself as well as a specialist in art materials. Have you found inspiration has continued or has it been harder to focus or produce?

This is a subject I have discussed with many artists and I have many different answers. For me, I have had periods of great work production and then periods where I’ve found it very hard to be focused and painting has ground to a halt. Like most people, at times I have felt ‘all over the place’ and that’s not very conducive to my process. I think the correct term for this has now been coined as “Corona-coaster”…

I do think that the pandemic and how it has affected people will ultimately prove very inspirational for artists in the years to come. Hindsight and reflection of major events like this always are, but right now, let’s just say……I’m not really feeling it!

I don’t think my experience is unusual but everyone is different and reacts to these situations in their own way. Some have found more time available to produce work due to lock down, others have found their situation changed in a way that has prevented them from making work at all. For others, it has forced them to work in other ways; from different places, with different materials or given them a different perspective. All of which can be very fertile ground for an artist.

What is it about the Heidelberg and MES group of companies that have allowed you to provide such a dependable service through such strange times?

That’s simple, our people! Our retail teams are made up of highly skilled artists from all kinds of different disciplines. This means they understand our customers’ needs and how to help best. For most customers our staff are their trusted technical advisors. So, when Covid hit, we could help our customers navigate their way through.

Our management team have also tried to work very hard to be flexible and keep good communication with our suppliers and customers. Providing solutions to issues and making the most of opportunities as they arise.

How are artists selling their work when many galleries are closed or restricted?

Like all of us, galleries are adapting, with both online and walk in exhibitions across the country doing well. It’s a tough truth but the very wealthy are largely protected from economic downturn and therefore the top end of the market is also largely unchanged.

The more affordable end of the market, say works $2k to $20k is doing very well. This may be because there has been a well-documented rise in spending in the interior design and home improvement sectors in Australia. People are investing in their homes instead of travel, dining out and other expenses that have not been possible due to restrictions. This has meant that the renovations market is booming, pool building is up, (something I suspect is less likely in the UK!) furniture sales are at an all-time high…… and so is the fine art market. For this reason, Artists are finding commercial success in both sales and getting booked for shows. Fingers crossed it continues as the economic downturn hits and settles in over the next few years.

Social media networks such as Instagram and Facebook have also proved an important tool for artists during the pandemic. As more people are using social media to stay connected, artists are achieving a further reach and more direct sales using these platforms.

Much of your recent work has been amazingly detailed ‘close up’ paintings of house plants which is ideal for lock down! When you can get out to paint landscapes without being moved on by the Police, what’s the first plein air project you are going to tackle?!

Landscapes have never been a passion for me but part of my process has been to go out and find various plants to stage for still life work in the studio. This process has become an important part of my creative practice over the years and is something I’ve missed. During lockdown I have had to settle for walking around the local suburban streets. I can’t wait to go out to the Australian bush and select leaves and flowers for a full day. Then bring it all back to the studio to assemble and select from a day of searching.

Thanks Sarah, and once Covid19 is finally behind us, we’re coming out to Australia to join you when you go out foraging!