Sara McKee, founder of Life: Full Colour, tells the story of how, after suffering from a tragic loss, she turned her grief into something positive by following her life-long dream of opening an art gallery.
My love of art history began in a Manchester school. Two of my sixth form teachers, Miss Tong, who taught ancient history and literature, and Miss Draper, who taught English, inspired me to form my own opinions by truly learning how to look, listen and read. I discovered I could do all this and more with art history, so I decided to study the course at the University of Warwick. It was here, under the tutelage of Professor Julian Gardner, I developed my love of visual art and bold colours. The “Prof” and I are friends to this day.
During my degree, I spent six months in Venice, immersed in art and traveling around Northern Italy by train: Padua, Mantua, Ferrara, Siena, and the islands of Murano and Burano to name a few. I specialised in thirteenth-century Italian fresco and panel painting, particularly Giotto, Duccio and Cimabue. Giotto’s Nativity scene in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, is my all-time favourite fresco, and I can still wax lyrical about the chemistry, alchemy and skill involved in fresco painting.
Yet, despite my love of art and art history, my first step into the work world was not art-related. It was the late 1980s and the art world was elitist. It was incredibly difficult to start a career if you didn’t have money or connections. So, I went off and got myself ‘a real job’. Over the years, I’ve worked across a wide range of industries and held many titles: Advertising Executive, Sales and Marketing Director, Group Commercial Director, Chief Operating Officer, Managing Director, Board Director, Founder. I’ve launched airlines and computer brands, written policy on helping the long-term unemployed return to work, headed up one of the largest care home providers in the country, and consulted with councils on eradicating institutionalisation of older people.
My work has been rich and varied. I’ve amassed skills and experience, and developed long-standing relationships, but art was always there. My husband Stephen and I would travel the world, visiting art galleries and taking in exhibitions, as well as hand-picking pieces of art for our home. I’ve also accumulated a collection of art history books that would rival any library. Then tragedy struck in early 2011. Stephen died and I was a widow in my forties. The following year, I was made redundant from a senior position in the health and social care arena.
Eighteen months after Stephen’s death and six months after my redundancy, I was looking for a new direction and decided to go back to my artistic roots. I signed up to a Christie’s Education lecture series, led by art market specialist James Goodwin. The modules covered everything from the art market and art law to valuations and dealing in art. The lecture series opened my eyes to the possibility of bringing together my passion for art history, the art business education and thirty years of commercial and entrepreneurial experience into a new venture. The idea of Life: Full Colour was born.
Originally created as a website, the goal of Life: Full Colour was to provide a platform for talented artists and to stimulate conversations about art in a way that makes it accessible to all. I started reaching out to different artists and art groups while happily attending exhibitions across the UK, Europe and the USA. I thought the website was going to be enough for me, but I should have known better.
While I was on holiday in Dumfries in May last year I decided that I wanted to transition Life: Full Colour from purely online to a gallery. It’s the second half of life for me and I felt ready. As soon as I returned from my holiday, I was looking at potential gallery spaces in Conwy and Llandudno, with it going down to the wire on the latter; but it was not to be. But on the 29th of June I took a trip to Caernarfon to view a former restaurant at Hole in the Wall Street and less than a week later, I signed the deal to buy the property. I’ve used my pension to fund the purchase of the gallery and some people think I’m mad, but I am an art historian: it’s in my bones and this has been my dream for years.
As with most things I do, I was champing at the bit and eager to get going, so we started with a pop up event in Conwy featuring the talented Dr Alan Pascuzzi, one of the world’s top Michelangelo experts. Our idea was to keep running pop up events in the lead up to the gallery opening, but then a global pandemic hit. Event planning stopped and renovations on the gallery came to a screaming halt. My partner in Australia was grounded, literally.
Everything I do is at full force so the hiatus caused by COVID-19 has been difficult, but I had faith. In the space of a few months the former restaurant has transformed into my beautiful yellow gallery and I’m in the middle of hanging artwork for our first exhibition, The Sun Will Rise Over The Hill Again which opens on the 29th of August. The artists we’ve chosen for the exhibition are all from North Wales: Jan Gardner RCA, Nathan Jones, Ann Lewis VPRCA and Jocelyn Roberts. Yet geography is not the only thing that unites them; their art comes from their heart, their inner being, their soul. Their passion is front and centre in every piece of work. For them, art is not a transactional business. It’s about giving something of themselves away every time.
We should never make assumptions in our understanding – whether we adopt commercial approaches that are foreign to artists or artists use language that we misinterpret. Honesty, openness, integrity and trust must be our collective values to be successful. That’s why I am determined to build long lasting, meaningful relationships with artists we love. Doing so will help us to bring great art to as many people as we can, supporting artists to reach a receptive audience.
It may have taken me more than thirty years and there have been lots of twists and turns along the way, but my dream has come true.
To find out more about Life: Full Colour, visit Sara’s website here.
You might also like…
Holly McElroy reviews Dare To Be Great, a recently published guide to unlocking your power to create a better world by Polly Higgins, founder of the Stop Ecocide campaig