Why Harrogate art curator is stepping down

Saying 'bye' after 15 successful years - Jane Sellars, Harrogate Borough Council's departing curator of cultural services.
Saying 'bye' after 15 successful years - Jane Sellars, Harrogate Borough Council's departing curator of cultural services.

The departure of curator Jane Sellars from Harrogate's Mercer Gallery may have come as a shock in some quarters but the reason for her departure is the same one behind her success in the role for so long - putting creative ideas first.

Jane said: "I've worked in museums and galleries for more than 30 years now with the responsibility for people, buildings, high value art collections and most importantly for the service we provide for our visitors.

Jane Sellars inside Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

Jane Sellars inside Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

"My job has always had a high creative element, curating exhibitions, writing and research, and that’s the part I enjoy the most, so I am leaving to concentrate on the creative side. I am going to work on some new projects - and have a good time as well!"

With a CV including art curator at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and principal curator of Harewood House, Jane is used to shouldering responsibility at the highest level.

Major projects in her 15 years include a major refurbishment of the Mercer Art Gallery in 2011 which involved raising extensive funding.

Appointed curator of art for Harrogate by Harrogate Borough Council in 2003 before rising to become curator of cultural services in 2014 with an overview over the Pump Room Museum, her move is in no way related to a recent flood which saw her and her staff reverting to a very hands-on role!

Jane Sellars BA MA FMA said: "I won't miss the constant worry about the historic buildings that I am in charge of. Only the other week we had an almost disastrous flood at the Royal Pump Room Museum!"

In terms of exhibitions, Jane's tenure has helped shine a light consistently on many talented women artists and also on Harrogate itself as a centre of fine art.

The Mercer Gallery's main hall is currently playing host to Picturing Women, an exhibition marking 100 years since women first got the vote, featuring the work of inspirational women artists past and present.

Jane has also been responsible for record-breaking shows in terms of attendance which have received acclaim in the national media, especially Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight in 2011, which saw people queuing to get in, and Art and Yorkshire: From Turner to Hockney in 2014.

Jane said: "It’s hard not to notice my career long support for women artists, a subject I have written about a lot.

"But I also wanted to build on the strength of our collection of paintings and prints by the Victorian William Powell Frith, Harrogate’s most famous artist.

"Since I first arrived at the the Mercer in 2003 I haveraised the money to buy six important oil paintings by Frith."

As well as safeguarding the many treasures of the Harrogate Borough Council-owned gallery's own fine art collection and maintaining the popularity of the annual Harrogate Open exhibition for local artists, Jane has also been responsible for the publication of an intelligently-collated, lavishly illustrated themed books on art from the Mercer.

The book on Grimshaw sold more than 5,000 copies, a phenomenal achievement for a town's gallery.

Jane is keen to stress how lucky she has been to shared her time at the Mercer with such a great team of "lovely people."

"I've worked with some great people at Harrogate museums and arts over the years. We have a strong team of clever, dedicated curators, learning managers, front of house and operations staff.

"Harrogate is very lucky to have such a great team in the arts. I’ve worked with some tremendously talented artists as well to produce memorable exhibitions for the Mercer."

One of her own favourite moments came in 2016 in a dazzling collaboration between the gallery, Yorkshire artist Tom Wood and Northern Ballet and their award-winning artistic director David Nixon. who showed up in person.

She said: "‘It was wonderful when Northern Ballet came and performed specially choreographed pieces on paintings for us at the Mercer a couple of years ago.

"I was breath-taking. These brilliant dancers flying through the air in the gallery setting. We were all spellbound."

Jane may be standing down in her present role at the Mercer but she will still be helming some potentially blockbuster shows in a freelance role at the gallery over the next year,

This June will bring a retrospective of the celebrated artist and cartoonist Posy Simmonds, whose graphic novels Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe have delighted huge audiences of readers, plus drawings for her Guardian cartoons in the 1980s and 1990s lent by the Guardian Archive.

The autumn will see Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists 1930 – 1980.

And there's more. Despite her decision to go, the best may be yet to come.

Jane said: "I am going to stay on as Art Projects Curator for the Mercer for another 12 months to work on my last big show William Powell Frith: The People’s Painter, which will happen in 2019, the bicentenary of the artist’s birth.

"This should be an absolute blockbuster with all of Frith’s important works on show and many from private collections that haven’t been seen for many years. Really looking forward to that

"I am also going to work freelance on new visual arts projects, and I am going to carry on with my writing career."