The young director of the O3 Gallery sits serenely opposite me, proffering jelly beans as she explains how her goals have changed since art school. ‘I was sure that I would do installations and work on commissions, and that I would absolutely be able to earn enough money doing that – and there was no other option. But of course, it’s not really like that.’ So with the help of work experience in several galleries – including an Oxford one whle doing an MA at Brookes – Statham started work in the Ashmolean’s picture room. In July last year she moved to her current domain, tucked away in behind Malmaison hotel in the Oxford Castle complex.
She is very honest about the difficulties smaller galleries like the O3 face when it comes to competing with Oxford’s art establishment – ‘you have to fight a bit harder for the poster space’. I ask if she thinks most students only visit the Ashmolean or Modern Art Oxford when they want to see art during term. ‘You have to dig a little bit deeper to find places like the O3, and people don’t always do that,’ she admits.
Yet Statham seems happy with the presence of larger venues in Oxford. ‘I think we are very much friends with them, and it’s easy for us to be that way because we’re different in what we provide. The Ashmolean is more of a museum in that the most recent stuff they’ve got is modern [early 20th century] art, and although MAO shows contemporary stuff it’s a still a museum in the way it functions.’ The difference with the O3 and galleries like it is that ‘we are showcasing early- to mid-career artists who are still making affordable work. It’s more alive, it’s art that you can make part of your life in a way that with the Ashmolean and MAO you can’t.’
‘I hope that we’re quite an approachable gallery in that sense,’ she continues. ‘I mean, we have a lot of interpretive information available for people, so if they want to come in and read up on the work and understand more of what it’s drawing upon, they can, but if people just want to come and look at something that’s really visually exquisite, then that is also there for them.’ At Metamorphosis, the last O3 show I went to, there were free handouts detailing some of the Ovidian stories to which the art referred.
So I am surprised when she describes the O3’s attitude towards its viewers as one of ‘aesthetic responsibility’. ‘While we are very much interested in ideas, it’s really important how the work impacts visually onto people. So it might have really interesting ideas behind it, but the work is also a cracking piece of art in its own right on an aesthetic level.’ It’s refreshing to hear her foreground the power of art’s visual aspect, when so many exhibition guides and reviews will insist on pointing out the perceived conceptual marvels underpinning painting X or sculpture Y. Again, the exhibitions bear out this commitment to the visual: the black and white prints of trees in Metamorphosis were beautiful in their tonal variations and the delicacy of their mark making, regardless of whether we knew that each tree was once a nymph called Daphne.
As well as managing one of Oxford’s up and coming art venues, Statham has for several years been a presenter on BBC Radio Oxford’s arts show The Hub. She got the job after meeting figures from the BBC while she worked at the Botanic Gardens during her MA. ‘I said to my boss there, ‘I’m doing an art degree, really into arts, I want to get as much experience as possible – let me know if there’s anything coming up that I can help with. And it happened that that particular year they were having a big light and sound art installation festival, which was totally up my street because my MA was in interdisciplinary arts. So that was really exciting, and they needed someone who worked in the gallery to do a short documentary… So I had to make six three-minute films all about the preparations for this festival. And actually it’s funny because in doing that, I got to know the creative directors of the project, and they said, ‘Oh gosh, so your work’s just like what’s happening here!’ and I said, ‘Yeah it is, I’m really excited about it,’ and they said ‘Oh, why don’t you put some art work into the festival?’ So I actually ended up doing an installation which ended up being the sort of centrepiece of the garden – which is just luck. It’s just total luck.’
Her career so far shows, though, that it’s very possible to make your own luck. ‘Yeah, totally, big tip: go for any opportunity that you’re given, and just try and make the most of it. Something good’ll come out.’ It’s clear that many more good things are set to come from the O3. Staham has already managed five shows as its director, as well as introducing student ambassadors and linking the gallery with a studio in Cornwall at which Oxford artists can apply for residencies. It’s easy to forget that she’s only been working there for six months – as I do, when I finish by asking what she plans to do next. ‘Oh, well I’ve still got years in me here, I think. I’d love in the future to go back to doing some big installation projects… but that’s a few years off yet and I can’t really think about that just now.’
The O3 is open Mon-Fri 12-5pm, and 11am-4pm on weekends. Admission free.