Axis turns 21: Chief Executive Sheila McGregor talks art, longevity and digital technology

By Mark Sheerin | 20 November 2012
Cropped and angled screenshot of the Axis website
Name a web publisher that’s six years older than Google, 13 years older than Facebook and a full 15 years older than Twitter. The answer, in case you haven’t read the headline to this piece, is Axis, the online database of visual artists based in the North of England.

Think back to 1991 and you may remember the web was still text-based and take up was limited to the computer science departments in universities. Before the network age, Axis began life as a standalone terminal. There was also a version on CD-ROM, but then in ‘99 they moved online just as Google was moving out of premises in a garage.

Speaking via phone days before her company turns 21, Chief Executive Sheila McGregor shared the secrets of longevity. She told me just how Axis survived: “I think by moving with the times and adapting to new technology and adopting new technology quite early on and just trying to keep a step or two ahead.”

Nevertheless, Axis is primarily an arts organisation. “We happen to exist online,” says McGregor, who claims that keeping up to speed with artists is as important as keeping up with Silicon Valley.

She also adds: “We’re recruiting people to write for Axis from places all over the country, so that’s very important too. That’s how we survived.”

A good example of the company’s blend of innovation and artsiness was the virtual gallery launched in 2000. As McGregor says, this was “ahead of its time”, and came as a result of in-house technical knowhow. Its retirement also demonstrates how Axis have been quick to drop ideas that don’t keep pace.

The one constant in all this is what you might call Axis’ killer app. “The thing that I’m still most proud of and we as an organisation are most proud of is the fact that we were invented really to provide a brokerage service for artists,” says McGregor.

“We process about 5,000 opportunities and enquiries every year and quite a lot of those enquiries lead to opportunities to exhibit or to have work commissioned and even sometimes to sell as well,” she adds, before pointing out that artists will always need exposure.

Indeed, the 2,300 artists in the current database enjoy the some 871,000 visitors a year between them. McGregor shares the fact that most of her audience is made up of arts professionals. It serves as a tool for curators, council arts officers, academic researchers and even art teachers.

She is also candid about the advantages of vetting potential artists for the company database. Axis, one can see at once, stands apart from recent arrivals to the web who also offer host artist profiles and portfolios.

“We don’t particularly want to diss the opposition,” says McGregor, “but a lot of them are highly commercial and there isn’t really a quality threshold, whereas Axis is selected and curated which makes it still very unusual in a crowded marketplace.”

If all of the above explains why Axis has reached the age it has, plans are also in place to help the charity reach its next milestone birthday. Next year they will offer to host profiles for art writers, project managers and art educators. Curators are already catered for.

And what you might call a birthday present is afoot. This week sees the launch of new website This is a trading arm designed to build websites and phone apps for other arts organisations and beyond. A project for Great Ormond Street Hospital was a recent success.

No wonder they are celebrating, albeit still in a virtual manner at time of writing. Axis has been running a birthday quiz on Twitter. A healthy number of party guests have been chipping in with answers and quips. Typical question: Who won the Turner Prize in 1991?

If you had to go and look that up, it only proves one thing. 21 years is a long time in the art-world wide web.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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