As Seen in Manchester: Catharine Braithwaite

As Seen in Manchester: Catharine Braithwaite

Having been open quite a while, we’ve accumulated some pretty fascinating customers over the years. So we thought, instead of going on about us and our glasses, we’d shine the spotlight on the people that wear them for a change…

This time around, we talked to Catharine Braithwaite—an art communications consultant who’s worked with galleries and museums for nearly 30 years.

From her early years at Tate Liverpool to her current freelance work for places like Manchester Art Gallery and Liverpool Biennial, she’s helped spread the word of some of Britain’s most interesting art—whether that’s sculptures by Antony Gormley, or controversial public pieces by Yoko Ono.

We called her up to find out more about her work, as well as her penchant for bold, stand-out spectacles...

First things first, how would you describe your job? 

I’m an art communications consultant. I started my career working in galleries and museums—and then went freelance 20 years ago. I’ve worked on all sorts of projects and commissions—a lot of sculptures in the public realm… so things like Antony Gormley’s Another Place and also a massive sculpture by Jaume Plensa called Dream, which is in St Helens. I do a lot of PR and marketing around exhibitions and these bits of sculpture, mainly across the North West. 

What does that entail then? Obviously we’re in a slightly strange time at the minute, but what working as a freelance arts communication consultant usually involve?

I’ll give you an example actually, with an exhibition that sadly hasn’t opened yet, which is Grayson’s Art Club at Manchester Art Gallery—which funnily enough is where I worked my first gallery job, back in the early 90s. So the curator of the exhibition gets in touch, then I’ll come up with a strategy and a schedule. It’s my job to make sure that the public know that an exhibition is on. It’s about getting in contact with people who I think want to write about it—or maybe talk about it on the news. 

That exhibition was an absolute dream to work on in a lot of ways, because people absolutely love Grayson Perry—and they really loved that TV programme—so the public were waiting for that exhibition. But then we had to stop it all as we went into tier three... but the show will open now in the Spring.

 Grayson Perry at Grayon's Art Club exhibition, Manchester Gallery

Here's a snap of Grayson at his Grayon's Art Club exhibition which opens this spring at Manchester Gallery. Find out more here. (Photo credit: Andrew Brooks)
Did you always want to work with art galleries? What set you off in the first place?

I always thought that I’d work in radio, and that didn’t happen, but I did some volunteering at the Greenroom in Manchester, which was a sort of multi-arts venue—quite an avant-garde place. I was working in the Boardwalk in the evenings, and I had a couple of days to spare, so I’d go into the Greenroom and work with the marketing manager... and I really enjoyed it. 

It was a small organisation, so I got to work on lots of interesting things. They were doing performances at the Haçienda at the time, and I got loads of coverage for them because one of my friends was writing for a magazine, so he did a big piece on it. I really liked it, but didn’t really know it existed as a job. I ended up getting a job at Manchester Art Gallery.

When was this?

That was in 1992. And after three years there I got a job as head of marketing at Tate Liverpool. I was there for five years, helping with the launch of Tate Modern, which was really exciting, and then after that I decided to go freelance. So in 2000 I left a secure job to go out on my own. 

I realise freelance work isn’t everyone, but it suits me down to the ground, because I get to work on a wide range of stuff, and constantly meet new people. I think what I love is the variety of the job. I’m not working in the same place all the time. I think it’s quite good for my temperament. 

How have galleries changed since back then in the early 90s?

The difference now is with social media. It’s allowed us to have this conversation with a wider audience. When I started in Manchester Art Gallery, I didn’t have e-mail or a computer on my desk… technology wasn’t such a big player as it obviously is now—I used to write letters to journalists or ring them up on their home telephone numbers. But that’s changed now. Social media has really opened up what galleries and museums do to a much wider audience, and you’re able to have a conversation with them. I find the opportunities there really, really interesting. 

"I think learning to embrace change has been really important for me, especially in the last year. You’ve sometimes got to embrace this stuff, rather than fight it." - CB

How do you see art galleries changing in the future? How have they managed during lockdown?

I think it’s a case of trying to find out what the most enjoyable way of doing it digitally is. One of my clients is Liverpool Biennial, which was due to launch last summer. The dates have changed to Spring this year, and as the north west has been in some form of lockdown, they’ve been working on a digital channel. So when we launch there’ll be a number of commissions out and about in Liverpool city centre which people can go and see, but also, there’ll be this digital channel with talks, podcasts and things like that—things that add to the experience. So there’ll be this move towards more online stuff, but part of me that thinks that what I’m missing, apart from live music, is going to exhibitions.

That’s one of the things that I love doing the most… jumping in a car or going on a train to see something, and I’m really missing that. And I think it is like going to hear live music, you can’t really beat that real life experience. 

Yeah, you could have all the pictures from an exhibition on a web-page or something, but it’s not the same as having a day out and all the memories you get from that. You can’t see the paint-strokes or the way the sculptor has worked the metal.

It’s exactly that. It’s that thing of not being able to describe how moved you are by something that you’re actually seeing right in front of you. And like you say, it can be something as simple as the brushstrokes on something—you can’t describe why they might move you. I love listening to music, and I buy a lot of music, but going to see a band live just stays with you. 

There are aspects of the online stuff that I thought have been brilliant… for example Manchester Literature Festival, one of my oldest clients, they did a mini online festival over one weekend in October, and it was amazing because they managed to get some fantastic writers who they probably wouldn’t have been able to get if they had to fly them in. They aimed really high, and it was really nice, as we got to enjoy some really incredible writers. 

But then one of my contacts said, “What an amazing line-up, but don’t I just wish I was sitting in a room with them?” It’s that balance… if we need to do things online, then that’s how we’ll do it, but actually nothing beats being there in the room. 

You can’t replace that stuff.

I keep buying gig tickets, in the hope that they’ll be on. I really miss that aspect of my life.


The Superlambanana in Liverpool. It's a giant lamb and banana mixed together, get it?

You’re not the only one there. What have you learnt from doing your job? 

To never be afraid when things change direction. And I think that’s because I work a lot with contemporary visual art, with artists making brand new pieces of work, and I guess I’ve learnt to chill out a lot about not knowing until close to the launch how something is going to look, or whether it changed direction. I think learning to embrace change has been really important for me, especially in the last year. You’ve sometimes got to embrace this stuff, rather than fight it. 

With these commissions of new artwork, does it ever happen where whoever’s funding it changes their mind once they’ve seen the final thing?

I think it has, but not on anything that I’ve ever worked on.

Sometimes there’s a bit of a backlash to public art, isn’t there?

Yeah, we were working with Yoko Ono years ago at Liverpool Biennial, and she had made this work which was basically a woman’s naked crotch and a woman’s breasts, and they were reproduced and hung all through the city centre. And I think that was quite a shock—not to the Biennial, as they knew what had been commissioned—but more for the people in Liverpool. But it never got changed.

Is it good sometimes when there is a bit of controversy, or maybe discussion, around a piece of art? It shows people are thinking a bit.

Yeah definitely. It can be quite hard when you’re in the middle of it, when the media are outraged about something, but once you can start a conversation, it’s quite fulfilling actually—particularly if you manage to get someone to see what the artist intended. I’ve worked on quite controversial things, and it can be really exciting, but it can also be quite hair-raising. 

There’s always that “tax-payers’ money” argument that the newspapers like to use when complaining about public art.

We actually get less of that now, compared to when I first started out—we were always worrying about whether we were going to get someone questioning it. I don’t know whether people are much more accepting of visual art now. 

I suppose there’s been some quite high profile art pieces in cities over the last 20 years… like the Superlambanana in Liverpool. Maybe people have gotten used to this stuff.

Yeah—I worked on Superlambanana when I was at Tate Liverpool—I did the press for it. And the interesting thing about that was the tabloids, The Sun mainly, were really outraged by it—but when it arrived in the city on the back of a flatbed truck from the Bryant and May match factory, the people in Liverpool really liked it. 

I remember a reporter at The Sun ringing the arts editor at the time at the Liverpool Echo and saying, “It’s an outrage isn’t it? I bet you’re outraged by it too,” And he replied, “No one tells the people of Liverpool what to think about art—they like it!” They were having none of it.

 Richard Wilson's 'Turning the Place Over', a favourite of art critics and cabbies alike.

The public often don’t get much credit do they? People like this interesting art when it’s there for them.

I agree—I always found that working on the Liverpool Biennial in the early years. I’d have London-based art critics coming up, and they’d be amazed that people were stopping them in the street to have these conversations about what these pieces were. The man on the street isn’t given enough credit for their intelligence, and also for their desire to question stuff.

"Their service is amazing, and they gave really good advice… they don’t let you make the wrong decision. It’s an odd thing to say, but as I’ve worn glasses since I was 15, it feels good to be in the right hands. " - CB

I worked on a piece of sculpture called Turning the Place Over by Richard Wilson. Part of the facade of a building was cut out and put on this rotating arm that turned inside out. It was another massive hit for Liverpool, and I worked on the press for it. It was just before smart-phones came in when we launched it, and I remember Richard and I standing really high up trying to get everything to work, looking out of this building, and we were like, “What are those people doing?” And they were filming it on their Nokias, and putting it on Youtube. It was a massive thing, but we didn’t understand what was going on.

Later, the Turner Prize was in Liverpool as part of the Capital of Culture, and Richard told me that he’d arrived at the station, and jumped in a cab and the cab driver said, “What are you here for?” He told him he was here for the Turner Prize as he was an artist. And the driver said, “I’m not going to charge you for this, but I want to show you something that I think is really important.” He then drove Richard to see his own artwork, and said, “This is a real work of art—I’m just showing you this because you’re an artist and I think you should know.” I asked Richard if he told him it was his, but he said he didn’t because he didn’t want to spoil the moment.
Amazing. What do you do outside of work? As someone who works freelance, is it hard to switch off from it?

I’m actually very strict about my work/life balance. I have an allotment, and actually when I lost all my work at the start of lockdown, the allotment got a lot of attention. It’s very scruffy looking, but I do love it—it’s a good way of switching off. My partner’s also a massive cyclist, so I go cycling with him. But I’m really missing live music… that’s usually my main thing along with exhibitions and going out and eating with friends.

Catharine Braithwaite glasses

Catharine in her Theo frames and Tatty Devine necklace.

When do you start going to Seen? 

I’d always really hankered after getting some glasses from Seen, as they’ve got such fantastic frames, but because my prescription hadn’t changed in ages, I never went. But weirdly it did through lockdown, so I thought, “I really need to get some glasses, so now is the opportunity.” I fully intended only to buy one pair… and of course I didn’t. Erica got out all these amazing frames, and I think that’s what they are so good at—they won’t let you buy a frame that isn’t right for you. I’d picked out these frames, and Erica was like, “Yeah, they’re nice, but what about these?” At first I thought, “No way,” but they were absolutely right for me.

What did you get in the end?

I got some clear frames from Theo, and I’ve had so many compliments. I’m on video calls all the time, and everyone’s saying how they love my specs. And the other pair are Anne et Valentin, and again, they’re fantastically bold. Their service is amazing, and they gave really good advice… they don’t let you make the wrong decision. It’s an odd thing to say, but as I’ve worn glasses since I was 15, it feels good to be in the right hands. 

I imagine in your job you maybe need to be dressed fairly smart, but also have a bit of flair. Is that right?

Yeah, I tend to be quite bold. My other big passion, which I haven’t mentioned, is my collection of jewellery by Tatty Devine

Catharine in her Anne et Valentin specs fitted with custom transitions lenses. 

Those big brooches and necklaces?

Yeah, I just love their jewellery. So I’m kind of quite known for wearing that kind of stuff… these statement pieces. I’m not afraid to wear bold stuff like that, and because I’m not looking at myself, I forget that I’ve got these big pieces of jewellery on, or these big glasses on. I don’t really think about it, because I’m not looking at myself. And I don’t think I wear that stuff because I work in art, but it’s probably a lot easier to do it. I think it’s maybe a personality thing. I’m not a massive follower of fashion, but I do like nicely designed things.

There’s that difference between fashion and style.

Yeah, and obviously with something like glasses—they’re functional things that help you see, but seeing as you wear them everyday, you might as well have some good design attached to them. 

If want to keep up to date with the art goings on in Manchester and the North West as the world opens back up, make sure you're following Catharine on Instagram. If you want an eye test or to take a look at our selection of independent eyewear, book an appointment Seen HQ here.