Introducing the member-run platform making art investment inclusive

An abstract still life painting with flowers and a human form.

Amsterdam-based Mimi Gray and Sarah Williams discuss founding Darklight, an online platform selling small-edition fine-art prints, curated for a new generation of collectors, with proceeds going to charity

By Shannon Mahanty    Above artwork: 'Still Life 2017' by Jess Cochrane    Wednesday 28 October, 2020   Long read

Last October, friends and ex-M&C Saatchi colleagues Sarah Williams and Mimi Gray found themselves reminiscing about their old ad agency days over beers in Amsterdam, where Gray is based. Galvanised by their shared values (and frustrations) with the art and advertising worlds, the pair came up with a plan to create something new. The idea was simple: make an online platform where people could fall in love with art and buy affordable prints. It would be inclusive and accessible, a digital space that harnesses art as a force for positive change. 

And so, a few months later Darklight was born, just as the world found itself in the middle of a global pandemic and on the brink of a recession. But rather than seeing their business struggle, it thrived. The social and economic impact of COVID-19 meant that people’s buying habits – as well as the way they consumed art – had changed, and a new generation of buyers were discovering the joy of collecting pieces. 

Aware of the social and political climate they were launching in, Williams and Gray vowed to make Darklight have a positive impact. Knowing how wasteful the art world can be, they made sure every component of the packaging is made from recycled and recyclable materials, and they partnered with mental health charity, Young Minds, donating a portion of each sale to the organisation. 

Today, the site represents a growing number of artists, from the intimate photography of The Masons duo to Jess Cochrane, whose work explores society’s relationship with consumerism. 

Soho House spoke to the friends and cofounders about the new dawn of Darklight.
An abstract black and white portrait of a human form.

Jesse Draxler

An abstract black and white photograph of two people bending over next to each other.

How did you both meet? 

Sarah Williams: ‘We were both in the art department at M&C Saatchi around seven years ago and we just got on so well together – it was a match made in heaven.’ 
When was the idea for Darklight born? 

Mimi Gray: ‘Sarah came to visit me in Amsterdam and we were at the bar in Soho House wondering how we could work together again. We’d both always wanted to be in fine art over advertising and we decided to create something from scratch.’

SW: ‘The whole ethos was about making art more accessible. The industry has a terrible reputation of being only for the wealthy, run by middle-class White men with too much money. So, we decided to create a platform selling affordable prints to a new generation of collectors.’

MG: ‘All of the lines that traditional art establishments draw, we wanted to do the opposite. And not because we’re trying to be controversial, but because it doesn’t really make sense to us.’ 

SW: ‘Exactly. So often galleries and sales are really aimed at male buyers and we wanted to focus on female investors in art, too. We wanted to have a voice for them.’ 

What happened next? 

MG: ‘After working for six years in photography we had this amazing contact base of artists and photographers. There were so many people whose work we wanted to buy, but they weren’t selling it or it wasn’t available anywhere. We thought about what we wanted to purchase, what we wanted on our own walls.’

SW: ‘We made a list of people whose work we loved, and then we started talking to developers and web designers, and thinking about how we’d brand it. It was only in January this year that it went from being an idea to us building the website and speaking to artists to see if anyone was interested.’
A bright pink landscape of a building, pool and forest in the background.

Why Darklight? 

SW: ‘The name came about because we have opposite tastes, but somehow they marry. 
If you look at our Instagrams, mine is very light and bright with a lot of pink, and Mimi’s is all the dark, creepy weird stuff that I don’t like.’

MG: ‘They used to call us Yin and Yang at the agency. But while a lot of it is about opposites attracting, we do share the same values. For example, mental health is something we’re both passionate about and that’s one of the questions we asked ourselves – how can we do something that really makes a difference? 

Starting up a new company at this time, we couldn’t have done it without trying to implement positive change somehow. We believe very strongly that art is amazing for your mental health, and so we wanted to tie the two together.’ 

One per cent of every sale goes to Young Minds – how did you choose them as your partner charity?  

SW: ‘We did lots of research into different charities and felt like there was a lot of synergy between them and us. They focus on young people, which is true of our brand, too.’

MG: ‘It’s been one of our goals to work with young people in an art therapy context. We hope there are opportunities in the future to do workshops, or go into schools and get kids talking about mental health through art.’

How can art impact mental health? 

MG: ‘There was a quote we put on our Instagram: “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home” – and that’s exactly how we feel. I’ve always done a lot of drawing and painting, and it’s always been my personal way of escaping; the same with going to exhibitions as I got older. It’s very grounding to be able to stand in front of art in a physical space, even if it’s your own home.’ 

SW: ‘I tend to buy pieces that bring me joy. When I was just about to divorce my husband and going through a really tough time, I walked into Lights of Soho and saw this Lauren Baker neon that said: “Everything’s going to be f***ing amazing”. I thought, yes it is, and I bought it.’
A colourful abstract portrait of a woman.

'Still Life 2020' by Jess Cochrane

A framed black and white photograph of a man standing on a step ladder on a beach.

 'Haruna' by The Masons

Tell us about the Stories section of the website, where you interview artists and give guidance on collecting. 

MG: ‘I think we were quite conscious that because we were an online-only space, we didn’t want to ever come across as cold, or like there’s no human behind the brand. Often if you buy a piece, you want to know the story behind it, so it’s a way for people to connect with the artists.’ 

What are some of your favourite pieces on the site? 

SW: ‘So many favourites. We can almost split the artists into the dark and the light. I love Marco Walker’s “Merida”; it’s bold, bright and refreshing, and it takes me to a happy place.’

MG: ‘I bought one of our pieces by Jesse Draxler who I’m a huge fan of. I love “Haruna” from the Masons, and all of Jess Cochrane’s work, even though it’s super colourful.’ 

Advice to new collectors? 

SW: ‘I would say always go with work that you love. Even if it’s for investment purposes, it’s pointless buying a piece you don’t care about. And don’t put too much pressure on yourself – if you like something, go for it. If you have a question, ask. Artists love it when people pay an interest in their work. Don’t feel shy about dropping them an email or a DM and starting a conversation.’

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