How To Lead in Your Field

On Tuesday 4 June, Founder & Director of Sophie Macpherson Ltd, Sophie Macpherson spoke for Marguerite with three leaders in their field: European Chairman and Senior International Specialist of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s, Oliver Barker; Director of ICA, Stefan Kalmár; and Director of Michael Werner Gallery, Kadee Robins. We heard how all of our speakers started off as interns, the importance of bringing your team along with you and ensuring that they feel part of the journey and the importance of making mistakes sometimes! L’Oscar kindly hosted this event in The Library and Theodore Gin served some delicious cocktails. This event was hosted in partnership with Sophie Macpherson Ltd, the leading specialist firm in art world search. Read on for highlights of the conversation . . .

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Oliver on how he got to where he is today..

Oliver: I did History of Art at A Level and then History at Manchester University. I was really thinking about getting into the advertising industry. My mother had been in the creative part of advertising. I thought that was what I really wanted to do. However, every single agency I applied to were not even remotely interested in me. My best friend’s father had been incredibly successful in advertising and he said to me, “Look, it’s tangibly obvious that you are incredibly interested in Art History, why don’t you go do a year at the Courtauld?” And that’s what I did. 

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I hadn’t really come across Sotheby’s at all, and it just so happened that Sarah Wilson, who was my tutor at the time, took us to a Sotheby’s auction. I distinctly remember it was a Picasso ceramics auction and I was just intrigued. This touch point between Art History and commerce really switched me on in a big way. 

I started at Sotheby’s as an intern in 1994 having just graduated. I made really great cups of tea and Xerox copies. We even used fax machines back then! I started in the Impressionist & Modern Art department and in 2001 moved to the Contemporary Art department. At the time, it was a bit like going from the Premier League to the Vauxhall Conference. After a couple of months, I thought I’d made a complete mistake. We had been dealing with all the greats like Manet and Renoir and Picasso. In the Contemporary division in London we were very much focused on European based artists and there was hardly any American Art. 

Shortly after that, when we did the Pharmacy sale in 2004 and with the emergence of the YBA movement specifically in London, the market completely changed. That gap between the secondary market, which was what the auction world was mostly about, and the primary market of galleries which historically had been very broad, suddenly became co-dependent. I like to think that at the time we had something to do with that. 


Kadee on starting out her career at The Courtauld institute of art..

Kadee: I started at The Courtauld as a Byzantinist, which is a totally different field than I’m in now. I thought I would be an academic in that field. Then after my MA I thought “Absolutely not! I’ve got to get to art of my time, to living artists.” Then I got offered an internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I started as an intern, like Olly. I think it is a very honourable and good way to start out. I was very lucky because at that moment the department at MoMA was at the strongest it had been in a long time. There were all the great curators in place. I was working for Kirk Varnedoe who was head of the department at the time and I stayed there for five years. With Kirk’s urging, I went to do my PhD at NYU and completed three years. With the giant thesis looming, I thought “I’m not sure I can quite take this on.” And at that point, Bill Aquavela offered me a job. I started in a curatorial capacity at the beginning and then worked in sales. That is when I organically went over to the other side, the dark side! I was then approached by Michael Werner Gallery to come and set up London. In 2003, I opened an office here. In 2012, when my son was eight weeks old, we opened the gallery in Mayfair. There was a lot going on!

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Stefan on how he started out..

I initially wanted to study art but coming from an immigrant, working-class family in Germany, that wasn’t such a great idea. I moved to Munich, far away from where my parents were from. During the night I was working at a cocktail bar called Wunderbar and during the day I was working at an advertising agency called Avant-garde. I was relatively good in my advertising job and I became a trainee very quickly.

I later joined Documenta 9 as an intern initially and then I worked with them for two years. After that, I studied Cultural Studies in Germany and went on to Goldsmiths when the curatorial course had just started. A now relatively well-known curator asked me “Where do you want to be in 5 years?” I was shell shocked, I had no idea what I wanted to do! My career was never planned, one thing happened after the next. Even now I have no idea where I will be in 10 years’ time. 

Sophie and Stefan on funding for public institutions..

Sophie: What I feel has changed in the institutional world is that institutions have to be incredibly commercially savvy nowadays in order to run an institution and I think that was less so 20 or 30 years ago. Nowadays you really have to be looking at the bottom line and revenue generation and in this country you are given a lot less from the powers that be. How do you manage that at the ICA? 

Stefan: If you look at the ICA, 15 years ago it was 65% public money, now it’s 23%. I always tell my colleagues that essentially we run a business that is subsidised by public money. It’s a very different mindset than running a public institution in the 70s or 80s. 

Sophie and Oliver on becoming a leader..

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Sophie: In terms of leadership, I think there is a really interesting point where you realise you were a manager and have now turned into a leader. Sometimes it happens very publicly, like you are given a huge job, or sometimes it happens organically and your team makes you feel that it has changed. Olly, at what point did you go from being a manager to being a leader? 

Oliver: The defining difference from us and say a company like BMW is that they are a company that can make a sustainable product which they know is going to have some level of demand in the market place. With some accuracy, a car manufacture can know they can place X amount of units in this part of the world and there is a demand for it. From our perspective, we know the demand for say Mark Rothko in the market place and we even know where the product is, in other words we know which walls these paintings are hanging on, but there is no certainty that we can attract these for sale. For me, the leadership was all about defining where the opportunity was and going out and getting it. 

On a personal level, when I became European Chairman three years ago, I was taking over from someone who had been in the job for 20 years who was a very different person from me. I had to work out what sort of Chairman I wanted to be and I remember talking to our CEO Tad Smith and saying that “I think I need some help here, I need some leadership advice.” I sought the advice of a guy called Anthony Gordon-Lennox, who very sadly died a year ago. Anthony had spent a great deal of time coaching mostly politicians. His key point about leadership was how to find one’s own authentic voice.

Our speakers on what it takes to be a good leader..

Sophie: Reliance on your team is one of the fundamental things you have to do as a leader in order to succeed. There is a phrase ‘In order to be a good leader, you have to take more of the blame and less of the credit.’ 

Stefan: It is about encouraging mistakes in a way. That is where we learn the most. The people you trust might make mistakes, but it is how you process them. You need to create an environment where that is possible. It is very emotional to lead a team and get people excited.

Oliver: As a leader, it is important to use the tools of delegation. I’m in a position now where I am working with young people in a thriving organisation and giving them responsibility is a big deal. It is very empowering for me to work with people who want to get involved. Nothing gives me more pleasure than taking others on the journey with me.

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Kadee: There comes a point where you realise you cannot do everything so you have to delegate. That is a moment where you realise you have to lead in a certain way, where your team comes together because you have too much to manage single-handedly. You have to empower people and you have to make people feel that they are part of the team. You have to have a set of values that is in operation that represents your gallery or institution but you have to make sure people are invested in your endeavour otherwise you’ll never get the team you want. I think generally leadership is about trying to take people with you in an exciting way.

Oliver and Stefan on the professionalisation of the art industry..

Oliver: Over the last five years, the most radical change in our work has been the professionalisation of the industry. Whether that be great employment companies or PR or benefits around the organisation. It has become a much bigger space and with that comes great responsibility to employers, such as the gender pay gap issue and the amount of men vs women in the industry. These are things we take very, very seriously. We may not be winning every one of those but we are doing the best we can to address it in a big way. 

Stefan: At the ICA, we have training and HR and all of that. What is also interesting is to what models do we train? What would the intrinsic value of a cultural public institution be in comparison to Sotheby’s? What values are in play and how do you translate those values into management and collective learning in an institution? How can both sectors learn from each other? 

Oliver on his role model when he was an intern..

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Oliver: Sotheby’s was my first job, I have been doing it for 25 years which is a fairly rare phenomenon in this day and age. I certainly remember early on figures like Melanie Clore who was very much a mentor. She was a real trailblazer. I remember one of my first conversations with Melanie was me trying to convince her to give me £10/week for my bus fare when I was an intern. Having someone like that to guide me and who encouraged me to live in Paris for a bit, learn French and work on sales over there was amazing. She was running the Impressionist and Modern Art department when I moved to the Contemporary department and it was like we had got a divorce. She was very personally invested in her staff. As a leader, it is hard to balance the nuances of guiding people’s careers and then at some point letting them go and allowing them to flourish. 

Sophie: What should we be doing to encourage people to come into this industry despite the fact that they have cut art education by a huge amount in this country?

Kadee: It is about getting younger students involved, those who are 14, 15, 16 years old before they make their career choices. We have a lot of school groups who come in to the gallery. If you are open and don’t mind students rolling around with pens and pencils and you don’t get agitated about it, the students are very eager to come. I think that is a huge thing to make sure we don’t feel like we are in an ivory tower and anyone can come to the gallery. 

Oliver: The lack of public subsidy for leading institutions is criminal. If you look at where people go and how they spend their downtime, it is in public institutions and museums. Never have I felt that culture is more relevant in these times of political turmoil. Those of us who went to Venice this year, it is very clear in contemporary art that we are living in very troubled times. 

The other thing I feel particularly strongly about is to keep the arts at the epicentre of what we do in the UK. Especially with Brexit, how relevant is London going to be in the future in terms of drawing people here to look at art? It takes an infrastructure to keep it all going. From our perspective, if we were to drop having a major auction house here because the European government or our exclusion from Europe makes it difficult to operate here, I think it will be a big challenge. Where would one go in Europe? I was in Madrid this weekend and it was fascinating because from a young age art is endemic to growing up. This is not a given depending on where you are born in the world. We can’t rest on our laurels, we have to make sure this industry in all of its forms is sustainable. 

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Sophie and Stefan on diversity in the art world.. 

Sophie: From a recruitment perspective, a lot of businesses in the art world now have a certain criteria they want to meet in terms of encouraging applications from a diverse group of people whether it be in terms of race, class, nationality and so on. There are those systems in place in larger organisations. There are a couple of initiatives in place set up by the likes of Easel who are helping people to get those first steps on the ladder. I think it is still a problem but I do think things are being done about it. 

Stefan: There are training tools in terms of unconscious bias but also in terms of where you put your advertising for job applications. It is also important to create internal awareness among the staff that they could have prejudices without them being aware of it. There is a certain degree of social segregation in terms of access to education. Also, if you have the choice you might not study literature and instead study something more applicable that can be turned into cash quicker. I think there is a real danger if society doesn’t involve all the fractions and fringes of society, that there will become a very homogenous discourse and any difference is negated.

Sophie and Kadee on how to find a mentor..

Sophie: For me, that is a tricky one. I never really had an actual mentor. There are people who have made a big impact on my life and I have gone out and asked them to help me with certain things. Just like when Olly mentioned that he asked for guidance in leadership. Also, there is an organisation called Creative Access which allows this sort of conversation to start between people who have some time to give, who are at a later stage in their career, and those just starting out. 

Kadee: I think mentoring can also take a looser form. For me, the person I would consider to be my mentor would be a man called Kirk Varnedoe. I don’t think he set out to specifically mentor me and nor did I think of him in that way at the time. I really respected him in terms of his intellect and what he had written about art and the artists he championed, he was such a figure of inspiration. 

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What qualities stand out to you in an employee? 

Kadee: Hard-working, willing to put in extra time and go the extra mile. People bringing suggestions to the table not just executing what is asked of them. For me, just people who are trying to think of innovations.

Stefan: It is not so much about skills, it is more about attitude. How you relate to your working environment, new tasks, and a certain degree of perceptiveness. You can learn new skills, but an attitude, sensibility and understanding is harder to learn. 

Photography by Luke Fullalove.