Martina Batovic

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“Once I had my foot in the art world leaving it was never an option.” Martina Batovic

Since leaving Croatia in 2005 to complete a Masters in Art Business at the prestigious Sotheby's Institute of Art, Martina Batovic has dedicated her time to carving an impressive career for herself in London’s contemporary art world. Her knowledge as a highly skilled and respected contemporary art specialist paired with her Art Advisory and Sales experience have helped shape her role as Director of London’s Dorotheum, where her loyalty to the 311 year old eminent Viennese institution is transparent. Dorotheum’s internationally respected profile is reflected in its location as it sits in the heart of St James's, an area known for its world class auction houses. With more than 40 departments, the auction house specialises in a wide range of art categories, Old Master and contemporary paintings being particularly strong areas. In preparation of Marguerite's event with Martina and Head of Photographs at Sotheby's, Brandei Estes at Chess Club, we met with Batovic to find out more about her background and what she is doing to shake things up with the traditional Austrian auction house here in London! From the beginning to the end of the interview, Martina dedicates her time to fully to answering each question and shares some important advice on why longevity is worthwhile. She also emphasises the importance of being completely fearless and self-determined.

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Can you give me a brief outline of your career thus far?

I came to London to do a Masters in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. I read Art History, English Language and Literature in Croatia and was determined to develop my career in the art world. I wanted to work for Sotheby’s, it really was 100% my main/only focus. I did an internship with the auction house and then with an art advisory company, which turned into a 6 year career. It was one of those things, I decided to make myself indispensable. I ended up going from 2 days a week; making coffee and answering the phone to being a fully fledged member of the team when I left 6 years later. I always say my career had a backward turn. Normally one starts in an Auction house, then moves onto a gallery and then into Art Advisory. As fate would have it I did it the other way around, which meant I had to learn very quickly. I was lucky to have worked with a fantastic Art Advisory team and to have jumped in at the high end of the market. I was then curious to see what the retail side of the art world was like, so I went to a cutting edge photography gallery to act as their sales director - Brancolini Grimaldi, who had a wonderful programme. Learning about photography and entering its world was a whole new experience and a big learning curve. I spent a year with them. Then, as a Contemporary specialist decided to move to an international auction house.  It was hard work but hugely rewarding and this is subsequently how Dorotheum found me. The company wanted a contemporary voice in London and I felt that all my previous experience complemented the role; bringing clients, events, content and substance all together. It was a good fit. I feel like I have been with the company a lot longer than two years, it feels very natural. In terms of what I was hoping to achieve initially, where I thought we would be at this point - we are much further down the road than I had hoped, so it is moving in the right direction. In London, audiences are far more receptive to what we have to say and to offer than I would ever have imagined, which has been very encouraging.

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You decided to come to London in 2005, would you say that being an outsider was more beneficial to you as it allowed you to form an alternative perspective to most individuals working in the London art world?

In some respects it's definitely helped me - I came to London with an objective and unburdened mind. It’s been a huge learning curve and when you don't know what to expect then you are fearless and I think that was very important for me. The people I approached with regards to my career were incredibly receptive and I remember initially being surprised - maybe it was a cultural thing - that a CEO who I would reach out to for advice would often find the time to have a coffee. People were incredibly generous, which gave me a lot of encouragement to keep going. There were also times when the art world seemed impenetrable from the outside - I’ll be honest - but when a big fat door would slam in my face there would be a tiny little key opening somewhere that I would explore and that is how one thing lead to another.

As you have already mentioned, you completed a Masters in Art Business at Sotheby’S institute of art. Would you say that it is important for a career in the arts to obtain a Masters in order to progress accordingly?

I know fantastic specialists and industry professionals who have huge academic backgrounds and those who don't but who have equally impressive careers. I think it is about your particular drive and focus. Ultimately you do have to have a high quality art history degree to be a good specialist - your clients expect it, they come to you with specific and often very high expectations . Equally, especially in the auction house, you have to learn on the job - you are exposed to objects and art works so much during the day there are elements which the academia can’t teach you. A Masters is a huge investment. I would never say you won't have a career in the arts if you don’t obtain a higher qualification, but for me I know it was the only way I could break into London’s art world having studied elsewhere. It was self-funded and a big personal investment.

You worked for over a year in unpaid internships, working 3 other jobs on the side in order to live. What is your personal opinion on internships in our current economic climate?

In my day it was very much expected - you couldn't even get a foot through the door if you weren't willing to do at least some of the work for free. You were even lucky if you got the chance to have the internship in the first place. These days they have to be paid - at least minimum wage, I believe. I certainly would never take an intern unless I had a reason for them and would make sure they were learning from us, taking away invaluable experiences - I would have to make sure there was a definite reason for them being there. I think it is dangerous territory for businesses to rely on free work from interns. I did the internship with Sotheby’s after my programme and was treated very well but equally I know that at a similar time some of my friends did it and didn't feel they had much exposure to anything of substance. So it is a delicate balance - young people need to be given a chance. I just didn't have a choice, I was expected to work for free and sustain myself in London - you do the maths and do whatever you have to do to make it work.

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What are some of the most important lessons you have learnt since being with Dorotheum when it comes to delegation, authority and decision making?

My role as the Director in London is twofold. I am still a specialist in contemporary art, and as a specialist my job is to value, consign, catalogue and sell the auctions. Equally with my Director hat on it is about brand recognition, brand awareness, building our reputation in London, making sure clients who are aware of us engage with us and that those who are not learn about us and what we do. Those two things are always my main focus and have been for the last two years. They feed into each other. You need to be really quick in making your decisions, which wasn't an easy thing for me at first! There are a million big and small decisions you have you make everyday and I suppose as with any executive role, you become more comfortable making them and sticking with them as time goes by. I knew once I had two or three auction seasons with Dorotheum under my belt it would be easier to anticipate what was coming, which would then allow me to adapt more swiftly. Also getting used to the spotlight was interesting. When I was one of the specialists in a bigger department I was very much an important part of a team, but you are in a team! Having taken over an office with such a beautiful and prestigious heritage brand in London, where it is mostly just me, I had to get used to the fact that that wherever I go, whatever I say; Dorotheum equals me and I equal Dorotheum. It was important to spread the word. You have to be clever in how you spread the word. Thats been the most exciting and challenging part of being here. I strongly believe that It's not about who is saying it the loudest it is about who has the more interesting story to tell.

Do you think that the arts offer fair opportunities for women in the workplace?

I think we are very lucky in the arts in that there are women you can admire and a number of women in senior roles. Especially on the contemporary side, with recent museum and contemporary gallery appointments -  there are so many being spearheaded by women. Likewise, if you look at all the big auction houses there are a lot of departments that are chaired by women, so I have never felt like I was a lone in that respect. There has always been someone to look up to - I’ve always had women I admired so I think in that respect I never felt like I was one of the few women. In the art world I think it is quite colourful. The commercial side especially, I have found it has always been populated by strong women, which is humbling and encouraging at the same time.

Since being appointed the Director of Dorotheum what areas are you most keen to change/evolve/expand within the organisation?

It’s important to say that when we think about pieces of content, whether they are events; brunches, lunches, dinners, lectures, various things we have done in the last few years have always been focused around a specific purpose. In the first 2 years I was keen to drive a certain buzz around Dorotheum so people would talk about us. I love educational events and talking about arts - even though we are a commercial entity my luxury in London is that we can do talks and art related events as a way of offering opportunities to engage with art, artists or  a particular movement. This year I am looking to do more traditional auction house activities. My goal, which you will probably laugh at is world domination but equally it is making sure that people who should know about us do and that when they come to us they recieve a good service.

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You described your experiences within the art world as multifaceted in an interview with Harpers Bazaar - with this in mind, do you believe it is important to try as many different avenues within your field of interest in order to get an all round understanding of the industry?

I wish I could tell you there was method to the madness when it comes to my career - it just happened that I was curious enough to explore every option that came my way and now when I look back it all makes sense. I think there is value in longevity. I wouldn't recommend to someone to keep changing roles until they find a fit - any employer values when they see you have committed to an organisation or institution. It means you are good and that there is a mutual respect. One of the things that I found useful when I was deciding if I should join Dorotheum was to see how they treat their specialists. Dorotheum haven't lost a major specialist in the last 15 years which was a big thing for me it meant that staff turn over isn't an issue.

Which three words would you say best describe you?

How I see myself, humm. I would say persistent, optimistic and creative. My mother would say self determined.

What advice would you give to a woman who is beginning their career within the creative arts?

Don't think of yourself as a woman and try and understand as much as you can what exactly it is that you want to do because the clearer you are in what you are trying to pursue the easier it will be for others to help. I always try to find time for people who want to come to me for advice. I will never say no to a coffee because I remember those initial experiences when people much higher up had time for me. But equally people need to respect that time and come prepared. If you say what you are looking into and ask for ideas and opinions it’s much easier to help than if you say I don't know what to do, what should I do?! I was lucky as I knew what I wanted to do, it was just a question of getting there. So I would say focus on what excites you and what you can see yourself doing over a period of time and go for it! Being fearless is important. Don't hesitate - when you are young you have less to lose! Be realistic and always  keep your finger on the pulse - go around the galleries - see see see!

If you could own one work of art what would it be?

Thats hard. One - can I have two!? Seeing as it is already in this country I wouldn't mind having Michelangelo's ‘Tondo - Madonna and Child’, which is at the Royal Academy.  When it comes to a contemporary work, it would definitely be Francis Bacon's ‘Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X’. I could certainly find some wall space for that! It’s a hard question for a specialist because we always have a dream list. We handle so many beautiful works they feel like children when they go through our hands; we research them, learn new facts about them that were not known before and then we see them go off into the world. You have to let go, but its so fulfilling.

If you could have one art organisation or institution all to yourself for one evening, which one would it be?

It would definitely be the Beyeler Foundation in Basel - it's designed by Renzo Piano and between the setting, permanent collection and the shows they put on every year - I think it is one of the most beautiful spaces that there is. Every year when I go to Basel Art fair I find an excuse to go - even if i’m there for the day. The way the architecture fits with the landscape is wonderful. It ticks all the boxes for me.

Words by Lara Monro. Photography by Holly Whittaker