What do you get when you bring together some of the most notable women in the art world? One obvious outcome: a packed room full of attendees hanging on every word and jotting down notes. A frank discussion with a sharing of personal stories is another. But most importantly, you get honest, unmediated, practical advice on what it takes to succeed in the art world. And you leave with that rare, inspired feeling that whatever your career stage or knowledge base, you can find a way to get there—there are many paths to success.
This was one for the books. If you wish you had been there, we understand. Until the next installment of our New York series featuring women shaping the art world, here are some highlights from the most recent panel with Christy MacLear (Art Agency, Partners, Sotheby’s and former CEO of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation), Elizabeth Dee (Founder, Elizabeth Dee Gallery and the Independent Art Fair), Stas Johnson-Chyzhykov (Director, Collector Relations, Artsy, SIA Alumna), Helen Toomer (STONELEAF RETREAT, former director of Pulse Contemporary Art Fair), and moderated by Christine Kuan (Sotheby’s Institute-New York, Director and CEO).
First jobs do not set the tone for your life
“My first job had nothing to do with the arts,” says Christy MacLear, the founding CEO of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and former Executive Director of the Philip Johnson Glass House. Instead of making a life-long career choice at the start, look at your first job as an opportunity to explore what you love doing and what you’re good at doing. Don’t be afraid to take “calculated risks” along the way; you never know where you will end up. This is precisely what led Stas Johnson-Chyzhykov to stray from a path to business consulting, winding up instead as an intern at Artsy, where she is now the Director of Collector Relations. For Helen Toomer, who, after many (many) years as a leader in the art fair industry has recently opened Stoneleaf Retreat—an artist residency in Upstate New York—it is also about realizing that you don’t have to stay in your first job forever. “The relationships you make now will help you in the future, but what you do won’t define you. You define you.” The message here is, embrace change on your path. Stay flexible and don’t be afraid of shifting your course.
It’s not 9 to 5, it’s 24/7
It takes time to succeed in the art world; there are no easy shortcuts. “The industry is not 9-5, it’s 24-7,” advises Helen. You have to put in your time—from internships to demanding roles—it takes hard work to accumulate the right experience. But most importantly, you have to do the right thing and keep doing it. Let honesty and integrity propel you forward. The art industry is “almost tribal,” Christy says; it’s a notoriously opaque field where things change very quickly. In order to succeed, you need to dedicate the time to build trust, develop relationships, and grow a community that will support you. How? Start by taking Elizabeth Dee’s advice, “It’s not about sitting in front of the computer. It’s very much about connecting with the person you’re working with. It’s about getting away from your desk. Calling instead of emailing. Sharing something you’ve learned that day and asking questions.”
You’ve got to take the bull by the horns
How do you transition from being an employee to being a leader? First, you have to take the time to learn the basics and develop a good work ethic. And then you should start taking those extra steps to get you noticed, that is, if you have what it takes. Elizabeth discovered her aptitude for leadership while learning the trade at a gallery, “I’m very independent in the way that I work. I can take something and completely run with it…. It’s great for being an entrepreneur or running something, not being an employee.” After starting out as an artist, she went on to become the founder of the Elizabeth Dee Gallery and Independent Art Fair. Christy realized that being a leader means taking the bull by the horns. When applying for her role at The Glass House, she took the initiative and decided to write the business plan for the organization, before she was asked to do so. “I didn’t want to wait for them to call me with questions – that’s more of a manager. A leader is more proactive.” As you’re planning a transition into a leadership role, make sure to develop big picture thinking – be a person known not only for having a good work ethic, but also one who has vision. And don’t forget, as Stas advises, “most decisions about you are being made without you in the room,” so make sure the right people have taken notice of your leadership strengths.
Mentors come in all shapes and sizes
You’re not alone on your path to success—there are guides that will help you along the way. But don’t expect them to fit a certain “mentor” mold. Helen’s first mentor, her first boss at Affordable Aft Fair, scared the hell out of her. But despite the wrath, Helen listened and received constructive criticism that helped shape her professional persona.
If you’re in the beginning of your career, it may be hard to find a mentor. But have patience, be strategic and, as Stas advises, listen up—mentorship exists even in conversations with colleagues: “treat every interaction as a learning experience.” Keep in mind that as your life changes, your need for guidance changes along with it. As Christy explains, in the beginning, your mentorship needs will be focused on professional development, and as you progress on your path, they will be transformed to helping you establish life balance. And, finally, as your reach a pivotal point in your career in the art world, your primary need may be about creating a supportive community. For Christy and the participants in the panel, the community is built on the relationships with strong women that provide the strength and support that help sustain continued professional success.