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AWAD’s Susan J. Mumford on Why Pro-Networks Are Critical to Success

AWAD’s Susan J. Mumford on Why Pro-Networks Are Critical to Success

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AWAD members at AIPAD. Photo courtesy of AWAD’s Instagram.

It’s hard not to remember the 2008-2009 recession, as no industry was safe from the economic fallout. On September 15, 2008, Sotheby’s hosted an unprecedented sale working directly with an artist, in this case Damien Hirst, selling £70.5 million worth of his works, in London. On the same day, Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York City and the Dow Jones fell by 500 points. In the middle of this, serial entrepreneur Susan Johnson-Mumford saw the need for people to remain connected during a troubling time. So, taking advantage of what she calls a “change” mindset, she founded the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD), a resource for women and women-identifying art dealers, gallerists, and consultants.

“The current era is seeing the embrace of a “change” mindset previously unseen in my lifetime and presents an unquestionable opportunity for overhauling systems. If you’re going to be daring and make shifts that might have seemed too outrageous in the world prior to C-19, this is a window to go for it.”

-Susan J. Mumford, from The Path Forward interview series

Based between New York City and London, the mission of AWAD is to facilitate business, collaboration and connection between AWAD members in addition to the organization offering educational resources. So, that being said, I’d love to introduce three key people to the organization: Susan J. Mumford, founder; Susan Eley, gallerist and founding co-chair of the NY/Tri-State chapter; and Ivy Brown, gallerist and NY/Tri-State co-chair.

Susan J- Mumford
Susan J. Mumford, photo credit: Chris E King

Can you share a little bit more about your individual backgrounds in the arts? 

Susan J. Mumford: After graduating from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, I originally considered a career as a photographer. However, after moving to London, I found when working at a gallery that I missed the management side of my retail job. That resulted in an M.A. in Arts Management and Policy, followed by the opening an art dealership and eventually a gallery in Soho, London. The founding of AWAD was inspired by the credit crunch and the subsequent recession. Be Smart About Art resulted from the clear need for career support in a transparent way. By 2018, I was running the latter two organizations and learned about incoming anti-money laundering legislation. Having a solid handle on art business models, I co-founded ArtAML with Dr. Chris King, a photographer, jewelry, designer and software developer. I explain what I do as being a sector-supporting.

Susan Eley, photo courtesy of Aiko Austin.

Susan Eley:  I grew up in a household filled with art and art making. My mother, Carole Eisner, is a painter and a sculptor whose studio was in my childhood home. My brother, Joe, is an architect who was constantly drawing. As a boy, he drew superheroes based on his comic books and I marveled at his technique with charcoal and pencil. I majored in art history at Brown University; received an MA in Visual Arts Administration at NYU and subsequently worked in PR and Education at the Morgan Library and Museum. Wanting to work with living artists and satisfy my desire to run a business of my own, I opened a contemporary art gallery in 2006, which I have operated ever since. The mission for the gallery – now with two locations in NYC and Hudson, NY– has always been to offer a welcoming experience to gallerygoers and exhibit art by a diverse range of artists, working in various styles and techniques. I’m proud to say over 75% of our roster is female.

Ivy Brown. Photo courtesy of Zoobs.

Ivy Brown: I am coming to this from an unusual place, as initially I didn’t intend to become a gallery owner or curator when I opened the gallery in 2001. In my last life I owned a company that represented photographers, fashion and set stylists, and hair and make-up artists.  As the digital world came into being there was a shift in our clients’ needs. We no longer were building sets, renting animals, and creating environments as that was being done in post-production. Most of the clients just wanted a plain white background to facilitate the work done in post. The artist’s I represented were used to creating environments that were detailed and full of adventure so this new reality was fairly boring on the creative front.

To offset this new reality I opened part of my loft in the Meatpacking District up into a gallery for all of the artists and myself to have a creative playground. I yearned for a place to connect with why we had gotten into the business in the first place. We were planning on opening in 2002, then 9/11 happened and we all felt like we wanted to do something for the community and open the doors though we were not done building the gallery. We had nine performance artists on our opening night, it was the first night a lot of people had gone out after 9/11, November 8, 2001 and we didn’t want people to have to do anything but have an experience. 600 people came through our door that night. 

For several years I kept being an agent in the commercial world as well as having the gallery for the creative world, eventually the creative world won out and I decided to put all my efforts into it and closed the other business after 25 years. Being introduced to AWAD was pivotal for me, here was a group of women gallery owners, art advisors and dealers who were open to helping guide me on this journey.

Susan, I’d love to hear from you a bit more about how AWAD came to be. Shortly after you founded AWAD, you went on to create Be Smart About Art, an online-accessible professional development platform for professionals navigating a changing world. As the art world continues to grow and evolve, do you envision the mission of AWAD will as well?

Susan J Mumford: The mission itself has remained the same since we were founded. I’ve long credited this clarity for the swift establishment of our first chapter in London, followed by NY/Tri-State and eventually the Global chapter. What has evolved is who is a member, as that now includes women-identifying art dealers as well as two new categories of member that include partner and friend. One of my favorite sayings is, “change is the indicator of life,” and this also applies to an organization. While I can anticipate some shifts in years to come when I look into the crystal ball, AWAD’s future holds unknowns that will continue to serve members’ needs as they evolve.

Image from Collect Art Fair with AWAD exhibitors Cynthia Corbett Gallery and Sham Gallery. Photo courtesy of AWAD’s Instagram.

For young professionals who want to become part of the art world, it can be quite overwhelming in terms of picking a career path or perhaps pursuing graduate school. I’d love to hear from all three of you—what is some advice that you would give in terms of networking and finding groups to help elevate your career?

Susan J Mumford: I know this one well as someone who arrived in a foreign country in 2000, knowing only the person seated next to me on the flight. Based on my experience, every piece of work experience and education has long-term value, even if it doesn’t seem obvious at the time. My first job in London was as a manager at a natural foods shop. The skills learned proved to be invaluable years later when I started my own business, and the contacts I made became a fundamental part of my network. When it comes to meeting people at events, my suggestion is to listen to others and participate in quality conversations. Remember to involve others, too. It’s not a matter of getting, but also giving. The meeting of a new contact starts the offline x online ebb and flow, starting in-person and staying connected online and vice-versa. Be sure to keep contacts saved in your digital database, backed up and with notes as to how you met them.

In terms of finding groups to elevate your career, get out there and out of your comfort zone. Be sure to not only attend events and join groups where you could access new opportunities but also those where you can develop your peer group. Based on research I conducted years ago, your best introductions come from peers. This brings to mind the concept of coopetition, which certainly applies to AWAD membership: instead of viewing a peer as a competitor, actively help one other to grow and thrive together.

The AWAD UK chapter event launch. Photo courtesy of AWAD’s Instagram.

Susan Eley: I would suggest choosing an area that seems most interesting–gallery, museum, auction house—and dive in. Do what it takes to enter the arena, whether that be as a volunteer, intern or part time staff. Think broadly. There are so many areas in the contemporary art world now, such as the art fair realm, online sales platforms, logistics, database development, and more. And offer to take lots of people you consider role models further along in their careers for coffee.

Ivy Brown: I would recommend looking through the websites like New York Foundation for the Arts as well as getting on the list for ARTCARDS. See what interests you: go to galleries, museum talks, open studios, art fairs and events to see what is happening. Using Instagram as a tool to find art related accounts to follow is really important.

A networking session for AWAD members, held at the Decorazon Gallery. Image courtesy of AWAD’s Instagram.

One thing that really stuck out to me is that AWAD’s events and panels are bringing to light important topics that are not always discussed day-to-day, including money laundering, cybersecurity, pivoting within your business, distilling the artist and gallery relationship, and much more. What other topics do you wish were more commonly discussed?

Susan J Mumford: AWAD’s core program addresses the day-to-day needs of an art business, as highlighted in those examples. Additional to this is programming that looks at the current state of gender equity in the art market and what can be done to strive towards parity. Topics addressed by an organization relate to their mission, what lays at their foundation and where they are going. Accordingly, programming varies, and you’ll likely be drawn to topics that are relevant to your stage of career and life.

Susan Eley: I’d like to see continued discussions about economic downturns and how to survive in a slowed down market place

Ivy Brown: Since things are always changing it is important to revisit the topics we have gone over in the past as life does not stand still and things change all the time, laws, rules, the way people work.It’s great as a group to go to events together, art fairs, openings, each others gallery’s, I just wish there were more hours in the day and days in the week to be able to get to everything that is happening. It can feel overwhelming to keep up with it all but you just have to pace yourself.

Installation shot of Entanglement. Photo courtesy of Judi Tavill’s Instagram.

AWAD has had several new announcements recently including the opening of Judi Tavill’s Entanglement at the Ivy Brown Gallery, the appointment of Nina Kong-Surtrees as a NY Tri-state co-chair as well as an upcoming panel on Wednesday, May 22nd. What else is coming down the pipeline?

Susan J Mumford: Since AWAD is celebrating 15 years as an organization and 10 years of our NY / Tri-State chapter, we will be holding a celebration in London this summer. We will continue our program of offline and online events and foresee a future of localized groups.

Ivy Brown: We will host an artist talk with Judi Tavill, Wednesday, June 26, 7pm. Our summer show will open Tuesday, July 9th 6-8pm. Additionally, we have a group exhibition that features the work of sixteen artists. This show, ‘Stay Curious’ is currently on view in Brooklyn Heights, 21 Clark St, Brooklyn, NY 11201 until July 15th.

Image installation from Stay Curious at Ivy Brown Gallery. Photo courtesy of Ivy Brown Gallery.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Susan. J Mumford: A professional network is not only a ‘nice to have,’ it is vital to success. When you need help in your career, whether starting out or established, set aside your ego and reach out to your community for support. Helping others is an unconscious calling as a human being.

To learn more about AWAD, please check out their website and Instagram.

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