Today WIA shines a spotlight on Cynthia Corbett. Gallerist, art dealer, founding member of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD), and initiator of the Young Masters Art Prize. Corbett came to the art world via an unconventional route and continues to shake up the trad white male bastion of the industry through her professional activities and interests.
Corbett came to the art world after a successful career in international development and finance, and decided to retrain and find a way to combine her passion for art and business with time for her family. After graduating from art history at Christie’s, she volunteered at the Tate and joined Roger Bevan’s Exhibition Circle, using this as a springboard for learning about modern art for three years before starting to put on exhibitions, and looking for jobs in the art world.
“I applied for loads of jobs in the art world, and realised I couldn’t even pay for my domestic support. It didn’t matter that I had all that wealth of experience before, it couldn’t translate to a salary that I could have paid for the domestic care that I needed.”
“So I thought, I’m going to try to open my own gallery and I’m going to try to represent artists. The dilemma: how am I going to open a gallery when I don’t have any capital?”
“I knew I wanted to be in London. We had moved to Wimbledon to be near my daughters’ first school, so people were saying, ‘Well, I guess you could open up in a little street in Earlsfield,’ or ‘Maybe you could afford that little shop over there.’ But I knew I wouldn’t be present in the way that I needed to be.”
“So I went and chatted with some of the Christie’s people, and they said, ‘Why don’t you have your gallery as a home gallery, by appointment, by invitation.“
“We sold our house and bought part of a convent that was being redeveloped. We literally bought the largest space with the most walls. It was a gamble and it worked. That was in 2004, I decided, I’m going to try. I ‘m going to have a home gallery and curated projects. Within two years, I realised that it was good, but I didn’t know enough people. I needed to start doing art fairs. I begged and borrowed spaces that were in more central locations, or in experimental venues. And in 2006 I embarked on my first art fairs.
“I exhibited at London Art Fair, here, ARCOmadrid, Artissima in Italy. I did things in Berlin, Paris, and then in 2008, America. Being American, I had a feeling of what American’s might want, that ex-pat eye. Then in 2007 I took a really big risk. Cork St, before it was redeveloped, had several galleries to rent on a weekly or monthly basis. It was this time of year, the summer show was happening, and this is how I did it. I’m not saying that men couldn’t have that journey, but it is quite a unique journey.”
“In my case I was a married women with a child, I was juggling a family, but I was juggling a lot of other domestic issues too. I had ageing parents in America, a very ill sister in America, who sadly died this year. All kinds of different things. My husband’s mother got cancer in the middle of this and I cared for her in Herefordshire. If I’d had a nine to five (or in the art world, a ten to midnight job) I don’t think I’d have been able to do it. I needed a career, or my own business, that I had control over. But I had to make money too. None of this was for fun. I love it, but I was trying to create a business and earn a living, and help artists earn a living as well.”
“When I was on my course at Christie’s, in one session a business developer came in, and said, ‘How many of you want to open a gallery?’ Arms of half the room shot up, ‘Yes, me!’ Then he said, ‘Ok, how many of you want to make money?’ And no one put their hand up. So I shyly raised my hand, saying, ‘Sorry. Sorry’. And he said to the class, ‘The only one who’s going to be successful is her, because if you open a gallery, you need to make money. You have to support your artists, be good for your clients. If you don’t care about that, why are you going to have clients?’ And it has stuck with me, all that time.”
“Some exhibitions will bomb, some art fairs don’t make money. But you have to go into them hoping every time. There’s no guarantee. You have to keep going.”
“To succeed, it does take a certain amount of ambition and aggressiveness – a negative word when applied to a woman. There’s pressure on women to be feminine, to have families.”
“The domestic responsibility, it does tend to fall on women. Even if you choose to not have a family, or you choose partners of the same sex, you will have those other responsibilities later on, maybe for a parent, maybe for a sibling.
“I decided to have a child and I didn’t want to apologise to anybody about that. Maybe with the next generation, because they’ve been raised by different people, we won’t have to have this discussion in twenty years. I don’t know! Maybe men will be more sharing of these responsibilities. I got kind of annoyed and bitter about it for a short of time, because I was thinking, how hard we all worked, for equality, Roe vs Wade, reproductive rights, Gloria Steinham, all the things we fought for. And then you turn around and you go, oh, so I now have two jobs!”
“I don’t know if I totally agree with Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO who suggested women “lean in” to take an equal place at work and in the board room) because she refused to discuss any domestic arrangements. I found that really insulting. She’s a multi millionaire, and most working women are just working, to sustain themselves and their families. I was a staff person at the bank, not earning big bonuses, I had a decent salary, but still, you have to watch your budgets. Sandberg wouldn’t discuss any of her childcare arrangements. Then this is not fair. To lean in when you have a cook, a full time, two full time nannies, a driver…”
“In the art world, both in American and here, you have women running incredible galleries and public institutions. Things are changing. Then we have this horrible thing with #metoo – the things that happened to result in that. That has to do with money. Those women that didn’t or wouldn’t comply, their careers were ruined, put on hold, or had to do something else. I think you find that in all fields and unfortunately it is still a question that has to be discussed.”
There are lots more women in institutions and galleries – do you think this has changed?
“I think things are changing in the creative arts generally, I think one is seeing that. Not just in the art world, but film and theatre, music. I was so happy when Maria Balshaw, was announced [as Director of Tate]. It may be that the strong, female gallerists are helping that: Sadie Coles, Victoria Miro, Marian Goodman, Angela Flowers, Annely Juda.”
“And women artists, they are having a bigger voice and getting bigger and more prominent. Women of colour as well, which is so, so important.”
“I don’t know how you create a level playing field really. Maybe look at the Scandinavian model – if you have domestic obligations, they seem to have looked at more equally.”
“There’s still a discrepancy in pay structure. Let’s face it, there is.”
You’ve been at the forefront of pushing the agenda of Women in the Arts with AWAD and The Young Masters new emerging women artist prize. Do you think that we do need these initiatives?
“AWAD came out of a discussion that Susan Mumford and I had. She said, I want to start an association of women art dealers, would you be one of the founding members if I do? What is important about it, is it’s a club. We can call each other. Or not, Or collaborate. Or not. But it is a group of women that are trying to support each other. I did an exhibition in 2014, in New York, and then we launched the association of women art dealers in America.
And it’s growing, it’s doing really well.”
How did the Young Masters Art Prize start?
“The Young Masters Art Prize was launched in 2009. I wanted to do a project that looked at art history and gave contemporary artists of any age, any genre, any background, culture, nationality, an opportunity to respond to a theme. I wanted to prove that contemporary art, if it’s high quality and technically skilled, there’s no genre that it could not be. I would like to prove there was a link to art history.”
“In 2014, we were offered funding for a ceramic prize. And in 2017, a collector asked us to launch a women’s prize. I agreed to offer an award for an emerging woman artist, with a separate judging panel from the overall prize and the ceramic prize. When we did our call for artists the response was really extraordinary. We had 850 applicants, which was a 100% increase on the 2014 prize, and we had a lot of women applying. A lot. Applying to both the ceramic prize and the Young Masters (they are two distinct prizes). We told the judges they could choose from either of the shortlist for the women’s prize.”
“And what was unbelievable – every single prize went to a woman. There were four judging panels, they didn’t communicate with one another, all deliberations were separate. And when the judges gave me the results, every prize was a woman! And Azita Moradkhani won both the overall prize, and then she won the women’s prize as well.”
What advice would you give to a female gallerist starting up now?
“Look at your skill set. Just because you want to be a gallerist doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. Just because someone wants to run their own business, doesn’t mean they can be successful. Running a gallery, you have to have some entrepreneurship because it is a small business.”
“Think about why you want to have a gallery. Is it because you think it’s going to be having a beautiful show, drinking champagne and running around? Because that aspect of it is so small – at least it’s there though, and boy, do we love that part! The unglamorous parts make up 90% if not more, of the operation.”
“Be determined, from the beginning, to try to make money. Be careful with budgets. But then again, you’ve got to be able to take risks. Ultimately the most important thing, I think, is that you have to show art that you believe in and that you would like to nurture those artists’ careers.”
“You have to be a unique character to do it: I have to do everything. I have to know everything. I have to be able to understand the financial aspects, the regulatory aspects (which are massive). I have to be able to understand logistics. I have to understand the technical side of the installation. I think it’s helpful to have an art-historical link, because then you have a reference, and maybe you don’t need to have it as extensively as I did.”
“You have to be a people person a little bit. Or if you’re not – if you have all the other things – you just need to hire someone that really is good with people, if it’s artist liaison work or client development.”
“I think you really have to have the artists that you love and believe in. And you can become friends with, and you’re close to: that’s so rewarding.”
“You have to be willing to ask people for money. Ultimately, I have to sell, I have to ask clients for money. Sometimes it doesn’t sit easily with people. If we don’t sell, we don’t continue. If we can’t continue, then the artist can’t continue because they have to go and get a job, it’s a cycle.”
“Be aware of what your limitations are, or assess them. Are you single, living with a partner, do you have domestic obligations? You might not have any now, but there are things that could come up.”
“A lot of art galleries are like me, they didn’t have money, they just did it. I was very fortunate that when we decided to launch the gallery properly, I had negotiated an overdraft with my bank! And that saved me for years. Years and years. I could never be in that position I’m in now if I hadn’t had that overdraft. I used it a lot in the early years. My god. And sometimes it was really scary – I’d be doing five art fairs with no money!”
What advice would you give to women artists wanting to catch the attention of a gallery?
“It’s really important to talk to everyone. It may lead to nothing or it may lead to a nice conversation. Or you may meet your next best friend, or your gallerist or your next big artist. Communication is key for these artists.”
“Be careful about how you talk to galleries. If you are represented by somebody, and you’re not so happy with who you’re being represented by, remember, we all talk to each other. AWAD particularly!”
“Apply to as many prizes and residencies as possible. That could be the making of you. Looking at every opportunity and really scouring the internet for these kind of prizes, and connections.”
“I think the message is collaborate, not compete. I went to the Royal College of Art show breakfast on Friday. I was asking some of the artists, where are you going to go, what are you doing? Nine of them had decided to form a cooperative so they could get better studio spaces because they had all chipped in, and they could learn with each other. Such a great idea, and be open to things like that.”
“Of course, everything is competitive but I think collaboration, engagement, communication and looking at every opportunity and really scouring the internet for these kind of prized, residencies.”
“Do your homework. The thing that drives gallerists crazy, is phone calls or emails from people who say, I want you to represent me. I‘m going to show you my work… I have to say, nine times out of ten, it’s not relevant to anything I do! The work could be great, but they need to do their homework. There’s probably a gallery that would be perfect for them, but it wouldn’t be me. We would never consider showing someone who hadn’t looked at the galleries website and researched what we do.”
The Cynthia Corbett Gallery, Summer Exhibition, Gallery Artists and showcase for Deborah Azzopardi & Young Masters runs until 7th July 2018 at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, 5b Pall Mall, St James’s, London SW1Y 4UY.
Hours: daily 11am to 7pm or by appointment +44 (0)7939 085 076.
T: +44 (0) 20 8947 6782