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Enlivening the Workspace: An Interview with Katie Henry, Director of Art in Offices

Katie Henry is Director of Art in Offices, which was established in 2012. Her background lies in sculpture and she holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Central Saint Martins Art College and a Masters in Arts Administration and Management from the University of London. The company provides businesses of any size straightforward access to original and affordable art for their workplaces and ensures that their family of artists can make a living from their work. Not only does Katie handpick artists who have investible careers and could form the basis of a corporate collection, she also provides high-value services such as the management of art collections and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies.

Services offered include art sales, rental, subscriptions, installation, shipping, insurance, valuation and consultation, corporate art collection management, arts strategy for corporate social responsibility.

Stephanie Yeap spoke with Katie at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London…

1. Describe your business in 5 words:

We’ve gone through a rebrand recently and thought very hard about our new values. Our business is bespoke, passionate, open, cultured and proactive.

2. What inspired you to pursue this career? It was one of those sparks of inspiration when you’re job hunting. When I was graduating, it was the time of the Lehman Brothers crash, and arts funding just got cut. I really wanted to work in the arts or a gallery, so I wondered: who do I know who still has money, and who do I know who will need art? I thought that being an art student, I could bring the two together in offices. I don’t know anyone who is a specialist in bringing corporate art to offices, so I thought, I’ll just do it, and then I did. 

3. What’s the most wonderful thing about the profession? 

I love seeing a change in people when we put art in. I’ll go into an office that has blank walls, and you can feel that people are less productive, less energised. Immediately, when something goes up on the walls people come and stare. There’s lots of chatter, and people are happy. I’ve spoken to a lot of clients who say it’s made such an amazing difference when you don’t think it would. Knowing that I’m bringing joy to people and that I’m making a difference to their working environment fills me with happiness.

4. And let’s get real… What’s the most challenging aspect of the profession? 

I have to say the logistics. In a normal gallery, the logistics are about getting the art from point A to point B, from the gallery to someone’s home. But with us, the artists keep their artworks until it’s needed, so we have to coordinate 3 or 4 artists who live all over the country to come to one office at a specific time on a specific day, which can be quite frantic. There’s a lot of paperwork, shuffling, ringing, wrapping and double-checking if things are going to be ready. I love the high-octane, high-pressure aspect of it, but that’s the most challenging bit.

5. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given

My mentor’s an ex-Dragon from Dragon’s Den. He told me that you don’t really need a business plan when you start out. You just have to answer ten key questions, like what do you do that no one else is doing, who are your key partners, who could be your distributors, what’s the industry doing and why is that working and how can you make a difference.That was key because, for a creative person, the thought of having to do a business plan with facts, figures, pie charts, and an Excel spreadsheet I’d just shut down in horror! Then my mentor said that I didn’t need to do that and it lifted the burden! I thought, you know what I can, I can just do it.

6. What do you now say to someone who is just starting out? (Maybe it’s that one thing you wish someone had told you!) 

My advice is no one has the skills to do everything, and I think you need to decide which role you are going to have in the business. You might know you’re not the best salesperson, so stick to your guns.  If you know you’re a good marketing person who can do the social media, but you’re not good in front of people, get someone who is.

Likewise, if you’re not a finance person and you don’t like facts and  figuresthat’s me, I hate admin and I hate spreadsheetsyou should stick to the sales and find someone else to do the facts and figures for you. Now there are a lot of easy ways to outsource all of this online, you don’t even have to have someone in the same country to do your finance or your marketing. It’s really affordable and really easy to build a team of freelancers and remote workers.

7. What challenge is the industry facing that art dealers need to address?

Well, we’re not a traditional gallery model, and a lot of people tell me that art fairs are struggling. We’re business-to-business (B2B), so for us, the main challenge is the uncertainty of Brexit. Everyone in the corporate world has felt its effects in the second half of 2018. It got really difficult for everybody.

But, everyone at the beginning of this year put their plans in place for what might happen,  and everyone’s forecast is a little bit better. So I think challenge-wise, it’s going to be working out where the new markets are going to be and tapping into those, like if it going to be B2B or business-to-artist.

8. If you had to be one work of art, what would you be – and why?Maman

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This is a really difficult question! I thought about being the Mona Lisa because I’ve always wanted to be a little famous. Actually, I’d like to be one of those really famous works of art in a private collection and gets seen in museums on tour, constantly. So perhaps, something like the big spider (‘Maman’) by Louise Bourgeois, because that’s monumental and as soon as you see it you’re like woah, and it makes you stop and think. It also has a real impact physically on the space, and then you realise it’s by a woman, like yes! So I think, Louise Bourgeois’s spider.

9. What do you personally believe are the best advantages of being part of an association like AWAD, and how have you benefited?

I’ve benefitted hugely. I didn’t have a community of like-minded people when I first started out. I was doing 9-to-5 in an admin job and my company was my 5-to-9. I was very isolated, especially when you’re working alone at home from your computer the kitchen table, as lots of people do.

So to have the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD) Facebook group, for starters, is wonderful. Then you get to meet those people in person and you get to hear their experiences more in-depth. Although not what everyone does is appropriate for me, it’s nice to have a barometer of what’s going on in the art world, and what other people are doing and experiencing. And I’ve made some brilliant friends, some people you go out for coffee with and do children’s play dates with. I’ve even made international friends, whom I just meet up with when they’re here in London for exhibitions.

I think the benefits of an association are having that accreditation stamp, it’s quite useful but having that supportive network of people you can call on for ideas, that’s definitely helpful.

10. How can you make the most out of being a member of a professional network?

You’ve really got to utilise it and get value for money for it. Whenever there are events, go for them. Whenever there are questions on the Facebook group that you might be able to answer, answer them. I think you’ve really got to broaden your network, so it might just start with answering a single question from someone, and that might roll into ‘let’s do a collaboration,’ and then into lifelong friends and working partnerships. You never know, so just do everything, go to everything, speak to everyone, and don’t be shy.
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