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“Feel the fear and do it anyway”: an interview with Sylvie Gormezano, Art Consultant and Founder of Picture This Productions

Sylvie Gormezano is Founder of Picture This Productions, which was established in 1995 to provide bespoke art consultancy services to private and corporate clients. The business actively encourages the development of long-term relationships between patrons and artists. She has over 25 years of experience as a collector and now curates exhibitions in locations that truly complement specific works, particularly in London and South-West France. Previously a Chair of the Trustees of the Museum of Richmond, Sylvie is currently the Chair of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD) and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). 

Services include art advisory and consultancy for collectors as well as one-to-one professional development in the form of mentoring and consulting for artists and galleries.

Stephanie Yeap spoke with Sylvie at the National Gallery in London…

1. Describe your business in 5 words:

Facilitating, supporting, enabling art professionals. I did my best to stick to 5!

  2. What inspired you to pursue this career

 I’ve had an unusual route to this career as I didn’t start in the art world at all, but instead in business and consultancy. Art has always been my passion and I have worked with artists and learnt about art history throughout my life. At some point, I realised that having one foot in the business camp and another in the art camp gave me an outlook that is fairly unusual in this profession. Working with artists allowed me to gain some understanding of the struggles and challenges that have to be overcome to show works. 

As an artist, unless you’re represented by a big gallery or already well-known, it can be difficult to get your name and work out there, making it a real catch-22 situation to get representation. Having had experience in the business sector and working with galleries that needed support with managing artist relationships, marketing and business development issues, I realised I could bring an objective, yet art market-focused support to both galleries and artists. When I decided to shift the focus of my career, I started by buying art for people who were looking for works for their homes and offices. From there I became more involved with the artists and the galleries themselves.

Currently, I’m more of an agent or a mentor than a dealer, except that I also have hands-on engagement with each project.  When I work with artists, I don’t necessarily sell their work, but I will work with them to develop their practice and set up projects to help their works see the light of day. For instance, it could be finding and brokering partnerships, or negotiating and setting up an event, such as a festival, where we work with institutions or partners so the work can be viewed by new audiences.

I don’t interfere with the content of what the artist produces – that is the unique province of the artist. Instead, I get involved in how that work can be presented and brought to the market or showcased to the public. It’s more than marketing, as I work with artists throughout the entire project in order to define and refine it, and create the final exhibition for the works, including climbing the ladder to hang the work if necessary!

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

It’s really about seeing results and enabling creativity. For artists, it’s their livelihood and their passion as well. So the best reward is when you see an artist’s work being displayed successfully to an audience in a way that really gets across what the artist wants to communicate to the viewer.  

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

When people are passionate about what they do, they don’t necessarily do things in the way that’s most likely to be successful in terms of business. Most of the time, there’s going to be a trade-off between making money and doing what you really believe in. This can be a real challenge, especially in terms of working art professionals today – both artists and galleries. Do you make or sell work that you know to be commercial, or do you persevere with your vision and make or show only work you believe in?

At the same time, professionals, whether artists, galleries, or curators and the like, need to be remunerated for what they do. Just like a lawyer, engineer, teacher or any other professional, they’re entitled to make a living from their practice. Attaching a monetary value to what an artist produces is not an obvious equation, nor indeed is it easy to find outlets for certain works that do not fall into obvious categories.

 In terms of the market, the entire structure of the gallery system is very much in flux at the moment and that makes it particularly difficult to be successful in commercial terms – if that is the objective.  Determining the value of work forms the basis of selling it. There are, however, many factors that have nothing to do with the work that come into play as well, such as trends or influences that are separate from the artist. This can make it very difficult to sustain certain artists’ work and can actively stymie creativity and originality. 

 The U.K. has a big and valuable art market, but my hunch is that the big money is not necessarily spent by buyers who are the most interested in art as a form of expression and communication. Rather, some may be influenced to purchase work because it’s from a gallery with a big name, it’s fashionable, famous people have bought this artist or the auction prices have been good and so an investment opportunity is perceived. If you are working with an artist whose works you know have merit, in terms of how effectively they communicate the artist’s vision, and even if you can justify this in multiple ways as having value, you might not be able to get that artist on the market with much recognition. 

From the artists’ point of view, there is also sometimes at play the 21st-century phenomenon in which fame is cheapened and many feel entitled to celebrity and fortune. However, historically, many of the artists whose works sell for millions now probably didn’t make very much at all when they were alive. So it’s a complex picture.

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

It’s not original, but it’s to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway.’ In terms of AWAD, this is particularly appropriate as well, as we are a network of women. As professional women, we have certainly made huge headway in business. Now we get to work on our own terms in a sector that has been notoriously male-dominated in the past, where traditionally women have had to work harder to be heard and accepted in the professional world. 

There’s a very well-documented phenomenon, called ‘imposter syndrome,’ where people, mostly women, feel that they don’t merit the success they have achieved because they aren’t good enough. Practically every woman I’ve spoken to, of whatever age, has felt that at some time. The best thing we can do is recognize that what we want to do may be frightening and out of our comfort zone, but do it anyway because nobody is going to do it for us. Realistically, the worst that can happen is that things don’t work out. 

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!) 

To work only with people you trust and believe in. It’s not a blanket piece of advice, because it is a luxury to have the choice to work with whom you want.  I think it’s really about trusting your instinct in what you do and how you do it. Working with artists can be very intimate, as it deals with communicating personal experiences. Working with buyers and collectors is also all about how they relate to a work, so it is very personal. Any mismatch in outlook and expectations can seriously compromise working experience and the results. We’ve generally been educated to be rational and override our instincts so that sometimes we ignore what we feel and only realise later that our hunch was right all along! 

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

 I believe I answered this partly in the fourth question, but for me, the whole artist-gallery relationship needs to be rethought, as does the gallery model. Of course, it works to a certain extent and particularly at the top end of the market, but there’s been an evolution in the way people buy art that has an impact especially on brick-and-mortar businesses. There are also now different platforms through which art is seen and sold, such as direct auctions, online sales and showcases. This issue is difficult to sum up quickly, as it requires extensive analysis and would be a very long discussion!

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

michelangelo young slave

The Young Slave (circa 1530-1534) by Michelangelo. Image from:

 I thought about this quite a lot and surprised myself with the answer! I decided it would be Michelangelo’s slave sculptures. First of all, these sculptures are absolutely exquisite: they’re breathtaking and their humanity truly shines through. I also really like the way the rough marble at the bottom of the figures anchors them. To me, these sculptures can be viewed from different perspectives: they represent the soul enslaved and struggling to leave the body, but on the other hand, should the soul gain freedom, there’s a whole world of possibilities ahead.  

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

The main benefit is the ability to share, exchange and collaborate with other art professionals. I have found this very productive in the years I have been a member. There have been several collaborations and exchanges between members, which would not have happened had they not connected through AWAD. It’s also a great way to be creative in your work, as it provides a forum of trust where you can run new ideas by a number of colleagues whose goals are similar to your own.

 The arts can be a lonely career when you’re working independently on your own business, so being a member of a network is very valuable. AWAD puts an emphasis on the business aspect as well as the professional development of its members, so there are talks and seminars where we can hone our skills, ask questions, and be put in contact with other professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, and HR specialists. The fact that every member has their own business rather than being a salaried employee of another organisation means that we have common ground in having a personal stake in our businesses succeeding.

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

I’d respond with one word: engage. As a member, it’s really up to you to engage and get involved with what the organisation has to offer. Networking is also important and as a member of an organisation of professionals, you have the opportunity to learn as well as to broaden your own horizons.  You can only do that if you actually turn up and talk to other members, so what is most important is to engage! 

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