Be Smart About Art

Curvy World interviews Susan Mumford: Tips for Emerging Artists

written by: Nicole Tatersall April 4, 2012

Curvy World interviews Susan Mumford: Tips for Emerging Artists

Susan, what’s your background – how did you find yourself as an art dealer, consultant, representing artists and an educator? 

When I was a teenager, I had a dream of running an art gallery in the big city of Little Rock, Arkansas. Hailing from the Deep South of the USA, never would I have imagined that I would eventually be a gallery owner in London, England!

After attaining a B.A. in Fine Art at Hendrix College of Liberal Arts in Conway, Arkansas, I moved to London in year 2000. Following five years in retail management in the natural foods industry, working in sales and PR in commercial galleries, curating exhibitions and acquiring an M.A. in Arts Policy & Management at Birkbeck College, University of London, I started my own business as an art dealer in late 2004.

I opened the doors to the Rooftop Gallery in Soho, London, in early 2006, and after an exciting five-year journey as a gallerist - including exhibitions, art fairs, salons, wine tastings and a photography collective - I had the realisation that I am an art entrepreneur; in other words, I love the business of art. Looking back to childhood interests, perhaps there was something to how much I had loved running a Kool-Aid stand each summer!
In 2009, having spotted an opportunity for a network within the art industry that would encourage collaboration and transparency, and having realised the power in forming groups of professionals who share things in common, I founded the trade network the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD). Now nearing 40 members’ strong, the non-profit organisation facilitates business and collaborations between art dealers, gallerists and art consultants, and offers monthly meetings, quarterly socials, master classes (in IT, PR, social media, etc), trade organisation discounts, et cetera. 
In 2011, with 10 years in the London art world under my belt, and having built an extensive professional art network as a renowned “prolific networker” (FT Weekend, 28/29 August 2010), I closed the gallery to develop the art consultancy business. Throughout 2011, I focused on maintaining and building art collections for private art collectors and I started advising artists and art dealers in their art professions. In 2012, I have launched a new venture, the Be Smart About Art Academy, which brings commercial savvy & increased enjoyment to the work loved by artists, art dealers, gallerists and art agents through a series of workshops, courses and more.
What inspires you about Art & the Business of Art
I have discovered a lack of business practices and standards in the commercial art industry – people seemingly make up the rules as they stumble along. Furthermore, being “commercially-minded” has traditionally been frowned upon in the visual arts. “It’s about art, darling.”
Having been in the art world for more than 10 years, I have come to the realisation that the truly successful artists and dealers know exactly what they are doing, commercially-speaking (though many would not dare confess this truth). People are so much happier and more confident when financially successful. I now frequently say, “You can only do the fun part of making and curating when you have the financial viability.” So I truly relish sharing experiences and knowledge of how to be commercially successful to help others have a profitable and increasingly enjoyable experience as an art professional.
You formed The Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD) in 2009. Now almost 3 years on, what have been some of your biggest achievements with AWAD? 
There are so many to mention!
Most recently, and in line with the collaborative nature of AWAD – not to mention being in the midst of unprecedented economic times – two of the twenty Founder Members, Francesca Fiumano and Barbara Stanley, with 19 years’ combined experience running art galleries between them, have teamed up forces to jointly operate out of Fiumano’s premises at 27 Connaught Street near Marble Arch. Using sensible business acumen, they have each maintained their independent identities as Fiumano Fine Art (specialising in contemporary Italian art) and the Barbara Stanley Gallery (specialising in contemporary Irish art). They work together on the annual exhibition plan, each staging a number of solo and group exhibitions under their independent identities and twice a year (at Christmas and in the summer) they hold a joint exhibition in which both dealers curate and present art.
Do you have piece of advice that you'd give to emerging artists who have a dream of reaching the international stage? 
Six tips, in no particular order:
  1. Maintain a job – or jobs – for as long as you need to do so, to fund your art career.
  2. Participate in art courses to learn more about your medium as well as other areas of art.
  3. Read the biographies of successful artists.
  4. Engage in the art world by attending private views and develop a peer group of artists.
  5.  Actively exhibit your work in open studios, juried exhibitions, group shows and even stage your own shows. (According to a recent survey I conducted, artists attain representation by 1. Recommendations from other artists, 2. Recommendations by other art dealers/consultants and 3. By being spotted at exhibitions.)
  6. Keep a positive attitude and stay focused on your goals.
What are you thoughts on digital media and the influence it has had on the artworld globally? 
Digital media has really opened up opportunities for contemporary artists. Artists can more effectively promote their own work if they don’t have representation by an art dealer, which has advanced the position of many artists all over the world. Many have launched successful careers with effective social media campaigns alone. And websites enable people all over the world to view an artist’s work. Indeed, having an artist website is now an absolute essential for being taken seriously as a professional artist.
In 2012 your starting off with Be Smart About Art courses, are there any other projects you have coming up in 2012?
I am concentrating on development and growth of my three art enterprises: Susan Mumford Art Consultancy, the Be Smart About Art Academy and the Association of Women Art Dealers.