"Your eye is a muscle and you must train it often". These words, spoken by seasoned Art Industry professional Hughene Acheson, in a class she was teaching and I was attending at the Ontario College of Art and Design are burned into my memory. I keep them top of mind living in London amidst so much great art and try to exercise my eyes weekly. Having Hughene as an instructor and a friend is such a gift. She has introduced me to so many wonderful artists and taught me so much about the fascinating world of the art market. As an appraiser, a consultant and an educator her experience in the industry is vast. Below she talks about what she has learned throughout her career. You'll get to hear about how she changed her major to art history half way through her undergraduate degree, how she plans her days as an entrepreneur, challenges she has overcome and how she spots a fake.
Tell us about your current role and your background?
I primarily work with art as an asset so I do appraisals; I work with individuals and companies with existing collections and value their art.
Some of my clients include: insurance companies, banks, private clients, corporations, cities; universities, lawyers (estate and divorce), and art institutions across Canada. I am also an art advisor and help people make strategic choices around building their art collections. I love both aspects of my business!
It is crazy as I started off in Life Sciences (which is the pre-med track) at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada. The summer after my first year I decided to study abroad in England at Queen’s Herstmonceux Castle. I took all arts courses. I had the most incredible Art History professor, she was a former actress and a brilliant teacher. I spent the summer gallivanting around London and Paris studying all the famous art, churches etc. This summer experience piqued my interest in art and after another year in science I ended up changing my major.
After graduating, I gained a master’s degree at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and then went to work in a number of international institutions. I eventually ended up back in Canada at Heffel Auction House. Working at the auction houses was an incredible experience and it helped develop my eye, which is a muscle and needs to be constantly exercised. After a number of years at Heffel, I got antsy and wanted more. I started to think what could I do that is in the context of the art world, using my knowledge and experience. It was evident that I didn't want to work for anyone else anymore, I wanted to be my own boss. My appraisal/advisory firm was born out of all my educational and work experience.
How did your business evolve?
It was a three-pronged process, which is still in place today: one through word or mouth, pulling on family and friends and my existing contacts, and then also building new relationships.
"I would tell my younger self to be comfortable with being uncomfortable - you may enjoy the process more if you go in with that mindset!"
It was a steep learning curve! When you work for someone else, the infrastructure of the business is in place and you just do you job. When you work for yourself you have to build a business and a brand and for that matter the infrastructure and you find yourself doing everything from: IT to Accounting to Web Design to writing Contracts to actually getting the Business and then completing those projects! I was pretty young at the time and I didn't outsource anything. I tried to learn everything I needed to do and to be honest, I'm glad I did.
The second challenge was that while I was building the infrastructure of my business, I was also honing my professional skills and having to keep on top of the art market, research, managing clients, galleries, artists and installers. Trying to do all of these things at once was very challenging and I still struggle to manage it all to this day.
One of my most challenging experiences I'll never forget was when I was appraising a collection in South Beach, Miami. While working on my appraisal, I discovered a number of fakes. These clients were well known collectors. It was so challenging for me to navigate that situation because I had to make sure the pieces in question were indeed forgeries. This took a lot of time and research. I've also had to manage the clients who, of course, were devastated and felt betrayed by their long standing art dealer who had sold them the fakes.
That must have been a difficult conversation to have...
It's never easy to tell someone that a $100k painting is basically worthless! Having said that, making sure you have done your due diligence and research, spoken to the appropriate channels and have an air tight case, will make that conversation go a
whole lot better.
How do you spot a fake?
It starts with a gut reaction and then I follow up that reaction with research. It's just like that book by Malcolm Gladwell - Blink. It also helps to have a lot of years of experience looking at art to help to spot a fake.
Switching gears...what would you do differently in your business if you were able to start over again?
I would tell myself to be comfortable with being uncomfortable - you may enjoy the process more if you go in with that mindset!
I would probably outsource more or at least ask for help from more people. The more resources you have behind you, the easier it is to build the infrastructure.
"Execute quickly and concisely. Do a really good job and then let it go. Efficiency is key in today's world."
Tell us about your goal setting process and taking stock?
I'm constantly aware of where I am and where I want to go with my business. I try to do it on a month to month basis and then again at the end of the year.
In terms of day to day goals. I spend most of Mondays and Tuesdays to chain myself to my desk and get all the administrative things done. Wednesdays and Thursdays are out with clients or prospective clients and Fridays I am in the art world visiting galleries and exhibitions, taking a long weekend to go see
Who inspires you?
Women inspire me. In particular women who run their own business, women who lead robust professional and private lives - those who are mothers, business owners and still manage to give back to their community. In terms of women who have inspired me, I loved reading Diane Von Furstenberg’s book The Woman I Wanted to Be, Princess Diana was a woman who had so much power by being so vulnerable. Another really intriguing woman was Franca Sozzani, check out the film entitled Chaos and Creation.
I'm also really inspired by travel along with the aesthetic part of life – design, fashion, art, interiors and I just love when they all come together.
"Dedicate certain tasks on certain days, always have a to do list and get some exercise when and where you can"
Places that inspire you?
Oh that is so hard. When you travel you keep discovering new places and as such new sources of inspiration. My favourite cities are London, New York, Paris and Miami. I love the energy of these cities. My husband and I love California; LA is such a great city but the whole state is pretty amazing too. I lived in Italy for a while and that is a pretty inspiring country on many levels, even their morning coffee is a work of art. Perhaps the most interesting city that I have been to more recently is Istanbul
Rules to live by professionally speaking?
Execute quickly and concisely. Do a really good job ( but know it's never going to be perfect) and then let it go.
Always be kind, always be learning, remember your manners, and be grateful.
Dedicate certain tasks on certain days.
Always have a to do list.
Get some exercise where and when you can.
Drink lots of water!