Always have a Plan B (you can’t easily manage an art fair from hospital)

January 23, 2021
by Susan J Mumford

My first foray into exhibiting at an art fair was not just an induction by fire, it was an invaluable lesson that can be applied to all art events. In a few words it is: have a Plan B.

Sounds simple, right? It is not. It’s a real challenge for small art enterprises with limited resources.

It was February, and I was preparing to go to the fair in New York.  For an inaugural fair the upfront investment was substantial at £10,000 – between the stand, shipping, flights, hotel and  other expenses, costs add up. (Over time I learned to significantly reduce costs – which is a story for another time.)

The art had been collected, crated and sent on its way.  With all in order, there was just one problem. I was admitted into hospital on the day that I should have been flying. Me, the gallery owner, the one with who knew about arts and the artists, the one with  the business cards and the debit card and the credit card machine, the one who had the prices converted to dollars in her head, stuck on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

Lying in a hospital  bed, clearly not able to fly for at least 24 hours, I worked out an initial solution. Send other people to New York with essential items  such as business cards and the credit card machine, and ask my New York Girlfriend to project manage on site. My partner dutifully took  instructions as I lay there, he retrieved the debit card and  company mobile phone from my handbag, and noted a list of items that  must be taken to New York.

I quickly gained a  reputation amongst the doctors for being the patient who wanted to be  discharged as fast as possible. Every time a new doctor visited, they started by reassuringly stating that they understood I wanted to be up  and out, in New York selling art. By the time the team was  setting up the stand, I was well enough to talk to them via my mobile  phone and provide prices and advice on the placement of art.

Despite having been initially told I would stay in  hospital for at least one week, I was well enough to leave forty hours after being admitted. Twelve hours after that, I was on a plane; having been forewarned that should my illness cause the  plane to land, I would personally be held liable. Upon my arrival at the fair; somewhat woozy from having (accidentally) taken too  many pain meds en route, I took a seat on the stand and art started  flying off the walls.

We were lucky – the fair broke even. Those were booming days and we would have been in profit had  the hospital visit not taken place. Everyone involved came out more  knowledgeable, and we returned to the UK with a New York mailing  list.

Years on, an essential life lesson has  stuck with me: I truly understand the importance of having a Plan B. I  sometimes ask others when mentoring and in conversation: What will you  do if you cannot be at your own exhibition or fair? Who else will you  send if you have to miss the private view or a visit by an important  collector?

You should think about what your  backup plan is, so that, should the worst happen, you needn’t  devise the plan there and then – but rather, revert to the one that has  already been prepared. And then you can focus on the most important  thing, your health, if needs must. 

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Susan J Mumford

SUSAN J MUMFORD is a serial entrepreneur in the art market. She ran a gallery in Soho, London, from 2006-11, which was followed by the creation of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD) in 2009, an international network with multiple chapters. In 2012 she launched Be Smart About Art, an online-accessible professional development platform. Then in 2018, she embarked upon her latest enterprise, ArtAML, which unites technology and art market know-how to help dealers keep dealing and buyers keep buying in the face of anti-money laundering legislation that hit the art market in 2020.

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