Susan in a blue top in front of a set of windows, holding out her right hand

Reverse mentoring…? From start up to veteran, be open to both learning and teaching

June 24, 2020
by Susan J Mumford

Many years ago when I was a baby art dealer, I made a big faux pas and upset an experienced art dealer at his own show opening. Newbie me was very excited, as I had consigned a bronze sculpture for an exhibition in this prestigious St James’s, London, showroom.

What could go wrong? The consignment note (with sale terms) had been signed by both parties, the piece was ideally situated on the plinth with lights perfectly positioned and vernissage drinks were flowing.Here’s what I did: I gave my own catalogue, presenting works by the artist whose piece I had consigned, to a major collector who was a client of the other dealer.  

I didn’t understand when the experienced dealer started joking very nervously about the fact that I had been handing out my catalogue on his doorstep. He seemed to be going on and on about this at the end of the evening. Had he drunk too much wine? What was going on? And why hadn’t the major collector given me his card, anyway? Oddly, he had suggested in a roundabout way that I should know better.

Whoops! Many moons later, it seems obvious. But back then, I was unaware. My intention was well meaning. I understood that the collector was a client of the other dealer, and that any resulting sales would go through the other gallery. I was trying to help, and as I was the artist’s representative, I had a better understanding of the artist’s history and work.

However I had not communicated any of this, and as far as the experienced dealer and his collector were concerned, the new kid on the block was attempting to steal clients attained through several decades of hard work.

My actions were ostensibly thoughtless. And moreover, I wasn’t even trying to hide what I was doing. I apologised to the dealer and made it clear that I would not be selling work directly to any of his clients. I also clarified that such had never been the objective.

In hindsight, I can see that the veteran dealer took his understanding of how the art world works for granted. To him, it was a no-brainier: at his gallery, when another dealer has consigned pieces, they don’t promote their own business by handing out business cards and catalogues.

And yet, the experienced art dealer also could have done better, by being a teacher.Here’s what you can do as a veteran:

Put your arm around the newcomer and reassuringly say that we were all once new at this. Be a mentor and help the newbie’s chances to succeed by explaining how the industry works, including best practices. By doing this, you significantly increase the likelihood that the new art dealer will make a success of their career – and thus, you will help nurture a business relationship for long-term mutual benefit.


Photograph © Chris King.

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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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