Courtesy of BFA.com

Art World Strategist

Sara Fitzmaurice

Written by Saul Taylor

Art world events guru Sara Fitzmaurice founded Fitz & Co just before the dawn of the internet age in 1995. With the sudden emergence of social media in recent years, we discuss how technology has altered our experience of both art and events and why being goal-oriented is so important for success today.

When did your love of art begin?

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and close to the Walker Arts Centre, which is a fantastic museum that I spent a lot of time in as a young person. In fact, my high school was around the corner. So it really was a place that was very familiar to me and I think that helped to cultivate my interest in the art space and then art in general. I studied Art History at Boston University and I loved how art objects really brought history to life. I think that’s something that still interests me today.

How did you start Fitz & Co?

I moved to New York in 1990 and I actually started working in PR first because it was not a great time in the art world, given the economy. I really missed it so I transitioned back. I started Fitz & Co in 1995 and had some really early luck and success with Bill Viola at the Venice Biennale. It was my second client. Art Basel was my first and they remain so today.

The company was founded on the ability to partner with clients to advance their goals. Whether it was increasing media attention or engagement with collectors like Art Basel, we always worked across a wide swathe of clients, whether they were non-profit, corporate or luxury brands. I think that was pretty unique back in the 1990s to be working in that way. Where other agencies really focused on just the non-profit sector, we focused on both non-profit and for-profit.

Ai Weiwei’s “Gilded Cage” in New York City, part of the Chinese dissident artist’s citywide installation project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” Ai Weiwei Studio/Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

How do you find the balance between art and commerce nowadays? Things have changed a lot even within the last twenty five years.

I think you can always strike a balance because the commonality that brings us through art history to contemporary times is really the art object and the artist — whether it’s an unknown emerging artist or a celebrated one. If looking at a work changes the way you see the world or changes your experience, that to me is the reason I came into the art space. That has nothing to do with commerce and can absolutely be found in experiences today, all across the world.

I think the positive and exciting impact that increased commerce related to the arts is how the art world is much more global.

We are looking at artists who are making art in Africa. They’ve always been making art in Africa, we just never looked at it, we never appreciated it or saw value in it. That to me is a positive aspect of the increase in commerce around the art world. Of course, there are many negative aspects to it all, but I think that’s been very interesting.

One of the positive things is how the crossover between art and charity or philanthropy is very strong. Could you tell us a bit about your work with non-profit organisations?

Our work for non-profit is quite similar to the work that we do for for-profits, because what we are doing is using our skills and network to advance an organisation towards specific goals. For non-profits, the goals are typically development and fundraising, expansion of audience and increased global awareness for their brand, which again in turn supports fundraising and attendance. That’s really not dissimilar from the kind of mandate that a for-profit would lay out for us. But it’s just that the metrics of measurement are different. For the for-profits it might be sales, for non-profits it would be fundraising and attendance, for example.

In terms of raising the profile of a client, your tools have changed over the years in terms of technology. How do you engage with social media?

The great thing about social media is that you own it, it is your channel and your content that you can put out there in a very direct way. What’s interesting in working in PR and marketing today is this mix of channels that you own.

When I first started out, there were really only two ways to touch your audience. That was directly or through print media. That has evolved and changed so dramatically. Now you can touch and engage in a two-way conversation with your target audience that can be very impactful. It’s important to have third party media recognition, although that slice of the pie is smaller. It’s important to have direct contact with audience, whether it’s in person or through direct marketing e-mail. This interaction on social media, that’s two-way and I think for a successful social media strategy, it really is about that engagement and that two-way conversation.

“Seven Magic Mountains” by Ugo Rondinone in the Nevada Desert, sponsored by MGM Resorts

How important are events to the work that you do?

What I always say to my clients with regards to events is that there has to be a goal. Someone might ask for a party in Miami during Art Basel and the first thing I ask back is why? So, establish a clear goal for your event, even if it’s just celebrating an artist who’s had a major milestone. But events that are goal-oriented are much more successful because then you have filters that you can use to measure the success of the event. Again, even if the intent is just to celebrate, then the artist feels very special and everyone has a wonderful and memorable time and our brand gets attached to that experience.

There are all sorts of goals for events, obviously. There might be fundraising, brand awareness or a brand halo effect where you partner with another organisation and share brand equity. It might be more to do with engagement with new audiences or bringing in a younger group of collectors or patrons that you might engage with in future. I think really establishing at the outset what the goals are and the expected outcomes and how that will impact the bottom line. When I say bottom line, I don’t mean financially, but in how it supports an organisation’s larger goal.

How much time do you spend catering to emerging markets and what are they? 

As an agency, our team spends a good portion of our time cultivating emerging art markets including in Asia, the Middle East and beyond. Our activities and activations take place in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Okayama, Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, Sharjah, Beirut, Dubai, Doha, Istanbul, Mexico City and more. Emerging art markets represent a huge growth sector for us.

Ernesto Neto, Gaiamother Tree presented by Fondation Beyeler at the Zurich Main station in Zurich Switzerland 2018 © Fondation Beyeler

How important is the Asian market to the art world would you say?  

Quoting The Art Market Report 2019, prepared by Dr. Clare McAndrew, Founder of Arts Economics, and co-published by Art Basel and UBS: “The Chinese market has dramatically expanded in the last decade, growing more than 130 per cent between 2008 and 2018 (from 9 per cent of global market share in 2008 to 19 per cent in 2018). Today, it continues to be one of the three strongest markets (the other two are the US and the UK). China has been the most progressive in the gender-wealth ratio, having seen a significant increase in women’s wealth, with that wealth being more equally distributed between genders than in the rest of Asia as a whole or worldwide. Female participation in luxury markets in Asia in particular has been flagged as a key area of growth, and women are already reported to account for at least half of the luxury spending in China.”

What are the biggest challenges in servicing the Asian market? 

The Asian market is vast and varied. Asia should not be thought of as one place, but rather as nuanced. There are a multitude of languages, cultures and customs. The key to success in Asia is to know your audience and to build long-term relationships over time, adapting Western ways to those of the East. Repeat exposure and consistency are key.

What are the biggest benefits to operating in the Asian market?

Asia is a huge growth market for art and luxury alike. In general, people in Asia are engaged, curious and when you express a real interest in getting to know their culture they reciprocate generously. Asia is a fascinating place to work and the level of forward thinking and change has not yet reached a tipping point. It is exciting for our team to be a part of that.

Joe Namy, Libretto-o-o: A Curtain Design in the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love, 2017, commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation ©Sharjah Art Foundation

How do the events you throw in Asia differ to those in other more established markets? 

All events that we host are bespoke to the context in which they are held. The same principals hold true wherever we are working — know your audience, respect local culture and customs, bring interesting content, create a dynamic mix of people and provide a rich and memorable experience.

What makes a great event?

I think it’s the mix of people. Having an interesting, textured guest list that includes people from different sectors of the art space is very important. Having artists and young people with more mature collectors and curators to really pull together that strong mix. An interesting venue helps and you have to give people delicious food and drink.

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