Helena Newman Graduation Speech
Sotheby’s Institute of Art-London Class of 2023
Chairman, Sotheby’s Europe & Worldwide Head of Impressionist and Modern Art
June 3, 2023
I am honoured and delighted to be asked to speak at this graduation ceremony and many congratulations to you all on your fabulous achievements!
When I graduated 35 years ago, I went straight to Sotheby’s as a trainee. I never could have foreseen starting out what an amazing journey I would have - and am still having: working with and learning from wonderful, inspiring people, getting up close to incredible works of art, meeting fascinating and often rather eccentric collectors, and living huge adventures along the way. Looking back I was also lucky enough to ride the incredible wave of the globalisation of the art world, price growth, the rise of Asia, the expansion of our buyer base and now most recently the digital transformation of our business.
When I contemplate what may lie ahead for you, I think that there will undoubtedly be many challenges to overcome and continuous change to navigate, but that hopefully each one of you will be embarking on your own amazing journey. We seem to live now in a state of permanent crises and uncertainty. Your challenge is to turn that into something you can work with in a fulfilling, meaningful way. Art is one of the ways we all make sense of the world, our position in it and response to it. So the fact that you have chosen this field is already fantastic. Art can move and inspire us, connect people across the world, change attitudes, provoke and widen our understanding and perception. Whatever you end up doing, whether in the commercial or non-commercial sector, if your life is touching art, you will be able to play your part in this expression of our human identities. In this rapidly changing world with the rise of AI, wars, social change and macro political upheaval, the arts will be more and more important
I am often asked how I navigate this incredibly competitive fast changing global art world. I would like to share a few thoughts, which I hope might be helpful or at least give some insight into what I have learnt in my journey so far:
1. Follow Your Passions
'If you do something you love, it doesn’t feel like work' as the saying goes.
I have just got back from NY where we just sold $750 million of art led by the stunning Klimt painting of the Lake Attersee which I had sourced after many years of cultivating the owner and had never been at auction. We sold to a Japanese private collector for $54 million, which was very exciting to see, partly because this is a country which after years of stagnation is now very active again in the art market, and also because I had felt all along that the aesthetic of the beautiful waterscape which verged on abstraction was particularly suited to Asian taste. That was a highlight for me of an intense week of pre-sale viewings, dealing with collectors, talking to prospective buyers, lunches, dinners, and negotiations. It was incredibly hard work and at times stressful. I barely stopped to draw breath, but there was great art to see, tons of collectors converging from around the world, interesting conversation, complex nail-biting deals to close, high pressure and adrenaline-fuelled moments, culminating in the auctions. For me, that blend of commerce and art is an addictive, thrilling rollercoaster that I love and thrive on.
2. Play to Your Strengths
I came into the art world with languages rather than art history having studied German and French at University. I used my ability to analyse literature to apply to paintings and importantly my German language to develop my passion for and expertise in German and Austrian Expressionism. In this I drew on my Austrian-Jewish heritage on my father’s side and was involved early on in major restitutions from Austria and around the world of paintings by artists such as Klimt and Schiele. Through that expertise, I developed connections with collectors all over the world and helped bring major German and Austrian Art to the international market growing the visibility and value of the art to a wider audience. Now 25 years on from the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, art restitution remains as relevant today as it was then. Only last March we sold a spectacular Murnau-period Kandinsky oil and a Monumental Munch painting that were restituted to the heirs of the Stern and Glaser families respectively and were able to help the heirs find closure after a long battle to get resolve the issue.
3. Be Authentic
Be authentic and true to yourself. For me personally it was sharing my musical side. I grew up in a musical family, my mother was a concert pianist and my father an amateur musician and I studied very seriously to professional level, although when I joined Sotheby’s I kept that side of things rather quiet in case I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an art expert. My husband is a professional violinist and together with our children Max and Bella we have a family quartet. When lockdown happened we played quartets every evening and after a while ventured out into our front garden to play outdoors so our neighbours could enjoy the solace of music from their doorsteps and windows. After 6 weekly performances our programming became increasingly ambitious and it was during a performance of Shostakovich’s 4th quartet that the police arrived, waiting patiently until the end to say that we couldn’t do this again as – a victim of our success, there were now too many neighbours gathering outside! This went viral and splashed across social and art market media and now everyone I know in the art world seems to know I play music too. Unexpectedly I found that this has created connections and deepened my relationships with clients, especially those who share this second passion of mine. And it led to an interesting project bringing together of art and music, when my family was asked to play at Sotheby’s in an evening of words and music celebrating a Major work by Kandinsky that we were selling, and I talked with Will Gompertz about how music was the trigger in the artist’s breakthrough to abstraction.
Being authentic also applies to judgment. Every day I am asked to give my judgment on values of work of art, authenticity, on the commercial viability of a deal. Whilst there is a lot of data in the end I find its important to trust your gut instinct. If it doesn’t feel right it usually isn’t. Staying true to what you think is right, trusting your instincts and listening to your inner voice is hugely important especially in the art world !
4. Cultivate Resilience
Push through your comfort zone, challenge yourself , adapt and stay nimble, be curious and resilient.
You have all already had to deal with enormous uncertainty and change, starting University during Covid and lockdown. Dealing with transition and adapting to change with resilience and nimbleness is hugely important from my experience. It is also important to keep pushing through your comfort zone. For me, a turning point was becoming an evening sale auctioneer. I had to push through a massive glass ceiling to take the evening sales as a female auctioneer and without an obvious role model I had to create my own style and look. I drew on a huge amount of experience of performance under pressure through being a musician, and applied that discipline of practice – those 10,000 hours or more – to my preparation for the auction- so that every aspect, voice, mental, physical and technical was well prepared allowing me to get up on the rostrum knowing I would probably only have one chance to make a good impression.
5. Stay Close to Your Friends
Relationships are hugely important and the art market is based on trust. Collaboration and team work are key to your success. It is not just about your knowledge, it is how you apply that to make things happen. The friendships that you make early on – probably have already made with people together in this room today – are likely to be your friends for life. So nurture these relationships, as these will be your trusted friends and colleagues for years to come, that you will rely on in good times and bad. Finding a mentor is also very important. I was lucky to have a wonderful female mentor and role model in Melanie Clore, who was for many years Chairman and my boss at Sotheby’s and who blazed the trail for professional, ambitious women in the art world and believed in me. Be honest and build trust. Just like with your friends and colleagues, my most valuable relationships with clients go back decades built on trust which I have earned over many years. In the end despite the globalisation and expansion of the art world, it remains a very small world.
So once again I would like to congratulate you on your graduation and wish you enormous success and fulfilment in whatever you do. Do something with passion that you love, play to your strengths, be authentic, make a difference - stay true to your values and build close trusted relationships. Good luck and enjoy the journey!