What initially drew you to art history studies?
I took my first general art history course in high school, and that's what prompted me to study it in university. What I really like about art history – other than having the opportunity to look at a lot of beautiful and interesting artwork – is that art is always a product of its time. The art of any given era reflects what was going on in the social, economic, religious, political and technological spheres, so you're looking at many different aspects of history and how they influenced art production, and not just at the object or text. Art tells other stories, too – about its subject and about its creator – so it's always been a great way to learn about artists' lives, and about mythology, religion, and so on. Art provides a window on the past (and present) in a way that is more engaging than with other types of historic documentation.
You went on to graduate studies, completed a doctoral degree, and taught at Queen's (Bader International Study Centre) and SUNY Potsdam for a few years after graduation. What prompted you to move away from academia?
There were a number of factors that induced me to step out of academia. One of the main ones was the lack of teaching opportunities in my field that were practical and desirable, both logistically and financially.
Did you have an idea that you wanted to start your own business before you came up with the concept, or did you come up with the concept first and then starting thinking about the implications of running your own business?
It was definitely concept and then implications. I felt that if I couldn't find the job I really wanted, I would just have to create one. I looked at my skill set, and at what I enjoyed most (and least) about the various jobs I'd had, and came up with different ways I could combine the positive aspects. Once I had that it was a matter of facing the potential pitfalls of self-employment. I was fortunate in that I was still teaching at SUNY Potsdam at the time I started my company, so my leap of faith wasn't entirely without a safety net.
What were the first steps you took to start Upper Canada Art Consulting?
I did a lot of research and talked to other sole proprietors. I had to know that owning my own business was the right fit for me, and also whether my original concept was viable. There are many good books out there written by successful entrepreneurs that force you to ask yourself hard questions and answer them honestly, and that take you through the necessary-evils of a business plan, financing, marketing, etc. I also looked at companies that were similar to my concept (mostly in the USA) to see if it could work here.
After the research stage it was a matter of deciding on a name for my company and registering as a business – all the official steps that needed to be taken. I also took a "Marketing for Small Business" course at St. Lawrence College to help me with promoting my company as I got started.
More recently I saw the need to acquire credentials for doing appraisals, so it was back to the books once again. Along with that certification I have to continually maintain and upgrade my professional status, so education is ongoing.
How has your business evolved in the nearly-three years since it was established?
It's fair to say that the original concept for my business – essentially corporate art consulting – did not provide the return I'd expected. Over time, as I saw a need I added art-related services such as collection management, art research and writing, and finally fine art appraisal, until I hit on a successful formula. Since early in 2012, art appraisal has been the core of my business, though the other aspects are also in play to varying degrees.
What's been the biggest lesson about entrepreneurism that you've learned in the past three years?
Adaptability. When my business didn't thrive in the way I had first conceptualized it I had to head in directions I hadn't anticipated. I think this is an essential trait for an entrepreneur, whether it is inherent or has to be learned. Adaptability also applies to workaday resolutions, not just big-picture shifts in thinking.
Aside from your art history knowledge, was there any other knowledge or experience you gained during your university years, whether at Queen's or from some other place, that helped prepare you for your current work?
For the work I do research skills are essential, and anyone who has done graduate work can tell you that the process definitely hones your research abilities. So the graduate work I did at Queen's and elsewhere definitely held me in good stead in that regard. Good writing and other communication skills are also crucial.
Art history trains you to have good visual memory, too. Working with art as I do means that I look at a lot of art in various forms, and it really helps to be able to remember work that I've looked at before and how it compares to what I may be working with now.
My background in archival work has also helped enormously, in terms of fostering attention to detail, knowing how to address works on paper, and in organizing large quantities of information. As well, the moderate amount of knowledge I acquired with respect to conservation of works on paper has been very useful.
What career advice would you give a current art history student?
For someone who really likes art history but doesn't necessarily want to pursue an academic career there are certainly a number of options. I was all the way through my doctorate and was already teaching before I realized that academia wasn't necessarily for me, so my route was rather drawn out and circuitous. There are, of course, more traditional curatorial careers in museums and art galleries for which you need a graduate degree – and education in museum studies now as well. With an art history degree already in hand, you can also pursue the business side of art. Both Sotheby's and Christie's offer art business courses, and there are a number of (mostly US) institutions that offer a business art curriculum. In Canada you can check out vocational colleges as well. Look also into appraisal associations such as the International Society of Appraisers and the American Society of Appraisers for appraisal certification if that interests you. In all cases, keep looking at all kinds of art and learn everything you can about various media. It's not a bad idea to specialize, but have at least a passing familiarity with as much art as you can. And if you also have a scientific bent, art conservation is a fascinating field of work as well.