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Ellen Stone of ‘Public Offerings’: “On top of this our key point of differentiation”

When trying to figure out if I was ready to make the jump and to create my own company. Desperately trying to work our financing and convince myself that the project was something entirely financially viable, a close family member said to me “Most startups fail within the first three years. If yours does you […]

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When trying to figure out if I was ready to make the jump and to create my own company. Desperately trying to work our financing and convince myself that the project was something entirely financially viable, a close family member said to me “Most startups fail within the first three years. If yours does you won’t even be 30 yet. Worst case scenario you’ll need a new career, and getting a new career in your 20’s is hardly an issue”. Whilst incredibly blunt (and slightly worrying statistically) as advice it really spurred me on. It made me think about the fact that now was the time to try this. If I waited a couple more years I would be in a different place, with different responsibilities and different future possibilities. The “worst case scenario” I feared now, is nothing compared to the possible “worst case scenarios” of the future.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Stone.

Ellen Stone is the founder and CEO of art photography sales and management agency Public Offerings Ltd. With a background that spans contemporary art and arts publishing, she has taken her passion for the arts to create a company which celebrates photography as the artistic medium of our age. Based in London, UK, Public Offerings Ltd. creates and nurtures legacy projects for those traditionally under-represented in the blue chip gallery system


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been passionate about art, but I realized at a young age that I didn’t perhaps have the necessary talent involved to be an artist myself. No matter how much I wanted to be creative the traditional “art” pursuits you learn about in school (such as painting or pencil drawing) just where not things I excelled at or particularly enjoyed doing. So I came into this industry in a bit of a weird way. I found an industry I loved, and had to work out where I could fit into it.

Knowing you want to be in the art world, but without any contacts, is not exactly the easiest thing. So I hustled my way into events, openings, galleries and artist studios. I met young artists, worked with established leaders in the industry and did everything from curating to event coordination, journalism and sales. Proving myself to a rather closed shop.

After many years working in contemporary art and publishing with both up-and-coming artists and the biggest names in British Contemporary Art, I realized a need for a curatorial and art business based company to help photographers maximize their audience profile. I had fallen for photography as a medium and found so many artists I admired, but had seen time and time again their work being undervalued and under-promoted in the traditional gallery system. I felt an affinity for these skilled artists having to fight their way in to the art world and founded my company Public Offerings Ltd. to help them.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I started Public Offerings Ltd. with a clear idea of what was missing in my industry. I had fallen in love with photography but the majority of the market was made up by the vintage photography and large format contemporary artists like Andreas Gursky. Whilst I enjoy Avedon, Capa and Penn, I wasn’t seeing exciting new work on a regular basis. In fact we have a joke when my team go to Photography art fairs in which we bet on how many Andy Warhol Polaroids we are going to see, there is a strong lean towards these big established names and it does sometimes wear thin.

Our mission is to find exciting international talent and to give them the space and the support to really expand and use their craft. We aren’t here to put you in a box and tell you “this is the photography that sells” but rather to help you explore your own artistic vision. We look for young people and those from outsider or “non-normative” perspectives. It’s why we have a great base in LGBTQ+ artists and women who are using their art form to say something different. Photography is not, and should not, be considered an art-historical medium. It is the medium most entwined with contemporary culture — I firmly believe commercial photography galleries should be focusing on what is happening now, not just the voices of the past.

On top of this our key point of differentiation — where we are looking to take the current market on — is our focus on not only emerging photographers but emerging collectors. Photography is perfectly placed to act as an introductory purchase for any new art collector, both due to its average price point, but also in the variation available (introducing collectors to a multitude of themes and styles). This type of collector has historically found themselves on the outside of the gallery system. Un-nurtured and un-loved until a they have the means to make significant purchases. Public Offerings is about inclusivity in what we present and we extend that love and support to our collectors also.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started the company I really tried to rush into the things which I thought would make us seem more legitimate. I was working in a field where everyone had posh offices in expensive locations and we were working out of my apartment. I tricked myself into thinking that to be seen as “real” I needed to get us an office, and a client area and all of those things which the establishment had.

So I went to bad viewing, after bad viewing to find a space. I saw rooms crawling with insects, shared office spaces with alcohol start-ups who played drinking games at 11am, and one plywood box in a warehouse that was barely big enough for a desk. Meeting with office managers who turn up 50mins late with a latte and the slight smell of weed, I knew that I was wanting to play on a field I couldn’t afford the price of entry onto.

So I stopped and reviewed (thankfully before putting a lot of money behind it), realizing, you don’t need what other people have as long as your company and your mission is different. No-one cares if you have a good office address, as long as you’re passionate and real about what you can deliver.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve been blessed with the chance to work with so many incredible people and soak up some of the knowledge they have to impart. Thinking back though, I would have to single out Honey Luard, Director of Publications at White Cube, as she really helped me see a place for a woman like me in the industry. She could offer advice and supported me, whilst at the same time was able to see my worth and promote me and my skill set. I can confidently say without working with her I would not be in the same place I am today.

Outside of that I have formed a working relationship with the British fashion and portrait photographer Rankin which has really pushed me to be myself professionally. He lets me stand up to him and push back in a way I have not experienced with other high-profile clients and it is due to this implicit trust and respect we have formed that I feel so connected with the photography industry. Rankin took me seriously in an industry he knows better than nearly anyone else and his support has been an important stepping stone in me building my own company.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Working in a traditional, some may say “heritage”, industry, such as the art world, there can be a feeling from some parts of “this is how things are done”. In a market which has played itself out successfully for many hundreds of years, there isn’t always an impetus for change. This has meant the art world has always been one which has needed people to be disruptive. Whether you’re thinking about William Blake, Leonardo da Vinci, Tracey Emin or Annie Leibovitz — there are voices which stand out and aren’t bowing to the general consensus of the time.

I have overwhelming respect for my peers and people who have worked and made the industry what it is today, and you can see many disrupters fingerprints on how we now work. The somewhat cliched “standing on the shoulders of giants” rings true in all fields — whether you’re talking about science or how artists such as the YBAs (Young British Artists) shook up the UK art scene in the 1990s. There are people who picked up and promoted narratives that were not part of the mainstream at the time, and created new ways of showing their internal and external connections with the world. This is positive disruption. It is disrupting for social and communication advancements, to give voices.

But you do see, from time to time, disrupters who exist for the singular purpose to disrupt. For me, this is negative disruption. It is causing a scene without the back-up or meaning — like protesting without a cause. It is this type of disruption which gives real social political disruption a bad name and creates points for the establishment to say “this is meaningless and thus so is everything else people are asking for”.

At it’s route, it’s like M. Night Shyamalan always putting in a twist. It catches you off guard once, but then you’re waiting for it the next time. You can see people who use disruption as a gimmick, and the undermining nature of this, for people who are really trying to make a statement and inside change, can be profound.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

When trying to figure out if I was ready to make the jump and to create my own company. Desperately trying to work our financing and convince myself that the project was something entirely financially viable, a close family member said to me “Most startups fail within the first three years. If yours does you won’t even be 30 yet. Worst case scenario you’ll need a new career, and getting a new career in your 20’s is hardly an issue”. Whilst incredibly blunt (and slightly worrying statistically) as advice it really spurred me on. It made me think about the fact that now was the time to try this. If I waited a couple more years I would be in a different place, with different responsibilities and different future possibilities. The “worst case scenario” I feared now, is nothing compared to the possible “worst case scenarios” of the future.

Starting my company I wanted to be frugal. I didn’t want to overspend and wanted to prove I could make good decisions as a first time business owner. In one of my early meetings with my accountant he listened to me explain my upcoming expenses and business plan and when I was done told me: “you don’t have to be afraid of your marketing budget”. I was so over-concerned with lowering my outgoings I had forgotten to think about spending money on client acquisition. The old adage “you’ve got to spend money to make money” (when done responsibly) is an important part of growing any business.

I’ve met so many people who have fantastic ideas, can create amazing artworks, or build incredible products — but who can’t promote themselves. As an entrepreneur you have to be able to engage with people, or you’re going to be forgotten. When I first started in the art world I was nervous, I didn’t know people and I felt a little bit out of my comfort zone. I was once at an event early on, standing on my own in a corner — thinking about whether I could sneak out and go home without my flatmate judging me for not staying out very long. A very popular artist at the time came up to me, likely noticing my awkward vibe, and pushed the conversation. Asking me about myself and why I was there; actively bringing me into the room. When the evening was almost over she said to me “if you want to be included, don’t be afraid to ask”. Whenever I’m nervous about going to a new event I think about this. Ask to be involved, ask to be part of something: don’t just stand on the sidelines.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Whilst the world has moved more and more online — and with the international lockdown this year meaning public events have been cancelled all over the world — there is still a need to take on the old-world art and galley system in their own space. And this isn’t a fight over the online world, it is one which is about physical space. There is a something about sharing the art of the photographers we work with on the walls of a space, which has such a weight behind it. It brings out a lot of the pieces from the online world and from Instagram, and creates a permanence through a physical location. Our next step is definitely one with a location — a new type of gallery which is specifically about nurturing voices and talent from young and subversive photographers. Bringing the commercial photography gallery away from a focus on vintage images and established names to a much more inclusive and conceptual art space.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I really enjoyed Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong?. It looks at different ways to think about what’s happening right now by how we talk about the past. It was full of interesting thought exercises and examples, but, the thing which resonated with me the most in my career, is the idea that popular artists of the time are not necessarily what are remembered in the future. Just because something is seen as “important” today, doesn’t mean it is the thing which will be remembered as an important part of history.

We talk about this a lot in our office: we are tired of seeing every day young women, those from BAME backgrounds and part of the LGBTQ+ community, who are great photographers, but they don’t have the industry reach they deserve. We find artists who perhaps aren’t working in the most “trendy” aesthetics but have an incredible point of view that should be shared. We pick artists because we think of their future potential, about how we want someone 100 years in the future to see their work and connect with its message.

There is something more important than being just popular this week and it’s worth reminding yourself of that every once in a while.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Susan Sontag said “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”

We all have dreams, ideas to explore and places we want to go. I’m inspired to work my way through my personal and professional bucket list, and to know that even if I achieve one thing there is going to be more for me to explore and do. It keeps me going because I know there is no reason to stop — there is always something more to see and do.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For me, one of the most destructive parts of contemporary society is the echo chamber of everyone’s personal online worlds. It’s near impossible for you to come across something which doesn’t fit with your pre-established point of view when scrolling through social media or even just using Google. If I could do anything it would be to help find a way to alleviate this feedback loop. Create an online system in which people are faced with new ideas in a non-threatening environment. At Public Offerings Ltd. I’ve been trying to do this little bit, by little bit — if you follow us on Instagram, for example, you will be exposed to three new contemporary photographers every day. These photographers are from different backgrounds, with different styles. And you might not love all of them, but they’re saying something which you might not necessarily come across on your own.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can sign up to our newsletter on our website: public-offerings.com Our online magazine has new interviews with photographers every week and by joining our newsletter you’ll get this right to your inbox.

On top of that you can follow us on Instagram @publicofferingsltd or on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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