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Rebecca Wilson: “Find ways to make things happen”

Smile! It may sound silly, but if you look at people’s faces on a bus in England no one will be smiling and it has an impact on daily life, relationships with other people and a general sense of what’s possible in the world. Now that I live in California I make much more of […]

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Smile! It may sound silly, but if you look at people’s faces on a bus in England no one will be smiling and it has an impact on daily life, relationships with other people and a general sense of what’s possible in the world. Now that I live in California I make much more of an effort to use those muscles in the face that actually produce a smile. As I’m always saying to my husband: Who wants to look at such a long grim face (his, not mine!)?


I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Wilson. Rebecca is Chief Curator and VP, Art Advisory at Saatchi Art. She was formerly a Director at the Saatchi Gallery, London, where she was instrumental in the launch of the gallery’s online presence. In 2007 she created New Sensations, a prize for art students which identifies and supports the most exciting emerging artists in the UK. Prior to joining the Saatchi Gallery, Rebecca worked for 14 years in book and art magazine publishing: she was editor of ArtReview, and before that deputy editor of Modern Painters. She has nearly 2 decades of experience working with emerging artists.


Thank you so much for joining us. What is the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?

I began my career in book publishing working closely with writers for 10 years and realized that I love helping creative people find the recognition they deserve. I then shifted to editing art magazines (ArtReview and Modern Painters) before moving into the gallery world — first as a Director at the Saatchi Gallery, London. During my seven-year tenure there, I was instrumental in the launch of the gallery’s online presence and also established New Sensations, a prize for art students that identifies and supports the most exciting emerging artists in the UK. Since 2013, I’ve been at Saatchi Art, whereas Chief Curator and VP, Art Advisory I lead the gallery’s curation program and art advisory services. This transition from brick-and-mortar to the online gallery has been extremely rewarding. Throughout my career, I’ve been motivated by supporting emerging artists and have felt that the traditional art world has failed many talented ones. Every day at Saatchi Art, we are actively working to remedy this by giving artists around the world the opportunity to show their work to an international audience. We are also helping people who love art to discover many fantastic artists they wouldn’t otherwise find.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When I worked at the Saatchi Gallery in London we did a series with the BBC designed to discover a new star of the art world and the idea was that Charles Saatchi would appear each week as the main judge. He decided he didn’t want to do it, so with very little experience in doing TV, I was sent as a kind of “Charlie’s Angel” to judge alongside Tracy Emin. It was a great experience and got me up to speed very rapidly on how to deliver a sentence on television! I have since done a lot of TV and always remember the advice I was given on a beach in Hastings as a gale was blowing and we were about to judge a series of public sculptures: “Make sure that everything you say concludes with a definite stop!”

In my first ever job after university, I worked at a publisher reading the slush pile — submissions sent indirectly by the general public trying to find a publisher. I turned down a novel that I really didn’t think much of only to receive a curt letter back from the writer saying that she, in fact, had a contract with the publisher I was working at and that her book was being published later that year! Somehow it had landed on my desk by mistake. Even more embarrassingly, this person turned out to be a friend of my future husband, so I met her on several occasions. She still wasn’t amused by what had happened.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Last year we launched “Refuse to be the Muse,” a campaign to celebrate the work of women artists. As the world’s leading online art gallery, we’re uniquely positioned to provide women artists with an equal platform to share art with the global community. And we’re doing it to great success — 54% of our best-selling artists are women. Traditionally, works by women have been overlooked in favor of that of their male peers. The title of the campaign plays on the fact that from Titian’s Venus to Picasso’s nudes, women have more often been the subject of artworks than had their own works displayed in museums and galleries. Our goal is to celebrate and support women artists and introduce their vibrant and compelling works to a global audience.

Coincidentally, I am working with a designer on a new luxury cruise ship and the artworks all have to be by women who are based in the countries that the ship will pass through. When we receive requests to work on projects like this, I feel that the ground is really shifting in a positive way — and we are lucky enough to work with women artists in countries all over the world, so it’s been really exciting to propose their works.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

My parents instilled in me from an early age that you should treat everyone in the same way, and it’s been one of the most important things for me as I’ve gone through life. My parents always welcomed all sorts of people from different walks of life into our home, and I was sent to a school with kids from all kinds of backgrounds which may be where some of my sense of fairness, helping people who aren’t part of a privileged network, comes from. In another life, I’d love to have been a human rights lawyer.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of the most gratifying aspects of my job is hearing from artists about how Saatchi Art has transformed their lives. Nearly every week an artist gets in touch to say they have been able to move to a bigger studio, or been invited to have a gallery or museum show because their work was seen on Saatchi Art or get a mortgage on a house! This is why we started Saatchi Art, so it’s very heartwarming to know that because of what we do so many artists are earning a living from their work.

What are your “4 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Be flexible. I’ve become much more open to doing things differently, as I’ve gotten older. It’s partly the result of working for an eCommerce company where things are moving fast and you have to be nimble and quick, but it’s also a deliberate recalibration of the mind. Being rigid and fixed in your thoughts usually leads to personal frustration and is a hindrance to the growth of any business.

2. Be happy to delegate. As you gain more experience it is one of the biggest lessons to learn that giving other very talented people things to do enables them to grow, and frees up time for you to focus on other things.

3. Find ways to make things happen. I come from England where the default setting is to say “No” to new things. Not only does this make for an atmosphere of unhelpfulness and negativity, but it is not conducive to innovation.

4. Smile! It may sound silly, but if you look at people’s faces on a bus in England no one will be smiling and it has an impact on daily life, relationships with other people and a general sense of what’s possible in the world. Now that I live in California I make much more of an effort to use those muscles in the face that actually produce a smile. As I’m always saying to my husband: Who wants to look at such a long grim face (his, not mine!)?

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. 🙂

Build public transport systems in the world’s major cities that would get people to where they want to go and eliminate the number of cars on the road. And if necessary, giving people vouchers to use public transport. This would help the environment but also break down barriers between people and make people realize that there is nothing to fear from riding a train with other people.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

Barack Obama, for a much-needed reminder of what reason, enlightenment, and sanity look like. He also has a great sense of humor.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Rebecca: Through @saatchiart.

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

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