Art & Photography

Sara Kay: women in the business of art

Port meets former White Cube Bermondsey director Sara Kay, whose non-profit organisation POWarts aims to support women working in the art industry

Sara Kay wearing a Ladies' Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950
Sara Kay wearing a Ladies’ Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950

The Professional Organisation for Women in the Arts (POWarts) was set up in 2008 to advance women in the business of art. The non-profit was co-founded by Sara Kay, a curator and gallerist from New York, who was recently honoured as a ‘woman of excellence’ by Swiss watchmakers Parmigiani Fleurier. Kay’s impressive career has seen her hold positions including director of White Cube Bermondsey in London and Jan Krugier gallery in her native New York. In receiving the award, Kay joins an esteemed group that features film giant Nadia Dresti, restauranteur Hélène Darroze and entrepreneur Sarah Wiener. Port caught up with Kay in London to talk childhood dreams, Old Masters, and supporting women in the business of art.

How did you get into the art business?

My mother is an artist and when I was a child she put me in every single art class possible. I didn’t tell her how much I disliked it because I just wanted to make her happy that I was in art school. Eventually, I got into an animation class and was so stressed out that I finally said ‘Mom, please… I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be an artist anymore’. But I told her, I love business and I love art. So I was a little girl and I wanted to be an art dealer. I don’t even know how I even understood it, especially the commercial side of it. I had it in my head that I wanted to work for Christies and many years later… I did!

You specialised in Old Masters at Christies. What did you learn about them while you were there?

Learning about Old Masters never ends. That’s what’s wonderful about them. The debates over attributions that are constantly changing, the research that it takes, the amount of looking that it takes. I had a great mentor there and a lot of my clients were mentors too. Collectors of Old Masters are connoisseurs, they are very serious about it.

One of my clients was the late Jan Krugier, who had one of the greatest collections of Old Master drawings in Europe. At one point, he asked me to go join his company in New York. I didn’t really want to leave Christie’s’ lovely little department of Old Master drawings, but it was also an amazing opportunity to go and work for him. He was the agent to the Picasso estate and I got to work directly on that, as well as Jan’s private collection and the amazing inventory of Impressionist and Modern pictures he had amassed over decades. It quickly became clear that I couldn’t turn down the job.

Did working closely with the Picasso estate change your views on him as an artist?

Yes it did. Of course I knew about Picasso before, but it became my life when I was working with the estate. We had the largest collection of Picasso in private hands at the time, so it became everything. What I saw and learned was invaluable. It was a fantastic experience.

How did you end up working for the White Cube gallery in London?

In 2008 Jan passed away. We kept the gallery open in New York for two more years, but eventually both the gallery in New York and the gallery in Geneva had to close. At that point I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Having worked there with that collection, with that man… where do you go? I thought I had to go in a different direction and to work in the area of contemporary art. That’s why I moved to London to join White Cube. I’d never worked with living artists, so it was a completely different experience. It sounds very basic and simple, but coming from Old Masters was a great change.

After White Cube you helped set up POWarts. What is the aim of the organisation?

It’s very specific – we’re all in business and we’re all in the business of the visual arts, but it’s education and business orientated, so we don’t actually talk about art. Talking about art is easy for us… I don’t need another resource to talk about art. A lot of us studied art history or conservation, so we don’t have MBAs. The art world is not like finance or legal where there’s a defined path. For us, there are a million opportunities and it’s very much undefined. This means that we also don’t have typical resources. If you work for a gallery you may not have HR, you may not have a retirement plan and you may not have the things larger companies in other fields do.

Our mission is three-fold. The first part of our mission is education in business, the second part is to have peer groups and mentor groups to be used as a platform to leverage from and the third part is community service.

Can you tell us about this emphasis on community service?

I’m really lucky: I’m educated, I’ve had all the opportunities, I sat with Picassos. Life is good for me. But for many women life is not great. I feel a responsibility to do something because if women are not going to look out for other women, I don’t know who will. The third part of our mission is to align ourselves with other non-profit organisations that support women and to get our members involved with these organisations.

We’re also trying to reach the point where we can provide resources as well. When you’re working in a luxury business you often have access to greater wealth and power. We have access to these things and we should use them for good.

What does it mean to you to receive Parmigiani’s Woman of Excellence award and why are initiatives like this important?

When I founded POWarts it was never about me. It was never about us as individuals. So when I get an award like this it doesn’t feel like it’s just mine. For me, it’s about this organisation. Yes, it’s about my achievements, which is lovely, but what’s more interesting for me is that this organisation is thriving and is being recognised. That’s wonderful.

I also love the fact that Parmigiani celebrate very normal women; I’m not a supermodel, I’m not in film, I’m a kid from New York that worked really hard, had a clear vision and went for it. I want to keep doing that, so when I have support like this it certainly gives me an extra boost.