Everything I learned from meeting with the curators of Microsoft's art collection

Everything I learned from meeting with the curators of Microsoft's art collection

Last Thursday I met with the curators of the Microsoft Art Collection. It went really well and I’ve been mulling over how to digest what I learned and how it will affect my strategy moving forward. This article is going to discuss the following: 

  • Who are corporate art curators?
  • How did I get this meeting? 
  • Where do curators usually find artwork for their collections? 
    • What to consider when pitching your own.
  • What is the corporation’s budget for artwork? 
  • What timelines do they operate on? 
  • Communication. 
My With the Microsoft Art Curators at Bunker Labs

My With the Microsoft Art Curators at Bunker Labs

Corporations collect art in one of two ways. They have inside personnel that collects directly from galleries or individual artists or they hire agencies/consultant firms to that buy art on their behalf. 

In Microsoft’s case, they have a team folded into their company that curates the collection for their buildings. They have scores of buildings! The process for placing artwork in a particular building is a little bit more convoluted than simply finding it and purchasing it, but I’ll get into that. 

Making Contact

This is a meeting that I had sought after for almost a year. Microsoft is headquartered here in Washington state and they have three campuses within throwing distance of where I live. They are expansive; two of them have dozens of buildings on their campuses. When I first had the idea to look into how they purchase artwork I had no idea how to get to a human being who is knowledgeable on the subject. That is what LinkedIn is for. 

I reached out to a few LinkedIn contacts and asked them who they know and to whom they could refer me. All except one had no idea that such a position even existed. These are the people who probably never notice the art in their offices, anyway. The last person I reached out to knew who to ask to find a name and returned to me the name of one of the lead curators. 

The next step was to look her up on LinkedIn. Take that link over to RocketReach (see my video on RoecketReach) and generate some reliable contact information for her. 

I composed an excellent email and was met with… silence. When I did receive an answer it was not a pleasant one. 

Thank you for your interest. The Microsoft Art Collection team acquires artwork when there are new construction projects, and artists are selected based on feedback from the project stakeholders and approval from the Collection’s Business Manager. We do not purchase artwork from artists, only through an artist’s gallery. If you are represented by a gallery, the representative may send physical mail to our address below. Please, no email, and we do not accept donations.

Basically- that is an insurmountable stone wall for individual artists like myself who are not represented by galleries (I am now, but I don’t want to have to share my profits with someone who is not going out and generating business for me). In my not-so-humble-opinion, the gallery model is dead. I represent myself and direct sales are the only way I am going to make a living. 

Later this year I saw an opportunity to meet the curators in person, an entrepreneurship event hosted by Microsoft at their Seattle campus. I quickly saw the potential of the moment and reached directly to the organizers of the event and asked them to invite the MS curator. Which they did happily. That is how I got this meeting. 

In other circumstances, researching and finding the curator for a particular company may not be so difficult and you may not need to go to such lengths. First, you have to try. Don’t be afraid to send an email or make a call or even to send physical mail to the curator. A little effort on your part sets you well above many, many other artists. 

How They Look At Artwork. 

Art is a subjective thing. You might think, what makes one person more qualified to look judge art than another? Money. Money does. The curators travel to discover art, they are approached by galleries, art consultants, and reps constantly. They also do a lot of reaching out. Especially to galleries that are open in the region of the new building/development project for which they are working. In addition, Lele and Tuan visit art expo, after art expo, after art expo all year long searching for art they feel matches the esthetic of the project, the size for the space, and of a quality that could represent the company for which they work. Finding a gallerist/curator is not very difficult. For you to have a chance of making it into their collections, however, your work must also match the criteria of their collection: quality, aesthetic, medium, etc. Make sure you are presenting work to the curator that fits their MO. 

Curators spend YEARS creating catalogs for upcoming projects. Once a project is ready for art installations, they deliver this curated package to a group of stakeholders who then choose the pieces they like, together. 

In many cases, the curator is not the final decision maker. …but the curator is you're only way through the door.

Interestingly, when I asked Tuan about Microsoft’s budget for buying art he tried to sidestep the question by saying, “We look for emerging artists.” This comment caught me off guard. First, we all have different opinions about what it means to be “emerging,” second because I would have expected Microsoft to be looking for established artists. 

Purchasing art is a very legitimate investment for a corporation to make. Like all investments, the golden rule is to buy low and sell high. Thus, Microsoft is looking for the next big win, the next trophy for their collection. So they are looking for “emerging artists” or early-career artists. When I pressed the question I was rewarded with a figure. “About $1,000 - $8,000.” That number still seems a bit low to me considering the cost of things like sculpture and large original paintings. He said, “We’d pay more depending on the location and the size and other factors.” 

Purchasing from Galleries vs Individuals

When I pushed the point on the demise of galleries and how many successful, unrepresented artists are out there, one of the curators caved a little and said they’d consider collecting from an individual while the other was firm on his stance. There is a workaround- get yourself an Art Rep or Consultant who could be a front for you and sell through them when necessary. You’ll have to give them a cut, of course. This is what I plan to do when Microsoft comes calling for artwork.

Communications going forward. 

As hinted at above, curating projects are begun many moons in advance. Years. Tuan is working on a veteran art collection (lucky me) now that MS plans on presenting in five years! Buildings have to be designed, the ground has to be broken, then the entire thing needs to be built before art can be installed. Lele begins working on those projects before the first hole is even dug. Now that I have made contact with the curators, it is my job to stay relevant. That requires constant, strategic competition for their attention. I’ve added the curators to my mailing list and I intend to touch base with them each month to ask about projects and if I can do anything for them. I will also invite them to local and national shows, personally. 

All in all, this is a very long process. When you decide you want to add corporate art collections to your business model know that you will be creating pipelines that won't deliver for several years. You'll be taking a long view on your business strategy. It's totally worth it, though. Having your work in a prestigious collection can do wonders for your resume and your bottom line. 

Some good places to do a little reading for leads: 

Forbes: The Top Corporate Art Collections

Talking With a Top Curator at Amazon Art, on the Fine Art of Reinventing Art Buying