NATURAL SELECTION

Words L.Cloudsdale

NATURAL SELECTION

Words L.Cloudsdale

Thom Hetherington is the straight-talking mastermind behind the highly acclaimed Manchester Art Fair. Launched in 2007, in a bid to bring contemporary paintings, sculpture, prints and photography to an audience of avid art collectors living outside the M25, this prestigious 2-day event has been responsible for art sales worth over £4million since it began. In the run-up to this year’s event, we spoke to Private White V.C. customer Thom, to find out why he decided to hang up his lab coat and shake up the art world instead.

You started your career in the ruthless world of 1990s publishing, selling advertising for magazines from an office in the backstreets of Manchester Piccadilly. Did young Thom Hetherington always dream of making a big splash in the world of print media?

Not at all! Believe it or not, by the age of 12 I’d already decided I wanted to become a marine biologist. I’d grown up in the 1970s-80s when David Attenborough documentaries were a big thing on TV and filming ‘under the sea’ was pretty revolutionary. I ended up being a serious natural history geek who was drawn to the analytical side of biology, because for me, the nice thing about studying that particular science was that everything was messy – nothing is neat and tidy. In chemistry or physics, the graphs have straight lines, clear curves or obvious changes. With biology it’s scatter graphs, weird gaps, outliers and anomalies. You have to spot patterns and trends amongst the biological noise, which for me, seemed like an incredibly useful set of life skills for becoming an entrepreneur.

Looking back, doing a marine biology degree was probably the best route I could’ve taken. Studying science forces you to be analytical and questioning, and biology sets you up for business because natural history and the business world are remarkably similar – which is why almost all of the stock market models are based on animal behaviour. Essentially all commercial activities, including capitalism (in its rawest form) are meant to behave like natural ecosystems do. I could have gone on to do a PhD but didn’t fancy a job cleaning test tubes for the next ten years, so selling advertising seemed much more fun! For my first gig, I was given a set of dusty old leads, a telephone and the pitch. I was told to do 80 calls a day, and warned that if I didn’t sell enough by the end of the week I’d be out the door. I realised I enjoyed it, and as it turned out I was really rather good at it.

Years later you started your current company, Holden Media, which was well-known for creating some of the largest business events and trade exhibitions in the north of England. How did that escalate to where you are today?

It didn’t take us long to realise that there were all sorts of niches or sectors in the North with a big potential audience. There were swathes of people who wanted to attend the B2B fairs but didn’t want to feel forced to travel down to London for the privilege – and there were no comparable events happening here in the North. So, we judged the local market, built relationships, saw the opportunities and pretty soon we’d branched out into lots of new areas, such as food, fashion and tourism. What came next was quite interesting really, because, you imagine in life that you can trace and retrospectively draw a wonderful, articulate path as to how you ended up here – but really, it’s all just chance, happenstance and chaos theory. If it wasn’t for the death of my partner Sophie’s grandad, perhaps my career would have taken a different turn.

Why was this the catalyst that shifted your focus? How did that life event lay the foundations for you to be the person who began orchestrating one of Europe’s most successful annual art fairs?

I’d always grown up in and around the arts. There were lots of family members and friends who were artists, art lecturers or art historians, so in my youth I was dragged around lots of galleries and private view launches. The family home we always had art on the walls, so it was something I was very comfortable with. Then, when Sophie and I were about 30, her grandad died and left us a little bit of money and we thought, ‘Do you know what, we should buy some art. We’ve reached that point in our lives now.’ A bit like enjoying the taste of beer or olives, you go through these developmental stages as you grow up, and suddenly think ‘Hang on a minute, I don’t want Habitat prints in cheap clip on frames on the wall anymore. I think I’m a grown up. I want an actual piece of art.’

We started looking around, but it didn’t take long for us to realise that it was actually almost impossible to buy contemporary art in Manchester. This thriving European metropolis had three commercial galleries for the city’s entire population of 2.5 million people. Some were really old school, with funny opening hours and a buzzer you had to push to be allowed in. I thought the whole situation was absolutely nuts.

We’d seen the work of Liam Spencer, who was an up-and-coming artist who’d studied at the Manchester School of Art and had exhibitions at The Lowry. He was doing these amazing impressionist panoramics of Manchester using heavy oils in brilliant colours, but we were struggling to track him down. In the end, I spoke to my dad’s friend who lived in New York. He’s a world authority on Impressionism and gets wheeled out whenever they find a new piece by one of the greats. He was a lecturer back in the day at the Manchester School of Art and told us he’d taught a student called Liam Spencer. He gave us Liam’s number and a few weeks later, Sophie and I were sat in his studio on Blackfriars, and decided to spend the money we’d inherited on two of his paintings

So, a chance encounter that occurred thanks to random family connections kick-started the Northern art scene. What do you say to cynics who think London is the only place to buy original contemporary art?

When I spoke to friends in London (some of whom ran galleries or international arts fairs themselves) about my plans to start the Manchester Art fair, they said that there are no commercial galleries in the north west because no-one buys art. I disagreed, and said that no-one buys art because there are no bloody galleries! You can’t tell me that we don’t have the size, the wealth, or the cultural interest, because we’ve got all those boxes ticked. I knew I needed to disrupt the status quo and try and change people’s behaviour. It’s not that Northerners don’t have money in their wallets, it’s not that they don’t like nice things, it’s just that they’ve never thought about buying art.

We knew we needed to take control not only for the two days of the art fair, but also for the entire twelve months of the year leading up to it. We wanted to take responsibility for developing and growing our own audience. We didn’t just want to rock up, open the doors, flog the stuff and then be gone – we wanted to engage with the broader art ecology. We’re now connected with all other institutions and organisations that exist within the creative ecosystem and we work together collaboratively, 365 days a year to grow the audience.

How can you explain your wider community involvement to someone who may not be familiar with the way the art world works?

We run the Manchester Art Fair as a non-profit making, break even enterprise, with some arts council funding. We could have gone to London, launched an Art Fair there and made a serious amount of money. But actually, what we’ve done instead has created thousands of art buyers who never would have bought art. We’ve changed the careers of artists and gallerists. We’ve provided the groundwork for more commercial galleries to open in the city. We work with the artist studios. We’ve connected with the public institutions to bring more non-traditional audiences through their door. We’ve changed everything.

Artists are being priced out of the ridiculous rents in London, they’re leaving in droves. The capital is becoming un-liveable for many of the young, interesting, exciting, radical, and dynamic people who are going be the ones shaping the creative future of the UK. But at the minute, everyone’s asking ‘Who cares? We’ve got the big names down here. Who cares if graduate artists are moving up to Manchester?’…which brings me right back to the beginning I suppose. Let’s see what happens to those London-based young artists in ten, or twenty year’s time – I wonder if they’ll have laid their roots up here in the North where life is more affordable and some say, better quality. It could be a slow and interesting metamorphosis, but there is so much untapped potential and opportunity up here, and if science has taught me anything, it’s that nature abhors a vacuum.

You can follow Thom on twitter @ThomHetheringto

The Manchester Art Fair runs from 12-14 October and takes place at the Manchester Central Convention Complex.

For further information, or to book tickets, visit - www.manchesterartfair.co.uk

Thom Hetherington is the straight-talking mastermind behind the highly acclaimed Manchester Art Fair. Launched in 2007, in a bid to bring contemporary paintings, sculpture, prints and photography to an audience of avid art collectors living outside the M25, this prestigious 2-day event has been responsible for art sales worth over £4million since it began. In the run-up to this year’s event, we spoke to Private White V.C. customer Thom, to find out why he decided to hang up his lab coat and shake up the art world instead.

You started your career in the ruthless world of 1990s publishing, selling advertising for magazines from an office in the backstreets of Manchester Piccadilly. Did young Thom Hetherington always dream of making a big splash in the world of print media?

Not at all! Believe it or not, by the age of 12 I’d already decided I wanted to become a marine biologist. I’d grown up in the 1970s-80s when David Attenborough documentaries were a big thing on TV and filming ‘under the sea’ was pretty revolutionary. I ended up being a serious natural history geek who was drawn to the analytical side of biology, because for me, the nice thing about studying that particular science was that everything was messy – nothing is neat and tidy. In chemistry or physics, the graphs have straight lines, clear curves or obvious changes. With biology it’s scatter graphs, weird gaps, outliers and anomalies. You have to spot patterns and trends amongst the biological noise, which for me, seemed like an incredibly useful set of life skills for becoming an entrepreneur.

Looking back, doing a marine biology degree was probably the best route I could’ve taken. Studying science forces you to be analytical and questioning, and biology sets you up for business because natural history and the business world are remarkably similar – which is why almost all of the stock market models are based on animal behaviour. Essentially all commercial activities, including capitalism (in its rawest form) are meant to behave like natural ecosystems do. I could have gone on to do a PhD but didn’t fancy a job cleaning test tubes for the next ten years, so selling advertising seemed much more fun! For my first gig, I was given a set of dusty old leads, a telephone and the pitch. I was told to do 80 calls a day, and warned that if I didn’t sell enough by the end of the week I’d be out the door. I realised I enjoyed it, and as it turned out I was really rather good at it.

Years later you started your current company, Holden Media, which was well-known for creating some of the largest business events and trade exhibitions in the north of England. How did that escalate to where you are today?

It didn’t take us long to realise that there were all sorts of niches or sectors in the North with a big potential audience. There were swathes of people who wanted to attend the B2B fairs but didn’t want to feel forced to travel down to London for the privilege – and there were no comparable events happening here in the North. So, we judged the local market, built relationships, saw the opportunities and pretty soon we’d branched out into lots of new areas, such as food, fashion and tourism. What came next was quite interesting really, because, you imagine in life that you can trace and retrospectively draw a wonderful, articulate path as to how you ended up here – but really, it’s all just chance, happenstance and chaos theory. If it wasn’t for the death of my partner Sophie’s grandad, perhaps my career would have taken a different turn.

Why was this the catalyst that shifted your focus? How did that life event lay the foundations for you to be the person who began orchestrating one of Europe’s most successful annual art fairs?

I’d always grown up in and around the arts. There were lots of family members and friends who were artists, art lecturers or art historians, so in my youth I was dragged around lots of galleries and private view launches. The family home we always had art on the walls, so it was something I was very comfortable with. Then, when Sophie and I were about 30, her grandad died and left us a little bit of money and we thought, ‘Do you know what, we should buy some art. We’ve reached that point in our lives now.’ A bit like enjoying the taste of beer or olives, you go through these developmental stages as you grow up, and suddenly think ‘Hang on a minute, I don’t want Habitat prints in cheap clip on frames on the wall anymore. I think I’m a grown up. I want an actual piece of art.’

We started looking around, but it didn’t take long for us to realise that it was actually almost impossible to buy contemporary art in Manchester. This thriving European metropolis had three commercial galleries for the city’s entire population of 2.5 million people. Some were really old school, with funny opening hours and a buzzer you had to push to be allowed in. I thought the whole situation was absolutely nuts.

Being an Operations Manager seems like the kind of job you can’t do sitting still. Do you ever down tools and stop juggling?

Like everyone these days I have emails on my phone and there’s even a group WhatsApp. It’s constant. There have been times in the past when the roof here has flooded (not surprising, given how old it is!) and it’s James Eden and I here at 2am with the buckets. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is in my eyes, it’s my job, it doesn’t stop. Sure, I go out and enjoy myself, but I’ll always steal a quick glance at my phone to make sure everything’s okay. I’ve always been hungry and ambitious, which has a lot to do with my upbringing because both parents worked extremely hard. I started off at the bottom and worked my way through, using all the experience I’ve gained from nearly two decades in the business to deal with whatever is thrown at me on a daily basis. That’s why having time with my family at our caravan in Anglesey is so important to me, because I need to try and switch off and start to relax. If we didn’t have our time away at the beach I’d just be working, thinking, ‘what can I do next?’. If I’m not running around like a lunatic, I get bored! I guess that’s probably why this job is ideal for someone like me – it’s a 24/7 thing.

We’d seen the work of Liam Spencer, who was an up-and-coming artist who’d studied at the Manchester School of Art and had exhibitions at The Lowry. He was doing these amazing impressionist panoramics of Manchester using heavy oils in brilliant colours, but we were struggling to track him down. In the end, I spoke to my dad’s friend who lived in New York. He’s a world authority on Impressionism and gets wheeled out whenever they find a new piece by one of the greats. He was a lecturer back in the day at the Manchester School of Art and told us he’d taught a student called Liam Spencer. He gave us Liam’s number and a few weeks later, Sophie and I were sat in his studio on Blackfriars, and decided to spend the money we’d inherited on two of his paintings

So, a chance encounter that occurred thanks to random family connections kick-started the Northern art scene. What do you say to cynics who think London is the only place to buy original contemporary art?

When I spoke to friends in London (some of whom ran galleries or international arts fairs themselves) about my plans to start the Manchester Art fair, they said that there are no commercial galleries in the north west because no-one buys art. I disagreed, and said that no-one buys art because there are no bloody galleries! You can’t tell me that we don’t have the size, the wealth, or the cultural interest, because we’ve got all those boxes ticked. I knew I needed to disrupt the status quo and try and change people’s behaviour. It’s not that Northerners don’t have money in their wallets, it’s not that they don’t like nice things, it’s just that they’ve never thought about buying art.

We knew we needed to take control not only for the two days of the art fair, but also for the entire twelve months of the year leading up to it. We wanted to take responsibility for developing and growing our own audience. We didn’t just want to rock up, open the doors, flog the stuff and then be gone – we wanted to engage with the broader art ecology. We’re now connected with all other institutions and organisations that exist within the creative ecosystem and we work together collaboratively, 365 days a year to grow the audience.

How can you explain your wider community involvement to someone who may not be familiar with the way the art world works?

We run the Manchester Art Fair as a non-profit making, break even enterprise, with some arts council funding. We could have gone to London, launched an Art Fair there and made a serious amount of money. But actually, what we’ve done instead has created thousands of art buyers who never would have bought art. We’ve changed the careers of artists and gallerists. We’ve provided the groundwork for more commercial galleries to open in the city. We work with the artist studios. We’ve connected with the public institutions to bring more non-traditional audiences through their door. We’ve changed everything.

Artists are being priced out of the ridiculous rents in London, they’re leaving in droves. The capital is becoming un-liveable for many of the young, interesting, exciting, radical, and dynamic people who are going be the ones shaping the creative future of the UK. But at the minute, everyone’s asking ‘Who cares? We’ve got the big names down here. Who cares if graduate artists are moving up to Manchester?’…which brings me right back to the beginning I suppose. Let’s see what happens to those London-based young artists in ten, or twenty year’s time – I wonder if they’ll have laid their roots up here in the North where life is more affordable and some say, better quality. It could be a slow and interesting metamorphosis, but there is so much untapped potential and opportunity up here, and if science has taught me anything, it’s that nature abhors a vacuum.

You can follow Thom on twitter @ThomHetheringto

The Manchester Art Fair runs from 12-14 October and takes place at the Manchester Central Convention Complex.

For further information, or to book tickets, visit - www.manchesterartfair.co.uk