Paul Hewitt, the new director general of the Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD), has committed to a plan for incremental but steady changes to bolster the 90-year-old trade body and see it safely to its centenary.
The former Christie’s director took over the role from Christopher Battiscombe, director for 20 years, last September.
Since then, he has faced the now familiar triple whammy of market issues: long-term fallout from the coronavirus pandemic; increased difficulties in international trading due to Brexit; and the administrative complexities from the fifth antimoney laundering (5AML) directive.
Despite the headwinds, Hewitt is optimistic, full of praise for SLAD’s 165 members, and has embarked on a series of educational offerings and partnerships to promote their work.
“Since I started, I’ve been getting to grips with the main challenges facing the organisation and it’s been genuinely illuminating and interesting”, he tells ATG.
“I’ve been very impressed with the resilience of the galleries and how they’ve managed to cope. There is really strength, commitment and staying power.”
So far, Hewitt has hosted a talk by Anders Peterson of ArtTactic on the changing face of the art market and held a webinar on the practicalities of shipping in a post-Brexit Britain.
He has linked up with fellow organisations BADA and LAPADA (a practice he intends to continue as needed) to commission a training video for AML – not just a practical tool but also one that dealerships can use as evidence of continuous professional development.
All SLAD members have now registered as Art Market Participants with the 5AML regulatory authorities and Hewitt says with some pride that HMRC is “delighted” with the result.
He likens his slow-and-steady strategy to that of the former Sky cycling team. “When it was working to improve its performance, they worked on improving each element a little bit”, he says. “If you can do that the overall will improve at the same time. The committee and I want our members to have access to the best resources.”
Among the companies SLAD is working with under Hewitt are tech-led art shipper Convelio, which was appointed the association’s preferred shipper last week; art research and translation company InterpretArt, which specialises in presenting artworks in the context of Asian history and culture; and energy contract management and risk consultancy Beond.
As for Covid, the long-term effects on business are more difficult to quantify and so far in Hewitt’s tenure, results have been mixed.
He notes that no SLAD member has gone under as a result of the pandemic and restrictions.
On the other hand, he says, “through The British Art Market Federation we’ve been we’ve been working closely with DCMS [Department of Culture, Media & Sport] to see if there could be any extension on the rate relief policy as there have been some hospitality concessions. Sadly, those have been confined to other industries.”
He sees the collaborative spirit and sense of community the pandemic brought among galleries – particularly larger supporting smaller – as a change that’s here to stay. Others are more difficult to predict.
“There have certainly been structural changes within individual businesses. There were furloughs and redundancies leading to longerterm staffing changes. There is more outsourcing by galleries and workers freelancing.
“I think it’s too early to say what the long-term effects [of the pandemic] will be, but my feeling is there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Dealers are going to put the stresses and pressures of the last 18 months behind them as time goes on.”
Probably the most evident change coming to SLAD, at least to outside eyes, is an updated version of the website, due to launch in April. It is set to be complemented by the launch of social media accounts for the trade body.
“Historically we’ve not been seen as the fastest adopter when it comes to going digital”, Hewitt says. With the new site he hopes to “provide a better service for our members” and to use their considerable content to help with the larger organisation’s digital marketing campaign.
So there may be plenty to be getting on with, but Hewitt, with plenty of experience under his belt, is undaunted. After more than 18 years at Christie’s and a further four years as a business adviser to companies such as the Saatchi Gallery and Art Dubai, the role of SLAD director “seems like a natural progression” to him.
The workings of an auction house are in contrast to London and UK dealerships.
Hewitt says: “The structure of the market is such that they need each other, but they see the same issue through different prisms.”
However, he adds that years at Christie’s have given him a good perspective on the market.
As well as his professional experience, he has long nurtured a love of art, toying with the idea of an MA in Islamic art after finishing his first degree and starting a collecting of porcelain and silver while living in Asia early in his career.
“One of the great privileges of working in an auction house was that I got used to a diet of good art”, he says. “An advantage of the role of SLAD director is that diet is continuously fed.”