In this week’s Frank Talk we sit down with Liezel Strauss. Liezel is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Subject Matter. Her creative endeavors span four continents over a decade. Her most recent endeavor is Art Girl Rising, a project dedicated to address the under-representation of women artists in museums and galleries around the world. Please check out Art Girl Rising here (artgirlrising.com) and please enjoy this stellar entrepreneur’s Frank Talk!
What was your first job in the Arts?
In 2004 a few weeks after we moved to London, I walked into the South African house on Trafalgar Square and asked if I could do an exhibition with Southern African artists, to my shock (and delight and fear!) they said yes. Four weeks later I hosted my first exhibition. Looking back at it, I knew nothing and the exhibition was quite shabby chic, well maybe shabbier than chic!
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
If you have a desire from your heart to do something, to me it is almost like an inner voice, then you should just go for it. The universe will support you. Just get up, take the first steps and trust that the rest will follow. Don’t worry too much about the ins and outs, the details will work itself out. As long as you stay true to that desire / calling / message, whatever you want to call it the rest will fall into place.
People will cross your path that will help make it possible. Just have faith. And don’t be scared to start somewhere. We all have to start somewhere with no experience.
Oh! and don’t transport sculptures in big boxes on the Tube during peak hour. It almost killed me and my dad 🙂
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
I was born and raised in South Africa. From a very young age I was curious and interested in making art, but my parents thought a BSC or Bachelor’s degree (I tried both!) would be a more sensible choice! During my university years I lived with wonderfully creative people but I always saw myself on the business side of things and never on the creation side for some reason.
During this time my best friend, Kenau, who is an incredible artist herself, gave me an exquisite sculpture from a gallery in Swaziland when I turned 22. Years later I went back to track the artist down and my journey as a curator and art dealer started, with the exhibition at the South African House. However, it wasn’t until ten years later that I pursued this career full time. It has been a long winding road, and what a journey it has been!
What do you do now?
I am the director and co-founder of Subject Matter, an art business that helps encourage new art buyers. I started the business nearly 8 years ago with my husband in Tokyo. We are now three equal partners, and Kitty joined us in 2014. We specialize in works on paper, mainly fine art photography and we have an equal roster of male and female artists, something we are very proud of.
We also run a programme with the Royal College of Art – helping their students with the business of art. I find it very hard to believe that so few art schools teach students basic business skills. It is an archaic view of art institutions to sneer at sharing knowledge and god forbid mention the word money! Artists needs money to pay their bills, put their kids through school and buy materials. The idea of a struggling artist = good artists is outdated and at Subject Matter we are very vocal about smashing these preconceived ideas.
Earlier this year we also launched #thisgirlmakesart a fine art photography competition for teenage girls in Johannesburg and an art mentoring program for female Instagram artists. Both are passion projects very close to our hearts.
I’m also the founder of Art Girl Rising, T-shirts for gender equality in the art world, it was inspired by NMWA’s #5womenartists campaign. We can change the numbers but it will take time. The goal with the T-shirts is to start conversations like, “hey who are the women on your chest?” which can then lead into a conversation about the shocking number of how underrepresented women artists are.
I’m over the moon to say we have shipped more than 600 T-shirts to 20 something countries so far and we have donated £2450.00 to Women for Women through the project. I’m so grateful about all the support and love for this project, I did not see it coming!
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa. I left 14 years ago. We, (my husband and I) have since lived in London, Hamburg, Tokyo, and a short stint on my own in New York (where my heart still lives!) I’m currently based in Kuala Lumpur. I love living in foreign places, it is my thing, or maybe I’m running away from something!
What is the arts community like there?
It’s growing. Last year Malaysia had its first Art Biennale and the KL Annual Art fair is in its 12th year.
But censorship is still a problem here and definitely has an impact on the development.
I’m in conversation with a few creatives here, working on a potential female artist residency concept with a local architect. I think creating diverse and international artists exchanges can help the art ecosystem considerably. Let’s see. Cross fingers!
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
Growing up in South Africa during the late 80s and 90s – I saw discrimination against people for no logical reason. This has definitely shaped my passion for fairness and equality. I will never be part of a society again that undermines other human beings without standing up and fighting. I guess this influenced my decision to start Art Girl Rising in one way or the other.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Don’t get involved in the bullshit. Sell art, make art – listen to your heart and flex your talents but do not get caught up in the social expectations or politics or gossiping or cliques.
Last year was a very rough year for me and my business partner because we trusted people who didn’t have our best interests at heart. It took a long time to digest the shock and emotions but it taught us incredible lessons. Stick to the work, do the work, sell the work and the rest will follow. So much of it is just noise, and a lot of noise. Trust your gut feeling, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
Our business Subject Matter is nearly 9 years old next year, and I feel very proud about starting it and how far we have come. I also feel very proud about my relationship with my business partner Kitty, we have been in partnership and running this business for almost 4 years and I can say hand on heart it is run with integrity and utmost respect and love for each other and for our artists and everyone we work with! Subject Matter is a gentle place, and we worked hard to get here.
What has been a challenge for you?
The art world noise in London. I used to attend every event, every opening but it did not serve me. I miss London and the creativity (and Kitty) a lot but I don’t miss the art world noise, the bullshit and the opaque nature of the industry. I just want to sell art, help create more art buyers, help create an income for artists, and hopefully one day be able to pay myself!
What is something you do every day at work?
I speak with Kitty on What’s App about 20 times a day! It’s mostly business but she is also my pal and we are both mums, so it varies from discussing day to day business activities to sending each other funny gifs or messages.
I also use Basecamp every day, I think our business would implode without it. Every single thing that we plan, sell, discuss, ponder, etc. goes on Basecamp.
It sounds cheesy but we often do gratitude lists too.
What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?
Look at beautiful art, it might not seem weird to people in the art world, but to me it is still an amazing privilege to look at art and to call it work. I didn’t grow up with art, so I feel very lucky every day. Well most days 😉 We also recently started viewing Instagram posts at work, Kitty and I now only post during office hours and not while we are feeding the kids!
With the T-shirts. I have posted 600+ parcels and I wrapped and packed most orders. I love getting to know all the towns in the US and to feel a sense of connection with every person who bought a T-shirt and wants to help make a difference, I have a wonderful Malaysian young woman called Ellis (a wonderful entrepreneur herself) who helps me from time to time, but I still enjoy getting my hands dirty and dealing with the orders myself.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
A good employee is someone called Andrea, Claire and Aga in our case 🙂 Claire and Aga worked for us in Tokyo and Andrea still works for us in London, all three started as interns and there is absolutely no way we would be where we are today if they weren’t around.
When answering this question, I also realized that the three had the most crucial things in common:
They are super smart with a can-do attitude, they are problem solvers, multi taskers and positive thinkers.
They don’t get too emotionally attached to artists or clients (we do, which can be problematic!).
They arrive on time and they work until the job is done, because they know we are fair, if they work one day late they can come in late another day.
There is mutual respect between us.
They have hands on deck when it is necessary and they know to look for solutions.
Most importantly they think ahead, identifying potential problems or glitches ahead of exhibitions and projects and find solutions before the problem manifests. This is crucial.
They take care of us as friends when we are in the middle of an exhibition or a big project, where endless cups of tea and food is often forgotten.
A good boss to me is someone who is kind, fair, leads by example, and has a vision that is clearly communicated and shared. And someone who welcomes feedback and someone who believes in the personal growth of her employees. Someone who is not intimidated by their employees’ strengths or ambitions but instead is inspired by it and grateful for it!
What do you think makes a person hirable?
The desire to make things happen. The desire to work and to get things done. It sounds obvious but we have worked with a few people over the years that are in it for the status or the social aspect, I think a lot of people don’t realize that a successful business is built on work, focused work, not necessarily the ‘hustle’ or social noise. It all boils down to Sales = income = profit, despite the startup craze of raising capital and exiting despite making a cent profit. This way of doing business really bothers me and I just don’t think it is sustainable.
We were caught up in the ‘Start-up Washing Machine’ as I call it , we were part of the Google accelerator group Campus in London, which was great for most parts but it was also a lot of noise and we realized we don’t want to raise money and we don’t want an exit strategy, this immediately seemed to make us less ambitious or less important in the startup world, I don’t get that.
Our goal is to create more art buyers in the world and to help create income for artists, with a sustainable business model, and to build a business that we are proud of and that will still be relevant (and hopefully thriving!) in 50 years from now.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?
Work hard. A lot of people can be social media managers today and most people can create content and in years to come it will be handled by AI, but problem solving and innovation will never be replaced and is a rare skill. Get to know your subject matter, the company’s pain points, research, and look for solutions. Spot gaps and suggest realistic solutions. Do not present the problems, the founders most probably already identified them, (and are too busy to hear about more problems!) but solutions are what is needed.
And above all do your job to the best of your ability. Deliver projects on time, and do it with integrity, grace and no drama or gossip. Feedback is always appreciated too!
What are things you can do proactively boost your CV
Oh my goodness, I feel like writing a whole list on CV’s. Your CV should be no longer that 1 double sided A4.
Keep it simple, keep it concise. And give examples, don’t just say you are ‘an excellent problem solver’ – give examples. Concrete examples.
Call, so few people call these days. Call to ask if they received your CV.
Are there any tips you can give people entering the workforce?
Work hard. Don’t bring any drama. Don’t tell people you work hard, just get the job done.
Bring positive energy and be open to learning and making mistakes. Don’t gossip. Be kind and fair.
Do your best and give more than expected.
In your experience, what are things to do and things to avoid during an interview?
Ask questions about the position, this shows you care and have considered the position carefully.
Research the company, we have interviewed so many people that didn’t exactly knew what we were doing- this is a major NO NO.
Offer that you could help for a few weeks on trial (if it is possible for you of course) – if there is a busy period coming up where they might need an extra pair of hands. With a small business like ours there is no hierarchy, in busy periods we all do everything, I drill, Kitty paints, Andrea runs around in and out of taxis finding some random object we forgot about. Get your hands dirty.
Before the interview: don’t ask for directions to the interview!! This is a big no for me, if you can’t find your way to us, there is no way you will be able to handle our fast-paced environment.
Any other anecdotes about your experience in the art world that you would like to share?
Artists support artists. It’s incredible. Especially women artists. I have realized this especially after launching Art Girl Rising. There is so much love for artists from other artists and honesty about their struggles and successes.
The dealer side of the art world can learn a lot from this. Things are getting better but it is still very protective and opaque. It’s so old school it drives me crazy
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
Can I say our all-female show at The Hospital Club in London? Sorry but it really took my breath away. Kitty did most of the work, even though my name was on the wall with her as curator, it was her show and it was incredible. We showed 15 incredible female artists.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?
I only own work by women artists, and I intend to continue this in future. My husband and I only buy art for love not investment so I’m not very interested in super star / expensive work. Not that I can afford it anyway!! If money was no object then I would buy a Maggie Laubser portrait, a Vera Pagava abstract, a Corita Kent screen print, an Esther Mahlangu 1992 BMW art car, and a Chantal Joffe painting.
But right now, and realistically, I have my eye on: a painting from Nabeeha Mohamed, a spearhead from Camila Bliss, Zuzu Mengham’s As Above, So Beneath sculpture, anything I could afford from Poppy Field, and an abstract painting from Evi O.