Joe Dunning founded Dunning & Partners after a 14-year career in the commercial arts sector with Christie’s and Sotheby’s in both London and New York. He specialized in strategy, innovation and business development, designing and leading numerous initiatives within the auction, private sales and advisory arms of the business. Joe also ran the Sotheby’s Prize, an annual $250,000 award to facilitate museum exhibitions that explore overlooked or under-represented areas of art history. He has established pioneering partnerships with museums, working closely with institutions around the world including the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, the Norval Foundation in Cape Town and the Museu de arte in São Paulo (MASP). He has also served as auctioneer and advisor for numerous not-for-profit organizations, with a particular focus on the arts and education, raising over £6 million. He is a mentor with Creative Access and has worked closely with the National Theatre in London, Free Arts NYC, Urban Arts Partnership and the New York Academy of Art, where he serves on the President’s Advisory Board.
What was your first job in the Arts?
I entered the art world by happy accident. I’d just moved to London after graduating, without a job lined up. I registered with a temp agency and they placed me at Christie’s, in the shipping department. It was a two-week assignment. The shipping department had had a flood in the office, a pipe had burst and soaked a load of filing. My job was to put on a pair of rubber gloves and sort through all this moldy, damp paperwork and send it off to storage. After two weeks doing that the manager asked me if I’d like to stay on to answer phones and respond to enquiries about shipping quotes and export licenses. I stayed, and without really realizing it my career was underway.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
To do a good job of the work that was in front of me. That first job wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term, but it was what I was being asked to do, so I reasoned that I wouldn’t be invited to do something else if I didn’t do a good job at this. That’s a learning I’ve applied throughout my career, and something that I advise anyone in their first job: do as good a job as you can, even if it seems easy, or feels beneath you, and other opportunities will come.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
A little while after I’d started in the industry! I’d always been interested in the arts – from a very young age my mother would take me to the theatre, to art galleries, I learned to play musical instruments and we saw live music – but I didn’t grow up wanting to work in the visual arts. At school the careers advice was pretty rigid; if you go off what they tell you at school there are something like four careers to choose from, and I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher or a lawyer, couldn’t be a doctor, so what was I going to do? I studied French at Oxford, but I wasn’t enough of a natural to be a translator or a diplomat, so when I moved to London I was still looking for the lightbulb moment. I was extremely lucky that I stumbled into a job that presented options I hadn’t known existed. No one talked about auction houses where I grew up. So, after a while in the shipping department I started looking for other roles, and that led to me doing an MA part-time in Cultural and Creative Industries at King’s College London, and that led to me getting a job in the Contemporary department at Christie’s. And then I was up and running.
What do you do now?
I recently launched Dunning & Partners, a consultancy that specializes in supporting the arts through creative collaboration with business. We help arts organizations looking for innovative ways to fulfil their mission, and we help businesses looking for new pathways to growth. We do this by conceiving and delivering tailor-made projects that support the arts, help businesses stand out, demonstrate their values, deliver on their mission and reach new audiences. I wanted to help evolve the way business supports the arts for the mutual benefit of all involved. We’re living through a global health crisis, a steep economic downturn, and an intense and overdue focus on racial inequality, and throughout it all artists of all disciplines are channeling their unique abilities to identify injustice, lend voice to the suffering it causes, and visualize a world without it. They’re using their platforms to drive change and help others. So, it’s really important that we find new, innovative ways of supporting these artists and the institutions that nurture them. I believe that the businesses who do will benefit as much as the artists and organizations they support, and that’s why Dunning & Partners is here.
Where are you from?
Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. It’s part of the so-called Black Country, named for the smoke from all the factories during the industrial age. It’s a town that has struggled for investment in the post-industrial era, but it’s a very proud town, and Yam Yams (so-called because it’s “you am” rather than “you are”) are a resilient bunch.
What is the arts community like there?
When I was growing up, Wolverhampton was probably best known for its music scene. There are two sizeable music venues in town, and bands would often make Wolverhampton one of their key stops on tour. They always got a great reception. I remember seeing the back of a t-shirt that listed the venues of a band’s international tour and it went something like Oslo, Stockholm, Paris, Wolverhampton. As a teenager, my entire social circle was built around that music scene. The Black Country area is often associated with heavy metal, most notably Black Sabbath, and you can still see live music in some of the venues where they made their name. But other acts have their roots in the area too, acts as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Slade, The Wonder Stuff, Goldie, ELO and Beverley Knight. Even Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie grew up not far away. And during the house music boom of the early 90s Wolverhampton’s The Canal was one of the country’s top dance venues.
There wasn’t a huge visual arts scene, but we used to visit the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which had a major extension in recent years and is now part of the Artist Rooms national programme of exhibitions.
On the performing arts side there’s the beautiful old Grand Theatre that still welcomes a lot of national touring productions. And for many years I was part of the town’s Music School, playing percussion in various orchestras and touring to European cities in the summer. That was heavily subsidized and open on merit. Looking back, I appreciate how lucky I was to have opportunities like that, because I think they shaped my belief in the power and promise of creativity.
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
In my early days in the industry I was very aware of the fact that most people I worked with came from a different background, didn’t have a regional accent like me, and I found myself suppressing the markers of my upbringing in order to fit in. Without realizing it I was hiding my authentic self, in a way. I’m actually very proud to come from a multicultural part of the country; not a particularly affluent part of the country, but one that is rich in diversity. I’d like to think it gave me an implicit appreciation of the value of different viewpoints and outlooks. In my early career I didn’t celebrate that; I hope I didn’t deny it, but I certainly didn’t wear it with pride. Then I met Amy Cappellazzo. She cares less about what you sound like and more about what you say. She became a champion of mine, an unofficial mentor, and certainly an inspiration. And then one day she offered me a job in New York, and my life changed in ways I’d never envisaged.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
I’m not sure this is specific to the art world, but: Be ambitious in the abstract, don’t be ambitious in the concrete. Don’t think about the job title or the size of your office; think about how you want to spend your time, the kind of interactions you want to have, the skills you want to develop and use, the feelings you want to have when you do a good job, what constitutes a job well done I believe that from that abstract thinking you’ll be able to develop a picture of the role you want, and be more decisive about how to get it. At the same time, be prepared for your plans to go awry. In my experience there have always been circumstances beyond my awareness and control that have had a marked impact on my career. That will always be the case, for all of us, and we have to be ready. So, learn to be flexible, and keep your eye out for the opportunity that you didn’t necessarily expect.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
I’d say launching Dunning & Partners during a difficult time, economically and socially, has been my biggest achievement so far. It’s something that I’d been planning for a long time, and when the pandemic took hold it put a question mark over everything, in every industry. All received wisdom was up for debate. You could see that in the art world with museums questioning the value of blockbuster exhibitions and dealers questioning the volume of art fairs. There was this immediate reassessment of priorities. And it was clear to me that businesses would be questioning the value of sponsoring the arts, so I knew I had my work cut out. But I focused on two key things: firstly, the need to support the arts was and is more pressing than ever. Secondly, businesses were going to have to chart a path to recovery that took account of how their customers’ circumstances have changed. I believed then, and still believe, that businesses can hasten their recovery by supporting the arts. But it takes a major rethink on the part of both businesses and arts organizations, about how they work together, how they create and exchange value for one another. I’m pleased to say that there are players on both sides willing to take that leap, and embrace the rewards.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
I think it’s essential to have a team that brings a diversity of experience, different ways of thinking, different approaches to a problem. A good employee is therefore someone aware of what makes them different, and willing to leverage those differences. It takes bravery to stand out rather than fit in, and it isn’t easy – I certainly haven’t always found it easy – but it’s essential if we’re going to innovate, if we’re going to come up with the creative solutions we need to thrive. And we can’t just expect it from our employees, we have to facilitate it. Which is why I think a good boss – or mentor, or peer, even – is someone who encourages that confidence, who listens as well as instructs, who learns as well as teaches, who builds the platform for someone to bring their full, authentic self to work.
What artwork is in your home office?
I recently bought a small landscape oil sketch by Hannah Brown, which she made in support of Hospital Rooms, a charity that commissions artworks for NHS mental health inpatient units across the UK. Hospital Rooms believes in the power of art to provide joy and dignity, and to stimulate and heal, and I support that wholeheartedly. I also have a couple of works by students of the New York Academy of Art. I’ve been involved with the Academy for a number of years, and currently serve on its President’s Advisory Board, and I’m always staggered by the skill and dedication of its students. Their work will be on display digitally as part of the Academy’s upcoming Tribeca Ball virtual gala, and I encourage everyone to check it out.
How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?
We need to talk more about what the arts contribute – both financially as well as in terms of health and wellbeing. On the financial side, the arts and culture sector was worth £13.5 billion to the UK economy in 2018, contributing £3.4 billion in tax. That’s larger than the agricultural, forestry and fishing industries combined. The 233,000 sector jobs are more productive than those in other sectors, with an average of £72,000 Gross Value Added (GVA – that’s the value of what the job creates, minus all costs) per full-time equivalent worker, compared to the UK average of £56,700. Overall, the sector is responsible for a further £28.9 billion in GVA. On the health side, there are independent studies that show that arts activities help to alleviate anxiety, depression and stress, and as a result keep us physically healthier. Participation in the arts contributes to a total annual saving to the NHS due to reductions in GP visits of just under £169 million. Okay, so focusing on the numbers is a bit dry, but these are big numbers, and it’s super important we communicate them better.
How has your current job adapted to the new virtual landscape? What do you think can be done better?
Dunning & Partners was always going to launch as a home office in the beginning, and one of the unforeseen benefits of everyone else working from home has been the fact that it’s made the world more accessible. With everyone working from home all our interactions happen through screens, and absent the expectation that I travel to take a meeting or make a pitch, I’ve been able to spread myself much more widely.
It can be argued that the art world is finally forced to adopt and adapt technologies that have long been a part of other industries. Agree or Disagree?
I think we probably made five years’ progress in the space of twelve months. And it was long overdue. As an industry I think we were blinded for a long time by the fact that there’s no substitute to seeing art in person, and I think we missed an opportunity. Digital is a massive opportunity when it comes to access; it allows museums to reach people who, for all manner of reasons, don’t visit in person. If you look at the museums who’ve increased their digital audience in the last twelve months, the success is built on years and years of investment. It isn’t something they pivoted to overnight. And the result of our current circumstances, where digital is the only way of engaging audiences, is that there’s now a growing divide between museums who have the resources to develop digital tools and those who don’t. I think partnering with business is one answer: working with companies who can lend their commercially-driven expertise. These companies do it in other non-profit areas, and to engage them the art world needs to work out how to better communicate its need, and how to return value – real and measurable value, not just value in kind – in exchange.
And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?
Absolutely. I recently wrote an article for Artnet News about why poorly-paid internships are not only bad ethics, they’re also bad for business. The issues that I discussed in that article could be summed up as a lack of transparency. I’m talking about low salaries that make it impossible for people from certain backgrounds to get a start; opportunity being hidden or hoarded unwittingly, and a premium on knowing the right people. Think about that friend of a friend who takes you for coffee and picks your brain, then remember that there’s someone else, equally deserving, equally capable, who’s one step behind just because they don’t know the right people. These are structural issues – no one in the art world is arguing against equal opportunity – but we all play a role in supporting these barriers. And we all miss out, because there’s an undeniable business case, with mounting evidence that diversity and inclusion deliver profitability and innovation. If we remove these barriers – if we make opportunity more transparent – we build an industry that is more creative, more innovative, and ultimately more profitable.