Buqa Culture talks to Theodora Clarke, Editor of Russian Art and Culture and Director of Russian Art Week in relation to her Art company and her recommendations for upcoming exciting cultural events. Theodora is an art historian, curator and lecturer specialising in Russian art and modernism. As a freelance journalist she writes for the Telegraph, Huffington Post, Russia Beyond the Headlines and is a frequent contributor for TV, print and radio on culture, Russia and politics. She set up Russian Art & Culture in 2012 and subsequently founded the official guide to Russian Art Week in London.
Please tell us about your company Theodora and how it was set up?
I was studying for my PhD in history of art at Bristol University and became an entrepreneur really by accident! I set up a humble blog for professors and academics which went viral on social media. I couldn’t believe it when 50,000 people started reading my posts. It was really the internet that made it all possible. Through Facebook and Twitter my blog became popular abroad and started to attract both local and international readers. We became a community that brought together both the commercial and academic strands of Russian art into one online hub. That was when I decided to launch a proper website, a cross between a listings service and newspaper. Two years later we have now published our first magazine and we also organise a major art fair across central London Russian Art Week, in addition to running the existing site.
What were your biggest challenges in building the foundations of Russian Art and Culture Ltd?
When I started it was very much a side project in my free time with no plans to become a business. My original blog I used to write on the weekends. I didn’t have a team or investors to help me get started. It can be quite lonely on your own when you first get going. I spent lots of time getting advice from people and doing market research. Ultimately you never know how your business is going to turn out until you find your first customer.
What do you envision your company doing next?
We have many plans in the pipeline. 2014 has been a busy year for us with the UK-Russia Year of Culture. We have expanded into events organising and my team have curated several exhibitions. Our next step is to publish a book on Russian art and then to build a comprehensive database of artworks in international collections.
What would your advice be to someone setting up their own business?
Be persistent and believe in yourself! Most of my family and friends thought I was crazy when I started a business focusing on Russian culture, especially as I am not even Russian! However, I was passionate about art and their culture. I love Kandinsky’s paintings, Tolstoy’s novels and Tchaikovsky’s music. My blog turned into a business because, without realising it, I had provided a useful hub for information and something which was a resource for people around the world, not just in the UK. The best businesses solve a problem that exists, in my case we have become a global community and hub for all things Russian. It takes a lot of determination and drive to set something up from scratch but I believe anyone can do it if you put your mind to it. My best tip would be to find something you enjoy doing as you are going to be investing a lot of time and energy into the project. Also do your research, why is your company different and what is unique about your product or service? There are lots of books and blogs out there which can give you advice on how to set up your website, effectively market to customers, increase sales through business development and so on which are all helpful. But don’t forget to ask people’s advice. I must have had hundreds of cups of tea with people who ran totally different companies just to get their perspective on my ideas. Keep a notebook with all your ideas, good or bad, as you never know when inspiration will strike!
Please can you tell us more about being a female within the Art sector?
The arts are somewhat different to other industries, such as banking or construction for instance. There are a huge number of women who study History of Art at university. What is interesting is what happens later on. If you look at senior jobs in the art world there are very few women running our top artistic institutions. Look at the National Theatre, Tate Modern or Sotheby’s, all of the Directors have been men. However, I think there is gradual progress and more women are being promoted to be on the boards of big companies and charities. It will just take time.
Which piece of Art changed your life?
Well it is probably not one individual work but the time that I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow as a sixth form student. It is their equivalent of the National Gallery and is packed with wonderful landscape, history and portrait paintings. I remember walking around the museum and being struck by the beauty and technical skill of all of these artists who I had never seen in an English book and were not covered at university on any syllabus. The experience really opened my eyes to the wonderful cultures that other countries have. Britain has produced many world-famous artists but it is interesting to learn about these artists in the context of other cultures around the world.
You are additionally standing as a prospective candidate for Parliament, how do you juggle both your career and your candidacy and what drives you?
Well the short answer is to have a very organised diary, mine is colour coded almost to the minute of where I need to be and when! It is difficult to balance your time, in my case having two parallel careers, but I think it is no different to say a mother balancing time with her children and her job. You just have to decide what is important to you and then find the time to do it. I am lucky that, as I run my own business, I have the flexibility to also have time for politics. I am passionate about both and my job doesn’t fit the conventional 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. I would describe it as more a lifestyle choice than a career. I often work weekends and attend evening events but I am happy to do both as that is when I am often at most interesting events from attending exhibition openings to community events in the constituency.
Who or what inspires you?
This might seem an unusual answer but probably Walt Disney! He became a cultural icon through his work in animation. I grew up watching and loving all of his films. I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t heard of Disney or watched one of his cartoons. He grew up in Kansas and his first job was as a paper boy getting up at 4.30am every day before a full day of school. He worked hard and he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. He went on to found one of the most famous brands in the world. This all goes to show that persistence, hard work and enthusiasm are all you need to start a business. Also I always remember the famous line from Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, that “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” What he meant was that people don’t yet know what they need until it is invented. Your business could be the equivalent of the next Ford Motor car...
What characteristics does someone need to succeed?
First of all, self-belief. If you don’t believe your business won’t get off the ground then why would an investor or client? Second, I would say, never give up. Many entrepreneurs who have made it big, like Richard Branson, have had failed businesses as well as successes. You learn just as much from your mistakes so don’t be disheartened by them. Also don’t spend lots of money hiring a fancy office, website and staff at the very beginning. You don’t even know if your product will attract customers yet! So start small and get runs on the board first to gradually build up your business.
Please summarise your “must see” cultural exhibitions/events on your list for this summer/autumn:
There are lots of wonderful exhibitions coming on in the next few months and events. Top of my list would be the Kazimir Malevich show at Tate Modern which is the first major retrospective in London. There are Russian exhibitions opening also at the Science Museum and the V&A this autumn, dedicated respectively to Russian space and Russian avant-garde theatre. Also Russian Art Week returns in late November and we have an exciting programme of cultural events planned across the capital.