Connecting collectors and curators: Vastari’s Bernadine Brocker and Naqiyah Sultan

Vastari, an online platform connecting collectors with curators for exhibition loans, is bringing arts practitioners into the digital era, and a former Art Radar student is helping realise that goal.

Naqiyah Sultan, a former art journalism student with Art Radar, joined start-up Vastari in 2012. Together with cofounder Bernadine Brocker, Naqiyah and the rest of the Vastari team are working to optimise communication between collectors and museums, introducing a new, digital model to the notoriously traditional world of loans and collecting.

The Vastari team in 2013.

The Vastari team in 2013.

Established by Bernadine Brocker in January 2012, Vastari works to connect private collectors and museum curators around the world through an online platform. Consisting of four relatively young women, the Vastari team speaks over ten languages between them and comes from a diversity of backgrounds, from international auction house Sotheby’s to private galleries. Bernadine and Naqiyah, who studied with Art Radar in 2011, spoke to us about developing the business model, making Vastari work in Asia and dealing with the stuffier aspects of the art scene.

How did you come up with the concept behind Vastari?

Bernadine Brocker [BB]: I was managing an art gallery in Mayfair and people kept coming up to me saying, “why is my Degas not in the Royal Academy exhibition?” Or, “why did no one tell me that there was a show related to Manet coming up?” “How do I pitch my work to museums?” I did some research to find out how a collector who doesn’t do the networking and doesn’t do the philanthropy would be able to access these institutions. I was speaking to curators to find out if they would be interested in something like [Vastari]. The overall response was positive: curators wanted to borrow works from collectors, but don’t because it takes too long to find them. It is a lot more straightforward if you as a curator just borrow from another institution or from someone you already know. Usually if curators do want to find a work in private hands they have to go through a third party, an auction house or a dealer, and a lot of the time museums don’t want to endorse the market, so they just stay out of the process completely.

When I found all this out, I thought, “wait a second. This is something that could easily be solved through some sort of anonymous correspondence mechanism online.” The key is having these art objects available for the curators to see online while making sure they’re not available to everyone, only specific people seeking works out for specific reasons. The art market is notoriously private, obviously.

Can you tell us a little more about how the site works?

[BB]: There are two types of user on the website: the museums and then everyone else, encompassing private collectors, dealers, auction houses… everyone else is considered a private member. To be a museum on our website they have to be a nonprofit, they have to organise non-selling exhibitions, and we ask them not to approach any of our collectors about acquiring a work. If the relationship becomes really good and then they decide to acquire something as a museum, that’s their business, but Vastari is there for loans only. The idea is that private collectors will upload works that will only be seen by users verified by us, and the works are registered individually. They never see a collection on site, but they do see an individual search result; if someone is searching a Picasso then all related works will come up, but the site won’t pull up the Braque that’s also in the same collection. The idea behind that was so that no one would be able to figure out how much worth was in a collection.

A Vastari infographic explaining the exhibition connection process. Image courtesy Vastari.

A Vastari infographic explaining the exhibition connection process. Image courtesy Vastari.

Do you vet both the collectors and the curators?

[BB]: We monitor the website, checking what activity is going on and what is being uploaded. And we call up the curators, speak to them and verify them. When it comes to the collectors and the objects, we don’t vet or authenticate because the idea is that we’re not taking the job of the curator, we’re not replacing them. The curator still has to use their own best judgement about the work. We do have various measures to ensure that it’s going well; for example, we’re working with the Art Loss Register, so if anything comes up that is a bit ambiguous we report it to them. But, we’re not an authentication system. For the time being, that has been enough, but as soon as the website becomes more popular, which we’re imagining will happen in the next six to eight months, we’re going to incorporate a pricing structure so that the collectors pay an annual fee to be on the system. If they’re willing to pay that annual fee, which will be nominal, it’s a bit of a vetting procedure to ensure that people are serious and they’re not just putting up pictures of their pet or something.

Is this how you’re going to make a profit off Vastari, the collectors’ annual fee, or will the institutions also pay a fee?

[BB]: The main structure is the subscription model for the collectors, but then there are various other things that we’re offering museums. For example, all our emails are sent in a very general format, we never send photos or specifics. So if a museum wanted to stimulate collectors to upload works by a specific artist, we can send an email through the system with only the information from that museum. So it’s like add-ons for the institution.

We’re brainstorming add-ons for the collectors as well, although we’re not sure exactly how this will work right now. And the subscription, we see this as a necessary means of vetting the people, and that fee will hopefully be enough to cover our costs.

Are there any specifications on the kind of works you feature?

[BB]: We have five criteria on our website: the work needs to be one of a kind or a limited edition, it needs to be representative of an era, owned indisputably by you, possessing a concrete provenance and with an authenticity certificate. But, because the search engine works by key words we’re not being too difficult; the Old Master curators on the system will be searching for Old Masters, and the twentieth century design works won’t come up. Some museums are very focused on things like sociology and they might be interested in, say, a soup can, something which is interesting sociologically but not artistically.

So you have ephemera like that?

[BB]: We have various categories: antiques, fine art, artifacts, memorabilia and design. There’s a whole range of things and these artifacts can be quite impacting: we have amazing collections of militaria and fossils that are definitely museum-worthy so if we were to limit the site it wouldn’t make sense. We’d rather have more available than less.

Which category has been most popular so far?

[BB]: Probably fine art, because that’s where people understand the venture best. They immediately understand the added value of having a work in a museum, which is definitely an underlying current of our project that we don’t promote because we’re not trying to be about the market, but of course for the collector there’s an underlying feeling that it’s great if their object is included in an exhibition. The people who have to do with fine art understand that, whereas maybe someone who owns design from the twentieth century doesn’t think about their collection as a museum piece. It’s also about teaching people about the potential in their collection.

You mentioned that collectors are notoriously private. What have you set up to protect that privacy?

[BB]: As I said, the objects are all saved individually, so there’s no full collection on the site. And all the collectors can set their settings to anonymous; when the museum decides to send them a message the museum doesn’t know who they’re contacting; it’s the collector’s decision whether they want to respond or not. If they decide not to respond the museum will not know who said no. Then the museums can upload exhibitions to our system, so if they have an exhibition coming up that they need works for they can register that. Some collectors can choose just to register on the site and be invisible, so [the collectors will] be able to see the exhibitions that are registered. If any of those are relevant to their collection, they can contact the museum.

China's under-construction PIngtan art museum. The boom in museums across Asia provides scope for Vastari's expansion, says Brockers. Image courtesy MAD.

China’s under-construction Pingtan Art Museum. Vastari is looking at ways to increase business with institutions across Asia, says Brocker. Image courtesy MAD.

Geographically, where are you registering most interest at the moment?

[BB]: Actually, we’ve had lots of interest in the [United] States, Europe and the Middle East. A little bit in South America and Africa, and very little in Asia to be fair. So we’ve got some private collectors in Asia but not really the museums or anything like that. Naqiyah has been doing more market research around Asia, and we haven’t approached that many people yet.

Do you think there’s something infrastructural that means Asian museums don’t feel as much need or are not set up to use the site yet?

[BB]: I imagine that, in the next five years’ it will change completely. The infrastructure is changing in China and other Asian countries where they are starting to get the nonprofit kind of feeling, but we don’t accept private museums as members because they’re still acquiring works and could technically be seen as a private collector. We’re looking at how we can work our system so we can still work for them, but at the moment we’re being really strict. I think in Asia there’s more of a trend for private museums than the national or nonprofit museum model. Maybe there are more limitations to the private museum – a lot of them are nonprofits but still the disassociation between acquisition, and the museum is still not strong enough. It’s difficult for us.

From what I’ve heard, in China, they seem very focused on having works moving around in temporary exhibitions and not having permanent collections in the state-run museums. But then, for example, Japan has fantastic museums; we’ve been in touch with a lot of Japanese museums. A lot of the museums in Japan and Korea are commissioning exhibitions from people in Europe so their blockbusters shows have often been put together in Europe and then brought over [to Asia] wholesale, so its not completely perfect for us. We’re lucky we have Marta [on the team], who is Polish but speaks Japanese. We’ve been lucky with our multinational team, and this is one of the reasons its been going well.

Can you tell me more about the team?

[BB]: It started off just me and this fantastic office – a recording studio from the 1970s and 1980s in London. People like Duran Duran and Boy George recorded here so there’s a really fun atmosphere. Right now we’ve got two full-time developers working on the site and one part-time developer as well, so that shows that the site is a big focus. Then we have four team members, the girls working with clients and explaining the system, and calling round the world explaining what we’re doing. The team is very international: we have an Ecuadorian who’s focused on Latin America, then we have an Italian who works round Europe, and then I’m Dutch and Dominican and Naqiyah is Saudi Arabian and Indian, so that’s fantastic, and Marta is Polish and [speaks] Japanese. We’ve got a fantastic mix. And, because we’re a start-up it’s all very relaxed; we work together on projects.

We’re also helping people to catalogue their works and digitise them, so that’s where these experts come in. For example, a Pakistani collector that we have hadn’t catalogued any [of his collection], so that’s where Naqiyah would be involved.

I think one of the good things was that we didn’t start at home: the office is a hub and has created the momentum and the gravitas we needed to get people to listen to us in the art world. Because, of course, we are young, and we are women, the art world is very often dismissive about anything like this. As soon as everyone realises what we’re doing, everything changes and they sign up. We didn’t want endorsements from the art world because that would jeopardise our non-partisanship, so we’re funded by private collectors who have a background in music or technology, not in art. The idea is that we’re completely independent: we don’t care about the value of the works and the price of the works. We care about the cultural value.

Naqiyah, can you tell me how you got involved with Vastari and what your role on the team is?

Naqiyah Sultan [NS]: It was a bit of a fluke really. I was registered on this Asia networking site called A Small World, and I typed in part-time art jobs and there was an advert for Vastari. The vacancy wasn’t available, but I thought “I’ll chance it anyway” and I sent in my CV, starting the dialogue with Bernadine. She kept my CV on file and wrote back a few months later, we had an interview and a week later I started.

At the moment, I’m working as a consultant because I have my Masters dissertation too. I’m trying to work on projects whenever I’ve got a moment, so it’s a little bit… difficult. I’m doing my dissertation at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies, London] in Deccani painting. It’s intense, but it’s fun.

What did you do before Vastari?

[NS]: I worked in the secondary art market with auction houses, primarily Christie’s and Sotheby’s in both the London and Bombay offices. So when I was doing the Art Radar course I was actually with Sotheby’s in Bombay. I helped to establish their office in India and helped with client development, sourcing works for about eighteen months.

Did you learn anything on the Art Radar 101 course which is relevant and if so, what?

[NS]: Well, there’s no journalism specifically in what I’m doing now, but the course helped strengthen my writing style, and that’s something I’ve carried on into my Masters. Structuring art essays is much easier now. In terms of the current job, it helped me to deal with journalists’ questions and the media; any kind of experience dealing with the media is really helpful.

Bernadine, there are fears that the “new era” in the art market might turn out to be a bubble. Do you think any market fluctuations will affect Vastari in any way?

[BB]: One of the best parts of the business is that we can survive a bubble because we are adding actual value. Its not speculative; the value-add of comparing a work in the context and conversation of art history is that even if the price goes down from USD 2 million to USD 200,000 it’s still an important work and it’s still important to share it with museums and ensure that the provenance continues to be respected. When it comes to the contemporary art market, I think that’s where rumours of a bubble are particularly prevalent, and people are saying things are possibly not right. We’ve actually had a lot of interest from contemporary collectors who have bought works, and [have] been hiding them from the market because they want that value-add mystique

We’ve also had some people who worry that curators are getting younger and they [the collectors] are getting forgotten, so they sign up because they want to stay in the process. I’m guessing that they’re worried about this theory that the market might implode and they want to stay at the forefront, being remembered, with their artists being remembered.

Do you have any plans for altering the model in the future? What do the next twelve months hold for Vastari?

[BB]: The most radical change will be implementing the pricing structure, so the site will be a little less accessible possibly. Then we have various projects in the works. One of them is working with governments because we want one object to be free for everyone [to loan].  We’d like to work with government entities to ensure that people who don’t have the funds to register their entire collection would still be able to get the benefit and access the system. So not being too elitist – we want to be selective but also inclusive. That’s probably where we’re brainstorming the most. We’d like to have events and talks, mainly here in London initially and then hopefully more internationally, depending on what happens.

Naqiyah, what does the future hold for you?

[NS]: I’ll continue with Vastari hopefully, maybe full-time, but that’s yet to be decided. I finish studying in October so I guess we’ll take it from there!

Cassandra Naji

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Related Topics: promoting art, art and the internet, museum collections, collectors, business of art, interviews, Art Radar journalism course

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