Helen Swaby is the CEO of Clarendon Fine Art and the Whitewall Galleries.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I am CEO of the UK’s most dynamic gallery group, which includes Clarendon Fine Art and Whitewall Galleries. We have over 50 successful galleries across the UK and onboard 10 ocean liners in partnership with Cunard and P&O, and we are the official gallery partner of Sky Arts Portrait and Landscape Artist of the Year. An important part of my role is to oversee and inspire the three key elements of the business – customer experience, artist talent, and team members.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Not really. I graduated with a degree in psychology and began working in sales. When I bought my first home I went looking for some art and found it a deeply disheartening experience. Nothing was affordable, the galleries seemed unapproachable – indeed, it was not the fun day out that I was expecting. I decided to approach an artist directly (Sherree Valentine–Daines), and although I didn’t realise it immediately, one studio tour and two glasses of Champagne later, my career plan was underway.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
The biggest challenge has been tackling the elitism that dominates the world of art and which I encountered that first day. As a business we set out to change the perception that contemporary art was for a chosen few, and 25 years later we have 400 amazing people out there democratising art. We have helped thousands of people who had never walked through a gallery door to discover the joy of collecting. It’s been a tough fight, but it’s one we’re winning.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
It’s incredibly hard to choose one thing – there have been so many special moments. Opening the first Whitewall in Westbourne Grove in 2006, opening the first Clarendon in Mayfair, securing the contract to run the art programme on board Cunard and P&O, winning our first award for customer service – but I guess the biggest achievement is running a 400-strong company of individuals who all come to work every day with a smile on their face.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
I think it’s that I followed a great piece of advice my father gave me. He told me that the most important thing you can do is build a great team around you. He was absolutely right and my success has been our success.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I have a very hands on approach to management and although I do not officially mentor individuals, I do spend a lot of time working alongside our gallery teams and at events. I’m of the firm belief that we can all learn from each other.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
To have a sustained programme of empowerment for women which begins with the family at home and through schooling, to eradicate negative gender norms and raise the expectations of girls and their parents. Having high expectations and confidence in yourself are the first step to achieving anything in life, whether you’re female or male.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Get as much sleep as you can now. Your future is going to be extremely busy!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
It is a very exciting time within the business. We’ve just welcomed our new MD, signed some fantastic new talents and are in the process of implementing a new retail rollout directive. In addition we have lots of exciting initiatives in our continual quest to provide our clients with an extraordinary retail experience.
Our mantra has always been to Adapt, Evolve and Advance in order to remain a very Relevant Brand on the High St.