We love to hear stories about women leaving unfulfilling jobs to take the leap and follow their instinct with a business of their own. Burnt out after 10 years working in the tech space, Wendi Norris quit her job, took a year out and embarked upon a year of travelling with nothing more than a backpack. The result? A bold move into the world of art and the launch of her eponymous gallery, heralded as one of the top tier galleries in San Francisco. Fusing her business nous and creative eye, she’s a true force to be reckoned with and has made it her mission to remove the pretence associated with the art world by providing an extraordinary experience every person who walks into her gallery can enjoy.
So what does it actually take to run a successful gallery? That was what was on our mind when we sat down with Wendi – because if any industry is harder than fashion to break into, it’s art. Here she talks career changes, the power of following your instinct, networking 101 and what’s next.
Interview by Naomi Mdudu, The Lifestyle Edit.
Where her love of art came from:
I grew up in a small town in Ohio with absolutely no exposure to the visual arts growing up. When I was 20, I attended a university program in Spain. In Madrid, I attended my one and only art history class, taught in Spanish. The first and second days of class were held in the Prado and the Reina Sofia. The first paintings I ever saw were Diego Velazquez’ “Las Meninas” and Picasso’s “Guernica”. I had goose bumps, standing in awe in front of “Las Meninas”. From that moment, I began a lifelong journey of seeing, reading and learning through art.
Life before the gallery:
I worked in Fortune 50 and start-up companies in various tech sectors—all quite technical fields such as energy, data storage and software. I was the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development in the smaller companies, responsible for building and leading large teams of more than 30 people. I was often the only – or one of a few – women in a leadership role. I learnt so many lessons during my time working in that field that I still implement in my career now. Follow your intuition and find your inspiration authentically. Stick to a set of principles that enable you to build a strong, diverse and invaluable network of clients, champions and enthusiasts. In terms of when to move on, I always say that it’s time when you no longer have passion for what you are doing or your values are out of sync with your employer.
Why she left the business world behind:
I was burnt out at 34 after working in tech for 10 years and I just wasn’t passionate about it anymore. I wasn’t doing the sexy stuff you associate with tech start-ups. My focus was on the geeky networking side, working with business development teams. I ended up having to close the London office and firing the entire team of one of the companies I was working with and it took its toll on me. I didn’t have a social life. I was 34 and hadn’t had a date in four years. I decided to take a full year off and travel the world with a backpack. I stayed in Cuba for a while, where people earn $22 per month standard. When you make that amount, no matter what you do, it makes you question yourself about what you’re truly passionate about. Before I left my job, I secured a front page of the Wall Street Journal but I was more interested in reading the art section. That’s how I knew it was time for a change.
What to consider before switching careers:
Find time to volunteer or work in the industry you are considering. In the art world, many people think they want to work in the gallery world as it appears so alluring/glamorous. It is a lot of hard work, requires an unwavering passion for art and you must be able to deal with many behind-the-scenes details and minutiae. Unlike what you read in the media, we’re not always attending amazing parties and catering to the collectors, like Leo DiCaprio and Jay-Z. I have no fear with taking risks and venturing into the unknown. I always like to analyse decisions on both a strategic and quantitative level. After having an MBA and working in a corporate environment for so many years, extensive planning is second nature.
The lightbulb moment:
The market lacks transparency and is entirely protected or guarded, making it hard for new collectors to purchase art works. I wanted to remove the pretence and provide an extraordinary experience for every person who walks into the gallery.
How Wendi got started:
First, I worked on my business plan. People used to pay me to write for them so it’s something that comes naturally. Then, I interviewed 40 artists and people in the art world about working together. Originally, I started the business with a partner, as I thought I needed someone with expertise in the field. It wasn’t that long into that I realised that I could have gone alone. The creative differences were vast and the artists I was bringing on board were making the biggest impact so I followed my instinct and bought him out. It’s now been seven years and we’re considered one of the top tier galleries.
On balancing the creative and commercial:
I used to manage and mine data in my prior business years. Data is unreliable or non-existent in the art world. In deciding to take on a new artist, I trust my gut. I need to have the goose bump effect (a la my first painting—the Velasquez experience) – or very close to it. And I want to collaborate with hard working artists who are professional, motivated and have a fresh and intelligent way of communicating with the world. My staff and I had a gallery offsite earlier this year where we dug deep into what we are doing and why. I mean the real why – connecting people to extraordinary experiences and leveraging our collective expertise to make the world a better place through art. We outlined core values and a vision and set business and personal outcomes which serve to align us all and enable freedom for creativity. Everyone on my team knows the sales and profit goals and every other tangible and intangible goal we’ve set as a team and individually. It really makes us gel and frees me up, as the leader, to stay focused on those things only I can and should do. Ultimately, I want to put on the best programs and exhibitions I can. That always comes first, then I look at the numbers and how much money I need to take care of my time and do what I want to do.
Silencing the noise:
I don’t get too caught up in what everyone else is doing. Living in San Francisco, arguably the world’s centre for innovation, I’m accustomed to rapid change and often have first access to new technologies before they go to market as many of these innovators are friends or colleagues. Ironically, I’m a bit old-school in that I believe in the gallery model and I don’t follow market trends. I find this has kept me ahead of whatever curve is out there.
On leadership and management:
My family is full of natural born leaders. My grandfather was a mayor; my father was a principal; and my brother is a basketball coach. As a child, the Norris family gatherings almost always required a speech—whether I was commenting on the holiday gift I just received or telling a story about school. With my team, I’ve learnt that it’s important to lead by example and hire people with a strong work ethic. I try to hire people who are smarter than me as much as possible. Equally, I really appreciate people who know what they don’t know. As a business owner, I need to rely on the people I hire to know their stuff. If someone doesn’t, it can be problematic. It’s not often that we have disputes as a team but I try to listen and support my team in making smart decisions without my guidance.
On-duty uniform and her love of The Fold London:
I mostly wear dresses and have some strong, go-to pieces of jewellery that are often made by local designer friends. As a mother of three I don’t have time to give too much thought into mixing and matching. That’s why I love the brand. Each piece is versatile and has the ability to morph into different environments. The pieces work just as well in the boardroom as they do in a cocktail bar for drinks with clients. They’re classic but with a feminine, dressy appeal. I’m in love with The Good Wife and I always think of Alicia Florrick when I’m wearing The Fold. There’s something very sophisticated and empowering about the designs.
The projects she’s most proud of:
I ran an important exhibition for Dorothea Tanning in 2013 entitled, ‘Unknown But Knowable States.” She’s the wife of Max Ernst, one of the greatest painters of the 21st century. The show I created was widely revered and a gallery in London picked up her work. It was a big moment for me and a real breakthrough. Last year I co-founded a non-profit called, Sites Unseen, which utilizes underused alley ways in the Yerba Buena District of San Francisco, which is near my gallery and SFMOMA. Sites Unseen commissions permanent and temporary art works and performance pieces, providing greater access to art for the community.
I’m proud of my relationships and network. A great networker is empathetic, operates with professional decorum and knows how to give and get. I learnt a lot from Pamela Harriman who was the US Ambassador to France. She was the epitome of class and social graces. She used to write handwritten notes to everyone. I get notes all the time and it means a lot. With networking, it’s important to be as authentic as possible. I know when someone wants something from me. Make sure you give as much as you receive. I treat everyone equally. You’d be amazed how a curator can quickly become a director at a big museum…
Working under pressure and the importance of balance:
I love what I do so work is entirely pleasurable. As a small business owner, I’m always under pressure so I’ve learned to live with the intensity. But when I’m at home with my family, I leave it all behind and rarely look at my phone or email. Burn-out is something that’s a reality for many entrepreneurs and it’s absolutely something I’ve dealt with. When I do start feeling that way, I take a spa day with a friend or an unplugged weekend away with my husband or family. I play tennis or go paddle boarding; take a long hike or prepare an elaborate dinner party for friends – all things that are pleasant distractions for me.
I have a lot to be proud of – most of it lies in the innumerable successes my artists have had and how they continue to inspire countless groups of people. I would like to produce a movie. I already know what I’d like to make and how to get started… If I can only find the time.
Words: Naomi Mdudu, The Lifestyle Edit
Photography: Hewitt Photography
Accessories: Jewellery, Lola Fenhirst