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Lucie Kitchener, the polished and personable chief executive of Masterpiece, is something of a rarity: an art market player with business in her blood. “I’m a child of the Thatcher generation. I started out selling Bisto [gravy] granules to cash and carry stores out of my red Ford Escort,” she tells me when we meet in her modest office (albeit in Masterpiece’s swanky stomping ground in Chelsea).
Born in London in 1967, Kitchener was something of an outlier in her more “eccentric” family, she says. Her father was the renowned “fifth Beatle”, record producer George Martin, and some rock’n’roll clearly rubbed off on his more conservative daughter. “I always knew that I wanted to combine creativity with business,” she says. A career in marketing beckoned, and Kitchener has held senior roles at PepsiCo, United Biscuits and the contemporary design business The Rug Company, where she was managing director.
It was while working at the luxury furniture group Linley that Kitchener first came across Masterpiece — as an exhibitor at its first edition in 2010 — and in late 2016 Kitchener began as a consultant to the fair. “No one knew exactly what the job would entail. It was a case of looking at a fair that had hit on the right formula but didn’t know what its future looked like,” she says.
Among the items on her agenda was the fair’s mix of offerings. “There were questions about its balance between luxury and artistic gravitas. Could a fair with a Spitfire warplane [shown in 2011] also be serious?” she says. Kitchener believes the two aren’t mutually exclusive, a view shared by Masterpiece’s chairman, Philip Hewat-Jaboor. “There can be a hair-shirt view of experiencing art, but that’s changing and, ultimately, it all comes down to presenting excellence,” Kitchener says.
In early 2017, Kitchener became a permanent fixture at the helm — and it has been a rollercoaster ride since. In December of the same year, MCH Group, the parent company of Art Basel, added a 67.5 per cent stake in Masterpiece to its portfolio (three of its original shareholders, the exhibitors Ronald Phillips and Apter-Fredericks and stand builders Stabilo, still hold the remaining 32.5 per cent).
“The MCH move gave us new international opportunities,” Kitchener says. Offshoots in the US and Asia were on the table and it seemed all systems go for the previously cautious fair.
But, a year later, MCH Group hit the brakes. Problems at its other fairs, notably the flagship watch event Baselworld, led to group-wide cost-cutting. While the parent company stressed its commitment to Masterpiece (and to Art Basel), launching outposts in other countries seemed to slip down its list of priorities. “The pace of what they wanted changed. But had we gone as fast as we had planned I don’t think we’d have done as well,” Kitchener says, with characteristic positivity.
A Hong Kong presence has now been confirmed and the fair’s first overseas venture is just around the corner (October 4-7). The extra time enabled Kitchener to re-think the model of art fair expansion, she says, and she took the unusual decision to launch within an existing event, Fine Art Asia, a fair that has been running since 2006.
“Things are changing. What works is no longer about where to drop 150 exhibitors,” Kitchener says. The counsel of Fine Art Asia’s founder Andy Hei is also proving invaluable in the region, she adds: “It’s important to know what you don’t know.” Some 14 of a planned 24 exhibitors, including Daniel Crouch (rare books and maps) and Cortesi Gallery (modern and contemporary art), are already committed to show.
Plans are still bubbling for the US too, and there Kitchener has more expertise, having expanded The Rug Company across the Atlantic. “One thing I’ve learnt is that America is much more than two scripts. What works in SoHo doesn’t work in, say, Dallas or San Francisco,” she says.
For now, the original London fair takes priority. “Focus on the new and the shiny at your peril,” she says. Kitchener, who was widowed eight years ago and has three teenage children, compares the fair’s expansion to being a parent. “London is the first child; you don’t lose sight of it just because you’re having more.”
She is rightly proud of what has been achieved at the fair in London, which seems to defy the odds in a saturated market. She highlights this year’s global newcomers, including Everard Read (Cape Town), Richard Saltoun (London) and Wildenstein & Co (New York).
She is particularly excited to have brought in Jo Baring, director of the Ingram Collection of modern British and contemporary art, as a first-time curator of 14 sculptures inside the fair. Baring has chosen pieces that demonstrate sculpture’s variety of materials and domestic potential. These include Susie MacMurray’s copper chainmail “Medusa” (2014-15, Pangolin gallery), Gary Hume’s bronze “American Tan VII” (2006-07, New Art Centre) and Zheng Lu’s stainless-steel wave “Water in Dripping — Chao” (2016, Sundaram Tagore). All the works are for sale.
“Masterpiece has a vibrancy and energy to it,” says Baring, “and in my opinion this comes from Lucie. She has kept the glitz of the fair, while also ensuring the academic rigour of the vetting and display.”
Kitchener herself has no regrets about her jam-packed start at the helm. “If I knew then what I knew now, would I make the same decisions?” she wonders briefly before answering her own question with a definite “Yes!”
Jun 27-July 3, masterpiecefair.com
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