BA (Hons) Fine Art alumna, Helen Toomer, graduated in 2003. We caught up with her to find out about her experience at AUB and the successful career she has embarked upon since graduating.
What originally attracted you to studying Fine Art at AUB?
“It was close to home and I thought I wanted to be an artist.
How did you find your time at AUB?
“It was a great experience. I learned a lot and made friends, who I’m still connected with today.
What were the most important lessons you learnt?
“To work hard. Ask your teachers and peers for feedback. That you have to make your own art and your own opportunities by collaborating with your peers.
Can you explain a little about your career journey since graduating… what jobs have you had and where? What does your job involve?
“After I graduated in 2003, I travelled for a few months then I got a job at the Affordable Art Fair in London in March 2004. I worked there as Fair Manager, coordinating with the exhibitors and the stand builders. In 2006 I left, as I had outgrown the position and there were no further opportunities, so I went traveling again and told the owner of the company I would be interested in working for him again in New York, for his new art fair PULSE Contemporary Art Fair.
“In the summer of 2007, I went to New York for three months to help the team launch PULSE London and ended up staying in the New York office as Communications, Sponsorship and VIP Manager until the end of 2009. Again, I felt I had outgrown the role, and wanted to travel again, but ended up staying in New York and helping an online website, Artlog.com, launch a new gallery portal and collector events programme. I stayed there for about year, but wasn’t in love with what I was doing. I considered doing a Masters in Curating, but realised that would cost me more than I could afford, and really what I wanted to do was start a gallery and work with artists.
“I met with a friend and told him my dream and he said why not do it, and he had the perfect space. I fell in love with a tiny little storefront in the Lower East Side of New York, did a quick business plan and realised I could sustain the gallery (on a shoe-string!) for a year. In the spring of 2011, I had the keys and opened the gallery, with a partner, called ‘Toomer Labzda’ which focused on emerging artists. I managed all aspects of the gallery; the design, the installation, artist and collector relations and was in the gallery practically everyday.
“Running a gallery was a tremendous experience – a huge learning curve, incredibly challenging, rewarding, but not sustainable for my partner and I, who parted ways and I closed the gallery after two and a half years. After that, I converted my old gallery space into the new office for Collective Design Fair, which I helped launch in New York in May 2013. There, I was able to put all my fair management experience into play and was able to work with the founder, who had no fair experience, and direct him and the team, for a successful first edition.
“I was happy at Collective, but was approached by my old boss in December 2013, to become the Director of PULSE Miami Beach and New York. The brand hadn’t been doing so well and they needed some fresh blood, who had experience, to turn the ship around. I jumped at the challenge and became Director in January 2014. At that same time, I also started teaching ‘Marketing of the Arts’ at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In the next three years, myself, with the team, re-branded the fair, moved locations in Miami, increased attendance and social media followers, bought back some galleries who had left the fair, got new galleries involved, closed the New York edition of the fair and launched PULSE360; a new collectors event driven programme to give the fair a year-round presence. I really enjoyed my time directing PULSE, but it took its toll on me. I worked around the clock and realised I had to be so focused on the budgets and the selling of the fair, that it took me further away from what I loved, which is art and artists.
“After three and a half years, in June 2017, I quit and joined the PULSE Advisory Committee. In August 2017, myself and my husband launched STONELEAF RETREAT, which is a place for artists and creatives to connect and collaborate through a residency programme and series of events. It’s set in the Catskill Mountains of New York on over 20 acres of land and the goal for 2018 is to launch the STONELEAF Sculpture Park.
“In 2016, I stopped teaching ‘Marketing of the Arts’ at FIT to start teaching it at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, where I’m currently teaching a similar course, along with a new syllabus I have written, titled ‘ The Business of Art Fairs’.
Tell us a bit about your current role, what is the best bit about your current job and what attracted you to it?
“I am the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of STONELEAF RETREAT and the best bit is that I have the freedom to carve out my own role and grow the organisation with both my husband and with the feedback from artists and our community. We want STONELEAF to evolve and provide space and time for artists to create, as well being a welcoming, social and connective platform for all types of creators.
Can you tell us a little about the work you’re most proud to have produced so far?
“I think I am most proud of the gallery. It was a tiny space, less than 250 square feet, but we showed some amazing artists and made some magical connections. I feel a similar pride with what we are doing at STONELEAF too and with teaching – as it’s wonderful to see students benefiting from what you’re teaching them.
Do you have any future career aspirations?
“Yes – many! I’m working on potentially starting another gallery, growing STONELEAF and there’s always talks of starting my own art fair – so we’ll see!
Finally, what’s your one piece of advice for the next generation of creatives?
“Work hard, be kind and collaborate. There’s power in numbers and power from the experience of really working hard and learning from, and understanding the value of that. Also – never ever underestimate the power of being kind, as you never know where, or who, the next opportunity will come from!”