Interviews

INTERVIEW WITH CO-FOUNDER & CEO OF VASTARI, BERNADINE BRÖCKER WIEDER

INTERVIEW WITH CO-FOUNDER & CEO OF VASTARI, BERNADINE BRÖCKER WIEDER

Bernadine Bröcker Wieder is the CEO and Co-Founder of Vastari Group, an online resource that securely connects private collectors of art with museum curators for exhibition loans and tours. Vastari aims to improve transparency to facilitate exhibition collaborations worldwide and is currently the largest online facilitator of international touring exhibitions. The online platform has become an essential tool for many in the museum and exhibition industry, enabling exhibitions to tour and share information globally.

Hello Bernadine, we have been looking forward to speaking with you.

Your business model is very unique. How does Vastari aid exhibitions, collectors and museum curators? Where did the concept come from?

Vastari developed from noticing that the links between public institutions and the private sector were stunted by a lack of openness and communication.

Collectors would love to lend to institutions, but didn’t know how to go about communicating with the curators putting the exhibitions together. Curators would love to borrow from collectors but need to stay at an arm’s length from the art market.

Museums in emerging economies would like to import content, or export their own content internationally, and didn’t’t know how to go about it, or where the best market is.

Our model is to be the matchmakers for this content, to find the best way for it to be displayed to the public.

The concept came about as I was managing a gallery in Mayfair. I kept getting approached by collectors who were upset that they’d missed an opportunity to lend and different exhibitions in London, and investigation didn’t bring up a reasonable or viable alternative. My co-founder Francesca was at the British Museum, and she was researching privately owned works for loans. She would investigate the current owner of a work for months, only to find that they weren’t’willing to lend. A light bulb went off.

Bernadine Bröcker Wieder
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder

What is the process of museum curators and collectors connecting via Vastari?

There are different ways Vastari facilitates exhibition loans. The first is our online registry database. Collectors can register their works anonymously, and Vastari ensures that the only ones who can search through the database are curators at non-profit organisations accredited by a museum authority. If one of these curators wants to borrow a work, they can contact the collector directly via our messaging system and organise the loan.

The second way is via what we call “object requests”. We have museums requesting dozens of works per month, either from a specific artist or around a theme. Collectors can then respond to these requests directly with their objects. For example, we currently have a request for 17th century works of art relating to food and consumption, as well as a request for works by Georges Braque, and even a request for objects relating to killer whales. Curators are open to being inspired by what collectors think could be a relevant work.

The nice thing is, that since it’s anonymous at first, there are no hard feelings if the loan doesn’t work out – but more possibilities are brought forward. A bit like a dating service, when you have more options, you are more likely to find your perfect partner.

There are still those collectors who remain very private and would not want to show their works online. How does Vastari ensure anonymity for these types of people as well as a private interaction between institutions and collectors?

You’re right – 7 years ago when we started, even online banking wasn’t yet on the cloud. Nowadays, more and more collectors are understanding that there are ways to distribute the information to make it more secure – but there will always be those who are still suspicious of putting information online.

At Vastari, we have responded to this in two ways. The first is technologically, and the second is analogue.

Technologically, we are using the highest level of encryption and distribution on our databases, so it would be very difficult to find all the information in one place. It was great to be at Microsoft Ventures in 2014, because we learned a lot about how we could improve our cloud services. We use multiple databases that are constantly changing and moving the information from one data center to the other.

But really, the secret is also that we don’t hold too much sensitive information. Vastari’s marketplace doesn’t hold addresses for where the works are held, doesn’t have any pricing information – so basically, the information you find on our platform wouldn’t be very helpful for tax authorities, the market or robbers (which I think are the main threats collectors worry about).

As our company grows, for any future sensitive information we’ll save, we are building even more advanced distributed networks that strengthen the security even further.

In an analogue fashion, we have created an alternative subscription type for collectors who really don’t want to register their works on the database at all.

As mentioned earlier, there are object requests you can respond to. These collectors pay us a higher subscription fee and respond to the object requests from museums directly without using the platform. It’s not a scalable solution as it costs our company more man-hours, but it helps build the trust with customers.

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How do you ensure security and protect yourself from hackers?

To be honest, there is little data that is appealing to hackers on our platform. Maybe some people would be interested in knowing who owns what, but the way we save the information, it is just not interesting. There are many other databases out there that would be much more interesting to hack.

But, we are always thinking ahead – and the next products we’ll be releasing in the next few years will be using a variety of methods to keep information secure – from blockchain technology to encryption to third party authentication methodologies.

You have previously mentioned you do not ‘want to replace the curator,’ what is the selection process like when picking works that appear on your platform?

You’re right – the first article written about Vastari back in 2012 was titled “Is this the end of the curator?”. It is appealing to think that you could go onto Vastari and just curate your own shows. But the truth is, Vastari only goes a very small way into assessing the works on offer. It is still the curator’s job to make sure that the work is relevant, authentic and interesting – the same role they have offline.

What are your targets? Are you more focused on old masters, impressionist and modern, or are you opening your platform to young and emerging artists?

Our targets are mainly about the number of matches.

This usually means we want to get more users that are doing the same thing (more old master curators for old master collectors, for example) – but matches can sometimes also be unexpected. We recently proposed work by a contemporary artist to a curator doing an exhibition on Old Masters, and given it was about the same subject, the curator thought it was great to include.

Thus far what has been the response from both museum curators and collectors to Vastari?

I think that it is taking a while for people to understand that we are not a commission-based company, but a membership service. We confuse people because we’re not getting a success fee, but convincing everyone to join up to a movement. For both collectors and curators that can be a confusing value proposition. But the wonderful thing is when we have a staunch critic of our business model converted. One of our biggest current investors actually initially wrote us to complain that our business model doesn’t make any sense. We’ve changed his mind, we must be able to change everyone else’s!

The biggest thing for all companies starting with art and technology is trust. Our industry doesn’t embrace innovation in working practices, and is very set in its ways. We had to work really hard over years to build up the trust with both collectors and curators so they know we won’t suddenly tomorrow switch our business model and get involved in the art market. Vastari has to remain independent, at an arm’s length from the market and abiding by the ICOM code of ethics, and then more and more collectors, exhibition producers, museum directors and curators will see we’re not going anywhere and that what we do is helpful.

Vastari
Bernadine Bröcker Wieder with her team

In February 2018 Vastari was selected as one of the few companies invited to London’s “Go To Grow” International business programme, honouring London’s most promising start-ups. What are your future plans for the company, will you be collaborating with any other companies or organisations?

Yes, being an ambassador for London as one of its recognised scale-up companies has been really wonderful. The Mayor of London’s office is trying to stimulate connections between London and the world, and we are a company that’s global first. It just made sense. We’re working with them now on trade missions, events as well as press and communications. It’s great when government organisations help businesses grow.

As a matchmaking company, we are constantly working with so many industry players. This year, our biggest goal is raising awareness in the market to the way exhibitions are planned today. We are publishing an industry report in early October, based on deep surveys with more than 500 institutions, which we will keep updating throughout the year. It is really valuable information for the museums to know, but also for all insurance companies, shipping companies, suppliers, designers and producers working with museums – to really understand what the market is.

You co-organised the Art+Tech Summit at Christie’s in July 2018. What were you hoping to achieve through this event? What did you achieve?

We have been looking at DLT (blockchain) since 2015 and one of our investors is Everledger, a company that has built a blockchain solution for the diamond industry.

We approached Christie’s about this event because we realised that after the cryptocurrency boom of December 2017, there was a lot of misinformation about what blockchain is, and what solutions it could provide. It was important to bring all key players under one roof and dispel any myths.

I hope that we were successful at this! There is now an online video on Youtube of the whole event, (watch now) so it will be something that new blockchain companies can reference to understand what the industry thinks and what solutions are already out there.

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We haven’t released our products with underlying blockchain technology. We want to wait for everyone to understand the strengths, and for the technology to evolve a bit further, before releasing our solutions. But if the industry understands what it is, then in 2019 or 2020 when Vastari releases these new products, the industry will already understand why it’s interesting, and what is valuable about the proposition.

How would you describe the complex relationship between Art and Technology?

We actually mentioned this in the introduction speech to the Art + Tech Summit. For an industry that embraces the avant-garde in art, the art world does not embrace the avant-garde in technology. If there was more openness, and awareness, it is a place that a lot could improve immensely using technological solutions.

Given the art market relies on alchemies as well as economies, and the asset values are so intangible, many players get worried that tech, data and automation could ruin what exists now. But once people open their eyes to what is possible with virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning, AI, blockchain and immersive technologies – it actually gets so exciting. We are sitting on the precipice of huge change in the art world and how it is powered. Rather than being scared of it, I think the industry should welcome it with open arms.

There is a new initiative being developed called the “Art Innovators Alliance” that Vastari is also involved in. This initiative will be pushing the industry to embrace innovation rather than shying away from it. The future is bright if we stop being scared of innovative approaches. Hopefully in the future, the art market will embrace avant-garde technology in the same way it embraces avant-garde aesthetics.

What changes do you predict in the art market over the next few years?

With our work, we have been looking at what audiences want to see, rather than what is selling at auctions. It is a completely different world. So far, valuation in the art market has been very one-sided, based only on the prices that works get at auction. This is such an arbitrary thing, and given all the vested interests in the market, it isn’t a very clear way to value art.

As an art historian and a museum fanatic, I think the real value of art sits in whether people want to go and see it – and if it speaks to them on a deeper level. I am excited to be at the forefront of innovations in exhibitions and experiences – as these processes get more digitised, we may see new alternative methods of valuation that shifts the market back into the hands of the public. The data needs to improve (which we’re working on at Vastari) but then we can really build new models that are better for assessing what is truly culturally significant.

Any project / dream you would like to share with us?

I am really looking forward to the changes I mentioned in the last question, and to see how all the art + tech companies will come together to build new propositions. The market is big enough and will only grow with more players… I get so depressed when art + tech companies don’t make it.

There are so many more possibilities when we work together – it will be very exciting to see the future of art + tech in the next 10 years.