With the launch of the 15th Sony World Photography Awards this month and PHOTOFAIRS opening its doors in Shanghai this September, we speak to Scott Gray – Founder and CEO of the World Photography Organisation for this month’s Meeting Montgomery Members interview series.
The Sony World Photography Awards is now in its 15th year – an incredible achievement! Other than entry numbers and global recognition, how have you seen the Awards evolve year on year?
In the early years the numbers were big. In short, it is the number one award for photographers and artists working with photography, and the global footprint of the programme is absolutely astounding. Whilst the numbers are impressive, that now aligns with a genuine authority and credibility within the photography world. That authority creates probably the most striking change each year which is the positive impact on the careers of the winners and finalists. This maturity and authority create a real legacy for the Award and its recipients.
Your background is in putting on fashion shows and events. What triggered your change in direction to lead events and fairs within the arts industry?
The connection between fashion and art events is my enjoyment of the sectors. The fashion industry brought me to the events industry and the photography and art world has kept me in it.
Over the years I have realised how much I enjoy events and exhibitions as you genuinely see the efforts of your labour. I loved being involved in plays and fashion shows when I was at school and university, and I get the same feeling of enjoyment delivering an event. Everyone in the team is focused and working towards a single point in time: the welcoming of tens of thousands of people and bringing an industry together to connect. There is so much energy. It is a super feeling and incredibly rewarding; a feeling that is really enhanced if you’re passionate about the industry that your events serve.
The World Photography Organisation became part of the Montgomery Group in 2007. Can you tell us how this came about?
I launched the Awards (along with another event idea) from my home and after securing venues and some sponsors I started to build the business. However, I quickly saw that in order to realise the potential of the events, I needed support. That support was not just about infrastructure but also input into the business and concepts that only experience can offer.
I then happened across a super interview that Damion gave which highlighted Montgomery’s passion, creativity, belief in people and their entrepreneurial spirit. I then reached out to him to discuss a potential joint venture. The feeling I got about Montgomery – their positive values and culture – from that first interview remains with me today. I am delighted that Damion and Sandy agreed and that the World Photography Organisation and myself are part of the Montgomery Group.
As well as being the founder and CEO of the World Photography Organisation, you’re also the CEO of Angus Montgomery Arts (AMA). Both initiatives have had to shift how they engage with their audiences because of COVID-19. What do you feel you’ve learned, from a business perspective, during the past 12-14 months?
The World Photography Organisation and Angus Montgomery Arts are very different businesses. The Organisation has a very established digital offering, already engaging online with a significant part of its community. As such, the necessary adjustments brought about by the pandemic were easier to navigate. The AMA side is focused on delivering art fairs; we are the largest art fair organiser in Asia-Pacific bringing thousands of people together, under one roof, to view and buy art from international dealers. Clearly that has not been possible over this pandemic.
We have had to establish online options, maintain relationships with our clients, launch different event experiences, conceive alternative digital platforms and deliver new high-end digital content. It is of course important to have strong products in the sector, which we do have, but the key has been the importance of being versatile and really knowing our communities.
It is through the versatility of the business along with the creativity and passion of our teams that we have managed to stay relevant and stay connected.
The FT reported that pre 2020 art fairs accounted for 45% of gallery sales. There’s also evidence that the forced move online has brought in a new generation of buyers – especially in Asia. Where do you see art fairs in the next 12 months? Will they be largely online, or much like how they’ve operated in the past, or more like what Frieze Los Angeles and PHOTOFAIRS’ Weekend of Photography have operated, where exhibition spaces are spread throughout the city rather than all in one building?
I believe that people who wish to look at art, engage with it, meet with artists and dealers, discover new works – would prefer to do so in person; it is not just because you see the work in real life and get a sense of its scale but fundamentally it’s more enjoyable. Ultimately, buying art or viewing art is a passion, a hobby; it is nicer to go around a gallery and discuss a collection of works with a friend than to sit online. Saying that, Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs) have enabled more art to be seen by more people which in turn creates a greater engagement between the public and art. That can only be a good thing.
Therefore I still think art fairs and galleries will remain as the principal vehicle to deliver art sales but I absolutely can see that OVRs, or a version of them, along with other digital products can potentially connect with a greater audience and be a source of finding new art buyers and art lovers.
I don’t believe the answer therefore lies in trying to replace the live event. I think the key will be to ensure that the online products are accessible to all and truly support and extend the live experience.
You have more than 20 years experience in the international art fair and event business. What three elements does an event need to make it a success?
A clear audience, a clear profile and a committed team.
It is so essential to have a clear and relevant event profile that can then fully connect with the audience you are looking for through focused and engaging content. However, never underestimate the awesome team that then delivers it!
Where would we find you when you’re not heading up AMA or WPO?
I’ve surfed for about 25 years, so whenever possible that’s where I would be in my downtime; either in the sea or sitting in a restaurant by the sea.
If you had one piece of advice for a Montgomery Group new starter, what would it be?
Embrace the opportunity. It is a tremendous company in an incredible business industry. They are passionate and considerate and you will absolutely be rewarded for the efforts you put in; both personally and professionally.