I Want Your Job: Elizabeth Petrova, Corporate Art Selector
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I Want Your Job: Elizabeth Petrova, Corporate Art Selector

Helping to make corporate Toronto a little more beautiful.

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Walk into any respectable bank or corporate headquarters, and chances are they’ll have something hanging on their walls. Sometimes corporate art is designed to blend into the background—inoffensive watercolours or a few abstract daubs of paint—but, more and more, the art is taking centre stage.

Enter Elizabeth Petrova, coordinator of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s art rentals and sales department. For the past three years, Petrova has worked with corporate clients like Aimia and Harbinger, along with a variety of interior designers, showroom stagers, set dressers for film and television productions, and private art collectors to find the best match between patron and product. Petrova, 30, has a background in both business and art: she’s a graduate of the MBA program at York University’s Schulich School of Business, as well as the Painting and Drawing BFA program at OCAD. Having worked as a project manager, curator, and art consultant, Petrova is uniquely positioned to navigate the place where corporate and creative forces meet.

Our interview with Petrova—about trends in the art world, how corporate art serves a social mandate, and Jean-Michel Basquiat—is below.

Torontoist: How does the art selection process work? Who determines what can go to corporate clients, and how? What types of collections are you pulling from?

Elizabeth Petrova: The AGO art rental and sales’ collection features original artwork in a variety of mediums from contemporary Canadian artists. The artwork is selected from commercial galleries and independent artists, so it’s not from the AGO’s vaults, but rather from artists in Toronto and all across Canada who are producing the work of our time. Right now you can see some beautiful work from one of the greats, Denyse Thomasos, or take home a piece by the groundbreaking Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona, or a piece from an emerging artist like Trevor Wheatley. Unlike the commercial galleries, we aren’t limited to a roster of, say, 10 or 20 artists. We work with virtually all of the galleries in the city and over 100 independent artists.

Most of the work we do is with corporate clients. We usually start off by doing a consultation—seeing their space, getting a feel for their identity and the environment, speaking to them about their needs and their vision. We then present a proposal, receive feedback, and go back and forth until we find the perfect selection. We’ll often take clients on gallery tours and to visit artists’ studios, because our focus is to provide an engaging experience. It’s a collaborative process and I love working with clients to communicate their vision through art.

How long can organizations keep the art? What is the leasing arrangement?

Our minimum rental starts at three months and after that clients can extend it on a month-by-month basis, or for a longer duration—say, six months to a year. We’re very flexible on our end, but I do check in with the artists first if it’s going to be an especially long rental. I find that a majority of our clients end up falling in love with the work and convert rentals into purchases. In these cases, we can apply up to three months of paid rental fees toward purchase—like a down payment. We also do weekly rentals for TV and film production and home staging.

How does this job differ from doing art selection for a private collection, an investor, or a patron of the arts? What factors are different for corporate clients?

The difference is in scale and sometimes budget, but the main difference is in the number of people involved in the artwork selection process. For example, corporate clients will sometimes use an employee committee for me to work with, or they’ll have an in-house curator that I’ll collaborate with. Using an employee committee is a great way to engage employees of the company in the artwork selection process.

How do trends in the art world, or within the AGO’s own collection, affect the selection process? How have you seen the clients demands change over the years?

Clients depend on us to keep an ear to the ground to be informed about what’s being shown and developments in the art market. I have a team of 12 volunteers who help me stay on top of everything. We’re all constantly out in the field, visiting galleries, going to art fairs, seminars, speaking with artists and curators. Our collection is definitely influenced by AGO programming. For example, in honour of Now’s the Time, the Basquiat exhibition currently on at the AGO, we brought in a collection of photographs by Roland Hagenberg. He did a studio visit with Basquiat in 1983 and captured the artist at his most candid.

During my time at the AGO, I’ve noticed that clients are becoming more open to boundary-pushing, non-traditional work—they’re interested in installation, video, and mixed-media art, as well as subject matter that is sometimes daring or provocative. Overall, I’d characterize the shift by saying that clients are willing to follow the artist’s lead. They’re curious and unafraid to explore.

It would seem that corporations view their corporate art as an extension of their brand. How does working within branding or corporate identity parameters change the conversation around what you recommend?

Artwork always represents its collector in some way. A corporate collection may serve a variety of purposes—for example, to stimulate dialogue among employees and clients, to enhance or reflect the brand, to support the arts as part of a social corporate responsibility mandate. The latter is an important consideration for most clients, because building an art collection is one of the best ways to support the local visual-arts ecosystem. A collection supports not just the Canadian artists, galleries, and the AGO, but also framers, art handlers, and the list goes on.

Art is an important piece of the corporate client’s identity and environment. For example, I’m currently working with a company in the financial-services industry with roots in Alberta. This client has an affinity for imagery and artists that represent the company’s history: prairie landscape, vastness, open sky. Their more traditional pieces are then juxtaposed with contemporary works to represent the innovative element behind what they do. There is a nice balance between tradition and looking ahead to the future.

Can you tell me about a time when you really felt like the match between client and artist was perfect? What factors made that possible?

Harbinger, one of our longtime clients, has recently added a couple of new pieces to its collection. Overall, this client appreciates work that is visually stimulating and thought-provoking, produced by artists who are exploring themes that are relevant to the work done at Harbinger—verbal and visual communication, language, the spread of information.

An installation by Lizz Aston was a particular hit. Lizz is a young, emerging Toronto artist. In her work she is interested in bridging gaps between traditional textile practice and contemporary art and design—she creates these beautiful, intricate, lace-like installations, very sculptural with a lot of shadow play. They’re intersections of art, design, sculpture and traditional textile practice. Like Harbinger, she gathers insight from different vantage points and reflects this company’s boundary-pushing, modern, and distinctive brand. I think it was a great fit!