Ora-Ora Live — Episode 13: Interview with Catherine McClelland from Sutton

Septembre 11, 2020
Ora-Ora Live — Episode 13: Interview with Catherine McClelland from Sutton


Dr. Henrietta Tsui-Leung as Henrietta
Catherine McClelland as Catherine



Henrietta: I am so blessed to have Ms. Catherine McClelland as my guest today. Welcome.


CatherineThank you so much. Thank you, Henrietta. It’s great to join you on the Ora-Ora Live today. It’s fantastic.


HenriettaLet’s talk about you a little bit more. Catherine, we know that you are the President of Sutton Asia. You basically came to Hong Kong from London to start up the shop.


CatherineI came out in 2013 to help launch Art Basel here in Hong Kong. I moved here properly in 2014, so I’ve been here the last 6 years leading the Sutton Hong Kong Office.


Henrietta: This is a wonderful adventure for you.




HenriettaBefore we get into that, I want to understand a bit more about your background and what communications is like in the art world.




HenriettaI read from your bio that you actually graduated from one of the top colleges that many Hong Kong people aspire to attend. You took a degree in Cambridge. What degree was that?


CatherineI studied History of Arts at Cambridge, so we focused on art, architecture, wrote a lot of essays, did a lot of studying.


HenriettaDid you get into communications right after graduation?


CatherineNo, I knew that I loved the arts and wanted to stay in the arts field, but I was not sure what that might look like. So, after graduating back in 2007, I was thinking where could I go from here and how can I could break into the arts scene. I did an MA focusing on Museum Studies, which communications was a big part of. I started working in museums instead of doing different things in London, and just really enjoyed the communications side of things, like reaching out to people, promoting the arts, making connections. I sort of realised that was the thing I enjoyed most.


HenriettaFor us as gallerists and for a lot of professionals in the art world, we understand clearly how important communications is for artists, institutions, or galleries to thrive. But for a lot of our viewers, especially younger people, who probably have no idea what communications entails, can you explain a little bit about it in the context of the art world?


CatherineYeah, for sure. I was the same when I started out, I didn’t really know what it was. When I got my first job in communications, I still wasn’t too sure.


HenriettaWas it a lot of writing, talking?


CatherineYeah, it’s a mixture. It’s all about engaging with people and thinking about how to reach audiences and tell them about the arts and how to shape what’s happening in the art world. From writing press releases and sharing materials, whether that’s digitally, helping with social media or websites, or content so that people can learn a bit more about what’s going on in the art scene. When there’s a new exhibition or a new artwork or art fair, we’re often there helping organisations, galleries, museums get the word out and make sure that people know what’s going on so that they can come down and enjoy it.


HenriettaHow did you find the difference between your clients from the UK versus us here in Hong Kong or in Asia? For me personally, when I last visited London, I tried to meet up with Callum and I was like over an hour late, but he was so kind and sat there waiting for me. All I wanted to do was understand how the same kind of business is different between London and Hong Kong. I guess we are growing so fast in Hong Kong, a lot of us want to understand and compare how things are done in the UK.


Catherine: Yeah, for sure. It’s an interesting one because London is quite well-established in terms of the art scene, communications; there are lots of long-running institutions and galleries there. But I think for me the exciting thing about Hong Kong is that it is a fast-moving, entrepreneurial place to be. There’s lots of enthusiasm; people are open here. Whereas in London, you might do a press event and struggle to get people down, write some emails and not hear back. In Hong Kong, you need people, and everyone’s open to collaborate and share ideas. The whole thing’s been growing so quickly over the last 6 years I’ve been here with new openings. I think communications has been a big part of that. People understand here and across Asia what communications is and how it can be effective for our galleries, museums and how it can be an important tool.


Henrietta: So that must have been quite interesting for some of your clients in the West when they wanted to come to Asia during big events like Art Basel, Shanghai Art Week. Have you come across cases where your clients got cultural shock?


CatherineYeah, definitely. That’s why we love having a great team of colleagues where some are from Hong Kong, mainland China, with lots of different skills, languages and knowledge. The local knowledge is so important. We work with a lot of clients that are internationally based across our 3 offices. For example, UBS and their cultural platforms. Here in Asia, we are on the ground advising what’s been of interest and sharing that kind of knowledge. I think you do need to have cultural knowledge on the ground, for sure.


HenriettaInteresting. How would you see the rest of 2020 in terms of communications and programmes? How would communications have a role in — how should I put this — spreading different positive messages to create understanding amongst people because there seems to be different issues coming out with the pandemic, right?

Catherine: Yeah, and I think people do want that communication. Communicating at this time is important, you’ve got to be able to reach out and you can’t go dark for months. It’s important to stay connected. So I think communications, things like social media has become more important, people want to follow things, learn and engage with programming.


One thing we’ve just worked on with the Taipei Dangdai team was a launch of viewing rooms to build connections. Of course there are many viewing rooms happening at the moment, but that was a really curated response to the digital viewing room idea with lots of programming. Whether that’s studio visit, a walk through Taipei, it’s quite open at the moment, people can go to museums and things, walk through museums and linking up people across the world, so spokespeople in America can join a conversation in Taipei. I feel like those connections at this time are important, but I think it’s something we will see continuing in 2020. We don’t know what’s the situation’s going to be like, it’s so hard to predict.


Henrietta: How should people from different continents promote oneself? Should we be focusing on people around us or do you think it’s worth it to spread it out to the world? Especially when your resources are limited.


Catherine: I think local audiences have become more important especially with the travel restrictions, especially in Hong Kong, with things opening up again. There are a great many art fairs opening up in Tai Kwun in a few weeks’ time.


Henrietta: Unscheduled.


CatherineExactly, founded by HKAGA. That’s so fantastic that that’s happening. That’s off the back of other things being cancelled, how can we still come together? Really that’s the local audiences, because international visitors can’t come to Hong Kong at the minute but anyone living in Hong Kong can go down there and enjoy it. The local audiences right now are super important. But through the digital connections we can still talk to our colleagues and friends around the world. It’s good to keep that in mind because people will want to come back in the future, so you got to keep your profile, your best out there.


HenriettaYou can’t just hide out and wait around until the next wave of interest to come to start promoting yourself. By then, people might have forgotten you.


CatherineYou got to keep that engagement going and keep connected.


Henrietta: In terms of programming, even for smaller galleries and companies, how should they be programming themselves to suit their audience?


Catherine: I think programming is key. Content is obviously important. Because there are so many online initiatives, it’s got to be content that people would want to log on to. We’re bombarded with webinars, online viewing sessions. There’s a lot happening.


Henrietta: It’s very difficult to catch one’s attention. That’s why I do attend a lot of different seminars and to learn about people’s psychology and their needs at the moment. How can young people get into this career? What kind of attributes are you looking for when you are hiring people?


Image: Dr. Henrietta Tsui-Leung and Catherine McClelland (Image courtesy of Ora-Ora)


CatherineWe are so lucky with the team in Hong Kong, it is a fantastic team. Lots of them have joined us as interns and stayed with us for many years and worked their way up. We’ve got an amazing, skilled team of professionals who I absolutely love working with. I think, for interns, we do talk to universities in Hong Kong. I’ve spoken at some of the universities, to get the word out there that this career exists, there’s this profession that people can consider. We take on interns, and the people that make it don’t have to be perfect, but there is a certain energy and enthusiasm you need, because it is hard work. We’ve all been, for the past 6 years, working so hard from the ground up. Launching art fairs is a lot of hard work. So you’ve got to be able to work hard and get stuck in. Language skills are amazing in our team, we have translators, great writers. People who are really passionate about art basically, being a part of the art scene, and help making those connections.


There’s a lot of teamwork, a lot of our team members have gone on to work at big galleries or museums. There’s a great art scene in Hong Kong so people move around a lot so we have a lot of great friends in different areas. You could start at an agency and go in-house, pick up different skills like curating, this is a good way to start out. We need a balance of great writing in English, great writing in Chinese, translation back and forth. It’s so important to communicate in Hong Kong and across Asia as well. There are definitely some different skills that we need in Hong Kong.


HenriettaAnother area I want to ask you about is art fairs. We spoke about this yesterday. Your company helps a few major fairs in the region and around the globe. First of all, how are they doing, are they going to be supporting galleries through this time? What are the outlooks of these fairs?


CatherineTotally. It’s a big question, it’s something we are all very aware of, in terms of large-scale group gatherings at the moment, and it isn’t a reality at this stage across many places in the world. Going back to the online viewing room idea, obviously Art Basel was very quick to launch the Art Basel viewing room for the Hong Kong edition.


HenriettaIt was so popular that the website got jammed at 6:05.


CatherineI worked for the VIP Art Fair a decade ago which is an online art fair, which also went down for the first few hours. These things happen when a lot of VIPs are trying to go on and buy some work. That’s obviously one way, but I think it is important to have that individual connection with galleries at this time. People are finding it really hard, it’s a challenging time, it’s been a tough year in Hong Kong. People appreciate that kind of outreach and connection. What Magnus and Robin did in Taipei Connection was so good because they had a lot of programming to complement the online viewing room. I’m looking forward to art fairs coming back, obviously. We love being there, it’s a great way to experience and to see so many different artists in one place and good programming.


HenriettaBefore we chose this rooftop we chatted about whether we wanted to choose a place that shows some of the artwork collection of yours. Can we talk a little about it? People know you as a professional lady. But I wanted to know, do you collect?


Catherine: Yeah. Living here and being so connected across Asia, I love arts and I love buying art. When I’m seeing things, whether it’s in a gallery or an artist’s studio, I have bought bits and pieces in Southeast Asia and here in Hong Kong. The latest piece is by Stephen Thorpe who is an artist in Hong Kong.


HenriettaBeautiful piece, I saw.


CatherineIt’s a big painting, fantastic interior piece. It was bought quite recently from his studio. Now is a good time to buy art, actually some people are buying a bit more art because they’re thinking it’s a good time to support artists and to go out to studios. I bought things from other art fairs. I don’t know if you’ve been down to the Hong Kong Artist Collective shows. In Sai Ying Pun, they have a pop up space. There’s a lot of things going on in Hong Kong if you get out there. I like discovering new artists. I am quite impulsive, I have things from different countries that mean different things.


Henrietta: I also see on your social media that you enjoy the nature quite a lot. What is your life like in Hong Kong apart from working? For your friends around the world, Hong Kong may be seen as a workaholic place.


CatherineWe work hard, but one of the things I love most about Hong Kong is the nature — going on hikes, going to Lamma Island with my dog, enjoying something that is quite unique to Hong Kong. It’s not in every major city that you can just go out and be in the jungle and go for a long walk. We need to get out, right? We can’t be just working in the city. I think it’s a great place for nature.


HenriettaDoes that give you inspiration on how to handle crises? I can probably imagine that people like yourself have been managing different kinds of crisis in the past few months.


CatherineIt’s been a tough time for a lot of people. It’s been a challenging time. But we’ve been so lucky in Hong Kong that we have been able to go outside still. I’ve done a lot of stress hikes with the team and with friends, just going out and taking a little time out from what’s happening around us to get a perspective and enjoy the calm. That’s much needed.


Henrietta: How is your global team working together? Is it going to be the same in the future? Or are there any new ideas you are thinking about?


CatherineI guess change has to happen, right? This has helped shake things up a bit.


HenriettaI mean Asia seems be handling this situation well just because the outbreak was earlier, and we seemed to have turned around the corner already. How has the world reacted to this, are they looking at us for experience or anything?


Catherine: Yeah, definitely. Our London and New York offices have been sharing a lot of ideas and knowledge about what’s happening here, and things they might want to take forward as things are slowly recovering in other areas of the world. I think obviously everyone in Hong Kong reacted very quickly which helped to make sure things are under control here. I think there’s a lot to be learnt from here. We do so many Zoom calls with the international team. Obviously in Asia it’s a late night for us most of the time. But it’s a great way to share ideas, brainstorm and see what we are going to do in the future. Because we don’t have to go back to what we were doing before, we have to think of new ways of working.


HenriettaChristie’s launching an auction around the world. It makes me think, for smaller galleries, how we can work with other galleries to collaborate and save resources?


Catherine: Totally. When Art Basel launched the viewing room, there was a great collaboration of galleries in Asia. They joined together to do many conferences with Lisson Gallery, who we worked with for a long time, and other galleries, like Tina Keng, across the region. I think that was great because it’s good to have different voices from different locations at the same time. We’re sat at home watching from our living rooms, but we’re hearing about new artists in Taipei, new artists in Shanghai. These ideas are really important for us to consider.


HenriettaThat’s great. What do you look into the future for communications in general? This is our million-dollar question. In Asia and in rest of the world, in terms of communications, it depends on the outlook and what’s happened, and we just have to act on it and always be present.


Catherine: I think, be responsive. Stop and think about what’s happening around you. We don’t have to make immediate decisions, we don’t have to react and then backtrack. I think it’s good to pause, to think about objectives: what does the world look like now, how do you want to communicate now, and what things actually work well? Working remotely is maybe something we wouldn’t have done before. But now it’s worked very well for the team, it’s something we can do a little bit more. We can do more online meetings, we don’t have to meet in the same place. So I think it’s opened up new opportunities that way. What communications is going to be like for the rest of the year, we’ll find out, I think.


Image: Henrietta with Catherine (Image courtesy of Ora-Ora)


Henrietta: It’s really always nice chatting with you because you are super positive and very poised and professional. Now, a personal question: you must have faced challenges.


CatherineHenrietta, all the time.


Henrietta: How do you handle stress and challenges?


CatherineGoing to the back and having a little cry. I have amazing colleagues, my colleague Louise has probably seen me through many ups and downs and really supports me so much on a daily basis. So I think having colleagues you can chat to, go for a 6pm vodka with when it’s all getting to much. You always say, “you’re so poised and professional”, but I’ve been round the back sobbing plenty of times. I just come back fresh faced and ready to go.


Henrietta: I cannot imagine that.


CatherineIt’s been a tough year, right? We’ve all felt there’s been challenges and, I don’t know if you were at the Basel event in January when Adeline was speaking to everyone, there’s this sense of community, that sense of “we’re in this together”. It has been tough, and there will continue be challenges ahead. Some parts of the world are still in lockdown, for many of our friends and clients and colleagues around the world it’s still a challenging time. But we’re in it together. We’ve got friends, and that for me, is how I get through things. Friends and family.


HenriettaTalking to people, having friends and somebody who you can confide in and chat to. With a lot of young people watching, and given this uncertain time ahead of us, do you have any advice and tips you might have for them, or words of encouragement?


CatherineYeah. I think you got to keep knocking on those doors really. It’s always tough when you’re starting out. You’re always sending off CVs, you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But I think you’ve got to be persistent, be positive, keep following talks like this, social and digital media, see what’s happening in the city, coming down to things and learning, experiencing etc. I’ve always looked up to you. Total businesswoman, professional that I’m inspired by. There are many great women in the arts scene in Hong Kong, incredible people. When you’re young and starting out, you need people like that to learn from and ask questions to. You just have to keep asking questions.


HenriettaTake initiative, knock on doors and look for mentors and people you aspire to learn from.


Catherine: Totally. Watch what they’re doing.


Henrietta: Go find them and ask them tough questions.


CatherineLike, what you doing next, Henrietta? It’s good to learn and find out. I think you have to keep doing that. It’s not an easy time, and it won’t be an easy time in the arts scene in a while. But that shouldn’t hopefully put everyone off trying to get into the industry.


HenriettaHow about people in the UK? How can we do a part? I’m sometimes thinking, what kind of programmes or other things we can come up with to entertain them?


CatherineI think there are a lot of museums and galleries in the UK are doing great programmes. My brother, who is a British Museum member, he can’t go down there at the moment but I know they have put a lot of programming online for their members, people who are coming back once the doors are opened again. You’ve done some fantastic projects in the UK for artists.


Henrietta: I would love to go again.


CatherineWhen we can travel again, it’s the top of my list to get back there to see everyone.





Each week, Ora-Ora will speak with various members of the art community — including artists, curators, academics and other professionals working in the cultural sector — to address topics of interest related but not limited to Hong Kong’s art and cultural scene.  The series aims to be an outlet for creativity and a means to connect with peers who share similar interests. The episodes will also available live on Ora-Ora’s Instagram (@galerieoraora), Facebook (Galerie Ora-Ora) and later on Ora-Ora’s YouTube channel.