The world of art publishing has long been a fragmented and unprofitable industry. Wealthy individuals often own titles because of the access it gives them to the art world, to collections, and to ritzy openings. In exchange, they are often prepared to accept losses as the price of joining the party.
Now all this is being radically shaken up by the arrival of Louise MacBain the glamorous, millionairess Canadian socialite who is on a mission-to build a media empire based on art publishing—a “Bloomberg of the arts” as she calls it. Her plans, if they succeed, could change the whole profile of art publishing and education.
Ms MacBain comes to this mission armed with a war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars, earned from the sale of her shares in Trader.com, publisher of 400 classified-ad magazines. She brings determination and enthusiasm, but also some of the naïvety of the newly-converted, as she goes about wooing just about every art publication in sight: Art Review, Antiques Trade Gazette, the Parisian Connaissance des Arts, Modern Painters and The Art Newspaper, among others. She had previously tried to buy Sotheby’s Institute, without success.
So far, she has clinched deals with the US-based Art Knowledge Corporation, which publishes Museums Magazines and Spoon, a Parisian art-and-fashion publication. She is also targeting, if all goes to plan, art data sites and hopes to create, further down the line, an art counselling service as well as an “Art Davos” in London based on the political institution, which will double as an institute to improve the artistic education of children.
As well as lots of money (she does not disclose exactly how much she made from the sale of her Trader shares), she has good looks, a top-model figure, long strawberry-blonde hair and designer clothes. Her business credentials come from the hands-on experience acquired with her ex-husband John, with whom she built up Trader.com.
Louise MacBain came to the attention of the art world in 2001, when she took over as CEO of Phillips de Pury and Luxembourg after the French luxury goods group LVMH pulled out (The Art Newspaper No.124, April 2002, p35). In fact, she explains, she had been interested in the auction world long before: “When I was chairman and ceo of Trader.com and we were launching internet sites, I realised that the important thing was to bring people back to the site more often. So I wanted to get into the auction business, and in 1999 we tried to buy the private treaty business that Simon de Pury and Daniella Luxembourg had set up after leaving Sotheby’s. However, Bernard Arnaud [owner of LVMH] got there before us.”
Her involvement with Phillips de Pury and Luxembourg ended acrimoniously at the same time as she split with Simon de Pury, whom she had been dating. “Then LVMH asked me if I was interested in buying the magazine Art+Auction, and I acquired it last year.”
There are those who believe that the split from Mr de Pury is at the heart of her move to London and desire to build a press group; others say she is a social climber. Opposing these critics are those who admire her belief in education and her energy. “She will be a powerful force to reckon with,” says one.
With Art+Auction under her belt, Ms MacBain’s next step is, “to continue to acquire in different segments [of the market], contemporary, photography design; we will launch new products this year.”
It is easy to rain on other people’s parades, but I ask how she can succeed in making art publishing profitable, where so many others have failed. “Until now, many owners have been in this business for passion. An art magazine was what the French call their danseuse, their little luxury, because they were interested in art. We can bring in the necessary resources and an international network.”
And what of her “Art Davos” project? “We have just acquired an enormous space of 28,000 square metres in Notting Hill, where we are going to create an art institute. We will bring together artists, auction houses and dealers and we also have to bring in the government if we are to develop a substantial Davos. That, of course, will only last for four or five days a week each year. In the meantime, I am starting programmes with my charitable LTB Foundation, to educate children, for them to understand a bit more about civilisation. I don’t think we’d be in the controversial political situation we are in today if people understood more about other civilisations,” she says.
“I had a privileged childhood. I would like to be able to make art less elitist, and to educate children in art. A lot of people are too scared to go into a gallery. Collecting art is intimidating: think of entrepreneurs who have made millions of dollars, but who don’t know how to buy at auction. I would like to make this more accessible.”
The desire to make art less elitist seems at odds with Ms MacBain’s persona, the glittering personalities she has tempted onto Art+Auction’s board, such as Bianca Jagger, the Duke of Lugo or Susan Soros. But philanthropists have ever reconciled their own riches with the desire to do good. “I was lucky” Ms McBain concludes. “Not everyone has the background I had; I would like to give it to others. Are we going to be successful? No one can know for sure, but you can’t be penalised for trying.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Louise MacBain: “a Bloomberg of the arts”'