SML – or Sophie Macpherson Limited – is one of the best known recruitment agencies serving the art world. Founded in London by Sophie Macpherson in 2002, the agency has since opened additional offices in New York, and now also provides executive search and consultancy for auction houses, collectors, museums, dealers, galleries and public institutions across four continents. Having begun as an assistant to an art dealer on London’s arty Bond Street in 2000, Sophie has become the ultimate go-to for those looking to hire and be hired in the art world. So, we just had to speak to her about her career journey, and also to get her top tips for securing a job in the art world.
How did you get into art recruitment?
I left university having studied languages and got a job working for an art dealer, which was meant to be a week’s work, but turned into nearly four years of working for him and his gallery. It was a very small team and I was able to see how a business operates in the art industry. Because it was a very small team, I was involved with everything – from sales, to administration, to management, to exhibitions.
When it was time for me to think about my next steps, I realised there was nowhere for me to turn to when I wanted to start exploring my own career. One recruitment company I went to told me that there are no careers in the art world and that I should be an assistant in the financial sector, even after I had just sold paintings for the dealer I was working for. I was a bit taken aback by that.
I then started recruitment by helping friends, who mostly worked in auction houses and galleries, and I became the unofficial go-to person when anybody was looking for a job or to find a member of staff as I was discreet and always had my ear to the ground. After doing this for a little while, I then decided to turn it into a business, which I’ve done ever since. That was in 2002.
Did you have any career mentors?
I would say my father, because he’s managed to always have such a varied and interesting career. He’s taught me not to be scared enough to say no to things and to always keep busy and to look for opportunities that you don’t currently know exist.
Are there any degrees that you think are more relevant than others?
If you want to go into working with an artist at an artist studio, having a very practical and hands on understanding of the practices of art are very important. A fine art degree would be relevant in this instance. Likewise if you want to become a curator with a deep specialist knowledge in a specific area that interests you, then pursue a PhD. A PhD is useful because it’s space to pursue an interest and gain deep knowledge in an area which you may not have the space to do otherwise. It’s 4 years in the UK (longer in the US) so that deep dive into the area makes you an expert in your very niche field, so it gives you something to take to an institution and say, “here’s something I’m the leading expert in”. It also provides a platform to then publish that research, which again, would be attractive to an institution being able to offer public or academically published works because it enhances the scholarly weight of your curatorial work.
I’d also say studying a general undergrad in History of Art is useful for working anywhere in the art world, because even though people specialise and work in a particular era, if you haven’t done a History of Art degree you may lack the generalist knowledge and grounding of how art of all eras feeds into and off each other, so it’s important to have a wider spread of academic knowledge before you get tunnel vision for the era you work in.
An Art Business MA is also useful as certain institutions are held in high esteem (i.e. when people look for researchers, they often cite that someone from the Courtauld would be interesting).
How should we approach the job search process?
With patience and determination. Two very difficult things to put in tandem but they are equally important.
Stefan Kalmar (ICA London), Kadee Robbins (Michael Werner), Sophie Macpherson and Oliver Barker (Sotheby’s European Chairman) at London’s L’Oscar. Photo credit: Luke Fullalove for Marguerite
In your opinion, what is it most important to highlight on our CVs?
On the CV, it’s best to keep it factual. Make it easy to read, focusing purely on facts, dates, and you can be as flowery and creative as you like with the cover letter, including long term career goals. The CVs that stand out are actually the ones that are succinct, with basic formatting and little to no colour. They should focus on highlighting key skills and successes, ideally with bullet points rather than long prose. Use a cover letter to identify and elaborate on why you have applied, what makes you the best candidate, etc. A summary at the top of the CV/resume also helps recruiters and employers quickly digest key objectives.
The CV does not need to be design-y – in our experience, clients like it simple, straight forward, chronological and bullet pointed. The weight of detail should be what that person is doing in their most recent positions. Fancy formatting usually detracts from the legibility and order of the CV. Best to keep it as simple as possible and include dates of employment. This is often missed out and it’s vital to understanding someone’s level and areas of expertise.
What do you recommend we wear to an interview?
Always be smart, you never know who might be pulled in to interview you. This shows an awareness of the fact that we are in a commercial sector. Even in the non-commercial sector, we have to understand how to present ourselves well in order to focus on things such as fundraising and partnerships. Also, dress for the job you want. We don’t need to wear suits in our industry but looking smart and professional shows the interviewer that you’re prepared and serious.
What do you find most exciting in the art world right now?
Globalisation, the fact that learning new things means learning about new cultures, places and ideas. It’s a constant education. Also, the potential of developing a visual industry online and digitally. Seeing as we are in the visual arts, this would allow people to be more creative at a higher volume.
Interview by Lizzy Vartanian