photo: Steven Kohlstock
I r e n R u s s o
Can you tell us about your background in the arts, and how you ended up working as an independent PR agency specialising in photography and also as an art collector?
As long as I can remember, I have loved the arts. As a child, you would always see me with a piece of paper and a crayon; later I copied famous works like those by Franz Marc or visions of Venice. While I was doing my A-levels in art, I went to every museum show possible. After making my first steps in the business world, I moved to New York as I wanted to add some experience to my first two courses of study. In the summer of 2001, I enrolled at NYU to study art administration. I also got an internship at the renowned non-profit space White Columns, and immersed myself in the local art scene. Experiencing art and working with professionals really helped me to navigate through the overwhelming New York art scene.
I strongly believe that doing and creating have always been more valuable for me than just reading and listening. Theorie vs. Praxis, as we say in German. Internships and project experiences helped me find the kind of work I wanted to do. After New York came an internship at Boris Abel Kunst, then work at C/O Berlin, followed by a job at Asperger Gallery, then one at Alexander Ochs Berlin/Beijing. In 2006, I was ready to strike out on my own and founded my PR agency. As a lover of photography and avid photographer myself – this quickly became the focus my activities: promoting photography exhibitions for galleries, museums, and artists. During the early years, I often accepted art pieces as part of my payment; later, I bought art that “spoke to me” – at art fairs, during studio visits, even at flea markets. I have also received work from artists as a token of appreciation for my services. So you could say that art collecting came with the job, or is a pleasant side effect of my PR work.
Photographer Olaf Heine, Press Officer Nadine Dinter and model Maik Eichhorn, Galerie IMMAGIS, 2018, Photo: Michael Tinnefeld
What is your earliest memory of photography art, and what led you to start collecting it and promoting it?
Photography has always been a passion of mine. As a teen I started taking pictures using an old Praktica I inherited from my grandfather, and I loved visiting the few photography galleries that were around in the nineties in Berlin. Rare works at Kicken gallery in Berlin-Mitte, high-fashion photographs at CAMERA WORK in Charlottenburg, as well as the fantastic Helmut Newton retrospective in 2000 at Neue Nationalgalerie are three highly memorable shows from the early years.
The reason I started collecting and promoting art came from my strong desire – or even need – to have art in my private and professional life. And photography, with its exciting history, captivating works and protagonists, plus my own photographic work, seemed to be the perfect medium to build the rest of my life on. The rest is history…
How would you describe yourself as a photography PR specialist?
24/7, passionate, professional, open, ambitious, well-connected, a healthy mix of outgoing and discreet, eager to constantly learn about the classics while discovering the work of new photographers. My motto: Consult, communicate, connect.
Together with the Hilton Brothers Paul Solberg (left) and Christopher Makos (right), Waldorf Astoria Hotel Berlin, 2016, Photo: Dietmar Bührer
What is the main motivation behind your work?
The central aim of my work is to create maximum exposure and media attention for the projects I am promoting. This means international press articles, well-orchestrated press events and openings, and the many visitors activated to come and view the gallery exhibition, museum show, or festival. Personally, I love the feeling of being immersed in the art experience. It’s also immensely rewarding to be at an opening and to see the happy faces of the client, the artists, and the visitors.
What are the three main qualities an art consultant must have?
Willpower, patience, and connectivity.
What are some dos and don’ts artists should know when working with a consultant?
Dos: If you decide you want support, then be open, cooperative, and willing to accept advice you might not like at first.
Have a clear vision of what you want, or try to express the essence of your goals as clearly as possible, so that the consultant can pick up on it and build your personalized strategy.
Don’t: Don’t overestimate yourself but also don’t underestimate yourself. Be ready to let go of old habits and to let in fresh perspectives, new ideas, and unusual approaches.
With star photographers Inez & Vinoodh and curator + director of the Helmut Newton Foundation, Matthias Harder, HNF Berlin 2019
During the opening at the Deichtorhallen, with photographer Miron Zownir (left) and his gallerist Bene Taschen (right), Hamburg 2016
As a PR and art consultant, how have you built up your wide network of artists and clients? How has this changed since COVID-19?
Part of my work is visiting major photography events, such as les Rencontres d’Arles and Paris Photo, but above all, the photography-related events here in Berlin. This is where you see the artists, clients, and curators you already know but also where you get to know new people in the scene, by being introduced to them or by introducing yourself. Going to openings shows their respect, and signals that you, too, are an active part of the scene. Plus you can see the works in person: for me, a digital representation is no match for a live experience.
Since COVID-19, the scene, the personal encounters, and the whole feeling of togetherness have been hit incredibly hard. Otherwise simple acts of meeting in person to talk about art and life, all the little human interactions, not to mention travel – these have all been put on hold. On top of that are the financial woes that have come with the closing of the art spaces.
What is the most recent work of art you added to your personal collection and why?
A beautiful black and white portrait of Alfred Hitchcock, taken in 1970 by Greg Gorman. On the one hand, I adore b/w portraits, and on the other hand, I love Hitchcock’s movies. So two passions are combined in one photograph.
With jazz musician + photographer Till Brönner and photographer Tom Lemke, Berlin 2016, Photo: Steven Kohlstock
Has digitalization changed the way you collect art?
Not really. Although I do read market reports, which inform on what is being auctioned or sold digitally, I am a classic collector who loves to stand in front of an artwork, to get a better sense of its materiality, feel its power; the live experience is what stirs my desire to buy the work.
Where is the future of the art market headed?
This year and last have proven that there are other effective means to show and promote art than “just” exhibitions and fairs. It’s great that novel ways of displaying and selling art are being developed and implemented. But at the same time, the art market seems to be shifting in favor of wealthy, blue chip galleries – at the expense of the diversity of the art scene, which consists of big AND small galleries, institutions and non-profits, temporary project spaces, artist initiatives, and so on. I sincerely hope that the art scene will start recovering soon, and that it will be able to regain its previous energy.
Top three art destinations
Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Camera Work, Berlin
Three inspiring artists to watch
Opening of Berlin Photo Week, with Thomas Kretschmann, Richard Kruspe and Olaf Heine, Chaussee 36, Berlin 2019, Photo: Christian Behring