Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Art Collector and Media Officer Catherine Levene on Empathetic Leadership
Welcome to Shattering the Glass Ceiling, a podcast from the Art Angle team where we talk to revolutionary women in the art world and beyond about how art has shaped their lives and careers.
The second installment of this four-part podcast mini-series features Sarah Cascone, editor-in-chief of Artnet News, with art collector and media executive Catherine Levene.
Levene’s 25-year career spans the entire media space, starting at The New York Times Company both in corporate sales and later as part of its burgeoning digital strategy. After earning his MBA, Levene ventured into media startups and eventually created a new company, Artspace, alongside his business partner Christopher Vroom in 2011. Artspace was one of the first platforms to introduce e-commerce. in the art market, and in 2014, house publishing Phaidon bought the company, run by Keith Fox.
In 2020, Levene was announced as the new director of media organization Meredith Corp., becoming the first female executive to lead the magazine conglomerate that includes People, In the style, Travel + Leisure, and FOOD AND WINE.
Born in Binghamton, New York, Levene has kept the pulse of the art world, starting a collection that she continues to build year after year.
Below, read a snippet of the conversation.
I understand that you have a whole collection of art. Where did you first discover your love for art?
My grandmother was quite an extraordinary woman for her time and was always a fan of the arts in general, whether it was the performing arts or the visual arts. She was one of the founding members of the New York State Council on the Arts, and she did a bit of collecting herself, or as much as she could from upstate New York. I think through her and then my father I really come was surrounded by people who loved art, and therefore by osmosis, it came to me.
And when did you start collecting art? Was there one room that started it all?
When I graduated from college I came to New York and I really couldn’t afford art, but I always went to these nonprofit charity events and the artists were incredibly generous and often donated works that the organization would sell to raise funds. The first piece I bought was a very small photograph by Vik Muniz in 1993, and I still have this piece today.
As I have grown in my career and could afford a little more, I just kept buying coins, usually it was about a coin or two a year for a while. And I had always set aside a small budget to be able to do it.
And are there any artists or works of art that you have in mind right now?
I always do. Right now, I’ve been looking at several pieces by Hassan Hajjaj, a Moroccan photographer who kind of mixes up pop photography, and takes these very colorful photos of men and women dressed in beautiful items. The last series was about Arab women in many cases wearing burqas on motorcycles – it was really cool and interesting work.
Much of your career has been in media, but in 2011 you founded the Artspace startup. What inspired this company?
It’s actually pretty straightforward: I worked in media and tech for most of my career in 2010, which was about 20 years at the time, and saw white space opened up in e-commerce. and art.
There was so much online activity back then, but very little in the art market. There were posters sold everywhere, but nowhere where you could really learn and educate yourself and then buy contemporary art from all over the world. The internet really was the perfect place to do it frictionless, so my partner at the time, Chris Vroom, and I founded Artspace to be able to bring the art collection, whatever your level, to anyone. You can go online from anywhere in the world and purchase an artwork from any gallery in the world.
You ended up selling Artspace, and a few years later you left. Why did you leave and how did you get back to publishing and your current job at Meredith?
We sold the business to Phaidon, and I have to say I’ve bought and sold a lot of businesses and been on either side of the deal before, and it was a really good collaboration. Phaidon was a big house for Artspace, and CEO Keith Fox really took care of getting us into the existing business. We got a lot of support and a few years later I realized that I had done what I could with this business, and that it was in good hands, so I left.
I started counseling for start-ups, and while I was there I got a call from Meredith, who had recently purchased Time, Inc. – for those who don’t know, Meredith Corporation is a large, cross-platform media company that owns a lot of the brands you know and love, including People, Weekly entertainment, All Recipes, and Travel + Leisure, powerful brands that have been around for decades and evolving in a new world of new media. In fact, I started my career in publishing before the internet even became mainstream media, so it was interesting to come full circle in an industry that I knew incredibly well.
In recent years, we’ve seen how celebrating the visionary foundress can go both ways, and that women can be vilified for behavior at work that wouldn’t necessarily be challenged by a male leader. How can women leaders be committed to maintaining a positive and positive work environment while running a successful business?
I think where we are today is incredibly well suited for women. We’re very used to being in a world where we have to juggle family and home with all the expectations that many of us have of being a mother and in business, which is incredibly complicated.
Personally, I think the kind of leadership we’re moving towards, which is empathetic leadership with a focus on communication, is perfect for women. My advice is just to keep staying there, I know it can be difficult to juggle all the diverse needs of our time, but it’s a great time to be in the workforce for women.
Listen to other episodes of Shattering the Glass Ceiling, a podcast miniseries from Art Angle, below.
Curator Lauren Haynes on Working to Forge a Fuller History of American Art
Curator and author Legacy Russell on Rebuilding Arts Institutions from within
Art dealer Mariane Ibrahim on the power of good relationships
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