Over the past year, Vastari has been undergoing a particularly exciting time of growth following the launch of the Vastari Travelling Exhibition Network. We spoke with the Executive Director Francesca Polo to get the full details. Read on to learn more and join us at our event ‘Stories from Start-ups in the Arts’ to hear Bernadine Bröcker talk about Vastari.
It’s been nearly 1 year since you launched the travelling exhibition network. Tell us more about it, what is it?
Vastari travelling exhibition network is an online marketplace for museums and exhibition producers to promote shows that are available to travel and look for exhibitions to fill in their programming. All registered users can both upload available exhibitions or browse for exhibitions that are for hire. The system allows users to upload an exhibition proposal in pdf format and to thoroughly describe the exhibition by listing the artists included, the number of works/space required, past venues, attendance figures and explanatory material available. Conversely users can use the search engine to find available exhibitions and, once they find a relevant show, they can email the person who uploaded it directly. Alongside the platform our team of experts promotes the exhibitions through direct marketing, email marketing and presents them at museums conferences to ensure maximum visibility.
How does it fit with the original proposition of Vastari, which is to give collectors access to curators at major museums worldwide for exhibition loans?
Vastari’s proposition has always been two-sided: we help collectors gain access to curators and conversely make privately owned works available to curators. Two years ago, while we were working with museums to facilitate temporary exhibition loans, we started receiving more and more enquiries from museums to help them tour the shows they were preparing and this is how we decided to build the travelling exhibition network, which complements the exhibition loans platform creating a synergetic ecosystem.
So it is basically complementary to your original idea and became a product on its own. Where do you see most of the demand coming from, in terms of region and museum type?
The two platforms are complementary to each other. On the one hand when an exhibition tours, it might happen that some of the works cannot leave the country. In this case being able to source objects locally from a private lender is particularly valuable for curators as it simplifies the logistics and helps them to give a different spin to the exhibition. On the other hand, the travelling exhibition network is used by a select number of our collectors, who can export their collection from Vastari to the travelling exhibitions platform, where they can pose it as an exhibition.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Well what I like the most about my job is not having a typical day! Just to give you an idea, it can start with a call early in the morning to help a collector in China to lend a work to an exhibition, progress with an international call to arrange for an exhibition to travel from Europe to the States, and end with a meeting to discuss a partnership.
Do you get requests for additional services? How do you prioritise your product development?
We often have requests from collectors to help them with loan agreements and registrar services and/or to digitise their collections from scratch (i.e. photographing the works, cataloguing etc). In terms of development though, our core business is to connect museums and collectors and the consultancy services mentioned are just ancillary. Within a marketplace it is important to keep a balance between buyers and sellers, in our case venues and exhibition producers, and this is the main driver of our business development strategy.
Do you look for partners to complement your product or you aim to do everything under Vastari? (insurance, logistics, curating, etc)
We outsource most of our complementary services. We are not trying to replace any of the existing players within the art world, but rather to facilitate the communication among them so that exhibitions can be produced more efficiently. Moreover, as we deal with a wide range of different items, museums and collectors, outsourcing those services helps us provide our clients with the best fit, it would be impossible to provide expertise on everything to the appropriate standard!
What advice would you give to start-ups that outsource their product development?
Specifically for tech startups I would strongly recommend to not be afraid to invest in product development, having an app or a website that is scalable always pays off in the long run. It is also essential for the customer development team and the product development team to be able to communicate on daily basis, so that the product is built to meet the needs of the customers. In essence even if you outsource product development you should keep in mind that your product is the most important thing alongside your client base and that the two should be growing organically together.
How did you select your developer team and marketing support?
For the tech team we advertised the vacancy and organised an online test, once we had selected a group of candidates with appropriate skills, we held interviews before making our final decision. In terms of business development we had a slightly different strategy: we organised an assessment day for the candidates to sit tests and most importantly to interact with each others, as personality is very important when it comes to sales.
You have had external investors and now are in a phase of organic growth, what are the main pros and cons of both funding approaches?
I won’t demonise getting investors on board but I have to admit I definitely appreciated having had an initial phase in which, despite having very little working capital, we had the freedom to test the idea and expand. However, when you start growing, it is unrealistic to be able to support the organic growth without going through fundraising. One piece of advice I would give to startups is to carefully select the investors and consider what they can bring to the table in terms of skills, experience and introductions.
As you are a B2B brand, which channels do you find most valuable to build your name and reach your customers?
So far the most successful channels have been the international council of museums (ICOM) and the European fine art fair (TEFAF). As we value the privacy of all our users, we are not disclosing their identities to promote ourselves. Having such renowned organisations endorse us has been an honour and really had a significant impact in terms of brand building.
What has been most satisfying at Vastari this year for you?
Definitely the overwhelmingly positive response to the launch of our travelling exhibitions network, which helped Vastari to grow exponentially!
Francesca Polo is Executive Director at Vastari, specialising in touring exhibitions and in fostering relationships between museums and private clients in the US, Europe and emerging markets.Previously, Francesca was a researcher at the British Museum and Christie’s as well as various Italian galleries. Francesca has Master’s and Postgraduate Diploma degrees from the Courtauld Institute of Art London and a Bachelor’s from University of Milan.
Inspired? Hear Bernadine talk about Vastari at Stories from Start-ups in the Arts.