Marine Tanguy is unstoppable and indefatigable. A Forbes 30 Under 30 under the “Art and Culture” Europe category for 2018, she is the founder and CEO of “MTArt Agency”—the world’s first proper talent agency for artists. Her energy is unmatched, her vision uncommonly bold and her standards admirably uncompromising.
On her Instagram feed, you will find Marine celebrating the artists whom she represents, jetting off to Hong Kong or New York, meeting with collectors, posting press coverage that knows no end, giving talks, acting as an ambassador for brands like citizenM and Chloé, and in the midst of all that, nursing a growing baby bump.
Based in London and founded in 2015, her award-winning venture helps artists cover their studio costs and sell their works. It also implements all manner of cultural and commercial partnerships (for instance, with the Mayor of London’s #LondonisOpen campaign, the luxury hotel Rosewood and car brand Aston Martin). MTArt has big plans for expansion, and wants to eventually rival the major Hollywood talent agencies that look after actors and celebrities.
An advocate for artists since a young age, Marine, 29, managed her first gallery at age 21 and opened her first art gallery in Los Angeles at age 23. But she eventually decided to break from the gallery model and build a system that could accelerate artistic careers in more innovative ways.
The artists in MTArt’s roster all have powerful perspectives and messages. They include Adelaide Damoah (who cares about female empowerment), David Aiu Servan Schreiber (who wants to inspire humankind to preserve our planet), Saype (who believes art must be used as a tool to solve social conflicts), Alexandra Lethbridge (who challenges us to decode the adverts and political propaganda around us) and Jennifer Abessira (who draws us to a reflection on our digital life versus the one we actually live). The artists have exhibited at events/venues such as the Tate in London, Museum Week in Paris and the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
I discovered Marine on YouTube in February and was greatly impressed and inspired by her groundbreaking and disruptive work in the art industry. In addition to that, her concerns regarding what she calls our “visual diet” resonated with me deeply as a fellow female. Marine likens the viewing of Kim Kardashian-type narcissistic, hyper-sexualised imagery to eating junk food and wants us to improve our health by consuming better, more meaningful content. It is her hope that her son grows up in a world where women aren’t treated as passive objects of the male/public gaze.
I invited the pioneering cultural entrepreneur for a chat…
Hello, Marine! I found you on France 24 English. Annette Young is my favourite Aussie lady around. I’m a great fan of her show “The 51%”. When I watched your interview, I was immediately struck by two big things—your decision to start an “agency” for artists and your observations on visual culture. So first, the agency. MTArt is the first artist agency in the world. It is an amazing initiative. We are always being told to “invest in art”. But you boldly say “invest in artists”. I love the human element. Such an approach is usually found in other industries—music, modelling, writing, speaking, etc.—but not in visual art.
So you are not merely a money-making machine for the stakeholder, rather you develop entire careers, improve the lives of the people you represent in a way that is quite unusual. You go beyond mere dealership. There’s a clear aspect of care here. Let’s begin with this—what made you start the agency? What was the impetus?
So I’ve been in the art industry for about 10 years now. I was first a young gallery manager when I was 21. The pool of artists were street artists like Banksy, for my first boss. They taught me loads about building something from the ground, also publicly, as well as deriving revenue in that sense. Then two years later I got approached by an investor and was sent to Los Angeles to start my own gallery. That was my first business. That’s when I realised that the talent agencies in LA had a more 360 degrees vision in the way they managed talent, generated visibility and revenue—when compared to the gallery system. This was a better model to help people. So that’s how I started my business and created my partnerships. We were four years old this June.
In your TEDx Talk at King’s College London, you happened to demonstrate how artists can add value to a city’s architecture and infrastructure. You use the example of artists transforming sewer drains, bollards, churches and hospitals—adding colour, light and narrative all around. Also, along with Vishal Kumar, a data scientist at University College, you recently conducted a study highlighting how public art can deliver well-being. This “utilitarian” dimension of the creative enterprise isn’t discussed all that much. Most people continue to see art as a luxury and not a necessity. So talk a little more about the “practicality” of art…
I see art as visuals. I don’t see it in terms of the art world. For me visuals are everywhere. They are in your homes, they are in the cities you walk through, what you consume digitally. They are on the walls, on your streets, in your adverts. That’s what I call visuals. So obviously I want those visuals to be as inspiring as possible. Because we know that art for the past hundred years has been considered a medium of therapy, it makes you feel better. I wanted to integrate all those spheres with visuals with artists. That’s the way I think about it. So obviously public art is one way. It’s just about making sure that every visual can be as inspiring as possible.
Now visual culture. I’m glad you raised the issue of Kim Kardashian (currently) having 141m followers on Instagram and the Louvre Museum having just 3m. This starts off such a big and important discourse that can branch out infinitely. Given the identity and occupation of the individual on top, Instagram is suffocatingly crammed with monotonous bikini models. The level and scale of objectification of the female body rampant on social media bothers me a lot.
You mentioned that you received the greatest engagement on the day you decided to do a test and posted a picture of your bottom—75% more views than usual. That’s what users mainly expect and respond to. Who is to be held accountable for such behaviour? Do you think the constant claim that “men are visual creatures” that we hear so often might have something to do with it? And what needs to be done as a corrective measure?
I don’t really take that approach on gender. Young boys are being affected too by what they consume on social media. Looking at content that’s mainly narcissistic and sexualised is harmful, just like consuming too much junk food would be. This doesn’t mean that we shall suppress that content. We must, instead, encourage greater diversification on our social media platforms, and that way, allow ourselves to feel more visually nourished.
The reason there are too many bikini pictures is yes, due to the entertainment and advertising industries (social media here is only showing what already exists beyond it) but also because the academic world and the art industry have long refused to take part in actively sharing content—this is one thing we always forget to say. They’ve believed that somehow engaging everyone is something bad. If they did share any content, they would remove all directness and empathy and make the material too conceptual, not related to our lives. So, as an industry we have to step in and start sharing valuable content regularly. At MTArt, we are tackling this by taking art to museums but also through public projects and social media. We want to stay in the landscape. Say if you are a tech company or if you are in the city space, we want to provide you with visuals.
But it is also worth remembering that our industry is responsible for having made the material not accessible. That’s the reason why that content was never there. And education-wise, there is a systemic issue—like take the UK, the private schools have a lot more art than state schools. So the content has not been developed enough. The vast majority of people have never had a chance to get exposed to it and couldn’t really get familiar with it.
Related to the previous one: you’ve said that you don’t want young women to feel pressurised to just look sexy. You want them to feel pressurised to achieve things, to talk about things that are meaningful.
This got me thinking. I am of the opinion that true femininity and female sex appeal have immense potency and could be exhibited in a variety of very creative, exciting manners (most women simply fail to understand this). I mean, sex appeal could take the form of the grace and intelligence of an Amal Clooney or the energy and sass of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There are so many ways in which women can be utterly, devastating stylish and hot and still be modestly dressed. So what do you think—how can girls be simultaneously “sexy” and “meaningful”? What are some of the brainy ways, in your view, in which women could channel their erotic power? Are there any examples in popular culture whom you’d like to point us to?
I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez myself. She is a role model for me, that’s because I care about my career and I care about what I have to say. She suits me as someone whom I could look up to. But I wouldn’t want to dictate my way or any particular way. I think if you are a housewife, you shouldn’t be looked down upon because you want to be that. If you just want to be sexy, you can be that, as long as it is your choice. Being a woman is being whoever and whatever you want to be. Right now the issue is that women are pressurised to be a type. Women should be allowed diversity.
I don’t have any problem per se with Kim Kardashian. The issue that I have is that 141m are following mainly that content, and that content is mainly objectifying. Now if Kim Kardashian was among equally famous male models or females of a different kind, I wouldn’t have that issue. It’s not really about punching a type. I believe a woman should be free to decide who she wants to be or who not—nobody should tell you that because then that becomes as strongly censored as the other type. I wouldn’t be that way. What bothers me is that young girls are forced to be a certain type over another. It’s very limiting. I believe we have many options that we could become.
I read that you review 200 portfolios every month and have a committee for that. What traits or attitudes do you look for when you are deciding to invite an artist into your roster?
We look for artists who innovate technically and have a very strong style. But also, for content that is inspiring in terms of the social message. I try to see the vision—as in, where is the art going in the next forty years. I look for people who are very hardworking and passionate and driven, who care very strongly as well. So yes, I do look for a kind of personality but that doesn’t mean they have to be incredibly professional. It means they must care long enough to see the impact they are going to generate, basically.
You have partnered with advertising agency M&C Saatchi and photographer Rankin to launch “VISUAL DIET”, a campaign exploring the impact of imagery on our mental health. You ask interesting questions: “What’s your diet? Wholesome, healthy, naughty, gluttonous? What’s your visual diet? Narcissistic, addictive, sexualised, retouched? We are force-fed tens of thousands of images every day. Many of these hyper-retouched, sexually gratuitous and highly addictive. We want to make people aware that, just like you are what you eat, what you see affects your mental health. Through this campaign, we aim to promote a balanced visual diet to prevent our audience from binging on overly-processed, body and mind-negative content.”
This connection between imagery and mental health fascinates me. How did you prepare yourself for this campaign? What research literature did you peruse?
As I found myself standing between two worlds—the academic world (the Louvre) and the entertainment world (Kim Kardashian), I thought I’d like to be the agency, or the turning point that could help these two fix better, pass the microphone away from the second figure. TED approached me to do a second talk and I felt I should do more research.
As I was writing on the value of integrating art into the public realm, I began exploring the link between mental health and art. There’s a lot of recent literature in this area. The Canadian government is prescribing visits to art museums to those who are low. Alain de Botton has a book called ‘Art as a Therapy’ and you can find many of these reports: www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry. What we had to demonstrate was that the opposite, other type of content was harmful and for this we used AI monitoring as there were very few writings on the subject. We allowed people to vote and express their emotions. Quickly we realised that there is a type of content that makes you feel crap and another that nourishes you. It’s the same with relationships, you know. You feel empty after a while when they’re not good. So visuals are similar.
I’ve been comparing visuals to food especially because I feel if one wants to be so careful about their diet, they should also be careful about what they consume with their eyes. I guess it’s about raising awareness that everything you consume visually will have an impact on you. Even if you walk past an advert and let’s say that advert has a woman who is objectified and too filtered, doesn’t have spots or a very perfect make-up. Without realising it, you will begin having insecurities. It directly impacts you. It’s worth remembering that as a baby you didn’t start with writing or reading or speaking, you start by looking at things. I think for me it’s about being a bit more visually-critical in my thinking but also saying that are you aware that what you consume affects you that much? Are you aware that what you post can affect other people and can you therefore, be more responsible?
Furthermore, I wanted to diversify the argument that tech is what makes you addicted, which I think is true but it’s also the content that can make you addicted. Certain types of TV shows make you addicted. It’s not just the app, it’s actually want you consume on it. So you can partially unwind what you are consuming.
What are the greatest lessons that you’ve learnt in your entrepreneurial journey?
I think it’s really many—it’s definitely a daily learning curve. Staying true to yourself is very important to carry something that can be very heavy to carry. I don’t think you should ever take this path to be nice but I think you should do it to be respected, and to do something that will make a change, something that you care about.
I got rid of so many things that weren’t really authentic, even small things. Obviously, it goes without saying that you have to work very hard. Who you surround yourself with in terms of people is really key—people that can help you get there. Personal growth is an element of it. I have grown as a person. It’s definitely a job that makes you take tough decisions a lot but equally it’s a job that lets you do things that are meaningful. You should not be afraid to say things that are difficult and to do things that are difficult. It’s not always pleasurable. Conflict is a big part of your being an entrepreneur. The moment you want to do something meaningful, you will come across it. Learning to handle conflict early enough in your journey as an entrepreneur is a really good thing. The best way to handle conflict is to be fair, to communicate as much as possible on the reasons as to why the conflict is there, to have as much empathy as you can.
And what about challenges?
Certainly the biggest challenge for MTArt is that we are operating in a very conservative industry. We were not very hurt or bullied in the beginning. What’s really interesting is that because they couldn’t say anything against the business directly, it was always me. I was always the person who was criticised, more than the business. I always said to my friends that I appreciate it that way because it means that the business is therefore, protected and doing the right thing. I was called names and received emails. And there was definitely a different treatment in terms of men versus women. For sure. I think you just have to remain very solid. Challenges will come from everywhere. They will come from the outside—from people who don’t want to accept change in the industry—from inside—you will learn that somebody is the wrong person and they have become very toxic. Challenges will come from projects themselves.
As you grow, it becomes a lot more pleasurable. You realise you can rely on people and have a better community to work with. It’s worth pointing out that when people can find nothing against the business they will target the female founder. I got called very nasty names, “a poisonous sociopath”, things that were not rational. Never stuff that I could directly explain. There was simply no argument.
Finally, where do you see yourself ten-fifteen years from now?
It’s a really exciting time. We’re as ambitious as we can be. The top three talent agencies in the world are very prominent and we’re thinking as big as that. We want to become a reference in terms of visual art. We want to acquire works of up and coming artists. A lot of ours have started doing really well. I also want to slowly move in the financial sector of the industry. I’m the 76% shareholder in the company so I do have the influence. We didn’t want to be a charity space, as much as we love doing things that have social impact. It’s important to get the economics right if you want to make big changes—because that’s where all the top decisions are made. So I will be moving in that direction…
Find MTArt Agency on their website (www.mtart.agency), Instagram (www.instagram.com/mtartagency), Facebook (www.facebook.com/mtartagency), Twitter (@mtart_), Vimeo (vimeo.com/user46248412) and Medium (medium.com/mtart).