Christopher Ross was one of the initial employees who helped create Starbucks when it was still an obscure fledgling coffee chain with only 85 stores into a world-wide brand, and in doing so he served many roles. It is no surprise that he still holds the company in high regard, nor that after sixteen years of showing his versatility within the company he ventured out to try something completely different, becoming the CEO of Artech in July of this year.
A Los Angeles native, who has lived around the United States —Colorado for high school, Michigan for college—Ross started in retail operations for Starbucks in Chicago, and two years later he relocated to Seattle to help lead the charge for kiosks and small footprint stores within store development and operations. It was in this role that he cut his teeth working with architects, interior designers, color and finish experts. He learned back then the more elegant the solution, inevitably the more complicated it was to design and engineer. This period fostered in him a love and acumen for architecture and design. He later merged into Starbucks’ new business concepts and was core participant of the launch of Starbucks Wi-Fi network, when Wi-Fi was still a vague concept. His final role at Starbucks was focused on internal marketing and employee engagement.
Talking with Ross, one comes to the refreshing realization that he is that rare person who understands the gravity of art’s role in society as an act and as an object. He switches effortlessly in conversation between the academic knowledge of art, its power in culture and the lives of individual collectors, and the brass tacks of handling art objects—not to mention the economics of the whole machine. More than ever, with our city growing, our culture continually defining itself, and so much money waiting to be invested in art, for those who grasp Artech’s role in Seattle, we can all be assured that they have the right man at the helm.
Leslie Wheatley: Christopher, you are the new CEO of Artech. Tell us a little about the company.
Christopher Ross: Artech is the Pacific Northwest’s leader in fine art management and handling. A lot of people would probably be surprised to know that there is an entire industry within the art space. One that resides between museums, private curators, corporate curators, galleries, collectors and auction houses. They all fundamentally work together through this one layer known as the “art handlers.’ This is the discreet group of individuals who physically pick up, crate, pack, transport, store, curate and install and de-install most of the art on any given day around the globe. At Artech it is so much more, in addition to the region’s top art handlers, we have curators, registrars, project managers, shippers, and even a full service museum grade frame shop, all for the sole purpose of supporting our client’s art.
It is mind-boggling how much art is moving, all over the country. For example, just for the museums alone—and we have wonderful museums in the pacific northwest: Seattle Art Museum, Bellevue Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Frye Art Museum, and some other great regionals—there is a huge amount of work to crate a show and ship it out…or uncrate a show, install it, de-install it. This is a recurring, event where we are able to play a key supporting role. Our services also cater to the private collectors, corporate collectors, gallery owners. There are a surprising number of individuals who use our service, and all in a field that most people do not even know exists.
LW: Can you give us examples of this clientele?
CR: Our client base ranges from private collectors—from the young couple that is starting with a few key pieces, to some of the most prestigious private and corporate collections.
Let me give you an example of a typical client: A youngish couple who has acquired their first piece of major art. It might not necessarily be valuable, but it is to them. It might be a lovely one thousand dollar sculpture from a local gallery. The question they ask is, how will they get it home and how will they install it?
Many time the galleries will recommend a local art handler that can not only pack it and ship it but also install it into the home. That is the beginning of what usually is an ongoing relationship that over the years—and depending on their collection appetite—begins to expand. Surprisingly everybody has one beautiful, personally valuable piece. The thing about the Pacific Northwest is that there is a lot of discreet ownership of fine collectables that is not being flaunted. And it is surprising once you do get into a client’s home or homes and gain their trust, because you see these beautiful works of art that they collect.
On the farthest end of the spectrum we also have corporations who have extensive collections. Even though it is not their mainstay, many companies collect. It is something that they do that enhances the quality of their business. It improves the quality of their employees’ work experience and it also serves as an asset for the company. They hire Artech to help with the curation, installation and maintenance of the pieces. One of our single biggest clients that we are very proud of is a large, east side software company that has a beautiful and prolific collection. We have a large full-time staff that is on-site and assists them in every aspect of the collection.
LW: I know that Artech was involved in installing that big head sculpture, Jaume Plensa’s Echo, at the sculpture park. That is a crazy piece!
CR: Correct, Echo is an amazing gift from Seattle art collector Barney A. Ebsworth bestowed to the community. It is eerily beautiful, and you either love it or don’t know what to make of it, I love it. . That sculpture represents is a very complicated project and is a perfect example of why art handlers are a unique breed. The site contractor would pour the concrete base. But the last thing the contractor wants to do is assemble this metal frame and then attach the delicate exterior skins, per the artist’s specifications.
On job sites like this, everyone stares at each other and says “who handles this stuff?” That’s what the Artech’s handlers do. They are the people who can come in with a crane and float some amazing piece of sculpture into a person’s home, or disassemble a wall to pull out a large piece of furniture. They are the ones who can manage a massive glass installation and bring it very carefully into client’s home or business, and then hang it from the ceiling or attach it to the wall. They also are the people who recommend the lighting that supports the piece or various other aspects that will make the art come to life within the space. That is the art handler’s unique value proposition.
CR: That’s a great question! The reason I took the position was because of my qualifications. I have a huge background in working in organizations that give back to the community. That has always been a cornerstone of what I love and want to do. I wanted to work somewhere that was truly client-centric and I was also actively trying to find something that was creative. That’s a tough order to fill in any field. People always say they want to be creative but what if you can’t do it… I don’t pretend to have any artistic talent. I’m barely qualified to operate an etch-a-sketch. But I do know how to enable great artistic endeavors and creative thinking and creative responses from creative people, and I also have a great ability to leverage artists in the right way.
So I was trying to find something that was the intersection of three cornerstones: something creative, community-based and a position that is truly client-centric. Artech was the absolute synthesis of those three concepts. It was phenomenal. Even though it is a business that moves and handles fine art—from grandma’s personal treasures to the most exceptional fine art and masterpieces—at the end of the day it is a client service business. I completely appreciate the reason clients come to us is client services. It is all relationship-based and I love that about Artech.
LW: What do you look forward to and what are the future goals you would like to bring to Artech?
CR: I have no illusions about it, we are a support business that supports the art ecosystem here in the Pacific Northwest. My biggest goal is to actually bring a bigger spotlight to arts in the region. I believe there is a debt that we have, this obligation to lend our knowledge be a connector, and help spotlight the arts. That means hosting events, hosting seminars, connecting artists and collectors, being more than a facilitator, but actually being a connector. If you want to raise the consciousness of any business in the community, you need to talk about it, host events, and push, push, push!
We’re a support industry and yet I think we have this unique opportunity to raise the dialogue community-wide around art, art appreciation, art collecting, art support and art maintenance. The latter is the less glamorous side, but there are thousands of public pieces of art, fountains, and sculptures in Seattle alone that need maintenance to ensure that those pieces of art are still here for the next generation to appreciate. The new waterfront project will do a great deal to bring art closer to the public eye because that project is so large. I believe it is a 1.7 billion dollar capital campaign above ground, not including the tunnel. In that budget, there is a big arts project. It is only one percent of the total budget, but that’s still magnificent. It will prove to the community that art should be everywhere, in spontaneous places and in public places. I think it is a true mark of a city when you can find great, beautiful things in the most unexpected places.
LW: Who are some of your favorite Northwest artists?
CR: I am just beginning to appreciate the eclecticism of the market. I love the masters—the “mystics,” as they are known—and I’ve always had a high appreciation for [Kenneth] Callahan. I think his work is [for me] really wonderful. I think one of the most interesting local artists is Akio [Takamori]. I’ve always loved his sculptures in front of the Whole Foods in Westlake Center, and I’ve always admired his work when I’ve seen it in galleries.
There’s a handful of local amazing artists that I’m fascinated with. I have always been enamored with Clare Cowie’s work. It is incredible. Jeffry Mitchell also comes to mind. Jeffry and Clare are very prolific. They will go between prints and ceramics and create tender, whimsical and soulful pieces. That’s just a few. The thing I admire about the Pacific Northwest is that we have art here that you can touch and feel and sink your teeth into and I love that.
LW: What does the rest of the world think of the Pacific Northwest art community?
CR: Wow, that’s a powerful question and I may not be the best person to answer this, so I’m telling you this purely from my emerging knowledge, but in my research and as a peripheral observer of this, and now as a direct player, my sense is that we have a ways to go to be considered a cultural highpoint of the United States. One of the easy indicators of this is to look at the composition and balance of the three core art elements: the museums, collectors and the galleries. Regionally we have a great museum base: Our SAM is a profound, prestigious museum with a great collection and does amazing curation. The same can be said for Tacoma Art Museum, Bellevue Art Museum, The Frye, the Henry and many regional museums.
Our private curator and collector base are equally strong, while it is much more discreet than some of the other major metropolitan cities. I mean that it’s very below the radar, very in keeping with the sedate consumerism of the Pacific Northwest. We are not a “flaunty” town. You’d be hard pressed to see a Rolls Royce driving around Seattle. So not having flamboyant collectors is obvious to me.
The gallery base is the third leg of the stool, and the one I think we are at our weakest. It’s not that we don’t have great galleries, as we really do, but commensurate with the size of the population, and the affluence that is flowing through this town, there is so much money and art appreciation, it surprises me that we don’t have a larger selection of galleries. Then add to that, the galleries are somewhat truncated; they can’t move into the larger pieces—not just in size but cost-wise too. I’ve talked to some of the most well-regarded collectors in the PNW, and I ask “Why don’t you think Seattle galleries sell million dollar pieces and beyond?” Their response is “Why would you, when you can be on a plane to New York or London or Lisbon?”
So, I think there’s a challenge here. The community that buys high end art doesn’t necessarily encourage the local gallery-base to go down that path, so we’ve hit this artificial ceiling and I think the rest of the world’s art communities realize that. If I were a big art collector wanting to do some major buying I would go to the bay area. LA and Chicago. I would hit NY and even go to Dallas and Houston before I would ever consider coming to the Pacific Northwest. The missing piece in our equation is our gallery base. We’re not supporting our galleries enough to move into this kind of position in the art world.
CR: We do. I’d like to take a hard look at that and consider how we can support more local artists. The idea behind the scholarship is our affiliation with the Artist Trust, which was actually how we even got into this business. Mike Hascall, one of our founders, was associated with the Artist Trust for a long time. Hascall, Artech and the Artist Trust have always been well integrated as a collective force. We offer the scholarship to artists with an in-kind contribution or work that we can do for them.
It’s just the beginning of what I’d like us to do to help support them. I want to find ways that we can make a bigger impact for them besides just one time a year and to only one artist. In a lot of artist’s cases, the dollar value is huge, but the scholarship could go a lot further if we broke it down into smaller pieces to support more than one artist—for example, if an artist just needed a high quality crate to get their art to a museum in Minneapolis that wanted to show their piece. Inevitably, the cost implications seem to be a barrier for a lot of our local artists, so to be able to support them more would be one of the goals.
LW: What advice would you give our readers who want to start collecting art, but haven’t yet done so?
CR: Go with your heart. Go with what first resonates with you because art is a very personal acquisition. The second thing is to consider your purchase of art more of a stewardship than a purchase. Treat it as you would treat an animal. You are the caretaker of it. You are to guide it and help it through its life cycle, but you never really own the art. It should be something that you give and pay forward, possibly in an endowment. If you go into art collecting with that mindset, you will do well. I always suggest that you pick one quality piece per year, and it’s not about quantity or size, just whatever your budget will allow. If every year you commit to doing that and have that in your psyche, you will become a collector.
LW: CEOs have dynamic relationships with the companies they serve. Can you tell us specifically what it means to you be the CEO of Artech?
CR: The thing I love about Artech and my role is this: at fifty years old I’m proud that I’ve made a pivotal change. I’ve gone from building companies from small to large multinational conglomerates, and I’ve had great experiences working in higher education, and in other impactful areas. Now I get to do something that truly speaks to me; that is why I am super excited about this opportunity. It’s centered on being truly client-focused. It is in the arts, and it is genuinely community based. I really couldn’t ask for a better combination of these three attributes.
The goal of what we do is to seamlessly integrate art and life. That’s a tough thing for any company to say with a straight face. But so few people seem to understand that to truly integrate art into life, with all the multiple layers that go along with it, is actually a noble endeavor to take on. I get a charge every morning thinking, “This is what I get to go try and do today!” At the end of the day it is broken down to its rawest forms of employee engagement, payroll, delivery trucks, equipment and answering to a board of directors. But when you step away from all that and realize that what you are doing is of a high order, and the impact it has on the community, it is really amazing.
In the last couple of months I have been able to see and touch things that we mere mortals will rarely ever get a chance to see. Really, it’s been humbling and heartwarming and emboldening. I go home thinking of how I am blessed that I am to be able to be at the nexus of supporting this kind of amazing landscape.