Barrett Wissman

Barrett Wissman: Renaissance Man

The Business Times - Singapore PARVATHI NAYAR meets Barrett Wissman: chairman of arts management company IMG Artists, philanthropist, pianist and bon vivant ‘have always been interested in doing many different things at the same time.’ An unusual admission to make in these specialist times, when the age of the generalist, polymath or Renaissance man seems long gone. But Barrett Wissman – chairman of IMG Artists, also financier, philanthropist, classical pianist and bon vivant – is an unusual combination. You could call him a creative businessman, or a man interested in the business of creativity.

Today, with an annual turnover exceeding US$100 million, ‘we are the largest arts management company globally,’ says Mr Wissman. IMG Artists represents some 500 top artists – Hilary HahnJames GalwayLang LangMurray Perahia, the Oslo Philharmonic with Andre Previn, and Pilobolus among others. Mr Wissman’s personal contacts have expanded the areas of business, as in extending their representation of violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman to Europe.

IMG Artists is acknowledged as an initiator of arts projects, making television documentaries such as the Art of Conducting, and presenting soloists or groups like the world famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Before Mr Wissman invested in IMG Artists in 2003 – apparently a white knight operation, with the company going through a bad patch – it was owned wholly by IMG, the international sports and lifestyle management

company. Mr Wissman’s takeover shook up the arts world and especially classical music management. But it was welcomed by insiders who recognised in the Dallas-based businessman a passionate advocate for the arts.

‘It was fascinating to me, to combine my interests in music, the arts in general and business – this gave me a platform to actually make a difference,’ says Mr Wissman over a morning coffee. Why not just start up an artist management company on his own? ‘This is a business that is so reputation-based, it is virtually impossible to create overnight.’ A time-tested brand name is the way out of arts management’s Catch 22: you can’t build a base of A-list clients who trust you to manage their careers/lives, if you haven’t already built up a reputation with A-list clients.

Now, says Mr Wissman, ‘our artists play in top venues round the world from Carnegie Hall to the Esplanade, whose programmers know that we can achieve very interesting things’.

He admits it will, take several years to establish the IMG presence in Asia, ‘but it’s working.’ He cites examples like setting up the new Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur; and being hired by the Chinese government to set up a musical festival in Guangzhou, called the Canton International Festival, that expects over 1,000 talented students this summer for the inaugural event.

Mr Wissman also believes in scouting for new talent. He picked up early on the current classical music fave, piano prodigy Lang Lang, who will perform at the Singapore Arts Festival this year. His approach is enlightened: ‘When you take on artists as young as Lang Lang, it is important to develop and guide them, so they don’t play too much or too little, and in the right venues. We always listen to what the artists want to do, the kind of music they want to play and where, even if this doesn’t have a huge economic return. To be a great artist you also have to learn about life, have other influences come into your life. We need to give (Lang Lang) time to become a person, not just book him to play 150 times a year.’

The arts management business has a multiple revenue structure, from a simple percentage of the fee when an artist is booked, to managing an entire tour, and beyond. Currently, Asia represents some 10-15 per cent of the business but ‘it is going to be the fastest growing, because you have countries like Singapore paying attention to the arts, as well as ‘developed’ countries, artistically speaking, like Japan.’

The company has offices in Kuala Lumpur, but Mr Wissman sees real potential in the Singaporean initiative to push the arts envelope. Having travelled widely and participated in the arts debate round the world, there is weight to his observation that Singapore is doing all the right things for classical music, from hardware – the Esplanade – to investing in niche areas like the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

He comments: ‘I first came to Singapore many years ago; over the years I have seen few places that have tried so hard in such a concerted way to build an arts environment. You often hear today that the arts are ‘dying’ but I disagree. I feel it’s the traditional arts cities like New York that are facing problems in terms of keeping it fresh and relevant. Developing centres for the arts – whether Dallas, Lithuania, Shanghai or Singapore – is where the new energy is. I’ve seen a lot of new building going on, cultural centres come up, in all these places and I’m quite hopeful.

‘The arts are extremely relevant – in making us stop to think of what we are as human beings. It is part of our identity, part of overall nation building,’ he says; and adds, bringing the discussion back to dollars and cents, ‘it also helps the tourist business. Singapore is a good place to do business. It has access to both India and China, yet because there is a strong mix of cultures here, isn’t identified too strongly with one or the other.’ With classical music appearing as a recurring leitmotiv in our conversation, it’s no surprise to hear: ‘I started out as a pianist.’ In fact, he started very young, performing on the piano with well-recognised orchestras from age 11. ‘Then my father died and I got involved in his business activities.’

He went into a successful business career, among other things making money backing Internet startups in the ’90s. Along the way he graduated cum laude from Yale University in economics and political science. ‘I got an advanced degree in music while I was an entrepreneur from the Southern Methodist University and the Accademia Chigiana in Italy, and continued to play at venues including St Johns Smith Square.’ He still plays from time to time, sometimes with his wife Nina Kotova, a professional cellist, who ‘swept him away’ when he saw her playing at a London concert. But as Mr Wissman admits, he is a perfectionist and if he does play, it must be well, a philosophy that he carries over into the business arena.

Part of his personal philanthropy has centred around the Cremona Society, an international organisation he created with an unusual mission: to collect and loan priceless instruments to deserving soloists. For this purpose the Society has bought more than 10 violins and cellos – each ranging in value from US$100,000 to several million dollars.

He still has diverse business interests, is a principal in several financial management and investment advisory companies, and is on the boards of several for-profit and non-profit enterprises. His asset management business, Arbitex, is largely handled now by efficient staff; he just overseas operations, but says: ‘We have products doing well.’

While he respects the goodwill that the name IMG Artists carries, he isn’t precious about it. ‘Historically, our company did not deal with the corporate sector. Again historically speaking, this is because funding of the arts in Europe comes from the state, and in the US from corporate philanthropy. But as the economic landscape changes, the arts must survive on an economic model in the future – and in order to do that it must involve the corporates. The corporate world does see increasing value in the arts. Corporate social responsibility – also known as philanthropy – is just one aspect. I’m talking more in terms of marketability and branding.’

He cites the example of Singapore Press Holdings presenting Mamma Mia! the musical, and the visibility and stature that such an association brings. Also, ’till now, we have dealt with government agencies and venues, now we are looking ot all sides of the equation and advising corporates directly.’

For example, IMG has advised UBS in putting together the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, which came to Singapore a few months ago. ‘It is an orchestra made up of young, talented musicians; the ages range from 15 to 29. These are not ordinary music students, but extremely talented young professionals who need this environment from which to get real experiences.’

The C wordIntegration is central to Mr Wissman’s vision of where he would like to take the arts management business. ‘Movie or sports stars are represented in all parts of their life. But in the arts, the players are presented only as performers. Our job should be to present to the world all aspects of the performer. Gone are the days when we can just be agents.’

On the one hand this might smack of commercialism but on the other, the arts, just like the movies or sports need personalities. Audiences are built around people who capture the imagination – whether mass or niche – and have a mystique or curiosity factor around them, he says.

Mr Wissman emphasises it is not a matter of overexposure but managing exposure. ‘It was considered bad taste in the past in the arts, but look at a partnership like Rolex and Yo Yo Ma. It is about integrating art into everyday life. Our job is to bring to our clients that kind of cognition.’

He sees a lot of dissonance between presenters, managers and recording companies, functions he would like to integrate. ‘We produce DVDs and audios for our clients as promotional, archival and documentary material. But we are also thinking seriously about creating our own label’ to make the management of the artists more cohesive structurally.

Moving to more personal tastes, ‘I am a very aesthetically oriented person, an amateur student of architecture and interior design.’ He narrates how he was so taken up with paua shells in New Zealand, he went to incredible lengths to find a company that would make paua shell tiles for his home. ‘I love materials and colours – both opulent and minimalist. In one of my homes I have mixed together minimalist and Oriental design, with many Indian artefacts and an Indian garden.’

So where is he based? That’s a very good question, he responds, ‘I am based in St Croix, and have homes in Montana, Italy and Texas.’ He enjoys travelling, speaks German, Italian and Spanish well, French to an acceptable level, and is currently learning Russian; is a bit of a foodie, and enthuses about Singapore’s ‘wonderfully complex’ food combinations; and appreciates painting. He acquires art, not as a collector with an eye to investment but as a way of expressing himself: ‘I like buying things that I enjoy, I don’t buy things that are popular nor the things that you are ‘supposed’ to buy.’

Revealingly, when we talk of what has inspired him, he doesn’t pick out names in business, it’s all from the world of music – 20th Century Russian music, culturally-specific sounds like Moroccan or Indian music, composers like Bach. It’s an easy transition to the music he likes to play – Bach, Prokofiev, Brahms – and the music he likes to listen to – Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. He says simply: ‘I love music intensely, it is one of the things that keeps me fresh – and the artists we represent see that. Many (managers) become hardened and cold in the business.’

While Mr Wissman has translated his desire to do many things simultaneously into practical reality, he also enjoys the dividends of his primary investment and hard work: to keep music an active part of his life.

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