Joanna Payne never planned for the Founders of the Frieze art fair to attend her sausage themed party. As unofficial social secretary of the London organisation, she planned a leaving do for a colleague, drawing on the project they had curated, Salon of Dietary Disobedience by Alistair Frost, a giant and rather phallic food sculpture, for inspiration. The piece became the embodiment of the 2012 show and when it came to planning the festivities, the emblem seemed predestined.
“It was so embarrassing,” Payne laughs. “There I was trying to build a serious career in the art world and these really senior people turn up and there are sausages everywhere.” While this might not have been the most impressive event, fun events like these sparked the beginning of her new life as an entrepreneur and business owner.
Marguerite, a “ready-made professional network” for those pursuing careers in the creative arts, was born out of Payne’s love for organising events and a strong desire to work alongside her peers, rather than the collectors she mostly dealt with at Frieze. The company’s philosophy is to create a network (“not private members club, I hate that term!”) for women to pursue success in the art world by building their confidence in whatever field they are in whether it be art, design, fashion or photography. Male speakers and guests are welcome, but the underlying current of the business is fiercely female and thoroughly modern.
“I cringe when I see people thrusting business cards out at events,” Payne says covering her face and recoiling back in her chair when I ask her how Marguerite fosters networking. “It’s not supposed to be about that.” She explains that for a lot of women, walking into a room and approaching someone cold can be terrifying, which is why out of the 40 events that she creates each year, every single one has a talk or activity. Members are given a chance to bond over something usually fun, but always interesting, like a talk with Dame Zandra Rhodes or a discussion with museum directors from the Tate or National Portrait Gallery. There isn’t a name badge or a warm glass of white wine in sight.
“When I’m building new relationships I’m often not even talking about work,” she answers when I ask her how she has developed her own impressive network. “It’s much more important to have a genuine connection with someone, because in my experience, you never know where it will take you.” The fact that Payne hasn’t applied for a job since her early 20s, relying on industry referrals alone, is testament to her ideology.
The network, born in Payne’s living room in 2015, celebrated its fifth birthday before lockdown. It is only now she has been forced into a slower pace of life, that Payne acknowledges the slog the past years have been. She tells me about a recent conversation with a fellow female founder who joked she was considering breaking a leg just so she could have a rest. “I laughed and said she would need to do something worse than that because when I broke my hand in a cycling accident a few years ago I had to carry on regardless.”
Payne doesn’t keep regular hours, particularly if she is attending up to three Marguerite events a week where she is the first to arrive, normally lugging bottles of prosecco with her, and the last to leave. The next morning, she’ll often get straight to work in her pyjamas, posting her first Instagram with her eyes half closed, then heading into the office at around 10am. She says she works longer hours than she ever has but it doesn’t feel that way because the work is totally her own. This is clearly a woman in love with the life she has built herself.
This is clearly a woman in love with the life she has built herself.
“The best part of working for yourself is the flexibility it affords you. If it’s the most beautiful summer’s day it’s nice to know I could go to the seaside if there’s not much on.” She also signs off on the final event schedule so can ensure it suits her and her passion for travel. Her next dream trip is to Japan, but she doesn’t think that will happen for a few years.
We talk about what books we are reading (Payne just finished Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and I am struggling through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov) and she says she realised she hadn’t properly read a book in years. Now alone in her new flat in London she has more time to focus on herself rather than her business only. As a small celebration of her newly found freedom, she has begun keeping a list of all the things she now has the time to read, watch or cook. I wonder if this shift in her existence has changed the way she will approach her business when things return to regular programming.
“We’ve already pivoted the business to cater to our members needs while in lockdown,” she explains. The launch of ‘Freelancers Unite’ a page on the Marguerite website helping out of work freelancers find jobs is one of the things Payne is most proud of during the entire five years she has run the company. Perhaps slowing down will produce other effective business decisions.
“My friends and I were talking about this the other day and how we used to do something every night before coronavirus, an event, a private viewing, a dinner. I mean, how did we do that? I think a lot of people will take this time and appreciate it. Maybe we’ll think about doing fewer events, but of a higher calibre, make them even more impactful.”
The “we” she refers to is a small part-time team made up of an “amazing accountant, Nick -I hate maths”, two partnerships managers, Rebecca and Nicole and a membership and events manager, Lucy. She also regularly draws on the expertise of freelance photographers and designers. The team is currently missing an assistant (hiring is on hold during lockdown) so Payne has taken on the admin herself. Just another glamorous part of running your own business.
“Three of the women I work with are all older than me,” Payne, who is in her early 30s, explains enthusiastically. “And it’s been the best thing for my business because they give me great advice on things I would never know about otherwise. I think the biggest mistake a lot of young entrepreneurs make is hiring a lot of people junior to them to make them feel like the boss, when actually there is so much more to be gained from employing people with more experience than you.”
Surrounding herself with generous and inspirational people has been a key element in Payne’s success. In fact, the whole premise behind the name Marguerite is based on Marguerite “Peggy” Gugenheim, the millionaire art collector who would sunbathe naked on the roof of her Venetian palazzo, now a world class museum, and was said to have over 1000 lovers.
“She was one of the most important art patrons of the 20th century,” Payne enthuses, when I ask more about her heroine who supported Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky during their careers. “She saved so many pieces of art during the second world war and was incredibly flamboyant and extravagant, a real hoot. What draws me to her most is that she didn’t have any official art training. She was never ashamed to lean on those around her for their knowledge and advice.”
While Payne does have some formal training, studying History of Art at Nottingham University, she says she is not creative when it comes to things like drawing or painting. It is events where she comes into her own, unlike the original Marguerite, whose parties were infamous for their terrible food. Who knows, maybe Payne is not the first founding female in the art world to have thrown a sausage themed party.