I did too – and after nearly a year of rescheduled appointments (he travels a lot!) – we sat down recently at a Good Earth Café before he flew off to Austria for the Winter Special Olympics (more about that below) for what turned out to be far more enlightening than I might have expected. He’s not accustomed to being the star of the show – he’s been much more the guy who showcases others, promotes others and helps them shine. Born into a creative/arts family, he’s been a gallery operator/retailer and promoter of the arts in Calgary his whole life. These days he splits his time between Calgary in his own PR venture and Toronto as a media specialist for republic strategy + storytelling .. and the rest of the world.
Cancer at 40, new career at 50 – what’s that all about?
Born and raised here – dad, was an architectural draftsman; mom, an artist – the notable Calgary art guru Audrey Mabee, it should be no surprise that ‘the arts’ would be his calling. He grew up in Calgary – was average academically, but excelled in the arts. Bishop Carroll and St. Mary’s High Schools, then four years at A.C.A.D. earning a Certificate in Visual Communications, then to U of C where he earned a B.A. in English and Classics. He was discouraged – felt the industry he was entering was in a very different place than his education had prepared him for. Wedged in there was a trip to Europe at 19 – “an incredible experience”. From 1991-97 he managed The Croft (it was sold in 1997), an arts store and gallery his mother had co-founded. What followed was a series of gallery operations in Calgary – Harrison Gallery, Crossroads Market gallery Artspace, and in Encorp's Arts Central facility - Axis Contemporary Art, all of which ended when that facility was sold – and he started making other plans …
“I’ve never had a real plan. I was ‘kinda scared’ – approaching 50, wanted to travel more, continue in the industry but have the energy I’d had opening and operating galleries. I went to Mount Royal and did their public relations program – which was fantastic and launched me in the industry. I’ve been writing for Avenue Magazine, working with Party Crashers (a fundraising operation) and working remotely as ‘the western office’ for republic, Beverly Hammond’s Toronto shop - working on lots of national and international accounts. That and travelling with my partner (Mark Tewksbury) in his work with Special Olympics. We’ve got a great life – not married, but we are about to celebrate 10 years together … so there will be a party.”
Why are you successful? “Being able to do what I wanted in making a life and a living – to live humbly, made it work for me”.
What has held you back? “While I’ve not had a plan, I don’t feel I’ve been held back. Maybe a ‘lack of being ambitious’ held me back in some people’s eyes – but I think that actually helped me more than it hindered me.”
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… when it’s for me, I rely on my gut – references, relationships, trust. When it’s for clients – same things however I’m meticulous about the detail, due diligence and a thorough process that leaves very little to chance.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Rob Mabee, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
... my experience, a well earned reputation in the art business, trust, creative concepts. Mostly, I think it is something I learned in selling high quality art to sophisticated – and sometimes not sophisticated – buyers, ‘not talking down to them’. Most people don’t know a lot about art, and they don’t want to deal with snotty people.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… not much of that now, but in my gallery operation days when I had lots of staff, I’d say I am, at my best, collaborative. I like to work with people who are better at something than I am – otherwise I tend to be more of a D.I.Y. guy.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… not much anymore. I’m a detail person in a detail commodity field of work – so when I’m working on a project, I worry about work.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… having cancer at 40, makes you want to eliminate all the BS in your life – adenoid cystic carcinoma of the parotid gland (I had surgery – and I’m 13 years cancer-free); my mom in so many ways – developed a lot of shared interests, taught me about art, culture, people.
… going to the Winter Special Olympics – leaving tomorrow! Skiing at Sunshine Village, gym – and we have a trainer we work with, hanging out with my partner when we aren’t travelling, cooking with friends.
What do you read?
… lots. Fiction mostly.
… 2006 Mustang – red convertible. My first car was a 1969 Mustang …
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