Expert Interview with Julie Gustafson of Heirlooms on Video

An interview with Julie Gustafson, President of Heirlooms on Video based in Chicago, which captures the lives and art collections of high net-worth families and institutions.

Artwork by kind permission of Chicago-based artist, Diana Leviton Gondek.
Manoj Phatak

Manoj Phatak

We are joined today by Julie Gustafson, President of Heirlooms on Video, who create video histories for individual and institutional owners of fine art collections. 

Julie Gustafson President of Heirlooms on Video

Julie previously spent 28 years in the Wealth Management sector, most recently as a Senior Vice President of U.S. Trust in Chicago, advising high net-worth families in Investment Management, Philanthropy and Trust Services. She also co-led a Fine Art Initiative, which offered art-secured lending and other planning services to collectors.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today, Julie!

What excites you most when you speak to a client for the first time?

The possibility of being taken along on truly unique and meaningful journeys—through the past and present, and into the future—with wonderful people!

In initial conversations, prospective clients might feel ambivalent about oversharing. However confidential in nature the process is, people somewhat distrust that it will turn out well.

During my wealth management days, I often started conversations by saying “Consider me the bank vault.” A prospective client needs to be heard, understood, and to feel secure that what they share or need assistance with will be handled discreetly and with the utmost respect. Matters small or large.

I am so grateful for the privilege to remain in touch with many of the amazing families I’ve worked with over the years—and to know how their life stories are continuing.

Honestly, my role has not changed much—just doesn’t focus squarely upon the numbers!

From the world of private wealth banking, what drew you into the world of art and heritage?

Some years ago, the opportunity to participate in the promotion of key marketing initiatives was offered to private bank colleagues. There were multiple topics (Business Owners, Next Generation, a Women’s Series), with Fine Art further down the list.

I hadn’t studied art, but was actively involved with art credit, estate planning and philanthropic conversations with clients. Unlike the other topics, it was quite new to me.

The premise of acquiring knowledge about Fine Art while applying existing skills and experience was a huge draw. In a matter of a few weeks, I attended an art auction which raised significant funds for The School of the Art Institute in Chicago and traveled to Miami for Art Basel—my first glimpses into the art world’s vast and largely unregulated ecosystem. And it was tremendous.

I left financial services in late 2016. Leaving behind a successful long-term career that I loved and excelled at was quite difficult, and I struggled to choose among subsequent offers in the same field. Fine ones, but I was conflicted.

The catalyst was a lunch with my ‘Heirlooms On Video’ Co-Founder and longtime mentor, Robert Jordan. He said “Julie, your face simply lights up when you talk about three things: working with families, philanthropy, and art. What do you think about launching a new company with me, producing PBS-style documentaries for private collectors and others in the art world?”

Over a decade earlier, Bob had established a similar, very successful company for wealthy families and business owners called ‘Video Family Biographies’. That lunch occurred right before a previously planned trip to New York City for Armory Show Week.

A week’s worth of soul-searching, viewing incredible art, and frank conversations with trusted art professionals sealed the deal. In March 2017, Bob and I launched ‘Heirlooms On Video’.

We work with collectors, artists, galleries, museums and not-for-profits to capture the personal stories behind a collection’s provenance. I also work in business development for ‘Video Family Biographies’, which given my prior career makes great sense.

Across both companies, shared advice and subjects such as philanthropy and legacy are a vital part of the story. In addition to Bob and myself, we have an extensive production team consisting of accomplished writers, film and camera crew, and editors.

Together, we serve clients from all over. The expertise runs deep, and I continue to learn from my terrific teammates. Plus, it plays to my love of storytelling and writing!

As a ‘side gig’, I’ve recently undertaken a consulting engagement with acclaimed sculptors and fine artists Omri and Julie Amrany.

One of their latest works, a bronze sculpture of David Beckham for the L.A. Galaxy, was unveiled in Los Angeles this past Spring. Individually and as a couple, their endless creativity and philanthropic drive are truly inspiring.

Why do you think that legacy and heritage are so important to the families, institutions and artists that you work with?

I think that there is a strong desire to understand not only the origins, but also to nurture continued interest and responsible stewardship for the next leg of a collection’s journey.

The story behind the building of a collection and its provenance—the whys, hows, and whats, is truly special. Understanding why a collection was started, how other pieces or works came together to comprise a collection, and to hear the aspirations for a collection’s future—directly from the owner(s) provides immense perspective.

For multigenerational families, it is the best of both worlds. Not only for the backstories that enhance provenance, but to have the ability to see and to hear their loved one(s). In their own voice(s). And to be able to replay it.

Video is far from a new medium, but who doesn’t long for people, places, and conversations that weren’t captured on film and wishes that they had the opportunity to retrieve and to relive them? I do—all the time!

Age, illness and passage of time are factors that certainly erode the effective retelling of a story.

Can you tell us more about your volunteer work with The School of The Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and other fine art-related initiatives you have started?

SAIC is such a special place! Many don’t know, but at one hundred fifty-three years old, The School of The Art Institute is slightly older than its sibling, The Art Institute of Chicago.

A world-class museum and school, across from one another on Michigan Avenue! In Summer of 2016, I had lunch with a member of SAIC’s Development team. I shared my wish to do more on behalf of The School. I didn’t have the ability to write large checks (donations), nor grounds to be offered a seat on its impressive Board.

So, I asked about forming a new volunteer group. My pitch was “The School will be wrapping up a successful capital campaign soon, and you already have a fantastic Board of Governors. How about a volunteer committee comprised of members whose careers touch the art world, have interest in learning about The School, can serve as informal ambassadors in their communities, donate on some level (“anything above zed”) and be an additional resource for the students?”

The idea was taken to SAIC’s leadership for consideration. A few weeks later, I was told that they liked the idea and wanted me to get things going. The official name is Philanthropic Advisory Group, or PAG for short.

Since we are not a governing or operating board, the requirements are quite reasonable. No formal meetings, stipulated ‘give or gets’, or fundraising goals. We gather periodically for art activities, such as museum/gallery exhibitions or for the students’ Open Studio nights.

Over time, the hope is that PAG members will integrate more fully into the SAIC community, financially and otherwise. It’s a great way to learn about other affinity groups, such as the Fashion Council (one of my favorites!).

In our own way, PAG enthusiastically contributes to students’ development and growth—showing appreciation and support for their talents and helping them to network. And I cannot say enough about my fellow PAG members, talented professionals who bring so much to the group.

It’s not only the students, faculty and leadership—we learn a lot from one another, too! Win-win.

Another philanthropic organization I am very passionate about is Special Olympics. I’ve been a proud member of the Special Olympics Illinois Foundation Board for the past 5 years and supporting the efforts and wellbeing of over 26,000 athletes and their families is an absolute joy!

In Illinois, we are lucky to have not only a powerhouse Operating Board but are also one of the few in the U.S. with a thriving Foundation. Through the Foundation, we are about to launch a new fine art-related initiative called the ‘Legacy Assets’ subcommittee.

‘Legacy Assets’ refers to specific visual assets currently owned, including Chicago artist Diana Leviton Gondek’s beautiful 50th Anniversary painting, renowned sculptor Richard Hunt’s incredible 30-foot steel work ‘The Eternal Flame of Hope’, and The Tribute Park and Donor Wall in downstate Normal, Illinois.

Last Fall, I approached Special Olympics Illinois CEO Dave Breen with a proposal: “This isn’t a new idea. Our athletes excel both on and off the field, including in the creation of art. Why not better market these fantastic assets (painting, ‘Eternal Flame’, Tribute Park) to raise more awareness for Special Olympics, bring art further into its mission, and welcome new donors and volunteers?”

At our Annual Galas, athletes’ artwork takes the silent auction bidding to a whole new level! The power of art is transforming, and we’re looking forward to bringing the concept to fruition. Another step forward in the mission of diversity and inclusion!

Whether in my career or through organizations such as SAIC and Special Olympics, I’ve always sought to support the dreams and abilities of people who excel at things that I cannot do—yet admire and appreciate all the same!.

How would you like the world to see your own legacy?

Two of my favorite quotes are by William James:

“The greatest use of a life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”

And,

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

I hope to be remembered for being a good person, with an open heart and always trying my best. And whether through volunteering or financially, that my philanthropic efforts carry positive meaning and outcomes for others.

We all have unique gifts to share. Money helps, but being kind, giving of one’s time and sharing ideas doesn’t cost anything and can achieve far greater value in the long run.

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