It’s not uncommon to dream about quitting the day job for a creative pursuit, but job security is often too important to risk. Before making her drastic career shift, Montgomery native Catherine Marks Woodson had dedicated 20 years to the financial services industry, working at high-asset institutions like Merrill Lynch and Northern Trust. While her work was profitable, Woodson chose to take a leap into the unknown and pursue her passion for the arts. In 2003, she left the sure thing behind and launched her own magazine, Art Galleries & Artists of the South.
Woodson’s interest in the arts began in high school and became the focus of her education. “I had a great art teacher at Montgomery Academy and grew to love it, ” she says. “When the time came to pick a college, it had to be Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia. I had family who went there, and I knew it was a good school. I would also be able to study art history there, and Virginia itself was a good environment to be a part of.”
After graduating, though, Woodson was faced with a decision. While she had a degree in art history, she understood that the job market wouldn’t be brimming with opportunities in her field. “At that point, art history didn’t promise much in the way of a career, ” she says. “As much as I loved it, I knew that I could find much more stable work in banking and finance.”
Woodson joined Merrill Lynch as a financial consultant in 1991. She began a training program and worked with a career coach per her friends’ suggestion. Six months into the program, Woodson’s coach encouraged her to take a course on Betty Edward’s book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brian.”
“The course was intended to open up the creative side of the brain, allowing you to apply it to your business, ” says Woodson. “Art is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
Woodson sees creativity as a valuable asset, as applicable in the office as it would be in an art studio. “You’ll see the benefits of creative exercise elsewhere, ” she says. “How often at work does someone have to think outside the box to find a solution? If you keep your imaginative side sharp, that resourceful thinking should be easier.”
As part of her “Right Brain” course, Woodson painted several times a week. She felt that using her imagination on a regular basis kept it in good shape, like hitting the gym for an hour here and there. “We can do things every day to exercise our creativity, ” she says. “There are many ways to tap into that part of the brain. People draw, dance, visit museums, listen to music on a drive and so on. That all stimulates our creative side.”
Woodson served as senior financial consultant at Merrill Lynch before starting work at Northern Trust in 1999. However, by 2001, she felt that the time was coming for a career change. She knew that the transition wouldn’t be easy, though. “It was tough moving away from finance at first, ” she says. “You have to give up that Series 7 license that you worked so hard for.”
Living in Florida, she worked briefly with her sister-in-law’s custom furniture shop. While she and her husband sought print ads for the shop, they began to investigate the business details of magazine publishing.
“Necessity was behind the decision, ” she says. “I was starting to look for another avenue to take, and the ideas for an arts magazine started to develop.” As Woodson explored her options, publishing gradually showed real viability.
Even though she was excited to explore a new career opportunity, Woodson was aware of the gamble she and her husband were taking. “It felt like stepping off a ledge, not knowing where you’ll land, ” she says. “It’s your financial security at stake.”
While the leap was intimidating at first, Woodson felt confident that her previous training would prove useful in new fields. “Merrill Lynch and Northern Trust taught me how to better manage both my own finances and business affairs, ” she says. “The experience I had with them helped moving on to the magazine.”
Woodson realized that print would offer an opportunity to revisit her love for the arts and soon developed Art Galleries & Artists of the South.
“We focused on art because we love it, ” she says. “The magazine format was the perfect way to display it.”
The magazine’s first issue ran in August of 2003, with Woodson acting as the publisher, managing partner and editor.
“From the beginning, we wanted to show the sophistication of Southern artists and the galleries that host them, ” says Woodson. “There’s a lot of amazing, interesting and thought-provoking art in the Southeast, much more than many people would suspect. Our goal is to share a complete look at art in the South.”
The nationally distributed magazine features relevant Southern artists working in a broad range of styles. “Contemporary is popular right now, but we like to show variety, ” says Woodson. To find their artists, Woodson and company work with trusted galleries around the South and keep in contact with artists that are already established in Southern cities.
“Having connections with trusted galleries and artists in the know is incredibly valuable when finding the people and places to feature, ” says Woodson. “I think there are myths and preconceived notions about the South, but we stick to a high-quality presentation and showcase exceptional talent. The Southern art world is fascinating and filled with brilliant artists. Working with trusted sources, we can deliver a true picture of Southern art.”
Art Galleries also features emerging artists early in their careers, often before they’re ever featured in a major gallery. The magazine’s “Of Interest” section includes a mix of books, interior design, architecture and other art-related subjects.
Naturally, the art magazine relies heavily on its photos and imagery to introduce the featured artists. “We’re a magazine for the right-brained, ” she says. “It’s intentionally very visual. We let the images speak the loudest.”
Now it its 14th year, Art Galleries has brought Woodson closer to her passion and allowed her to use both her business experience and creative energy.
“This has been an opportunity to learn and develop new parts of myself, ” she says. “It was well worth the risk involved at the time. My true happiness lies in the art world.”
Tom Little and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text By TOM LITTLE // Photo by ART MERIPOL