Thomas Shelford is a software industry executive and a fine artist trained in 19th-century painting techniques. He is also a surfer and a dad.
How has the pandemic affected you professionally?
Professionally, I wear two hats. One is owning a software business, specifically in the sector of venture capital and private equity investing, and the second, to a lesser degree, is a painter. I am a part of a community of skill-based realist or naturalist painters that includes their collectors and the teaching institutions around them. It's a bit of an underground community or alternate universe of our time that built up around the dominant forces of the contemporary art world that are centered around conceptual art and the byproduct of marketing and popular culture.
On the software industry side, there are certainly companies that are taking losses. The company that I own is taking a 20%-30% revenue hit as projects are delayed. When you have this environment of uncertainty where nobody knows how long this crisis is going to last, there's a collapse in demand in the economy as people stop buying things.
Everybody just takes a breath, and they stop making purchasing and hiring decisions because they're waiting to see what's going to happen. So, the uncertainty itself has a very toxic effect on the whole system. Uncertainty is the worst part, and can cause more long-term damage than any actual physical effects on the number of people who are dying, creating a very damaging dynamic.
There are selective sectors that are directly exposed which are getting absolutely destroyed and other sectors that aren't directly exposed to the downturn. For instance, Airbnb is getting killed, but Zoom is going to have its best year ever.
How have you been affected personally?
Having a little guy around makes it almost impossible to get work done, and my revenue’s dropping as customers cancel contracts. At this point, I really don't have anything else to do other than really focus on making sure my rosemary plant does really well - and making an amazing omelette.
As like a semi-pro, part time weekend warrior artist, I've been focused on making the paintings I'd like to hang on my own walls, which has been very liberating. You can be as weird as you want without the pressure of thinking, would a collector or gallery want to sell this? because nothing's going to sell.
Ironically, I think when artists make work that just appeals to them personally, it establishes a more unique voice that carves out a more devoted audience...it may be a smaller group of people, but they'll be more passionate about your work.
How do you think it will impact the future of your industry?
I think in the worst-case scenario, this is going to be a temporary shock. There will be a lot of companies that go out of business because they can't hibernate long enough to withstand, but on the technology side, this may have some positive impacts.
I think there will be a removal of some of the greed-driven hype. In the past, you'd hear about companies that don't have a business model getting billion-dollar investments. I think there's going to be a pull back from that, which would be healthy. Investors are raising the bar on the financial health of companies, and have more of a focus on a wiser risk profile, whereas up until this crisis hit, there was no attention paid to the risk or downside - everyone was just throwing money at problems.
Hopefully, that will make for a healthier risk perspective on things and a little more diversification in business models. Maybe companies will realize, “Hey! Let's not have all our eggs in one basket!”
“Uncertainty itself creates a very damaging dynamic."
How are you adapting to the changes?
Cutting costs, preserving cash. I'm creating a plan for if things get worse or this lasts longer than we think, and we can come up with a DEFCON plan ahead of time and think it through. Part of the fear and anxiety is not knowing if you're walking off a cliff.
We have been pivoting our product and service offering to focus more on risk mitigation and crisis management for our clients, and we're actively inventing new offers and scrambling to create new things.
On the art front, I think the prospect of commercially viable art-making activities is very limited right now. The gallery system, which is a traditional method for artists to make money, has taken a huge hit. Teaching is only possible if you have online courses available. So, at this moment, I will focus on creating art for myself.
“..I think when artists make work that just appeals to them personally, it establishes a more unique voice that carves out a unique audience"
If you had to identify a silver lining out of this, what would it be?
This generation of artists is incredibly privileged. We have access to every image ever made in high resolution, which means that everything's an ironic derivative or commentary on something else. There's this zeitgeist of modern culture that's shallow and reality TV marketing driven. The challenge is, how are we going to make something authentically when we are buried by all these images? It's overwhelming!
I think there will be more of a hunger for authenticity because it will feel more human...you might just see a flight to quality and fundamental value.