By the late 1990s, Cynthia Valianti Corbett, F78, was at the pinnacle of her career in international finance. She was a negotiator and economic architect for emerging market debt conversion programs, and her clients were officials located around the world, from Africa to Eastern and Central Europe. But Valianti Corbett felt the pull for something more.
She lived in London with her English husband and when their young daughter was entering school, “I wanted to be home, but wasn’t sure how to find a new job I’d love as much as working with emerging international economies,” Valianti Corbett recalled. “Then I realized, I’ve always loved art history. Wherever I would go I would find time to visit museums, churches, galleries. It had been a passion in my life forever. I was ready for a change, and it seemed the most logical next step.”
Today, Valianti Corbett is the director of the Cynthia Corbett Gallery, an international contemporary art gallery she founded in 2004 to represent emerging artists. She also shows regularly at contemporary art fairs around the world. In addition to her work at the gallery, Valianti Corbett gives fledgling artists support through the Young Masters Art Prize, a non-profit initiative supported by corporate sponsorship that she created in 2009.
“I wanted to celebrate contemporary artists who are really interested in historical themes,” Valianti Corbett said during a recent visit to Tufts for her Fletcher class reunion, “and prove to the world that these artists are just as technically brilliant and unique as they would be if they were living in the time of the Old Masters.”
Valianti Corbett said that her appreciation for art and the artistic process began as a child. One of nine kids raised in Marlborough, Massachusetts, she started playing the piano at age four. But art also made a powerful impression on her, especially during trips to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, she studied political science and language, thinking that she’d head to Harvard Business School or Georgetown Law School (Valianti Corbett had applied to both) and then pursue opportunities in international business. But then she heard a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy speak at a seminar about his global career. “I thought, ‘This is what I should be doing; this is everything that I love,’” she said. After Fletcher, she worked in international agribusiness before she was recruited by Citibank. It was 1982, “when all of the Latin American debt crisis was in full swing,” she said, and Citibank pioneered a debt-conversion program, which Valianti Corbett brought to Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, and other African nations. After the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, she moved to Bankers Trust, and continued traveling, implementing privatization plans in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland.
Valianti Corbett said that her decision to pursue art as a career later in life required major lifestyle changes. She and her husband, a financial advisor, sold their house so she could afford to go back to school for two years and earn a postgraduate diploma at Christie’s Education, an institution affiliated with the prestigious Christie’s Auction House.
After graduating in 2000, she worked as a freelance curator and researched what shape and form her own gallery might take. She saw potential right in her own new home, a renovated 19th century convent in Wimbledon that came with high ceilings and ample natural light. In 2004, the Cynthia Corbett Gallery was born.
Valianti Corbett said she didn’t know anything about how to run a gallery when she started, but that her Fletcher degree, coupled with prior managerial and business experiences, were indispensable assets—particularly as her business expanded and she branched out by setting up pop-up shows at various locations in London.
“I realized people would lend me spaces for free, ” she said. “I once curated a space in an eyeglass store. I could do all these amazing things and it didn’t cost me anything other than my time and resources.”
Next up, the Young Masters Art Prize. The contemporary art world is “always moving forward, and you don’t have a lot of time to think about the curation of the past in art history,” Valianti Corbett said. “I thought I should do a prize that celebrates contemporary artists who are really interested in historical themes.” The award also brought an unexpected bonus: it rekindled new connections with Tufts.
In 2016, Valianti Corbett hosted an alumni event at her gallery, and learned Tufts had acquired the School of Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts. In later conversations, she encouraged Tufts to spread the word to SMFA alumni about her prizes, and SMFA artists took top honors. Iranian artist Azita Moradkhani, G13, who received an MFA in 2015, won both the Young Masters Art Prize and the inaugural Young Masters Emerging Woman Art Prize. Meanwhile, Tamara Al-Mashouk, who earned an MFA in 2016, netted an gallery award sponsored by the Artists’ Collecting Society. In addition, Lucy Beecher Nelson, who graduated from the SMFA’s graduate program in 2007, was a shortlisted artist.
“We have great applications from all over the world, and I was thrilled when the panel of judges recognized the caliber of the SMFA graduates,” Valianti Corbett said. “And for the artists, the prize can be an important stepping stone. Having a vetted exhibition in London is difficult—it’s the hardest place in the world to show your work, and it’s the best.”
Reflecting on the flourishing gallery, Valianti Corbett cited two key factors in her success. “I think first you have to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “And second, you have to have the temperament – you have to be comfortable with risk.”
Valianti Corbett also said that the world of art presented her with the fulfillment she was after. “What is the world without creativity?” she said. “Throughout history humans have always been drawn to beauty. The creative outlet is so basic to life. So while I’m not an artist, I’m happy to be a promoter of art, to put in my expertise and my time for art.”