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From Canada to Mexico via Durham (and Canada)

Kevin Spreitz’ – my Durham MBA Journey

By Kevin Spreitz - January 2020

When I sit in my photo gallery in Huatulco, Mexico, surrounded by my art, snippets of the past sometimes flash before me. This comes to me in the way many of us experience, like a flashbulb of memory, when we wonder, “how did I get here from there?” I mean this in the best way, not with regret but with a feeling of being very lucky.

Looking back, there I am in my mid-twenties, on the bow of a Canadian naval ship, representing and protecting my Country, sailing through the narrows as we approach St. John’s, Newfoundland. That was a great day.

A few years later, the first day of my Durham MBA, so unsure of the future, but at the same time, so sure I belonged and that I was in the right place at the right time. It was an intense day.

Flash forward a few months, there I am in the Business School library, with mere weeks to write a dissertation, sitting for the entire day with nothing coming into my head, hoping and pleading inspiration would come. It was a desperate day (days, actually).

The day I graduated in a 1,000 year old cathedral, with an academic record and dissertation I could be very proud of.

The day I was sat at the head of a Boardroom, giving counsel to five people with a combined CEO history of 50+ years - surreal.

The day I moved to Mexico, just because I wanted to, to an area I had almost no knowledge of, only going because I had heard good things.

And the day my gallery opened. A dream realised. All of those memories like flashbulbs popping, but with the benefit of hindsight knowing, of course they happened that way because I am here now and it feelsright.

I was never a strong undergraduate student. To be blunt, I didn’t apply myself. But I am an inherent problem-solver. When I graduated, and was working in a casino, I knew I needed to make a change, as I was not applying myself. Well, I thought, ‘the military will cure me of that’. I chose naval operations, as it was difficult, and I thought if I’m going to fail, then fail at something challenging.

When I left the navy a few years later, I was looking into MBAs in Canada. My family on my Mum’s side, in Newcastle, suggested Durham, because of its sterling reputation. A family member had already gained a Durham MBA and went on to have an illustrious career. After investigating, I agreed, it would be a challenge but it was everything I wanted.

What did I want? Well, MBA students in North America tend to be young and have gone on to their MBA almost immediately after their undergraduate degree, with little experience. The ones billed as truly ‘international MBAs’ tend to be Canadian students with a handful of students from a few well-known countries. Durham seemed to be a magical alchemy of a truly international cohort with mixed management and innovation experience; combined with a collegiate life that seemed just as important as the academic side.

In my cohort (2002/3), I’d say around 25% were from the UK, and the breadth of countries was well over one third, from five continents. The depth and breadth of management experience was of such high quality. One of my most vivid memories is when the professors expressed a similar thought – MBA learning is as much from the cohort as it is from them!

There were many highlights of this magical year. Sometimes I would visit a professor after hours, catching them late in their office with a single question to ask, and leave after a fulfilling conversation, sure they had somehow tricked me into growing my brain without realising.

Another highlight - the collegiate life. Oh, the collegiate life! Sometimes it was a quiet drink at the Howlands Farm bar with just a few of us, not many words spoken due to exhaustion. Sometimes, it was with most of the class, visiting almost all of our fellow colleges and getting to meet many students. Not to forget rowing on the River Wear at 6am with my college team, mist rising, in the powerful silence except for the blades slicing the water and the occasional word from our coach. Yes, my unborn grandchildren will definitely learn all about Durham.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows and there was a time I was sure I was failing, but I pushed through. Whilst I can look back now in a gauzy haze of romanticism at the solitary days of writing my dissertation, I must also say it was extremely tough. However, there is profound satisfaction of thinking later, ‘Look at me! I’ve only gone and done it!’

After graduating, I stayed in the UK for a few years. The work was good and the travel was wonderful. Coming from Canada, I was not used to flying to Paris, Amsterdam and Rome for a few pounds. I thought my management consultancy career would be it – I would be happy, but in my soul, I’ve always been a photographer and an artist.

Little did I know that two things were happening; I was building my portfolio with every photograph I took, every trip I made. The universe was planning to get me to take the long road towards what I was supposed to do, what I was born for. In my social and professional circles, they would hear I was a keen photographer. People would ask to see my photographs. Eventually, someone asked to buy one (mind blown), then two, then ten.

When a business client commissioned me to make a series of nautical photographs for their coastal weekend home, it was the first time I thought I might be able to make a living from my art. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was the business world which first taught me how to be the right kind of artist. They were serious collectors and taught me about editions, longevity, materials, investment. They were the first inflection that not only set me upon being an artist, but the kind of artist I wanted to be.

Eventually, I returned to Canada, where I did nothing but take some time to think about my path forward. Was I ready for a monumental change? Was I capable of handling it? I still kept hearing that voice in my ear, against all sane advice, that I have to be what I am. Eventually I had some shows, then some international shows, then freelance contracts with The New York Times and The Globe and Mail, among others, and after a lot of hard graft, here I am. In Mexico. By the Pacific Ocean. With a successful gallery.

When I was a management consultant, I was using my Durham MBA every second of every day, even in ways not immediately apparent. There was the applied knowledge – operations, finance, etc. – but because Durham seems to touch so many lives in the UK, it was invaluable in cultivating close relationships within the business world. Everyone knew someone with a connection to Durham. It was always one degree of separation between them and a Durham graduate. It was, and still is, a great door-opener.

When I became an artist, I discovered that perhaps even more personally, I was still using my MBA. I felt like, as a consultant, it was “for hire”. But working for myself, to take myself from unknown artist to established artist, my MBA became more of an investment in myself, it became more ‘me’. Now the stakes were higher. But perhaps unsurprisingly, it fit so well in my new chapter. I think that is one of the hidden secrets of the Durham MBA.

The structure creates a versatile, highly adaptive set of skills where we can be dropped into anything. When I left the business world to pursue my art and passion, I didn’t have to adjust my MBA to the situation. My Durham MBA adjusted me.

It has been invaluable in organising and executing complex plans, giving me the gravitas to talk to corporations, banks, and clients about how they should take this artist seriously, and managing artwork inventory and financials. I can definitely say that as an artist with an MBA, like a two-headed Hydra, sometimes the passionate heart and business head war with each other. The passionate heart may win most of the time, but the business head wins when needed.

Five years ago, having already established myself as an artist in Canada, I moved to Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico, without knowing much about it. Of course the universe knew better than I that it had bigger things were in store for me. I met my wife a few weeks after arriving. I walked into a stationery store – Papeleria – to buy a pair of scissors, Marisol was working that day, and five months later we were married. Also a couple of months after arriving I was invited into a prestigious art show, and every year it has built upon its success.

Then in late 2018, I reached a major milestone in opening my own gallery, after years of dealing with other galleries in many countries, some wonderful, some not so much.

Oaxaca is a world unto itself and I, without hesitation can say everyone should visit at least once. The fashion, culture, food, dance, art is of course Mexican, but so much more Oaxacan! You haven’t lived until you have tried Oaxacan coffee, mezcal, and Tlayudas.

When I was at university in Canada, I could not have imagined I would spend a few years adventuring all over Canada and beyond as a naval officer. When I was in the navy, I could not have imagined the Durham MBA was right around the corner. When I was problem-solving in the UK business world, I could not have imagined I would eventually become an artist, and in a million years I could not have imagined all of that would lead to Mexico and my own gallery. But from there to here, it now seems…well, obvious.

My gallery, my website, and Instagram @kevinspreitz, are now the only places where one can find my museum-grade, limited edition photographs. With small editions and printed to museum specifications, signed and numbered, and shipped worldwide, my original photographs have been internationally exhibited and sold to personal and corporate collections.

My fine artwork documents and intersects the beauty of the natural world, the spectrum of humanity, ethnography and visual geometry. Occasionally I am commissioned for edition-of-one collector photographs and in this paradise village of Huatulco nestled between the mountains and the Pacific, I also lead photo education workshops, tours and walks all across Oaxaca – including for artists who wish to strengthen their business and entrepreneurial skills.

Thank you, Durham MBA!

Find out more about the Durham MBA here