I graduated from Oglethorpe College (now University) in Atlanta in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in business. I had quite a few other career options after college, but having grown up in our business, I decided to join in and make it my life’s work and career. I had the distillation of my grandfather’s, father’s, and brother’s experiences, which was priceless. I was in awe of my father’s knowledge and extraordinary expertise as an art dealer. I emulated him, and although I only had three years in our business before he passed away suddenly on an overseas business trip, I absorbed his life lessons and have never stopped using them. I have instilled those very skills and principles in my two sons who are now the 4th generation in our company.
There are no specific hours in our business. When you own it, it owns you. My days are more often than not at least 16 hours in duration. After I leave the gallery at whatever time, 6pm, 7pm, no matter, I will be on the computer at home emailing clients and sending out images or painting presentations, or just researching for new markets and inventory. I am fully immersed 7 days a week. As my father used to tell me, ‘Do it right or not at all!’ And that is precisely the way we operate our business; no exceptions!
I am generally in the gallery by 7:30 in the morning getting started on my emails and strategizing for the day ahead. Deals that we do take unpredictable turns and are impacted by a myriad of factors; the economy, auction results, political and geo-political events, financial markets, subjective tastes, and more. Oftentimes, a deal can be structured, but then a spouse may disapprove so it falls apart. We are constantly marketing and reaching out to clients both existent and new. It is a never ending quest as clients have utilized all their wall space, run out of funds, get divorced, move, or die. The only constant is change, so we must adapt and reinvent ourselves and our goods. Tastes change; so what was in vogue ten, twenty, or thirty years ago may now be a softer market or perhaps even impossible to sell. You need to be ahead of the curve, not behind it. Complacency is very dangerous, so the ability to use foresight and insight is crucial.
There are several things I love about what I do; the people we meet are, as a rule, fantastic and we’ve made many friends who were clients first. Of course, as in any other industry, we also encounter those clients who are truly arrogant and sometimes even despicable, but it’s all part of the game and we don’t take it personally; it’s just business.
The thrill for me is doing the deal; that’s where the excitement lies. When I am in the middle of one negotiation, I am already thinking of the next six deals ahead. It is like an addiction; there can never be enough deals going on at the same time.
Look the part
At first I believed I could wear casual clothes but quickly realized after some not so soft prodding by my father that the uniform was a dark suit, power tie and polished shoes. He was so right. Bankers and professional business people alike, consciously and unconsciously, will discount you if you don’t appear serious. Appearances and first impressions are all you have to get in the door. It’s all about power, respect and knowledge; that’s a fact.
Get a feel for the industry first
This is a very tough industry. More doors close than open. If you are seriously interested in becoming an art dealer, you must have patience, persistence, and a thick skin. Financial backing is very necessary, for there are many lean times as well as those when cash flow is abundant. I would suggest working for a gallery or auction house first to get a feel for the industry and see if it is really something that nags at you. Interning is a very good way to help you decide, as you will observe and experience a great many aspects of the business.
Education is important
Taking art history courses is always a plus, and so are business courses as they are a critical component in successful administration of a company. A very significant way of educating oneself is by reading the art journals that are readily available in print and online. Also, following the major auction house sales and marking the catalogues with price results is a great way to learn if you pay attention to the details. For instance, note the size, date, and medium of a work, as well as the subject, condition, and provenance. Going to museums, galleries, and auction houses is a must if you are intent on becoming a dealer. That is where most of the action takes place, and although you will not be privy to the back room private deals, you will get a good taste of the inner workings of the art world.