Last week I met a friend and art advisor, Shawna Barrett, who grabbed me off the train at 125th Street and ushered me into a tightly-secured warehouse on 138th Street, just under the Madison Avenue Bridge, where galleries store art they’re not currently showing. There we met a gallery director (from the Gerald Peters Gallery off Fifth Avenue) who showed us several works by an artist that one of Shawna’s clients had taken a shine to. After examining the 15 paintings she had displayed along the corridor, we hitched a ride downtown with her on her way to work. I asked her about business. She said that the brick and mortar gallery is just not the same model for selling art that it used to be. Although I don’t remember my parents going on gallery walks in New York, apparently their generation did… a lot. She said that now people are looking for art on line.
Next stop on our quest for just the right thing to grace the walls of her clients’ first homes; second homes; and offices — 28th Street in Chelsea. As we swung into another clinically-sparse industrial space on the street, feasting our eyes on others’ life-works, Shawna (aware of how much I was loving this adventure) announced, “this is what I do for living!” While I am completely envious of anyone whose job description includes shopping for beautiful things, I knew this work couldn’t be all lunches in cute cafes and random Kandinsky sightings.
KR: Shawna, explain what your process is for identifying what is needed in a space and then going off and finding it.
SB: Well, you have to really discover what this “thing” is together with your client. And that involves a lot of educating.
KR: In art history?
SB: Yes, and educating them on what is out there and what is accessible in terms of their budget. And getting a feel for what their interests are. But it’s really important that they come to this decision on their own because they are the ones who will be living with it and enjoying it for years to come.
KR: That would be so hard to step back, especially if you thought they were making a mistake.
SB: The pleasure in this job comes when they call back and say, “This was a stretch for us financially, but we can’t believe how much pleasure this painting is giving us”.
KR: Do people buy art as an investment? … so that now you have to be a forecaster, knowing which artists will appreciate in value?
SB: I try to deemphasize that with my clients. It’s important to buy what they like. If they come to me and ask, “Am I going to make money on this?” , then I am probably not their art advisor. Art is a commodity, it’s just like anything else, and it is often affected by what is in fashion. Like right now it could be cheaper to buy a Monet or a Calder (approx. $85 million) than a diamond-encrusted skull by Damien Hirst (approx. $100 million).
KR: I guess it’s a good thing our ceilings are too low to swing a Calder.
SB: Clients ask if they can afford art. …Almost everyone can afford art. I started with two little oils from a consignment shop. I loved them… you recognize something is good if you find it resonates personally. …And that could be that it is aesthetically pleasing or challenging. There is a lot of affordable art… especially from emerging artists. And you can still pick up great finds from tag sales.
KR: Art covers such a wide spectrum. It must be so tough to keep up with what’s out there.
SB: People hire me because, on the one hand I understand and follow the existing art market, but I am also constantly on the lookout for new and interesting work. I have to be reading gallery reviews constantly; talking to curators; talking to gallery owners. If you go to these galleries during the week, they are usually empty and the owners love to talk to someone who is knowledgeable and interested. I have picked up a lot from them. And, everywhere I go, I visit the local museums and galleries.