“I’m still here” is the refrain from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Remember? It goes,
“Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all, and my dear, I’m still here. Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here.”
I was searching for a title for this Missive when I read how Michael Miller opened a recent piece on his “Berkshire Review for the Arts”. I can think of no better way to describe my 48 years as an art dealer. Times change and sneak up on you. People have always asked me how has the business changed and for a long time I would say it hasn’t but I was wrong. There were few momentous changes but slow increments of change. About half way through my career we made a film about the history of the firm and it is still pertinent.
With the majority of my current efforts more accurately described as “consulting” versus “dealing”, having a gallery in the Old Master field has become almost superfluous. After much consideration, I have decided to close the doors on Stiebel, ltd.’s physical entity, the art gallery. I will continue to offer my guidance as an authority in my areas of expertise. As with life, some things will change while others will not.
I started in 1965 when I was still at Columbia going for my MA in art history. My first experience with a client was literally crawling on the floor with the director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Perry Rathbone. He was examining a Persian Hunting Carpet from the Baron Maurice de Rothschild Collection, which was destined for his institution. In my first decade, museum curators and directors came to our door to see what was new. Near the end of the 70’s things were changing. I said to a curator from a mid western museum I look forward to seeing you when you are next in town. He replied rather gruffly, “I don’t have time for that. You let me know if you have anything we might be interested in.”
The tables had turned. While there were relatively few dealers when I started out, more and more were joining the ranks. It was not just old family firms where the progeny were joining but young people who had some money, often family money, who thought they would try their hand or auctioneers who had learned the ropes and thought there might be a better way.
I have friends, twins, who I first met on a teen tour across the country, who went to work for two of the top New York dealers and eventually struck out on their own. Early on we had this debate where one would say he wished he had gotten my art history degree and I would say I wished I had his business degree. Funny thing is that when I went into the business the Masters in Art History was preferable and within two decades the MBA was far better training for this business.
The auction houses were originally where the dealers bought wholesale then adding their expertise, sold retail. There were few private collectors at the auctions unless their dealer/advisor was bidding for them. In France, I remember, It was such a small group of dealers that we literally sat abound a horseshoe shaped table with the auctioneer at one end.
Early on in my career someone said to me it is the only business I know of where one can walk into a gallery ask the proprietor all about his business and leave without buying anything. Then again change, as the auctioneers started marketing directly to the collectors.
In more recent times in the older art fields unless you have a special event such as a special exhibition, an opening or a party the clients stopped making the rounds. They preferred one stop shopping, now available at the art fairs, which proliferate today.
Going forward, I will continue to counsel clients and colleagues, travel to see museums, exhibitions and fairs as well as enjoy my many wonderful connections in the art world. To keep me on my toes I will, of course, continue my “Missives from the Art World”. After all art dealers, by definition, never retire, it is in their blood, but just change their way of doing business.
For well over a decade now I have had 2 loyal employees. Diana Nixon and Vincent Hickman. Diana has kept our house, our library and done research for the company. Vincent has literally done everything else. For one thing, the blog was Vincent’s idea originally and without him it could not come out every week. I am not only grateful to them for past services but both have agreed to continue to work with me on an ad hoc basis.
Do keep in touch, my email will remain email@example.com.