Gallerist vs. Artist: Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?

mia two images
A snippet of my years leading a double life as an artist and gallery director. These photos were taken within a few months of each other.

Way back when, as a recent college graduate, I was not the kind of person who could afford to take the summer off and travel the world.

In order to support myself and my two-year-old daughter, I needed a job, and fast. While visiting my aunt, she mentioned that she had been reading the classifieds (a curious habit for someone who was happily retired) and she found the perfect job for me. The ad was for a part-time office assistant in a French Quarter art gallery.

The day of the interview, I wore my most conservative “office assistant” outfit/costume, and walked in the door to find a gallery filled, salon-style, with landscapes and mostly decorative work by artists I hadn’t heard of before.

The interviewer, who later my became my boss, was super charming and well-groomed. At the end of our interview he looked over my resume and said that he realized that I applied for an office job, but that he felt I really had the potential to be a great art dealer because of my passion for art. So instead I took a full-time job as an art consultant, working on the “other side” of the desk for the first time.

A couple of months later, I became the gallery director, and then director of another gallery.

This was just supposed to be a job, right?

The truth is, the first couple of years I worked as a gallery director, I was in heaven.

It came to a point where I couldn’t pretend anymore. I was either going to hang up my work as an artist or leave behind the prestigious and powerful position of gallery director.

Like DaVinci dissecting a body in order to understand the way our muscles work, I was like a kid in a candy store learning how galleries were run, how they worked with artists, with collectors, with shippers and framers. I loved the ever-changing walls, wearing my suits, heels, and pantyhose, my hair fixed each morning like that of a news anchor.

Being surrounded by paintings and talking about art all day came very naturally to me, of course, and I loved selling art to people, watching them fall in love, and helping them pick new pieces for their collections. Most of all, I loved the artists I worked with, and felt like I was really making the world a better place by filling it with art.

This all sounds like a dream, so let me add an intersection to this reality. You see, as an artist who is pretending to be a gallery director, you are not allowed to tell your clients that you’re an artist. People can disagree with me here, but it’s true.

I once had one of the artists that I represented tell me, upon discovering that I, too, had been making my work, and that the gallery owner wanted to exhibit it, that she saw my being an artist as a huge conflict of interest. However, faithfully, I had assisted many, if not all, of the top collectors in town with their collections, and never once told them the truth: that the reason I connected so much to artwork is because I understand what it’s like to make it.

I was starting to realize that I had so much practice translating art for others that I became unable to speak for myself.

I also was learning some incredible things, working on the “inside.” For instance, I learned that some galleries invent fake artist names (to make them more appealing to the market), use images from wall calendars as fodder for content and ship the imagery overseas to be painted by an artist living in a small village for a nominal fee. So a painting that costs just $200 to make is then sold for $4,000. I’m not kidding—this still happens!

I also learned that artists who come from wealthy families can buy their way (or a friend’s way) into a museum collection. When I started to see the ugly side of the art world, I knew this was not the absolute rule but just a ridiculous circumstance I had happened upon.

It came to a point where I couldn’t pretend anymore. I was either going to hang up my work as an artist or leave behind the prestigious and powerful position of gallery director.

Following my heart, I chose my work.

What is most alarming about stepping away from the “other side” of the desk is how quickly your friends scatter, like cockroaches when the lights come on.

It disheartened me for awhile, feeling outcast, unable to contact collectors I knew because I had built a relationship with them not as myself but as a representative of something else. “Hey there, it’s me; I’m actually an artist!” How was I going to reclaim a place in the world as someone who had painted her way through most of it? The obvious answer came to me: By painting.

Reestablishing myself as a painter revealed my true friends and the false leaves that were keeping me from realizing my potential.

Slowly but surely, by doing my work I have gotten to a place with myself and others that feels good.

I’m not sure I could recommend that anyone work in a gallery. It’s an all-consuming career—not just a job—that is indeed a conflict of interest if you really want to make art. But it definitely taught me a few things:

  1. Be careful who you work with. Get to know gallerists before you even think of sharing your life’s work with them. Observe how they treat others, gallery guests and artists alike. Look carefully at the type of work they represent, and if they present the work with respect; do they light and and label the work correctly?
  2. Don’t stalk your dealers. Trust them. Dealers each have their unique way of operating. Have faith in them and let them do their job. Always check in a few times a year to see if they would like to freshen things up with new work.
  3. Be open to change. Just because you have a couple of good galleries, don’t stop researching and getting to know other gallerists. You might find an even better fit, someone who treats you like you are their best-selling artist, because you are!
  4. Don’t let the unfair stuff get you down. This was a hard lesson for me, but now that I’m working I find that I get even better opportunities than the cheaters, because I worked for it.
  5. Follow your heart. Don’t let anyone screw up your vision or mask your potential. My ex-husband once kept a notebook and asked people he met to write whatever came to mind in it. Dick Dale, the surf guitarist, wrote “follow your heart, and all will go well.” And boy, he was right.

Photos courtesy of Cedric Angeles.

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