Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Art Set Interview: Susan Dunne

Charlie Scheips and Susan Dunne at The 2006 Whitney Museum gala.

by Charlie Scheips

Susan Dunne of Pace/Wildenstein Gallery (32 East 57th Street).

I first met Susan Dunne during the 1990s. Susan isn’t one to blow her own horn but she is one of the bright lights on the contemporary art scene. I adore her self-depreciating humor and articulate manner. We’ve come to know each other---particularly while finding ourselves at the same museum openings, international art events, luncheons, receptions and dinners that are the core tribal rituals of the rarified world of art. A current exhibition that Dunne had her hand in organizing: Kiki Smith’s A Gathering, 1980-2005 at the Whitney Museum through February 11. 2007 (see:

It seemed a good moment to catch up with her.

CS: Where are you from?

SD: I’m from Darien, Connecticut  I was raised there. I went to Wheaton College, a girl’s school outside of Boston, majoring in art history and English literature—studio artminor. I started out at Christie’s in the 19th Century European painting department.

I am sure Christie’s was paying you so much money, right?

Right, exactly! (Laughs) I was paid $12,000 dollars a year before taxes. And I was called a secretary—the boys were called porters. It was very small—Christie’s started in America in 1978—and I started in 1983. It was a British boys school and that is the way it was run.

Then Martha Baer, who ran the contemporary department noticed me always looking at the contemporary sales and asked me if that was what I was really interested in. Martha ran the night sales and there were two positions for the day sales and one of those positions became open. So she hired me for one of those and that was it—it was off to the races. We worked non-stop.

Did you continue to make art then?

Oh, no.  I knew I was mediocre at best. I had much too good taste to really like my own work. In the contemporary department it was all day and night—seven days a week. At nine at night we would break into the boardroom and get a bottle of white wine and some cashews and that was dinner. In those days, you would go out on a job and land the business. Then you would go back and write up the contract, sign the contract and you’d mail the contract. There were no computers -- contracts were each four carbon-copy pages, so if you got to the bottom and made one typo in say the dimensions you would have to rip it all up and start over. 

Those were the boom-boom 80s in the art world.

Oscar Wilde said that the only person who likes all kinds of art is an auctioneer. Do you agree?

In auctions, there is something for everyone. In a frenetic market, you are simply moving as fast as you can to keep up. On a high-end level, you can try to push something you really believe in. But you are also in a position, with so many things coming in that you may not like a particular painting –but you are not being asked for your taste. Anything that is taken in has to have a market value.

It’s different from now, the money was less. But in those days we didn’t really want to have a sale with 10 Andy Warhol’s. We tried to not have everything competing with each other. Now, I think they are all making hay while the sun shines. There seems to be a buyer for many different levels of work by an individual artist. The catalogs look like telephone books. 

What was it like to work on auctions before things like Artnet and Artprice?

It was an old school world and Martha (Baer) was a horrendous taskmaster. The one good lesson I learned was that Martha would make us look back to prices that were not even relevant. You would physically look through the catalogs and your notes. The problem with Artnet is you are not even looking at good reproductions. You have no idea what the work actually looks like—it usually a blob on the page. You have no specific knowledge of what actually went on, or the condition of the picture ...

Or if had been shopped around before coming to auction?

Exactly. For instance you offer someone a picture in pristine condition — with one owner for forty years— something so rare. But you do a search on the internet to find “like kind” and one doesn’t realize that another similar one could have been shopped all of Manhattan—and was an insurance claim because the condition was so bad. People don’t know that from these sites. It doesn’t say on Artnet that the picture is re-lined. There are no condition reports, no history; nothing telling you that the person bought it at Pace, or Bill Aquavella and this is what they paid and that they are trying to double their money in six months.

You really need an insider to guide you in buying art, don’t you?

That’s right. We spend our lives looking, talking to everyone, having dinner after the auctions with colleagues. There is picture in the current sales (last month), that has literally been in every gallery in Manhattan in the last two years. It has been offered to everybody around the block.And the auction house has given a guarantee!

But it’s art investment funds backing up these guarantees at the auction houses, aren’t they?

Absolutely, they have third-party guarantors. You also have these high-end dealers with a financial interest in the picture sitting in a skybox at the auction watching everything, who is buying what, etc.

How has the auction environment changed since the 1980s?

Everyone wore black tie. The crowd dressed up. Black tie was the uniform. It was jewels and furs, an elegant thing. Now people come in wearing jeans, chewing gum.

In the late 80s people would fly in for the sales, bid for themselves or have dealers bid for them. Now, dealers bid for themselves, the phone banks have quadrupled, the cell phones…an entirely different situation. There is much less participation in the room and much more voyeurism. Back then, most of my friends were not terribly interested in what I did and now they think I have this terribly glamorous job.

Susan Dunne and Ten Bonin of Alexander & Bonin gallery, Basel, Switzerland.

When you came to Pace, had they gone into partnership with Wildenstein yet?

No. It was so different, like falling off a cliff in a way. When I left Christie’s I could go into an evening sale and know everything about the sales: the seller, the reserve, the human story of the pictures -- whether it was a divorce picture, etc. You would know the potential buyers in the room. Standing in black tie—under the podium with Christopher Burge conducting the sale—I would have to communicate information to him about an upcoming lot etc. You really felt like a ringmaster. When I left -- I stayed through the May sales of 1990 -- that was it. My second day at Pace I sold a Cy Twombly drawing for $650,000. That was a big deal. Then the art market came to a screeching halt. The phones were not ringing and we had some tough times. I had to learn a new business.

Why was it a different?

In an auction house the client was the most important thing. At Pace it was now the artist.We had a lot of internationally famous artists, and it was thrilling to get to know them but also challenging.

How did you re-adjust to the flat market of the early 90s?

The artists kept making work. We had shows that were sluggish, one show that didn’t sell. You worked very hard. I was shocked that many clients of mine at Christie’s never came to the galleries. I also had people coming here who don’t buy at auction, who actually can’t stand them. 

Did museums have a more active role during that time?

Well it’s easier for them. Not only can they take more time, but prices are cheaper for them.Things happen so rapidly that it was sometimes hard for them to get the money for things in a hot market. But galleries like Pace, or other galleries on our level, will, if there is any way to get a work into a museum, will stretch out a payment or something.

That seems to have changed in today’s museum culture.

Now the larger institutions have wealthy board members involved.  Curators can call on a handful of people who know how important it is to be able to act in a timely manner. Also today the market is so educated; collectors know the artist, go to the openings, go to the auctions. The average collector has a much deeper sense of the market. 

Aren’t art dealers a necessary evil?

Absolutely! An artist already has a job.They can’t be out there hustling their work. There are some -- Damian Hirst seems to be a good businessman, or Jeff Koons. A gallery is bridge to the museum, the secondary market, and the collectors.  We do everything here: the catalogs, architecturally changing the space to suit an artist’s needs. And so, when people say they buy things on the Internet...

Do you buy art on the Internet ever?

Bob Ryman would fall on the floor if someone bought his work off the Internet from a transparency. I would not sell a Ryman from a photograph.

While we all have to make a living, is it your work with the artists that satisfies you most? 

There is no question: I ever left Pace it wouldn’t be just leaving Arne Glicher and all my colleagues. I’d be getting divorced from Bob Ryman, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith and on and on. I would be having forty divorces. You get really involved -- their lives, their careers.

Susan with Jonas Storvse, drawing curator of the Pompidou Center.

Is clinching the deal a high for you as some dealers say?

I feel incredibly satisfied selling something outstanding to the absolute right place. If I get my hands on something marvelous and find the right place for it, that’s it for me. 

Do you collect art?

Yes. Now, here is one thing that has changed for me: I used to buy a lot of photographs. Then I sold them all. They no longer gave me pleasure. The only two photos I kept were by Emmet Gowan. He’s such a print maker—they were more like paintings.

Photography really has crept into the contemporary art market in the last decade.

I don’t think one gets the same resonance from photographs. Photography is so immediately accessible, fast fit of pleasure and then it’s over. You want to have your own emotional response. Art should move you. That for me is the difference between art and architecture. Architecture has to have a function. Art doesn’t. Agnes Martin said that music is the only pure form of abstraction. She wanted her art to be as close to music as possible. 

Art fairs are now a major component of the international art circuit. Pace/Wildenstien participates in them. How do you view them?

It’s so depressing. When I joined the gallery, Arne was against art fairs. The only one we participated in was the ADA show at the Armory on 67th Street. I was the one that said we had to do Basel. Now art fairs have now become a lifestyle for young collectors. They stay at Claridge’s, eat at The Woolsey, and shop Bond Street. It’s a holiday. At Art/Basel/Miami there are ten parties a night.

Art seems to being made for art fairs now.

That is very depressing, a combination of thinner looking situations, seeing the same work that one sees elsewhere. 

Women have had a big role in the art world but we still hear charges of sexism.  

It is sexist. When I first started at Christie’s there were no female department heads except Martha. It was dominated by men. I was the first female hired on the executive staff of Pace. And I knew I was always paid less.Times are changing though.

Women artists surely have seen a growing importance internationally.

Totally. Look at Marlene Dumas or Elizabeth Peyton.They all have waiting lists etc.

I like to think that artists themselves are the best art experts. 

Chuck Close was the first to call us at the gallery to see Terry Donavan’s show. And we flipped. He told us to go to James Sienna’s studio.You have to listen to the artists.

Do you have any hobbies or pre-occupations?

Well, when people ask me do you ride or do you ski, I first say yes and then I realize how bad I have become at all of it. This work is so consuming. I guess I need a personal life (laughs).

The Art Set, ©Charlie Scheips, 2007