Advice from an Auspicious Dealer
For Acquavella Galleries’ Michael Findlay, the best way to collect art is the old-fashioned way
When he walks in the room, heads turn. Immediately recognized by art dealers, collectors and art world followers alike, Acquavella Galleries’ Director Michael Findlay stands as a professorial and respected figure at the top of the NewYork art scene.
His résumé attests to his sterling career in art. In the sixties and seventies Findlay had his own gallery that showcased Sean Scully, Joseph Beuys, Hannah Wilke, Stephen Mueller, John Baldessari and Billy Sullivan in their first solo American shows. He spe- cialized in impressionist and twentieth-century works of art and secured some of the first portrait commissions for Andy Warhol. In 1984 he joined Christie’s as its Head of Impressionist and Modern Paintings and later was named International Director of Fine Arts while serving on the Board of Directors until he retired in 2000.
Not content to let his 40 years of art scene experience fizzle away in retirement, Mr. Findlay soon joined Acquavella, a family-owned art gallery founded in 1925 by Nicholas Acquavella. Although Acquavella initially collected only Renaissance-era art, his son William extended the gallery’s focus to nine- teenth- and twentieth-century art, including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. Today, grandchildren Eleanor, Alexander and Nicholas have broadened the gallery’s scope even further to include Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art as well.
Juggling such a broad array of art may seem a daunting feat, but not so for Findlay. Acquavella commands a unique niche as it is not interested in changing the tempo and temperament of the New York art market. “Our strength is advising people and not just selling merchandise,” Findlay explains. “We cover the nine-teenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries but we have a relatively small staff and concentrate on special exhibitions.”
Visiting the gallery is one of those magnificent existential experiences where art illuminates life. Situated in an elegant, five-story French Neoclassical mansion, Acquavella prides itself on presenting museum-quality exhibitions. It is the exclusive agent for two living artists, British painter Lucian Freud and American James Rosenquist.
“We create a strong exhibition in the fall and in the spring,” Findlay continues. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we do fascinating exhibitions that add to the knowledge and the public experience of the artists and have a value beyond that ofmerelyselling.”This past fall, the gallery presented an audacious exhibition of new paintings by Lucien Freud.
“We may want to show new or historical works by our artists Freud and Rosenquist, or plan a theme exhibition likeTwentieth Century Sculpture, which included loans from major museums and private collections,” Findlay remarks. “There is a limit to what you can do in terms of exhibitions, but there really isn’t a limit in what you can do when you are trying to source materials for your clients. Finding good things is perhaps harder than selling them.There are buyers around…so we just keep our eyes and ears to the ground.”
That’s not to say that the gallery has fallen prey to tailgating the latest artists of the moment. Instead, it tries to offer works that lead and counterbal- ance our constantly shifting culture.“What we would like to do is to sell individual works of art from anywhere in our scope, whether it is a great Blue Period Picasso or a great early Roy Lichtenstein.To find works of those [caliber] for our clients is more important.”
Trying to tie Findlay down about the demographics of the gallery is like trying to tame a whirlwind comet. He feels the gallery is not skewed only to seasoned collectors, who certainly have Acquavella high on their list, but also is very active in helping the novice collector.“We are one of the few galleries that can show a new collector a range of major impressionists and modern paint- ings as well as contemporary. They can see more than one Sisley, more than one Monet; they’ll see two Bonnards or two paintings by Picasso. I think it’s relatively rare in a gallery for people to be able to see a number of works of high quality by those masters,” Findlay observes.“New collectors certainly find their way here because they want to see works in the flesh.”
But, he continues, many newcomers lack the confidence of veteran art con- noisseurs.“Very few new collectors come in alone.They usually bring along someone they trust who serves as an introducer—be it a decorator, art advisor, con- sultant, or someone from a museum. People are afraid, I think, that they will reveal their ignorance. They feel they have to have knowledge before they come in.” Just possessing knowledge, however, is not the best approach for the collector, according to Findlay. “The less someone has been taught, the better off he or she is, probably,” he explains. “I’ve had so many people tell me they didn’t like ar t in college, they didn’t understand it; it was all memorizing artists’ names. It rarely encouraged a confrontation with a real object and one’s personal response to it.” Findlay calls Acquavella “a gallery where either a seasoned collector or novice can visit and be shown important works from Impressionism until the present
day.” It is a gallery where you should come expecting to elevate your pulse. And Findlay’s prescription to collectors is a healthy one. In order for collectors to experience the “real fascination, joy and excitement of collecting, [they should] trust themselves and the dealers they see enough to make the journey directly in the flesh.Walk in and out of galleries; go up and down Madison Avenue or Chelsea, or La Cienega, wherever you are. Don’t be worried about snooty people at the front desk—certainly we aren’t snooty at our front desk—or saying something you think people will think is ignorant. Just go and look and you will make some friends. Not everybody is out to take your money. It can be an exciting occupation or hobby.
The old-fashioned way is to do it by yourself on your own feet.”