Wonder Woman Lisa Dennison
BY DIANE DUNNE
Every serious art collector knows her. And if they don’t, they certainly want to. Although not a household name, Lisa Dennison, Chairperson of Sotheby’s Americas, is known to the rich and famous, art collector and wannabee alike. She may know more hedge fund managers than Ben Bernanke and has made an extremely successful career in knowing and befriending the Who’s Who in the realm of art collecting.
As a 29-year veteran and director of the Guggenheim Museum, Ms. Dennison surprised the art world in 2007 when she announced she would leave the position as the top woman in the museum world for the publicly traded, large, international corporation that is Sotheby’s.
“I had reached the top of the ladder, I had proven myself, I knew the ropes and everyone knew me,” said Ms. Dennison. During the last three or four years of her tenure at the Guggenheim, she received several job offers. “I was slightly reluctant to accept any; I loved the Guggenheim and proving myself all over again seemed daunting and somewhat exhausting. I said, why leave? But the challenge of something new was so seductive, and coming into Sotheby’s as a chairman seemed perfect. But I had never done anything vaguely transactional, so I knew it would also be a great challenge,” she said.
“I thought that the hardest adjustment would be moving away from management. As director of the Guggenheim Museum, I was in charge of a large staff. This job didn’t have that at all. But, realizing I was on my own, reporting to the CEO, not to a board of trustees, was, in effect, liberating,” said Ms. Dennison.
In the past, Ms. Dennison said her career goal had been to be a chief curator at a top museum. When she had accomplished that, she was asked to become the museum director. Upon fulfil ling that role with accolades, she reflected that, “maybe that wasn’t the last chapter in my career. Someplace in the back of my mind, I don’t think I was fully aware of it, but I wanted to test myself in the corporate world. When the Sotheby’s job was offered to me it made me realize that while I was still learning at the Guggenheim, perhaps I had become too comfortable there. Here I am still learning so much but it’s a different kind of challenge. I hoped I would be good with client relationships, as I have worked closely with collectors all of my professional life, helping them with their portfolios, helping them with their dreams. Here, it is all of that, but there is also the very important transactional side. I didn’t know if I could do that,” she admitted. “That’s where I am out of my comfort zone. I hope I’m viewed by my colleagues as making a contribution in this area.”
Lisa Dennison describes herself as the original “Yes” person. She dislikes saying no to people and tries to help others by being very collaborative. “Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s vice chairman and major auctioneer, gave me astute advice. He wisely cautioned me to keep focused, to look carefully at each request, and ask myself if this would really add value to our business.”
One would think that her accomplishments and her access to the most successful and important people in the world would cause a woman in Ms. Dennison’s position to feel a bit above us all. The answer is: not an iota. “I have specific goals and things that I want to accomplish personally,” explained Ms. Dennison. “I have no need to announce to the world I’ve done this or that. I’m not the kind of person who is either hungry for power or very territorial. I really do believe that you get much more done in a collaborative environment and by partnering.”
These admissions are what immediately endear most people to Lisa Dennison. Her modesty, not patronizing modesty, but true modesty about her own talents, accomplishments and actions, is a top drawing card. It makes one feel they must be as gracious to her as she is to others. “Lisa is the epitome of substance and style,” noted Emily Rafferty, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “always at the ready to be helpful with her extensive knowledge in art and management and, each time, with elegance and great warmth. I always welcome a call from Lisa!”
In these changing times Ms. Dennison notes two major developments affecting the art market: Asian wealth and digital technology. The Asian market is looming on the scene, with many new wealthy Chinese buyers and Asian auction houses. ”China is the future,” she declares. “It’s growing in leaps and bounds. It will change the way we do business. We only do two weeklong sales a year, yet each of these two-week sales periods generates about half a billion dollars in sales. With wine, for example, 60% of our global sales last year were generated in Hong Kong. We’ve had sales in Hong Kong for only two years, yet it already completely dominates the wine market.“
The second item that is fiercely changing the auction world is digital technology. It is the most exciting change in the way people do business in the auction market. In fact, pre-registered people can sit in their beds at night and bid $10 million or more on art at Sotheby’s auctions, including their evening sales. “Sotheby’s has launched an exciting new website that will give our clients many more features, including multiple languages,” exclaimed Ms. Dennison. “Some clients even request that hard copy catalogues not be mailed to them because they prefer to review the art on line, 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, at their convenience.”
“It is fascinating to hear the auctioneer taking bids from on-line bidders. The auctioneer might say, ‘It’s not yours in cyberspace; it’s not yours on the phone; and I am going to sell it here and now to the bidder in the room.”
But the human touch is still vitally important to many clients. Ms. Dennison shook her head, and smilingly recounted, “I haven’t heard a client say I don’t want to bid on-phone with you, I want to bid on-line. The nice thing about bidding by phone is that I can talk to them, engage with them; I can say, ‘let’s go one more or ‘let’s stop’. Sometimes they want to hear me say it’s ok to stop bidding and, sometimes, they want to be pushed to continue. Of course, when they get the piece, they are thrilled, and so am I!”
Ms. Dennison has an important following of bidders at Sotheby’s. She explained it: “I am selling things I believe in. I am helping people build collections, which I always did. I am judging the work on its aesthetic qualities, art historical merit, historical context, where it fits into the collector’s home, collection and objectives. I use all these different value judgments and think about the condition of the work of art and obviously the price. When it all comes together in the perfect storm, yes, I will push as hard as I can. I truly enjoy the whole array of things we offer here: art, jewelry, furniture and more. It is a much broader level of appreciation than my expertise but I take my time to learn about what we are selling and to read the catalogues, which are extraordinary. Each sale takes a tremendous amount of research on my part—so I can understand each work and be as much of an authority as I can.”
Adam J. Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art said, “Lisa is a consummate professional who brings her talent and intelligence to bear on everything she does.”
iPads are a helpful tool in the auction world, and Ms. Dennison confessed that even though Sotheby’s iPad app is more sophisticated than Christie’s, she does look at Christie’s. Why not?
On her agenda for next year is a follow-up to her successful exhibition last autumn, The Divine Comedy. It was an exhibition in which at least 50% of the works were for sale, the remainder on loan. Here was an example of her habit of partnering with different departments. It crossed time periods, cultures and geographic boundaries, including antiquities, tribal, photographs, 20th century design, old master paintings, 19th century paintings, Impressionist, modern and contemporary. “It was a pleasure for every department to participate in and an exciting way for us to engage with our clients,” she remarked.
Successful people often are generous with their time to other organizations and Ms. Dennison is certainly no exception. Ms. Dennison rattled off a long list of non-profits and ventures she guides and/or is associated with. “This is part of my inability to say no,” she smilingly mentioned. Right now, she’s keen on The Water Tank Project by WordAbove, the Street organization in which artists will create unique art works that will be wrapped around water tanks.
The objective is to build awareness of the global water shortage problems, to support clean water around the world and to raise money for that particular cause. The summer of 2012 will see some water tanks transformed into artwork in all five boroughs. This excites Lisa Dennison because of its collaborative spirit.
Philanthropist, art collector Michele Gerber-Klein summarized Lisa Dennison succinctly: “Lisa is down to earth, easy to talk to, has held great career jobs in the art world and deserved every one. She did a wonderful job in each position she has held and is outstanding in the position she now holds.”