Transitions: from gallery to auction, with Phillips Deputy Chair Robert Manley
AS THE ART MARKET, PARTICULARLY FOR POST-WAR AND CONTEMPORARY WORKS, HAS REACHED MONOLITHIC PROPORTIONS AND CONSEQUENTLY ENORMOUS PUBLIC ATTENTION, MANY COLLECTORS WHEN DEACCESSIONING WORKS HAVE GRAVITATED TO THE DISCRETIONARY ADVANTAGES OF A PRIVATE SALE. NOW, AS WE FACE A CORRECTION IN THE ART MARKET, MORE COLLECTORS WILL UNDOUBTEDLY SEEK THE PRIVATE SALE SECTOR BE IT AT AUCTION, A GALLERY OR PRIVATE DEALER, TO PROTECT THE WORKS THEY ARE INTERESTED IN SELLING.
WHEN THE MARKET SLOWS AND COLLECTORS AND AUCTION SPECIALISTS ARE ANALYZING THE BEST VENUE FOR THE SALE OF A WORK, GALLERY EXPERIENCE IS INVALUABLE IN DEVELOPING THE SKILL AND COUNSELING REQUIRED WHEN WORKING INTIMATELY WITH CLIENTS IN THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS.
ROBERT MANLEY, DEPUTY CHAIR AND WORLDWIDE CO-HEAD OF 20th CENTURY AND CONTEMPORARY ART AT PHILLIPS AUCTION HOUSE, BRINGS BOTH THE THE GALLERY EXPERIENCE THAT ENCOURAGES LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS WITH COLLECTORS AND THE AUCTION EXPERTISE THAT OFFERS A PROFOUND KNOWLEDGE OF THE MARKET AND CONTACTS WITH PRIVATE COLLECTORS WORLD-WIDE.
ROBERT, THANK YOU FOR OUR CONTINUED DIALOGUE.
DID YOU WORK WITH OTHER GALLERIES BEFORE YOU JOINED THE AUCTION WORLD? IF SO, WHICH GALLERIES AND WHAT DID THEY FOCUS UPON?
I also worked at ACA Gallery in New York, an art gallery with a rich history that dated back over 70 years. They focused on American Art, especially Social Realism, and had a number of important exhibitions over their storied history, from Joseph Cornell to Romare Bearden…
I remember mounting a show of tribal art from Papua, New Guinea in 1989…the Bergens (Sidney, Jonathan and Jeffrey) were always open to new possibilities.
I spent a number of formative years at the aforementioned Luise Ross Gallery, which specialized in the work of a number of lesser known Abstract Expressionists (like Herman Cherry and Kimber Smith), as well as Outsider Art/Art Brut. At all of the galleries I worked at, we also had compelling shows of living artists who were mostly living and working in New York.
WHAT WERE YOUR PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITIES WITHIN THE GALLERY STRUCTURE? WHICH ASPECTS OF GALLERY MANAGEMENT APPEALED TO YOU THE MOST?
Like most art galleries, especially the modest-sized ones where I worked, it was all hands on deck…I did everything from sweep the floors to curate exhibitions (and I did much more of the former than the latter in the beginning). The first show I curated was a historical survey of voyeurism called “Peep Show”, which included everything from Ray Johnson to Indian Miniatures to Picasso. I will never forget the thrill of reading Holland Cotter’s sympathetic review of it in the NY Times.
What I enjoyed most about the business were the dialogues at the gallery. They all revolved around the issues of art, the ideas behind them, their presentation, as well as trying to figure out how to place them in the best collections and getting writers and curators interested in our program. I was utterly broke, but it was a very rewarding and engaging time. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my first year in the art world, 1990, was when the market crashed and it would take about 10 years to recover.
WHEN DID YOU JOIN CHRISTIE’S AND IN WHAT POSITION? WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO LEARN ANOTHER ASPECT OF THE ART WORLD?
I joined Christie’s East on June 19, 2000 as the Head of the Twentieth Century Art department. Christie’s East sold the lower value works, the equivalent of Christie’s South Kensington today (or back in the day, what Sotheby’s called their “Arcade” sales). I was overseeing both the Impressionist and Modern Art sales and the Post-War and Contemporary offerings. This sounds a bit lofty, but the works were valued mostly under $10,000 and the entire “department” consisted of me and a stellar Administrator, Aviva Geller, without whom I would have never survived. I catalogued, researched and sold over 1,000 artworks a year and estimated three times that many.
Gallery owners, especially throughout the 1990s when the art world was much smaller, were very much the kings of their castle and they made virtually every meaningful decision. This made it hard for the people who worked for them to grow and develop. There were few directors that had much autonomy to curate exhibitions and there were limited travel opportunities. At the time, working in an auction house gave you much more freedom and autonomy.
Most importantly, I wanted to join an auction house because of the new learning opportunities. At a gallery, you learn everything there is to know about a relatively small number of artists in the gallery stable…whereas in an auction, you need to learn something—fast–about every significant artist of your period. And in the contemporary arena, you are constantly challenged to keep learning about new artists that become relevant, as well as older artists that were forgotten but are being reassessed.
WHAT POSITIONS DID YOU FILL OVER THE YEARS AT CHRISTIE’S? HOW DID THEY EVOLVE AND WHAT WERE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES DURING EACH PHASE AT THE AUCTION HOUSE?
I worked my way slowly up from being in charge of the Christie’s East sales of 20th Century Art, to working on more important works of art and collections. I also did a fair amount of writing for the Evening sale catalogues—this is a time when the specialists wrote the essays. I was promoted to Head of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening sale in 2007, a position I held for about 5 years.
As a Sale Head, whether it is a $1 million or $700 million auction, you are essentially in charge of making sure every detail is done right, from research, catalogue presentation, viewing, marketing, selling. You also need to be a master of psychology, to manage all of the egos that come into play, because all of the sales have consignments from top specialists and top clients. In the end, it was an incredible experience and I am privileged to have worked with knowledgeable specialists, world class objects and the people who owned them.
Shortly into my tenure as Evening sale head, I also became the Head of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Department in New York. I enjoyed working with my colleagues and tried to make the department a smarter, better place. I encouraged collaboration and transparency, two traits not always embraced in the contemporary art market. I held that position for about 6 years or so, when I shifted away from direct management and became Deputy Chairman.
Although I held a number of leadership positions at Christie’s, the focus has always been on art and clients—every day we saw collections, appraised art, organized auctions, met with collectors…the main thing that changed over the years was the value of the art.
IN OUR NEXT LRFA POST, WE’LL HAVE ROBERT MANLEY’S INSIDER VIEW INTO THE INTERNATIONAL AUCTION WORLD. PLEASE JOIN US!