Art dealer Michael Findlay has been a towering figure in the New York art world for decades, from his early days at one of Soho's first galleries in the mid-1960s to the Christie's auction houses during the '80s art boom to his current acclaimed tenure at Acquavella Galleries on the Upper East Side.
On Monday, the renowned dealer makes his way to the Menil Collection for a special talk titled "Connoisseurship in our Commodity Culture," an exploration of how art lovers can cultivate their own unique tastes in today's investment-driven climate.
"I wanted to write something that addressed some of the misunderstandings people may have about art," Findlay explained.
The lecture comes on the heels of Findlay's latest book, The Value of Art, which attempts to unravel the mysteries of how a Damien Hirst's boxes of pills can sell for nearly $20 million and why a Jackson Pollock is priced at $140 million. While well-received in the art community since its release in April, the book is geared towards a broader audience that might view the art and art collecting as the domain of oligarchs and hedge-fund tycoons.
"I wanted to write something that addressed some of the misunderstandings people may have about art," Findlay explained in a recent interview with CultureMap from his office at Acquavella.
"A few years ago, I was struck by this New Yorker article about an art forger. While it was a wonderful piece, it referred to the art world as a cloistered community, one with its own sort of arcane methodologies and secret handshakes completely disconnected from the public. I really took exception to that and felt if there were a reasonably well-written book for those not as embedded in the art world, it might help change this perception."
The conversation turned to the English-born dealer's early career in New York, where he landed a job running a downtown art space for noted gallerist Richard Feigen in 1964 after a brief university stint in Toronto.
"Maybe I'm looking back through rose-tinted glasses, but it was different then," Findlay remembered. "The art world was much smaller and a lot of great work was being done on the heels of Abstract Expressionism, which was still totally head-scratching to most people. Don't forget, most New York galleries mainly were selling Impressionist and post-Impressionist pictures."
S pending a few thousand dollars on a Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol in the mid-1960s would have been considered "fairly lunatic" by most collectors.
For pioneering patrons like John and Dominique de Menil, he said, spending a few thousand dollars on a Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol in the mid-1960s would have been considered "fairly lunatic" by most collectors.
"You have to remember, these people were buying art that wasn't popular. In those days, I don't ever recall discussing how much the work of an emerging artist in the '60s would be worth in 10 or 20 years. Contemporary collectors were doing something they believed in and it was costing them a reasonable amount of money."
Which brings us to the 21st-century art market, when pieces by a mid-career living artist might sell more than a Old Dutch Master or an Impressionist painting.
"The contemporary art market now is totally divorced from all other art markets. It has its own rules and its own inflationary spiral. That's not to say that today's contemporary collectors are misspending their money, of course. But I think it's instructive to look back 45 years ago, when young artists would sell their work for $20,000 and you could buy a Picasso for $150,000."
With his new book, Findlay wants to reach budding collectors before they become too consumed by prevalent notions of getting a return on their investments.
"Price has nothing to do with quality, so don't be impressed if a painting sells for $100 million dollars at an auction."
"I'd like to suggest to those just starting to collect that they explore their own tastes before they see what other people are buying. It sounds simplistic, but if they base what they acquire on what they really like, they have a better chance of becoming real connoisseurs of art rather than buyers who get what consultants tell them. Always buy to keep is my advice."
Ultimately, Findlay hopes to draw attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways dollar value has infected the social and cultural value of art.
"Price has nothing to do with quality, so don't be impressed if a painting sells for $100 million dollars at an auction. Instead of planning a trip to go and see work like that, go to your local art museum with friend or spouse and roam around looking for things that catch your eye. Use your own judgment and find things that are important to you rather than to others. I think people will find this approach truly liberating."
Michael Findlay speaks at the Menil Collection at 6 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 19. Seating is limited to members only. Click for Menil membership information.