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Diary of US dealer Ann Freedman: No websales, please; only the personal touch

The president and executive director of Knoedler’s encourages collectors to become museum patrons and supplies major museums with works of art

For over 150 years, Knoedler & Company have been art dealers to many of the nation’s most storied collectors. The gallery currently has a client base of 3,000 people and sells only mid-century modern masters and living artists. Knoedler continues to nurture collectors, particularly those who shape museum holdings. Ann Freedman, Knoedler’s president and executive director, began her career with the André Emmerich Gallery before launching Knoedler’s contemporary art division in 1977.

The core of Knoedler’s business is our exhibitions. My belief is that face-to-face contact is essential in the business of dealing in art, just as the direct experience with art is paramount to appreciating it. Our shows may not have media coverage every month. For example two of our recent exhibitions, “Milton Avery: edge of abstraction” and “Pasted pictures: collage and abstractions”, were not even given short reviews in the New York Times, but they still do very well. From the Avery show, we sold two paintings, four works on paper and several works are pending with museums. From the collage show, we sold three Motherwells, two Frankenthalers, three Judith Rothschilds, a Pousette-Dart, a Joseph Cornell, a Schwitters, and one Von Wiegand. The two Frankenthalers had never been on the market. One went to a collector of Marin and Hopper, and the Frankenthaler is the beginning of a new direction for him.

A few months ago, we also sold a major work from the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation. It was the artist’s 1960 “Burst” in red and black on a dazzling white background. The price was over $1 million, a new benchmark for a Gottlieb since his auction record topped $387,500 at Christie’s about four years ago. With that price, we demonstrated that the very best of Gottlieb is right up there with other modern masters like Kline.

Part of developing collectors into museum patrons includes working with institutions on a regular basis. Many collectors do not know museum personnel, so we regularly approach collectors, urge them to lend when appropriate and smooth the way. We also help clients set up libraries. For every new client, we order monographs and catalogues to start them off. For example, after we sold a Frankenthaler last week to a new buyer, we promptly delivered a set of books to him to continue the learning process.

To date, we are the only gallery of our stature not to have signed up with an internet portal to sell art. We do not have any plans to do so. It’s not in keeping with our beliefs of needing to communicate directly with the client and seeing the art in person. We really try to keep things intimate here. We have no other locations; we don’t hang simultaneous exhibitions; we don’t like to overwhelm clients with information. We’re personal and intimate. Although Knoedler’s has a website, its main purpose is for information. I plan to expand the site and offer artists’ biographies.

As for other promotional activities, the twentieth-century patronage show is receiving tremendous support and will reach a number of different audience (see p.77). We will have a reception for the American Friends of the Tate Modern, one for the Art Dealers’ Association of America, one for patrons of the Washington University in St Louis.

Last year, we developed an alliance with contemporary art dealer Michael Werner which led us to organise a few shows jointly, including exhibitions of Sigmar Polke, Per Kirkeby and Don van Vliet. We’re still talking to Michael about what else we can do together.

We also participate in only one art fair, the February Art Dealers’ Association of America show at the Seventh Regiment Armory. For Knoedler’s, fairs are not about volume; they are about fostering connections. Artists, critics, curators, collectors and new clients come through and it’s an opportunity to meet, educate, interact and cultivate relationships. At the last Art Show, we sold a 1949 Jackson Pollock drip painting for $3 million, a 1955 Franz Kline for $900,000, the 1953 Motherwell, “Elegy”, for close to $400,000, and Milton Avery’s 1950 “Maternity” for $500,000. The Avery speaks further of our impact on institutions. The client will live with the painting and then it is a promised gift to the Tate Modern. I have also looked at the Basel show twice. It’s an enormous show and I don’t see myself doing it. But I don’t want ever to say never.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'No websales, please; only the personal touch'