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Voices of Parkland, Susie

Gallerist, Mother, Landlord: an Interview with Susan Eley, Founder of Susan Eley Fine Art

Susan Eisner Eley founded her eponymous New York-based gallery in 2006 with a salon-style model. She holds a BA in Art History from Brown University and an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University. Prior to establishing her brand, Susan worked in public relations and education at the Morgan Library & Museum, NY, and interned at the Mayor’s Art Commission of the City of New York, and at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy. She is also a former professional ballet dancer with the Feld Ballet, and was a blogger for the Huffington Post. www.susaneleyfineart.com/

Situated in an Upper West Side townhouse, Susan Eley Fine Art offers visitors an intimate viewing experience and an alternative way of enjoying art. The gallery prides itself in representing a bold variety of emerging and mid-career contemporary artists from all across the US, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Showcased works primarily include painting, photography, sculpture and print. 

The gallery hosts an ongoing program of solo and group exhibitions, as well as collector talks, political fundraisers, panel discussions, and literary and poetry salons. The gallery also takes part in art fairs in the USA and Canada. 

Services offered include curating, art consulting, primary and secondary market sales, and jurying.

Stephanie Yeap spoke with Susan via video call between London and New York City…

1. Describe your business in 5 words:  

We are iconoclastic, intimate, off the beaten path, salon-style, and thriving.

2. What inspired you to pursue this career? 

After working with historical material produced by late artists at the Morgan Library & Museum, I felt compelled to work with living artists. My MA in Visual Arts Administration from NYU (New York University) gave me exposure to the business side of fine art, and I always had an entrepreneurial streak and wanted to run the show!

I’ve always wanted to have a career in this industry, but every choice I make I put my family first. When I first opened the gallery in 2006, my youngest of 3 children was about 7 years old, so I needed to be around. I wanted to be here for them, so situating the gallery on the upper floor of our townhouse was actually a solution my husband came up with, as we owned the building and had three tenants. When one of the tenants moved out, we converted the space to a gallery, making the choice to lose the rental income in order to create the physical business presence in this building. This way, I could be mother, gallerist and landlord all at the same time, so this worked out really well for us. 

3. What’s the most wonderful thing about the profession? 

Meeting such a rich array of people from varied backgrounds. I can now call many artists, collectors and fellow dealers dear friends. 

4. And let’s get real… What’s the most challenging aspect of the profession? 

Getting the attention of the press. The art and cultural press tend to play it safe, covering the same 20 galleries over and over. It’s hard to get on the radar of the media. 

However, there’s the understanding that if you build your presence coverage will come. So now, I’m focused on building a strong gallery program, increasing awareness, and continuing to get the word out about us through social media and marketing campaigns. 

5. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given? 

Always deal honestly and directly with everyone. Don’t say something just to save face or because you think it’s the right thing to say or to make you look good. It’s going to come back around and bite you in the back, so that’s what I mean about dealing with people fairly. 

And always do what you say you are going to do! If you tell someone ‘I’m going to call you tonight,’ call them. There are so many people who just don’t carry out the basics of professional etiquette. Following up is very important because what ends up happening is that you might be working on a couple of sales, and you drop the ball on one and don’t follow up. You could’ve made that sale if you just made that one phone call or sent an additional email, so being persistent is a very important part of doing a job well. 

6. What do you now say to someone who is just starting out? (Maybe it’s that one thing you wish someone had told you!) 

Market and sell art through as many avenues as possible—through your own bricks and mortar gallery space, at art fairs and digitally on online platforms. They are all equally important tools to grow the business and gain exposure to an array of collectors.

I think it is difficult to balance a program if you actively partake in fairs, deal on various online platforms and have a bricks and mortar. It’s just a balancing act of where you put your energy, but if you do have a bricks and mortar space, that’s your baby. The gallery space is what you really have to focus on because that’s where you put your face forward and make your curatorial choices the most visible, so you really have to coddle that and pay attention to that. 

7. What challenge is the industry facing that art dealers need to address?

Rents for brick and mortar spaces keep increasing. Small galleries are finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto physical spaces. To address this, see point 6 above. 

Galleries are tough to maintain but it’s always been very important for me to have a space for the artist to hang their work and to motivate them. It gives the artist something to work towards, and it’s a lot more challenging if you don’t a physical space as you have to keep your artists happy and productive in other ways. 

8. If you had to be one work of art, what would you be – and why?

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 9.08.50 AM

“Portrait of Mistress Mills in 1750” (1929) by Joan Miro. Oil on canvas, in the permanent collection of MoMA

Image from: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/80603

Mistress Mills is in constant movement and is ablaze with color. She seems to be dancing through life, sometimes teetering towards the wrong side of chaos!

9. What do you personally believe are the best advantages of being part of an association like AWAD, and how have you benefited? 

Art dealing with a small business and a tiny staff of two (including me) can be a lonely endeavor. Joining art associations with like-minded women is a way around that. I have collaborated with many of the AWAD members to co-organize exhibitions and other events. Additionally, I have closed many sales with AWAD members, directly benefitting the gallery.

I’ve also really enjoyed many of our monthly lectures, and there have been a few wonderful guest speakers whom I’ve learned from over the many years I’ve been an AWAD member. 

10. How can you make the most out of being a member of a professional network? 

What you get out of these organisations is only going to be as good as what you put in it. For example, I just had breakfast this morning with a colleague through ArtTable, and she and I are collaborating on a breakfast for the organisation next week, so we met to check out the venue and make arrangements for the event. We got to catch up on what both of us are doing, what both of us has for sale, and what each others’ clients are looking for. She mentioned some works I could put in front of a dealer because I do some secondary market sales as well. None of this would come up if we weren’t working together on this ArtTable breakfast, so that’s a perfect example of just getting involved in as many events as possible. They’re fun and you get to learn lots of stuff, and also network. 

Quite simply, I would say GO to as many events as you have time for. Off-site visits to other galleries and museums provide a continuous education of sorts. And plus, it’s just fun to regularly touch base with the many people you have met through these professional organizations. 

www.susaneleyfineart.com/ // artsy // 1stdibs
Instagram @sefa_gallery //  Facebook @susaneleyfineart  // Twitter @EleyFineArt

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