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Robert Berry is a gallerist, collector, and curator. He’s also the founder of the Robert Berry Gallery, a virtual art gallery. Before founding his own gallery, Robert obtained a master’s degree in art history from Brooklyn College, and a bachelor’s degree in art, art history, and criticism from Stony Brook University. Robert shared his mindset around mentorship, approach to obstacles, and more. Here’s his story!
Tell us who you are and what you’re currently building.
I’m Robert Berry, and I’m the founder of Robert Berry Gallery, a virtual gallery based here in New York City focusing on identifying and working collaboratively with the best emerging artists of the 21st century, whose work has the ability to positively and powerfully influence society.
I’m building not just a gallery but a movement towards having more beauty in one’s life. Whether that be a painting or a sculpture, whether it’s in a collector’s home or their office, people need beauty and enjoyment and inspiration more than ever. As we emerge from a post COVID world this new emphasis has been placed on mental health and emotional well being. Art is a great outlet and gateway for us in terms of beauty, enjoyment, and inspiration.
My vision for Robert Berry Gallery is to help new and experienced collectors broaden and enrich their collections by offering them enjoyment and value. The world of art will change more in the next five years than it has in the previous 50 years. How people collect art and how they experience it is rapidly evolving. People are finding that by collecting art, they’re also enriching their lives.
I started building my company about 10 years ago with the intent of only working with artists that I personally believed in. I wanted to tell their stories while also having creative control of the artistic vision of the gallery. I was doing pop-up art exhibitions around New York, and I was building up momentum in my own name and brand, while simultaneously running some of the most influential galleries in New York City. 2020 was the right time to finally set out on my own. I had the experience, the Rolodex, and the determination to begin the most important chapter so far. My vision is to find the best artists in their respective mediums and to find the right client for every work that my artists create, whether that’s abstraction, figurative, sculpture, painting, photography, first-time buyers, or the most seasoned collectors.
Tell us what your journey looked like from the end of high school to today.
I finished high school in 1999 and from there I went straight into the undergraduate program at Stony Brook University, where I studied art history, fine art, psychology, and philosophy. Once I finished my bachelor’s degree, I started working at an art gallery in Chelsea and started to learn the business side of it. By 2008, I was the director of an influential gallery focused on emerging artists, and I started working with a few of the artists that I’m representing right now, including John Ruby, who was the first virtual exhibition at my gallery, the amazing painter Ned Martin, intellectual multimedia artist David Kasner, and photographer Matt Roe. These experiences were all the bedrock for what was to come. From there, I was doing pop-up exhibitions around New York, and it was at that time that I started working on my master’s degree in art history at Brooklyn College, where I finished in 2014. Now, after 15 years of professional gallery experience, I’ve started my business during these days of COVID-19.
What does growth mean to you?
I just started my business formally this year, but I’ve gone from zero to 60 more quickly than I ever expected. The first show has been very successful, and I’ve already sold a couple of John Ruby’s paintings, and a few works by some of the other artists. It’s all about connecting the right artwork to the right collector. The business will grow and evolve over time, and only time will really tell where it takes me.
Growth for me means helping more art collectors, groups, cultural associations, museums, and corporate collections. I want them all to establish world-class art collections that they really love that are really meaningful to them. This means identifying the artists, the particular pieces, and where they’re going to go in these physical spaces, as well as helping them with their vision and the long-term goals for their art collections. If cost was not a barrier, getting a physical space or multiple spaces around the world and doing more art fairs would be fun, and also a more productive means of reaching new collectors.
As the world of fine art continues to be affected by the fallout of COVID, I believe there’s going to be opportunities to step in where some of these groups have fallen. So it’s not actually about failing, it’s about making the right moves during this economic climate and making the timing work for you. Most importantly, regardless of where I am with growth and development, I will always focus on my mission of offering art from the world’s best artists and the best artwork to collectors.
What is your mindset around mentorship?
Mentorship is a fantastic tool, but it has to be the right fit for both parties. I was lucky to have several professors as mentors early on. At Stony Brook, I studied with the renowned art historian Dr. Donald Kuspit. I’ve read most of his books and I’ve learned an awful lot from his entire catalog. It was Dr. Kuspit who taught me the power and significance art has on society–how it influences us as a culture and that there’s always going to be new art to appreciate. He taught me that we need to understand the world around us, where those artists are coming from, what it means for today, and what kind of art is going to be made today.
Another mentor is my photography professor, and a very important artist, Carl Pope. He taught me to believe in myself, and that if I want to achieve success, I’m going to have to work harder than anyone else. For some, working hard might mean more hours, but in photography, it means a lot more than that. It means learning your camera better than anyone else, experimenting with style, and trying and failing a whole lot of times in the darkroom to try to physically interpret and replicate what’s on your film. Sure enough, a few years back, I was at the Whitney Museum, and I came across one of the most powerful works I had ever seen. I went up to see the wall tag next to it and it said “Carl Pope, Acquired in 1994.” This piece just blew me away, and it all started to click that Carl had already been taking his own advice that he was offering me as a student. He did exactly what he told me to do, and today he’s actually having a resurgence in the art world. He has a major work prominently featured in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and his acclaimed work “The Bad Air” was published in “The Appearance of Black Lives Matter” by Nicholas Mirzoeff, who was actually another one of my professors at Stony Brook. Ultimately, Carl taught me that determination is a major driving force in every successful person’s story.
How do you approach obstacles and overcome them?
Obstacles are part of life. Learning stories of some of the leading art dealers has helped me to overcome some of these obstacles. When I was starting out, I often thought about Larry Gagosian, who was selling posters and framing them in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and he transformed that business into an art gallery empire today with galleries all across the world. I also think of David Zwirner who created a very focused and precise vision for showing some of the best artists of his generation.
These days, I feel more closely aligned with Leo Castelli who opened up a gallery with the intention of selling art but was one of the first to really put his artists first. He followed his eyes and gave them all a monthly stipend. That meant the artists would be getting paid a small amount of money per month and didn’t have to worry about their sales which led them to create better works and have a more comfortable relationship.
The most important part of overcoming obstacles is to be brave. This could be trying something new, talking with someone new, or taking some kind of risk. Obstacles are a part of life, but the only way around them is straight through them. So what I end up doing with obstacles is: I think, I plan, and then I walk straight through them. When things go awry, I respond with my gut, but I make sure to never respond angry, and to always have good news when picking up the phone to call someone–very important. I’ve also learned the power of positive thinking and that most difficult situations are really just a challenge waiting for a solution.
Could you talk about the importance of creativity while building something?
Creativity is incredibly important in life. Many people are not creative simply because it’s too much work–it takes courage and a desire to create something new. Creativity is coming up with original ideas, and when building a business, this is what gets you ahead of your competition. There are hundreds of other art galleries in New York City. So my original idea for my business was to create a virtual gallery. That means I’m running a standard art gallery business with monthly exhibitions connecting artists to collectors, but all these exhibitions are done digitally. So now the only limitation any of my artists have for their show is their own imagination. There’s also much lower overhead, so artists are able to earn a little more from every sale since I’m not spending tens of thousands of dollars on a commercial lease. With the online gallery, artists can promote their visions thoroughly, clearly, and without worrying about the limitations of shipping expenses, production costs, and logistics.
Historically, galleries have made art buying a very cold and transactional experience, which means pretentious salespeople, and that new buyers don’t get access to the best works. It’s generally not a fun experience. So I want to create a positive experience for my clients and prospective clients, which seems to be the most creative part of what I’m doing. I tell all of my clients and prospective clients to buy what they love, and they’ll never go wrong. That means trusting your eye, because everyone knows what they’re looking for. They know what they’re going to like and what they’re not going to like, and it’s when people start buying with their ears that it becomes speculative and more sport-like. I want it to be about passion. I want people to come back to me five years later and say, “Robert, that piece you sold me, I absolutely love it. And I’m never going to sell it. It’s worth $100,000 now, but it’s never going to leave that spot on my bedroom wall.”
Is there a particular book or podcast or movie that has been impactful to you?
I enjoy podcasts and learning directly from business leaders–their advice, and their stories. Playing and writing music is also a great outlet for me. As for reading, one of the most impactful books I’ve read is “How to start and run a commercial art gallery” by the incredible gallerist, Edward Winckleman. This book was quite helpful when I read it back in 2009, as it broke down the gallery business efficiently, and it was very straightforward. It was right to the point, chapter by chapter, explaining this is what you do and this is how you do it. It spelled out all the best practices, which they definitely don’t teach you in grad school, and it also reassured me that everything I was doing was literally by the book, which felt very nice.
Another book that I’ve been reading is called “Management of Art Galleries” by Magnus Resch. He wrote it as his dissertation, and it was a very in-depth analysis of the art market, covering the gallery system, the auction markets, and breaking down the financial system of the art market, something people don’t really want to talk about. There’s a lot of privacy and secrecy in the art world, and he was one to first say that we need to make things a little more public now, meaning collectors should know pieces’ valuations and have more of an even playing field–something I stand very strongly for.
I recommend that every entrepreneur listen to podcasts, books, and all sorts of other media outside their specialty. So people listening/reading today may not be interested in the art world, but maybe there’s one of my business ideas that will help them start their business in their own field. You never know where these ideas can come from, and you can bring them into your own practice for even greater success.
How do you think about building successful relationships in the right way?
The most important thing in any business is relationships. In the art business, I’m meeting artists, so I have to have good relationships with them. I’m meeting clients that I’ve been working with for 15 years, so I have to know them, know what they like, what they’re looking for, what kind of budget they have, and what drives them as a collector. Then, I have a whole other group of people that I haven’t met yet–prospective clients.
I spend my time focusing on the artists who are my vendors providing inventory. Then I have to please my current collectors, which means traveling and visiting with them. Finally, I spend time finding new ways to connect with new people.
Some of the best relationships I’ve had are from waiting in line to get a cup of coffee and having a great conversation with someone. Then it turns out that this person comes back with their spouse, and they spend $25-30,000 because they liked something on my wall, or they liked talking with me.
In a one-minute keynote, what would be your key message?
First and foremost, build something that people want and need. I think this is the number one stumbling block for entrepreneurs. We’ve all seen that commercial where the product is a device that slices butter for your bread or the vacuum cleaner that cuts your hair. When I see something like that, I ask myself, “Are these products really necessary? Are they solving any real problem?” It’s also important to remember that it takes time, energy, and most importantly, vision, to build something important.
It’s very important to be aware that it’s never a good time to start. The best thing you can do is try something small. Can you sell your offering without any special equipment? Without an expensive fancy website? You should be able to sell something now in some capacity. If you cannot, it’s likely that something is wrong with what you’re selling and changes or adjustments may need to be made. You also need to know your market. Are you sure that your customer wants what you’re selling, and you should be able to sell and deliver on it, but offer it to a market that truly needs it as well. This knowledge comes from both experience and customer research. After you have verified these factors, you now have proof of concept and you’re ready to start.
Where can our readers find you, learn more about your work, and follow your journey?
You can visit me at Robertberrygallery.com and you can see John Ruby’s new solo show, and find all the artworks that might be right for your art collections. For all those interested in collecting contemporary art, please reach out. I look forward to hearing from your amazing readers, and I hope the advice that I’ve given today can help inspire and motivate your audience.