Marisa Sage on The Freedom of Being an Art Consultant

by Paddy Johnson on June 17, 2014 Interview + What's An Art Consultant?

Marisa Sage in Italy

Marisa Sage in Italy

I’ve been covering the art industry for nine years, and I still didn’t feel like I had a clear grasp on what an art consultant does. What’s the difference between a dealer and an art consultant? Who are they? What’s their day to day like? So I asked a few private dealers, consultants and curators to talk about what they do. Everyone told me a different story.

We’ll be publishing these conversations over the next two weeks in a new series we call, “What’s an Art Consultant?” Today, we kick off the series with Marisa Sage, a gallery manager for the Salisbury University Art Galleries and the founder and director of LIKE THE SPICE, a consulting firm that discovers and promotes the work of emerging artists. The company was a natural outgrowth of her similarly named Like The Spice Gallery, which operated out of Williamsburg between 2006-2012.

You closed your space two years ago, and I know you still work as a consultant. Do you consider your work private dealing, consulting? How do you define your business relationships?

Well, that’s the question right? What do you consider “private dealing”? I’m working with artists whom I worked with when I had my physical gallery, and I’m working with collectors whom I worked with previously. Who’s a consultant? Who’s a dealer?

I closed Like the Spice two years ago. You could probably tell that, from the lack of press releases you get from me! So, yes, my concerns have changed, while the bottom line of what I was trying to do hasn’t.

When you run a gallery, you’re conscious of sales all the time. I always attempted to take a curatorial approach and a community-based approach. I was very space-focused, I spent a lot of time in my gallery. When I did art fairs, it was to get people into my space in the long run. If you do a fair…maybe 10 percent of the people you meet come to your space. That’s why the fairs are so important.

Real emerging contemporary art dealers have to sell to live. They have to work all the time. They have to.

Now, as a private dealer, the concerns are less monetarily focused. If a collector doesn’t respond, if an artist sells out of their studio behind my back, if another dealer cuts me out of a deal, I’m not crying myself to sleep because I can’t make my rent. Most of the sales I end up making are through schmoozing, hanging out, and random calls I get from collectors who are looking for a specific piece, rather than me blowing up their phones.

The stakes are different. Commercially and monetarily, that stress and fear is pulled out of the equation.

How else are you making ends meet? Does it relate to your previous job as a dealer?

I’ve been working at Salisbury University, managing their three on-and-off campus galleries, curating, and teaching a professional practice course—teaching artists how to value themselves in the “art world” system. Young artists are always scared that gallerists aren’t going to pay them. Gallerists are always afraid that artists will sell out of their studio, that dealers will scoop up their artists once they start making sales, or that their artist will not produce; these are logical fears, but I teach artists how to manage these fears and enter into agreements fully aware of their roles, responsibilities, and how to properly manage their time and obligations as their own businesses.

I represented Jenny Morgan, a painter, and when I was closing the gallery, I approached John Driscoll, of Driscoll Babcock, about her work, because he had bought a piece. I asked him to share the representation of her. I would get the press release out to my list and work with the collectors I’d fostered, and he had the exhibition space. In the end, within the relationship with Driscoll Babcock, I became Jenny’s manager.

Navigating that has been interesting: What’s the difference between me selling to my own collectors as a consultant? What if one of my collectors walks into another gallery and wants to buy from them, but doesn’t tell them that I’ve been working with the artist for years? Would they even know to do that?

When I decided to close the gallery, I was on the cusp of taking major new loans out to move into the city. It wasn’t an easy decision. I wanted to make sure my collectors could maintain their collections, and that my artists could continue exhibiting and producing their work. Some of these collectors had only been buying from me. It’s still a hornet’s nest—and we’re almost two years out of me closing the space.

Is there a standard rate that dealers or consultants charge?

Every single consultant I worked with had a different deal with their clients. There’s no standard. How much does a consultant get? Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. Several factors that determine that range: Did they used to be a dealer? Are they consultant for Angelina and Brad? Some consultants charge both the clients and the gallery.

So it seems like people make up their own rules up and see who goes along with it. I take a smaller cut because I don’t have a physical space; what I do is basically the same as having a gallery, minus the physical space.

What do you miss about the gallery?

Things that I don’t miss outweigh the things that I do. I still get to go to studios as a curator. I still get to be responsible in some ways for supporting their careers without having to be so monetarily responsible. When you have a gallery, artists are expecting you to get their work out to the world and that means spending a whole bunch of money.

One of the shittiest things to say to an artist after one or two shows is “I can’t have another show with you because I can’t have another show where I don’t sell enough of your work. It’s not fiscally responsible.”

Do you think people understand how expensive it is to run a gallery? I knew a woman who worked for Perry Rubenstein, who said he’d once told her that running a gallery was like having a big pit to throw money into.

Ha. If a medium-size gallery would open up their books and show you the flow of money, I think most peoples brains would blow up. I feel very few people in the art world really have a true sense of how much money it costs to do business at all. If I’d shown them my monthly art insurance bill when I had Like the Spice in Williamsburg they probably would spit out their coffee. There’s so little money, and to have pay people even within 30 to 60 days can be really difficult. Gallerists should give full disclosure about these pressures.

Are you still learning a lot?

Not as much. Every day for the six days a week that Like The Spice was open, I learned a new lesson. The navigation of the business is not easy, and making practical decisions is not always easy. But the art world is addictive, especially if you really love it. So oddly, I can’t help but continue to keep one foot in the door.

I am about to be 35. I’m asking myself, what’s the next step? Do I try to move up to purely curate, get my doctorate, be a museum director? I feel like I have to stop being like “I’m doing it all for the love of art.” Like, grow up. The starving artist who carves off parts of his body because he can’t live is no model to live by.

Take a look at anyone who is not in the art world, and it’s like “Wait you have a kid and health insurance and a car? All I do is work. I wouldn’t have time to get to those things even if I could afford them.” Here’s hoping.

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