The Last Quarter: a Delicate Conversation to and From a Sculpture Studio

The last quarter of one’s life is a time for – among other things – getting rid of non-productive assets.

When Suzanne and I started Ford Fine Art, I was very much aware of the nature of the business, having dabbled in it twice before. I knew, for example, that selling fine art (as opposed to commercial art) was a matter of developing relationships with a dozen or two wealthy collectors. I also knew that this was difficult because every wealthy collector is usually already “taken” by one or several other fine art dealers.

Still, I wanted to take a stab at it. And I had a secondary motive. In addition to running the business for me, Suzanne would help me develop my personal collection.

With that in mind, I told her that I thought it might take 5 to 10 years to make the business work. If she were up for it, she’d have lots of fun along the way. But if, after 10 years, we were not running profitably, I would shut it down.

Ten years had come and gone since that conversation. We had three galleries in operation and only one of them – a commercial gallery we’d set up at my resort in Nicaragua – was in the black.

My promise of fun had been more than kept. Suzanne had traveled all over the States and Central America – attending and exhibiting at shows, and meeting and befriending all sorts of important artists. But the cost of the enterprise was too much to carry into the future. And my secondary motive, curating my personal collection, had been given little attention.

I dreaded breaking the news to my partner of now 11 years, and had spent a lot of time thinking about how I could pad the blow. A good opportunity arose while we were driving to West Palm Beach to visit the sculpture studio of Luis Montoya.

I’d seen Montoya’s work at several local parks and museums. We have one of his bronze fruit sculptures in one of our galleries. But I’d also seen images of other stuff he’d done – really interesting stuff. I was looking forward to seeing it in person.

I think Suzanne might have intuited what was on my mind, because on the way there she talked excitedly about all the new ideas she had for finding new clients. I listened patiently, knowing they were too little and too late. In fact, all of them would have meant additional investment into the business on my part. (Suzanne got a share of the profits but was not required to put in a share of capital.)

When she was done, I paused, nodding thoughtfully, and said, “Tell me how you feel about your job.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean what you like and don’t like about it.”

She thought a moment.

“I enjoy the art,” she said. “And I enjoy getting to know the artists.”

“You’ve been lucky there,” I said. “You’ve met all the great ones that are still alive and most of the up-and-comers.”

“And I like the fact that I get to meet so many interesting dealers and collectors,” she said. “And good-looking strangers.”

I laughed. “What else?”

“The traveling is fun,” she said. “I’ve always loved Central American culture.”

I nodded.

“And what is it about your job that you do not like so much?”

“Well, I don’t like the fact that we have never made a profit.”

She was on to me. Good.

“I’m glad you said all that,” I said. “Because I have a plan – an idea for how you can continue to do everything you are enjoying without worrying about the profits.”

“I’m all ears,” she said.

We were almost at Montoya’s studio. “Let’s talk about it on the ride home,” I said.

Luis Montoya’s place looked more like a museum than a sculpture studio. The architecture was Brutalism, with huge steel doors hiding the inner courtyard from the parking lot.

We knocked on the door. Nothing. We walked around the building. No other entrance. I fiddled with the chain that passed through an opening on one of the doors. It rattled. Then we heard someone approaching.

Her name was Leslie Ortiz. She told us that she was Montoya’s “partner.” I didn’t know he had a partner – but as he later explained, all the work he’d done since 1994 had been “a collaboration” with her. She was in fact mentioned in the brochures. But he was the headliner. And he might have been her mentor. I didn’t ask.

We’d been invited because I was a known collector and because we had three galleries. In other words, we were there to be sold on his product line.

The studio was enormous. The downstairs consisted of 6 cavernous rooms. The upstairs perhaps 8 to 10 smaller ones. Each one contained dozens of beautiful and inspiring pieces from 5 or 6 distinct periods, starting from back in the 1970s.

We spent several hours looking around, asking questions, and coming to appreciate the breadth and depth of Montoya’s talent.

I made mental notes of the pieces I wanted to buy. We thanked him for his time and promised to stay in touch, which I plan to do.

On the drive home, Suzanne and I talked about my plan.

I started by laying out the details. We would shut down the gallery in Miami, the one that was costing me the most. We would keep the gallery in Nicaragua, since it was profitable. And we would make the principal business, Ford Fine Art, virtual – closing down the gallery itself but continuing to buy and sell art through our website, at auction, and at shows.

I explained that the focus would be different, too. The goal would no longer be to make the business work, but to curate two of my personal collections: one that would stay in my family, and one that would be made into a museum funded by an endowment that I would establish.

As Suzanne knew, my personal collection is overcrowded as it is. Her job would be to lighten it up by selling the mediocre pieces. (There are maybe 500 to 600 of them.) My collection of Mexican and Central American art is about halfway done. She would help me complete it by buying about 200 additional pieces.

This isn’t something that we can do in a year. It is a 10-year project. It will allow her to continue to enjoy doing what she likes doing without worrying about the financial end of running an art gallery. Meanwhile, it will stop the losses I’ve been experiencing and achieve my goal of getting my two core collections ready to pass on to future generations.

Leading up to the conversation, I had worried that Suzanne would be very disappointed by my decision. And if I had simply shut down the business, I’m sure that’s what would have happened. But I’ve always believed that if you are flexible in your thinking, you can find win-win solutions when win-lose or lose-lose seem to be the only possibilities.

So Ford Fine Art continues. Suzanne makes the same or better money doing what she most enjoys. And I don’t have to eat financial losses in the future. Win-win!

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Brutalism (noun)

Brutalism (BROODL-izm) is a style of architecture featuring massive, unadorned, block-like forms. The term was first used in the 1950s and 1960s to describe innovative buildings constructed primarily with raw concrete and steel. As I used it today: “The architecture [of Luis Montoya’s studio] was Brutalism, with huge steel doors hiding the inner courtyard from the parking lot.”

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“Forget the calendar. Every day is the first day of a new year. Every day is the first of 365 coming days to start a new.” – Michael Masterson

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Of the 10 or 15 books I’ve read on modern physics, this little gem left me feeling like I had understood most of it. Writing in the simplest of English and with accessible analogies and examples, Rovelli covers all the big topics: Einstein’s general theory of relativity (“the most beautiful of theories”), quantum mechanics (“where the most baffling aspects of modern physics lurk”), the cosmos and its design, elementary particles and particle theory, loop quantum gravity, black holes and probability, and a final chapter on consciousness. Extra bonus: At 85 pages, I read it in two hours and am looking forward to reading it again.

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Saving Serious Money With Solar Power in Nicaragua

I asked Bismarck, the resident director of FunLimon, our family’s community center in Nicaragua, how that “whacky solar power experiment” was going.

He said the panels and related equipment were installed and that the system had been active for nearly two weeks.

“Do we know how well it’s doing?” I asked. “Like how much of FunLimon’s energy it’s going to be supplying?”

“I just got a report from Alan V,” he replied. (Alan V is Rancho Santana’s chief engineer.) “He said that it will be supplying all of it.”

“All of it? Really?”

My longstanding impression of solar energy was that it was costly and inefficient. I knew that progress was being made. But I never expected that these panels, located on top of the roof that covers the basketball court, would be sufficient to power the classrooms, administration buildings, gymnasium, and irrigation system.

Bismarck and I went over the numbers…

It cost $45,000 to install the solar system, including the panels and the batteries and all the equipment. We’ve been spending about $800 a month on electricity at FunLimon. So if the system does indeed provide all the energy we need, the payback will take about five years. After that, the cost of our power will be de minimus– only what it takes to maintain the equipment.

I contacted Alan directly, and he reminded me that the system he had installed a year earlier was now powering most of our company’s buildings at Rancho Santana, including the hotel, clubhouse, restaurant, and a dozen related structures.

I did more research. And it turns out that solar power has come a long way from its crude beginnings 40-odd years ago. Back then, it was, as is often the case with new technology, not just inefficient but very costly. So costly that many predicted it could never compete with fossil fuels. It took almost 30 years to bring the cost down to $8 per watt in 2010. Today, it’s dropped, on average, to about $3 per watt, with some systems producing energy at half that cost.

This astonishing reduction is the result of making solar panels more efficient while, at the same time, reducing their costs. A parallel advancement was made with the batteries that store the energy produced by solar panels.

I saw a PraegerU presentation recently that argued against the effort towards alternative fuels. Fossil fuels, it said, provide 99% of the energy in the world today, and that percentage will not drop by more than a point or two over the next 50 years.

But based on what we are actually experiencing in Nicaragua, I find that hard to believe. If solar panels can pay for themselves in five years at FunLimon and at Rancho Santana, why can’t they do the same for millions of businesses all over the world?

If you are interested in an explanation of our system, you may find the following edifying:

Memo: 5/8/19
From: Alan
To: Mark and Michael

The attached picture is a screenshot of the solar system application at 9:25 a.m., local time.

As you can see on this picture attached the icon means as below:

1)     The solar panels are producing 6.91 kw at this time and delivering that power to the facility (FunLimon), see the upper left icon at the screen.

2)     The facility is demanding or consuming 10.39 kw of power at this time, see the icon at the center of the screen.

3)     The public power company is supplying 0.05 kw, see the icon at the right side of the screen.

4)     In order to minimize the utility power consumption, the solar system is providing 3.43 kw to the facility from the battery (see the lower left icon at the screen, the battery charge state at this time is 22%) at this time to compensate for the demand, so if we add 6.91 kw from the panels and 3.43 kw from the battery we get 10.34 kw plus 0.05 kw from the utility power company for a total of 10.39 kw (see item 2).

In other words, right now (at the time of the screen shot) FunLimon is only using 0.05 kw out of total power consumption of 10.39 kw from the public grid, that is only 0.48%.  The system is very dynamic and it changes slightly about every 5 seconds as the sun’s intensity and power demand varies….

The protocol is that when the solar panels are producing less than the power demand, the system uses the battery charge to compensate and minimize the use of the public grid.  When the solar panels produce more than the power demand the system takes that excess of power and starts charging the battery.  The idea is that at the end of the day on a normal sunny day the power consumption during the day from the public grid is going to be minimum and the battery state of charge is going to be 100% to be used at night until it gets 90% discharge….

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“We may not be responsible for all our problems, but they will almost certainly stay problems unless we take the responsibility to solve them.” – Michael Masterson

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* Solar power is the most abundant energy source on Earth. There’s enough solar energy hitting the Earth every hour to meet all of humanity’s power needs for an entire year. Every ounce of oil, every lump of coal, and every cubic foot of natural gas could be left in the ground if only we could capture one hour’s worth of solar energy each year.

* China is the world leader in solar energy… by a lot. Solar energy is starting to get a lot of attention in the US, but we’re small fish compared to China. In 2017, GTM Research estimated that the US would install 12.4 GW of new solar power systems. China installed 24.4 GW in the first half of 2017 alone, and was expected to pass 50 GW for the full year. To put China’s 2017 solar installations into perspective, that 50 GW of solar would power 8.2 million US homes.

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Plasticity (noun)  

Plasticity (plas-TIH-sih-tee) is the quality of being molded or shaped. As used by Jacob Bronowski: “Man is unique not because he does science, and is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.”

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