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.”
“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!