Tony Pontone is a London-based art dealer who owns Albemarle Gallery www.albemarlegallery.com. I met him online through contemporary art master Nathan Walsh who Tony represented at one time. Tony is an absolute master of the art game and this is one of my most exciting interviews. I love it when I don’t have to do much coaxing. With Tony, all I did was ask the questions and let him go. I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say…
“… Our business is very demanding and frustrating as we daily have to deal with unreasonable expectations …”
MICHAEL: Hello Tony, First of all, Is Albemarle Gallery your gallery? Why didn't you name it after yourself? Also, do you consider yourself an "art dealer" or art gallery owner?
TONY: Hi Michael. Yes, The Albemarle Gallery is now fully owned by me. Approximately 20 years ago, after resigning from CCA Galleries (formerly Christies Contemporary Art) where I was MD, I decided to leave the Graphics market to focus on paintings. With several co-directors and investors behind me, I found and secured the current premises and initiated an Enterprise Scheme - effectively a tax break scheme - and sought investment from a varied group of people who ultimately became shareholders. Having found the premises in a great location – in the heart of Mayfair - I applied to the Registrar of Company names and found Albemarle Gallery on Albemarle Street was available and snapped it up immediately.
MICHAEL: Very cool. And how do you define what you do?
TONY: I consider myself both an art dealer and gallery owner. I was always a dealer and only became the owner after buying out all of the shareholders and co-directors around ten years ago.
MICHAEL: Tony, I have a slight headache just from hearing that extremely condensed version of what you've been through in the past 20 years. So many people forget that art is a business. And so, I guess it feels better to be your own boss, No? But I'm sure you still have plenty of headaches running a business?
TONY: Sorry Michael. I did not intend to give you a headache!
TONY: It’s certainly a challenge running a business particularly so since 2008/2009. This, combined with the ever-advancing contemporary art market, has brought casualties, both to galleries and artists, who’ve struggled to adapt to these difficult times and market demands. Our business is very demanding and frustrating as we daily have to deal with unreasonable expectations on for example, pricing, where the market will no longer bear prices asked by certain artists and further, no longer find their work attractive. This is a difficult one and a continuing problem to attempt to resolve. This certainly qualifies as one of the headaches in recent years and going forward. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and one takes comfort and satisfaction from the success created over the past few years and continue to do so despite these adverse times.
MICHAEL: Tony, Here's what I don't get. Let's be REAL. Most people walking the planet today do not think they NEED art. Obviously, making art cheap does not make for a wise business model, but how about dealing with reality and making art at least accessible to people? Most people think art is only for rich people.
TONY: Michael, I don’t really get what you’re saying. Why do you think most people walking the planet do not think they need art? So what? Why should they? Surely it’s a personal choice.
MICHAEL: That’s true.
TONY: Perhaps you mean that most people don’t recognise what art can bring to their lives. And what do you mean by “need” and then attach a price to that need? Are you talking about appreciation or ownership of art? I would have thought that the appreciation of art worldwide is common place. From every local community art club to the major institutional blockbusters, art, and the arts in general, have never been so accessible and affordable to see both in a public and commercial context. However, ownership is another matter. Although your assertion that for most people art is for the rich only is simply not true. Yes it’s true that there is a lot of art out there which only the rich can afford to buy - whether they appreciate or empathise with their purchase is another matter. But also, there’s a massive accessible marketplace where people’s needs are met and satisfied, from a simple decorative poster to an exciting, engaging and stimulating painting where market forces determine the price. So to be blunt Michael, I disagree with you on all counts.
MICHAEL: Fair enough. Do you love art? Is it a passion for you or do you see it more as a business? How did your connection with art begin? What's your first memory of art?
TONY: Undoubtedly. It has been the driving force throughout my life. It was the passion that led to the business. The business became the vehicle to take the passion on to another level. One has to keep a clear head in these matters. The business provides a platform from which to show artists, launch artists, create exhibitions and have a stimulating programme of events around the year. However, I am not a publicly-funded institution. I am a commercial art dealer and like all businesses, have overhead which is quite substantial in my area, the heart of Mayfair, London. If I don’t cover my overheads: rent, rates, staff and the other usual stuff, then I can no longer trade and the business folds taking with it the livelihood of the many artists I show and represent.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. I totally understand.
TONY: It’s sobering thought when I am acutely aware of the casualties this last recession brought. I just read an article of an enterprising, innovative and exciting New York gallery. It was always apparently introducing some really special talent and was respected for doing so. The word passion comes to mind. However, it was unable to meet new rent demands and forced to search for another space.
MICHAEL: The reality of business. Ugh.
TONY: My first commercial connection began a lifetime ago as a framer. What started out as a hobby quickly became a business which led to the creation of a gallery. I eventually sub-contracted out the framing to concentrate on the development of the gallery. My passion then (a long time ago, back in the 70's) was dealing in graphics, the real thing: etchings, lithographs, screenprints, mezzotints and the like - plus showing local artists. The model attracted the attention of then Christies Contemporary Art which was a subdivision of the auction house. That was in the 80's. They invited me to join them to develop a chain of galleries in the English Home Counties that is surrounding London. Initially, we were very successful until the recession before last descended and then it all went pear-shaped. However, that led to another opportunity which is where I am today and have been for the nearly 20 years. It was a bit of a roller-coaster journey but no regrets and thriving and still enjoying the passion. Plus, finding new and really great emerging talent is particularly satisfying. The passion never goes away, but it was the successful function of the business which permitted the development and eventual status of my gallery. Does that make sense?
TONY: My first and lasting memory of art was as a school kid. I loved the painting class which in those days was pretty basic. To be honest, I was crappy at art. However, there was a lad in my class who was so gifted. Watching him at work with a pencil made such an impression and I remember so wanting to be able to draw like him. To this day, I remember and still admire that innate skill. He had no training, no knowledge of composition, space, contrast, perspective - the basic and fundamental skills of drawing and painting - and with hindsight it was a raw, pure and gifted talent. He was a young Leonardo and I often wonder what he did with his life and if that talent played any part.
MICHAEL: Many people think the internet has given artists more power and autonomy when it comes to exposure and sales. How do you think the internet has impacted the art world in general?
TONY: Without a doubt, the rise of the Internet has led to many artists acquiring significant power and autonomy, but exposure and sales is a moot point. I think for the artist who chooses forge his or her own path, there are so many platforms for them to promote and develop their careers. That in itself is not a bad thing, but it’s limited to the energy and stamina required to constantly update and take advantage of the rapidly changing technology. It takes a lot of effort and dedication to keep abreast of these changes and what happens to the work in the meantime? Which kind of ends up begging the question are you a computer nerd or a dedicated artist, committed to developing, learning and improving every aspect of your chosen profession?
Conversely, there are many artists who are already represented by galleries and want to have their own presence on the web. Nothing wrong with that premise except that it will often attract attention from the public who are interested in their work and want to buy directly from the artist, but at the artists’ prices which exclude gallery commissions. This is where it gets interesting and I express this from a dealer’s perspective. This is the acid test for the artist in relation to his loyalty to the gallery. Does the artist refer the enquiry to the gallery or quietly make the sale? They often do, but at a single stroke, devalue their selling prices by at least 50%. This is a major problem for the gallerists who take on the artist, nurture and often financially support the artist, provide a pro-active platform, exhibitions, advertising, take their work to art fairs and generally promote and develop the artist’s career.
What's the payback for all of the time and expense expended on the artist’s behalf? Draw your own conclusion. However, I have to say that I am blessed with artists who respect the endeavours of the gallery and refer enquiries to the gallery out of loyalty and trust and also because they can't and don't want to be hassled with dealing with the public directly and actually want to get on with their practice.
In regard to the impact on the art world in general, the world has become a very small place for all the players, regardless of level. It's become transparent and is constantly under scrutiny by media always looking out for that juicy bit of malpractice which occasionally raises its ugly head.
In general, I think the dealer’s world has become a more level and fairer playing field. The Internet has become the most important marketing and commercial tool available. It has become a great platform for galleries to reach a world audience rather than the days when most gallery activities were restricted to their own countries. By definition, this goes for the artists as well who are represented by these galleries. It's a win-win for all concerned.
MICHAEL: Finally Tony, What's the point of art? Why should people even care about art? Most people won't buy art let alone visit a museum or gallery. It's not as if art is ending cancer or poverty. I know what you said earlier, but isn’t it ultimately a luxury good?
TONY: This is big question Michael. It's part of our genetic make-up. Look at the prehistoric cave paintings created long ago. That awakening of awareness, that instinctive need, by these early humans to want to express their lives in visual terms regardless of its purpose or meaning, topped by that conscious decision to sign off with a handprint, begs the question where did that all come from? It's in our genes. It's just that there are fewer of those genes in most of us, but the special few, we call them artists. Whatever their medium of expression, they are blessed with that bit of extra something.
Personally, I don’t give a monkey’s --- whether or not people buy art or visit museums or galleries. That's their right and I will not be judgmental on people's likes and preferences in life. That in itself begs the question why I do what I do.
For me, it goes much deeper than making a living from art dealing. I'm in it because I love it, live it and I feel privileged to be surrounded everyday with works by artists who I admire and respect for the great talent they possess. It also gives me so much pleasure and enjoyment to share and talk to customers and clients who are also getting those same feelings and to see the artists, through their work, connecting directly with the viewing public.
MICHAEL: Yes, I know that’s a great feeling.
TONY: I also think that “the point,” as you put the question, is that the experience I have described is so uplifting for the human spirit. Every day, I get this feedback, even from artists checking out their peers. Some of these visitors, quite a few actually, go the extra mile and want to import these intense emotions into their homes to be able to enjoy this experience every day of their lives.
Although I was a tad dismissive on the point of whether or not people buy or visit galleries and museums, I do feel that they are missing out on something quite special, be it a blockbuster museum show by a grand master or an explosive and mind-blowing experience in a contemporary modern context. And to say that most people won't visit a museum or gallery, I think underestimates the increasing and I believe insatiable desire by the wider public to see and enjoy these life-inspiring and, to repeat, uplifting experiences. That is the spin off for the commercial sector.
One final comment on ‘a trifle for the wealthy.’ I think one has to define old or new money. The ‘old’ is the astute and seasoned, genuine collector. They are acutely aware of the marketplace, they know their own minds and are not influenced by what is deemed to be the latest, fashionable or trendy offerings or the ‘must haves.’ They are far too clever and have seen this all before. The ‘new’ is probably the most controversial. They have little experience in this market and by definition rely on the recent phenomena of ‘art advisor.’ They seem to be breeding like rabbits across the globe. Their mission is to advise on what they think the extremely wealthy need to have to give them the kudos they so desire and be seen as a discerning and cool collector. Oh how trite and if ever there were a case of the blind leading the blind. A rather sweeping generalisation I know and for sure there are genuine and extremely knowledgeable advisors out there and I would not want to malign the genuine. However, within my own experience, I find that, as we say in the UK, every Tom, Dick and Harry is and can be an ‘advisor.’ It is this latter group that deserves the assertion ‘ultimately a trifle.’
MICHAEL: Well Tony, Thank you very much. I absolutely love your authoritative honesty. I wish that more of my art people could be as candid as you’ve been.
TONY: I stand by what I have said, however unpalatable. And I do think it does address your last question. Have a great 2015 and I look forward to reading further interesting articles and essays by your good self.
Check out Tony and his spectacular gallery at www.albemarlegallery.com.