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When Collectors Took Over their Favorite Gallery: Galleries Maurice Sternberg

MK Meador

After sitting down with the directors of Galleries Maurice Sternberg it becomes clear in the first ten minutes that there is no Maurice. In a disposable world where re-branding is the norm, this gallery has held onto it’s identity for over sixty years. The story begins with Maurice and Judith Sternberg opening the what would become Chicago’s oldest continually running gallery in 1945. For the next fifty years, the pair worked to establish clients and contacts in Chicago and beyond. After Maurice passed away in 1993, control of the gallery, all its art holdings and clients passed to Judith. She worked for the next six years with little help to keep the gallery open and running. She came to the realization that she could let the business and the name end with her or she could try to sell. If this sounds strange for the art world, it is.

Matthias Fass "Unravelled Ghosts"

Enter Harvey and Susan Pool. The couple bought the name and the brand of Galleries Maurice Sternberg from Judith Sternberg in 1999. Harvey and Susan both admit, “it doesn’t happen this way much in the art community.” Following Maurice Sternberg’s death, Susan explains that “the gallery became tired.” When his wife and partner, Judith took over – “she wasn’t doing much to enter into the 21st century. She didn’t have a website, she never took credit cards [and] she never put prices on paintings.” The way they describe the state of the gallery doesn’t resemble the modern-day gallery one bit. “It was really an atelier,” and Susan tells, that, for Judith, “it was what she knew and had always made a great living doing it.”

Adnan Charara's "A Woman from Picasso"

So how exactly did the Pools get in a position where they could buy a gallery? It is no huge surprise that the Pools came to know the Sternbergs through collecting art – “we bought a lot of art from Maurice and Judith” remarks Susan. With backgrounds in marketing, the couple was poised to take on a new business and a new venture. They ended up buying the gallery from Judith in 1999. In the years to come, the pair renovated the original space in the Drake Hotel and eventually moved across the street to the Hancock Tower in late 2008. Buying and keeping the Sternberg name attached was a strategic move and Susan says that they “had an advantage” with this plan.

With the gallery they bought not only the Sternberg name, but the contacts and the clientele as well. The pair now had “entrees into the dealer community in New York, LA and [they] bought a lot of work out of London” and with this – they entered into the world of the gallery owner and the art dealer.

The dealer-buyer relationship is a unique relationship. “There has to be a trust – for anybody who buys from a dealer, the first thing is that they have to trust the dealer to give them good advice, unbiased advice, objective advice. I think once you establish that kind of relationship you are on your way to developing a good rapport with a collector, and a collector with you.” In other words, an art dealer “needs to know client’s sensibilities – to get an idea of what appeals to them.” Cumulatively the dealer is comprised of equal parts connoisseurship and connections, but what does it take to be a collector?

Mark English "Jericho Farm"

Harvey Pool is eager to lay it out: “What you need to be a collector is: you need the passion, you have to be moved by the art and you need to have the means to collect.” When we talk about the means, its no secret that collectors had the money, but is this the real endgame when it comes to collecting? When asked about the price-point for starting a collection, he explains that “you can start collections from $5,000 and start to build a collection or you can be one of those people lucky to have a great deal of money and you can be collecting six-figure paintings.” The Sternberg clients count among  “both of those” sets; however, Harvey admits that “ideally you want to have people that have a lot of money – that would be optimal, but you can’t always do that.” This begs the question: just how much of the business is comprised of collectors collecting? Put in a different way, precisely what percentage of a gallery’s business is courting the established peons versus the new-comers, the rookies?

Serving the private interest on a client-by-client basis is a big part of their business. The pair estimates that “about half” of their business is helping collector augment and bulk up their pre-existing collections. Harvey enthusiastically adds that, “this is the most gratifying thing they do – to build, to start, to reshape, to evolve a collection.” What is implied with this talk of collectors collecting is the elephant in the room – the big, green elephant – money. Harvey says “ideally that’s I think what any good dealer wants to do – build collections for collectors. Whether they begin as beginning collectors or those who are more mature in their collecting – thats what you want to do. Thats what we try to do… ideally we try to build collections.” Part and parcel of working with monied collectors and novices alike is elucidating and informing about what they have as well as what they aspire to collect. Harvey explains, “You have to have a passion but the more informed that passion is the better a collector you are going to be. Part of our job is to educate.” Given the options, the epochs and the breadth of art history, the art dealer’s job is no mean feat. Education of the arts is an important component with the dealer’s job. The Pools take this very seriously, “the more you can get people to focus in certain areas [of art] – the more informed they become about the art of those times.” they add.

Steven Jones "Towers I & II/Balance & Foresight"

The has pair made mistakes and the couple says that after buying the gallery “we hadn’t thought too much about how to get more are once you sell the art. That was something we had to take a quick course in.” Now, after a decade in the arts one thing is clear – Harvey and Susan Pool are here to stay. Not only have they maintained the name, but they worked hard to build upon the legacy of Galleries Maurice Sternberg. It is Harvey, who, towards the end of our conversation quips “this isn’t a hobby – we’re players.”

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Galleries Maurice Sternberg