Susan Nelly is a Fine Art Consultant and Owner of The Villa America Fine Art. She began her career in the art world at Sotheby’s and has since held notable positions in prominent galleries and auction houses including Spanierman Gallery and Bonham’s Auctioneers & Appraisers. A recognized expert in secondary market sales and acquisitions, Susan also engages the fine art community as a member of ArtTABLE and a founding member of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD). On the contemporary side, Susan maintains strong relationships with artists from New York and around the world, curates collaborative exhibitions with prominent galleries, and participates in major art fairs.
Established in 2014, The Villa America Fine Art was inspired by the French Riviera salon of Sara and Gerald Murphy. The Murphys’ commune attracted cultural luminaries of the 1920s — Picasso, Hemingway, Fernand Leger,and many more — and it is this passion for art, adventure, and community-building that The Villa America evokes. Dedicated to promoting a spirit of adventure towards collecting, Susan presents a bold selection of emerging and mid-career artists in the mix with Modern and Contemporary painting, sculpture, and photography from America and Europe. www.thevillaamerica.com
Services offered include: Private and auction sales and acquisitions; acquisition/curatorial collaboration for dealers, interior designers, architects, cultural and corporate institutions, hotels and hospitality groups; market research and vetting of works of art for authenticity, quality, value and condition; negotiation of payment terms, including coordination of shipping, framing and installation; and collection maintenance.
Stephanie Yeap spoke with Susan Nelly between London and New York City via video call…
1. Describe your business in 5 words:
Adventure, curiosity, wonderment, creativity and community-building.
2. What inspired you to pursue this career?
I grew up wholly immersed in the arts in Southampton Long Island. I studied art since kindergarten and had this wonderfully eccentric art teacher who lived in a grand old house by the water. She was brilliant and illuminated my fascination with oddities and interesting objects, which inspired me to become a Surrealist painter. Then, from grammar school through high school, I studied ballet and theatre. I went on to study art history, film and television at New York University and landed my first job at Sotheby’s.
After that, I worked at several NYC galleries, with my years at Vorpal Gallery being a highlight. I worked directly with the owner purchasing art at the top auctions in New York and internationally—it was so exciting getting up at 4 AM to bid on a piece in Europe!—and placing works with notable museums, especially in Japan. When I joined the Spanierman Gallery as Associate Director, I wore many hats: I was closely involved with secondary market transactions and also experienced working at art fairs and show houses, as well as curating many exhibitions with the Gallery’s contemporary artists. All of this fed my passion to open The Villa America in 2014, where I draw on the wealth of experience gained in my earlier career.
3. What’s the most wonderful thing about the profession?
Definitely the people! Artists, collectors, dealers, curators – the art world is filled with amazing creative energy. Introducing new work to emerging and seasoned collectors is especially rewarding; it feeds their curiosity and enhances their lifestyle. I truly have a lot of fun with it.
4. And let’s get real… What’s the most challenging aspect of the profession?
The market keeps shifting, and to keep making sales, and matching people with art they love, I have to shift with it. It’s a true collaboration, the artists use their talent to create work, and I have to use all my creativity to get it placed. Not having my own gallery space, I really have to think outside the box, so I take advantage of the flexibility that not having that expense offers, and collaborate with many other dealers. Hosting creative events and panels is a great and non-costly way of bringing new people to the table. Right now, I’m working on a very exciting panel with art, interior design and real estate experts that’s bound to inspire people to enhance their spaces with quality art. All of this elevates my brand, my resources and my artists, while engaging with new audiences to foster sales.
5. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given?
My mentors have always told me to choose a career that you love and you will excel at it. I recommend people find their passion and do their best to pursue it. Another thing to remember is TTT: Things Take Time. Know that anything you get involved with doesn’t happen overnight and that you have to be patient. Patience is the key to success.
6. What do you now say to someone who is just starting out? (Maybe it’s that one thing you wish someone had told you!)
I’d definitely recommend joining an auction house and learning as much as you can. I started at an auction house, working in Client Services, and got involved with all sectors of the company, from Bidding to Finance and the specialist departments. It’s a lot more varied than working in a gallery or a museum, I was immersed in everything and that helped me decide which art spoke to me.
7. What challenge is the industry facing that art dealers need to address?
The art world is constantly changing and everyone, especially small business owners, is trying to find the best location for their brand. The answer is definitely not brick and mortar anymore, so collaborating, attending art fairs, and making use of online services is crucial. It’s all about taking risks, having thick skin, and being careful about who you work with.
Contracts are imperative, the more comprehensive the better. Regardless of how friendly you are with people, there can be a lot of miscommunication, so I suggest making this a priority to prevent any misunderstandings.
8. If you had to be one work of art, what would you be – and why?
‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (between 1490 and 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. (image from Wikipedia)
This came to my mind right away — ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. I chose this because it conjures up a deep curiosity and a sense of intrigue. The painting is so otherworldly and embodies the good, the bad and the ugly. It features such interesting symbolism and fills the viewer with curiosity and wonderment. To me, this piece is pure joy and never fails to fascinate me. It’s a really easily recognizable painting if you have any art history knowledge, but one that also remains thought-provoking and accessible to people who don’t. These feelings really form the backbone of what I strive to achieve in my business and bring to my collectors at The Villa America.
9. What do you personally believe are the best advantages of being part of an association like AWAD, and how have you benefited?
AWAD’s been extremely good to me and I was thrilled to join it the first week I opened my gallery. I met Susan Eley who introduced me to the Association, and realized immediately that meeting other professionals in the industry was a great way to start a business. I’ve collaborated with other members and really enjoyed learning about being a private art dealer. Susan Mumford, the Founder and CEO of AWAD, has a great mind for all aspects of the business of art.
My favourite things about AWAD are the camaraderie, the ability to share and communicate with other professionals, and the forums, which I find really rewarding. It’s been a great organization for learning and bonding, and it’s interesting to hear about the ups and downs of working as dealers so we can commiserate as well as celebrate each other’s achievements. The networking is a tremendous tool because as a dealer, you spend a lot of time on your own. AWAD is my “family” in the business that I can trust and attend events with. You can always just call up another member for suggestions, and that’s been such a big help!
10. How can you make the most out of being a member of a professional network?
Get involved as much as you can. Attend, participate, and add your value to meetings if you think there’s something others can learn from. Engage yourself and network as much with other members, even those from other countries and chapters. I’m based in New York so while I’ve collaborated with other local members, I’ve also worked with colleagues from London. I’ve made such great friends at AWAD – we even have meals and celebrate together. It’s amazing to be around other people who love the arts as much as you do, and it truly makes you feel like you belong in this niche industry when someone else understands what you’re going through.