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Catherine Edelman on bankruptcy and why no one gets into the art world to make a million
More than 25 years ago, Catherine Edelman began selling photographs from a small, second-story gallery in River North. Now the president of the Chicago Art Dealers Association, Edelman has made a name for herself showing controversial works from living artists. Her gallery shows pieces on consignment and splits the retail price with the artist.
Ellen Alderman founded Alderman Exhibitions with her husband in 2010.
EA: What don’t I know to ask you as a young dealer?
CE: You started after what has become the biggest recession since the Depression. It’s bold to open up after that. You have to be willing to lose money to make money.
Remember that the worst that can happen is you fail.
We’re doing this not because somebody forced us to. It would’ve been much easier to go to law school, medical school, something where there’s an established business model you fall into. We create our own business models in the art world.
EA: How long did it take you before you really felt like the gallery was making it financially?
CE: A long time. The first five years were complete hell. The stock market crashed [in 1991], first Gulf War, first major recession of my life. And that puts us into ’92. About 16 galleries left River North after the fire in ’89. It was really empty here. I had to make that strategic decision to move from the second floor to street level.
I think it’s really important to always seek advice from those who know more than you. And there’s always somebody who knows more than you. One of my clients I’ve always sought advice from is in banking. And I remember calling him and saying, I either have to shut down because I have no money or I have to move, double my space and double my rent. He [was] like, “Oh, just move. The worst thing that can happen is you go bankrupt.” Well, as a young gallery, that’s really an ‘aha’ moment.
EA: That sounds terrifying.
CE: He [said], no, you have to give it your best try. And if it doesn’t work you actually can walk away still intact as a human being. And that was pretty valuable information.
It’s daunting, but it was probably more like 12 years in the business. [It’s] just money going down a toilet in the beginning. It took a long time. It’s not an easy business.
EA: Is it possible to have a successful gallery in Chicago without doing [art fairs]?
CE: The access is what you’re paying for. The access to curators and the access to collectors that you don’t know.
I don’t see how one stays in business without doing art fairs, depending upon what your goals are for your business. I need to make money. This is my business. I don’t have a backer — I have me.
Everybody’s got a different goal for their business. My goal is to make money so it affords me to do what I want to do and let my staff do other initiatives that I want them to do. The art fairs have been completely key to the success in the last 10 years.
EA: What about advertising?
CE: I had very little money when I started. So everything was about free advertising. I’m still a big proponent of free press. If you run your business well, they come to you.
And the first year of the gallery was programmed for press. Period. It was really in-your-face. Not quiet. I needed free press. And we got it. Most of the press was about my age. Which really sort of bothered me. And then a friend of mine taught me how to use the press to my advantage. If it was such a big to-do in Chicago that I was 25, then I’d celebrate it.
EA: Another dealer told me that it took about 10 years for collectors to really start trusting him and coming in repeatedly. Would you say that’s about right?
CE: Probably. I don’t think I made any sales the first year. Maybe one or two. I had to learn along with my collectors. Of course it takes time. They don’t know who I am and I don’t know who they are. It takes internal confidence for people to listen to you. That takes time. So 10 years sounds about right.
EA: That’s encouraging. We’re making ends meet. But I didn’t start this business to be a millionaire.
CE: You won’t be.
EA: Any advice for balancing life with work? The last three years of running our space [have] been really intense.
CE: I eat, live and breathe it. I do think you have to eat, live and breathe it to be successful. But then again, your version of success and mine could be very different. I have a goal, which is to retire early, which requires me to keep pushing myself so I can financially achieve that.
I used to work 70-80 hours a week. Now I try to not work too much. A regular 35-40 hour week.
There will be people who say you can’t do it. You can’t have it all. I think you can have it all if you have good staff. If you don’t have good staff, it’s a hard juggling act.