Amber: Hi, welcome to The BusinessMakers. I’m Amber Ambrose here with Catherine Couturier of Catherine Couturier Gallery, a fine art photography gallery here in Houston, Texas. Welcome to the show Catherine.
Catherine: Thank you.
Amber: So we like to start off very show by asking one simple question; Catherine, tell me about Catherine Couturier Gallery.
Catherine: Catherine Couturier Gallery is the only fine art photography gallery in Houston and I am an art dealer, not just a gallerist, meaning that I work internationally and I work to enhance the careers of my artists that I represent.
Amber: So you go beyond just this retail front that you have here in Houston, you work on the back end of things; tell me more about that process.
Catherine: I have to have relationships all over the world so if I can sell a local artist’s work to a collector in Australia that’s going to expand the amount of people that will have seen that work. I also work closely with museums, book publishers, things of that nature so that I can get book projects done for my artists. I can get them in major museum collections which again, adds to their resumes, adds to their clout; I also talk to other art dealers in different parts of the country or the world so that they can be in more spaces. Because again, anything that raises their profile is ultimately good for all of us.
Amber: Sure, so on that how do you choose? I mean do artists come to you; do you go to the artist? How does that whole relationship get started?
Catherine: I guess usually I go to them because I only work with established artists, mid-career established artists, and then dead artists – that sounds bad.
Amber: Posthumous work?
Catherine: No, it’s not posthumous because it wasn’t made after they died; it was just sold after they were dead.
Amber: Gotcha how does that work actually? I want to get into that and then we’ll get into the other stuff; how do you sell someone’s work who is no longer alive?
Catherine: So that’s called Secondary Markets.
Catherine: I’m not buying it directly from the artist, which is kind of First Market, I’m buying it afterwards. Sometimes I buy work back that I’ve sold to a client because they’ve decided they don’t want it anymore and we a lot of times do what I call trading up, meaning you trade out of something you don’t want any more in to something you do want.
Amber: Do you just trade that with the other dealer or gallery?
Catherine: Sometimes I do trade with other dealers; a lot of times I buy it directly from them. Dealers give each other a slightly better discount than we would give anybody else because we’re all trying to make money. But I’ll buy – I used to buy at auction more than I do now, the auction game has kind of changed in the last 10 years. I mean online auctions sometimes if I come across something really amazing on eBay that nobody else is noticing then I’ll grab that. But back from my clients, it’s a lot of different ways that I get the material.
Amber: Well recently in my mind could be in last 5 years but it’s a big show here and she used to be a nanny and there was a documentary on her.
Catherine: Vivian Maier.
Amber: Vivian Maier.
Catherine: So that was a story that got a lot of press for sure. Some storage facilities were found with these negatives – I mean a couple of prints but mostly just negatives – and she had been this nanny with no family.
Amber: Very mysterious right?
Catherine: There wasn’t much known about her for sure. And so kind of two groups ended up with that material and they both kind of did their research; they put out books, they made a documentary, things like that. There were a lot of assumptions made. There was a lot of filling in the blanks about that. And I go back and forth on that work. The negatives themselves are really, really good. She never even developed most of that film so people now are having to make the choices on the contemporary work of how she would have printed them and so I go back and forth on it that way.
Amber: So it’s partially her work but it’s also the interpretation of people who are…
Catherine: Exactly, and in photography the print is 80% of the artistry. If it’s a great negative but it’s a terrible print then I don’t want it.
Amber: And nobody wants to put it on their wall anyway.
Catherine: Right. And it’s – I’m ultimately selling something; I’m not selling a jpeg, I’m not selling an idea, I’m selling something physical and that something has to be good quality, it just has to be.
Amber: Which is interesting because someone who is not well-versed in the world of photography I think more about the actual photo, the image, and not the actual physical product that you’re selling to people.
Catherine: Right, exactly. And that’s most people because we’ve all got Instagram and Facebook and we all kind of see images constantly, constantly, constantly on our phones. But I’m not selling a picture, I’m selling a photograph and a photograph is something you can touch and that has to be good. Because again, if you’ve got a bad print of a great image, you don’t have a good photograph, it doesn’t matter how good the image is.
Amber: And you’re not going to find it here are you?
Catherine: No, definitely not, definitely not.
Amber: So getting back to how you are matched up with the artist and it sounds like you are going after them more often than they’re coming to you.
Catherine: Not necessarily. So I’m established enough that I definitely get a lot of submissions, so there’s a lot of artists who want to be in the gallery. That’s not usually the type of artist I work with because I don’t want people who are kind of that grain. There’s a few reasons for that; one is their price point’s lower so it’s harder to make money. Number two, they usually need more hand-holding in a lot of ways; that they’re more nervous about things or they haven’t made up all their decisions, things like that so I have to help them more, which takes more time which leads to less money. I mean there’s definitely been so many times where I’ve seen work and it’s just so good that I don’t care about the rest of that.
Catherine: But ultimately I have to look for people that I can really work with and on a very day to day basis, even if they live across the country we’re in constant contact and we have to be able to work together on a very one on one, personal basis. And if the relationship isn’t going to work then that’s a problem. It doesn’t matter how good the work is, I’m not going to want to represent it. So I told somebody recently – a photography group that I was speaking to – and they said what’s the one thing that a photographer needs to know in order to get into your gallery? And I said don’t be crazy; just don’t be insane and that will be your first step because I don’t want to work with anybody who’s insane.
Catherine: But all that being said so usually I get artists because they’re already represented by other dealers and I’ve seen their work and I can talk to the dealers and say are they easy to work with? Are they on time? Do they send good prints every time? Things of that nature so it’s kind of like a job interview.
Amber: So it’s very relationship-based?
Catherine: Very relationship-based, the whole business is because even though I ended up buying the gallery from the person I worked for before this is really not a saleable type of business because it’s all based on relationships. If I were going to sell the business to you I can’t call Maggie Taylor and say you don’t know Amber but I’m going to give her half a million dollars’ worth of your stuff and she’ll pay you, don’t’ worry. You can’t do that and it’s the same thing with collectors; I can’t just give a collector’s name to someone else and think that they can work together because I know my collectors’ tastes, their eye. They come back to me because they respect my taste, my eye and that’s not something you can trade or sell, it has to be something you build.
Amber: Well you already answered one of my questions which was what are some of the nuances working directly with artists but – don’t be crazy.
Catherine: Don’t be crazy.
Amber: There’s the answer.
Catherine: The big one I always tell artists really is if you want this to be your job you have to treat it like a job. And that goes not just for photographers but painters and writers and filmmakers and everything else. You need to get up every day, you need to work for 8 hours as you would any place else and then you can go about your life. But that idea of somebody who’s flighty and flaky and they’re just this creative person, they’re not going to have a career. Nobody’s going to want to work with them, they’re not going to be on time, their career’s not going to go anywhere.
Amber: I know this job to some people seems just like this amazing, wonderful, very sort of cosmopolitan type of position but I know there’s some real things you have to deal with on a day to day basis.
Catherine: Yes, definitely and I was like that before too. So when I was in high school a movie came out called Six Degrees of Separation which was Will Smith’s first movie. And Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland play this couple who are private art dealers and they are in this swanky New York apartment and everybody’s wearing black and has big jewelry and they are trying to get $2 million to buy this double-sided Kandinsky.
What I focused on being from Crocket, Texas was how sophisticated they were and they have this dinner party and everybody knows everything about wine and I thought that’s the life for me. What I should have pad attention to was the fact that they were throwing that party because they were desperate for $2 million to buy the double-sided Kandinsky. Cash flow is a major issue in this business. Pretty much any dealer that you’re going to talk to will tell you they only make money maybe 4 months out of the year and you have to stretch that. So this is not a job that you can do well if you’re not good at business, you have to be able to understand those things.
Amber: And understand the absences and the seasonal part of it.
Catherine: yeah, and be able to sleep through that. I mean I tell people all the time that I did not sleep for 3 years, I really didn’t at all. I would wake up just panicked about something. And I’ve got a friend who’s about to start a gallery and I told her the same thing; I said if you can’t get through those first 3 years of panic then you don’t need to go into business for yourself. But then I also get to pay bills and I get to choose artists and I get to talk about art. And I also fixed a toilet last week because everything kind of starts and stops with me and I’m very handy and it’ll get fixed faster if I do it then if I have to hire a plumber.
Amber: And you were telling me before the interview started sometimes you have to drop your kid off downtown so you’ve just got to put a note on the door that says hey, we’ll be back.
Catherine: Yeah, and I’ve got employees but there’s one afternoon that I’m here by myself and I have to put notes on the door that say things like due to very cool circumstances my son’s in a play, I have to go take him down there. Because my husband has this stable, corporate job with health insurance and 401K and all those things I don’t have, so I’ve got the lifestyle job, so I can pop out and pick up the kid. I have my toddler here most days which is horrific and yet wonderful and special and I will look back on this time so fondly.
Amber: I know exactly what you’re going through.
Catherine: I had my son here for almost 2 years too when he was little and I look back on it as though it was this amazing time that I got to spend with my child; the day to day of it is much harder. So if you come back to the gallery when my little stinker bell is here then there may be food on the floor and I will try to pick it up.
Amber: And beautiful art on the walls.
Catherine: And beautiful art on the walls, so don’t mind the banana.
Amber: So don’t look below eye level when you walk in.
Catherine: 60 inches, that’s eye level so 60 inches; when you’re installing art on the wall that’s the number that you center on, 60 inches.
Amber: Well is there anything that you would like people to know that they might not know about this business or this world that maybe you have some advice for them if they want to get into it?
Catherine: It’s a lot harder than people think it is, I think that goes for most jobs. If you expect to not work very hard, which a lot of people who get in the art business think, then if you expect that you will not have a career. You will not succeed in business if you do not work hard. I have to come to work every day. My names’ on the door, they expect to see me here; I can’t just give everything over to employees and just go on vacation. There’s no taking vacations, it’s a small business that I have to run every single day.
But there’s great things too; I do get to live the lifestyle that I wanted. Maybe not with as much money as I expected to have but I do get to travel and I get to surround myself with really smart people who are in to the same things I’m in to. And I speak French and I do know about food and wine now and came out of Crocket, Texas and kind of got exactly what I wanted and so who cares about money if you get all the rest of it.
Amber: That’s true, I like that. Thank you for joining us Catherine, it was a pleasure.
Catherine: I really appreciate it.
Amber: And that wraps up our interview on The BusinessMakers with Catherine Couturier of Catherine Couturier Gallery. Thanks for joining us.
brought to you by