By Andrew M. Goldstein
Having studied art at London’s Sotheby’s Institute during the heady heyday of the Young British Artist movement, the art advisor Sima Familant has experienced the meteoric rise of some of the most successful artists working today first-hand, watching them debut artworks that, though provocative at the time, are now cornerstones of museum collections. Today, at the latest stage of a career that has included a four-year position as a director at New York’s avant-garde Greene Naftali Gallery, Familant works with collectors—and the cutting-edge new media organization Rhizome, where she serves as a board member—to help identify and nurture the next generation of rising artistic talents.
To learn about Familant’s approach to art advisory, and to find out where she is looking for the most exciting new art, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to her about her philosophy of collecting.
As a former director of New York’s experimental Greene Naftali Gallery and a member of the board at Rhizome, an organization committed to art and technology, you are intimately involved with art’s cutting edge. However, as an art advisor, you’re known for encouraging collectors to buy older art to mix in with contemporary work. What is the philosophy behind your approach?
Building a collection of both art-historical and contemporary works is a win-win situation because it contextualizes both, showing how historical works are relevant today and exhibiting contemporary works’ place in a historical narrative. This allows them to inform one another, creating a back-and-forth dialogue between the works. Further, it shows the breadth of a collector’s interests.
You lived in London during the rise of the Young British Artists, watching Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, and others make radical work that attracted international attention—and birthed a new market for British art. Is there an art scene, movement, or other category today that you feel has the potential to explode in a similar fashion?
I travel extensively, often looking for what is the next big thing—the next YBA, if you will. I’ve come to realize that most of these cities don’t have the structure that London had at that time. There doesn’t seem to be a major teacher, like Michael Craig Martin, who nurtures individual visions, engendering the type of creative overflow of the YBAs. I have to admit that I’m often disappointed when I realize that nothing seems to be coming up that’s as strong as the art scene was during that time in London. On the other hand, art schools are bubbling up all over the world and artists, shows, nonprofit spaces, and museums are coming out of that. The art world is becoming increasingly global and, thus, more diluted.
As someone with a knack for supporting artists early in their careers who go on to be stars—like Gedi Sibony, Paul Pfeiffer, and Francis Alÿs—what kind of considerations help you identify artists of such tremendous potential?
I am most interested in artists who are relevant to the time they are working in. I find that a great amount of potential lies in artists who have figured out how to be relevant how to present those ideas in a succinct manner.
Considering your work with Rhizome, do you encourage collectors to acquire new media art? If so, what kind of pieces, and how do you help them incorporate the works into their homes?
I do encourage my collectors to buy new media works. It is an interesting, cutting-edge area of contemporary art that is very exciting; it needs to be supported and nurtured as a relevant, important practice. However, new media is, as its name suggests, a newer area of art making, which requires different specifications to deal with the medium—technology—and its presentation and conservation. Collectors, museums, and galleries are trying to understand how best to contextualize and collect these works. Technically, this has been going on since the 1970s, but it’s still in the beginning stages, making contextualization and organization important in this arena. Working with Rhizome has helped introduce me to these works, understand their issues, and discover the best artists and dealers within this arena. I am having so much fun with this learning curve, and with tapping into technology that is so much a part of our everyday lives. It feels like the future. Yet, don’t be misled by this statement—it’s not a binary consideration. There will always be a place and excitement for other mediums, such as painting.
You have traveled to art capitals all over the world, and worked with artists of all nationalities. How has the globalization of the art world changed the way you encourage people to collect?
Seeing art from all over the world has made me realize that good art happens everywhere—there are artists working in every field, discovering new practices and creating work that will come to shape a future historical discourse. I strongly encourage well-rounded collections rooted in a standard of quality. If there’s good art in India, then that’s the art you want. It’s not about seeking a particular work simply because the artist is from a particular part of the world, but rather seeking the best art and supporting those artists’ careers.
What advice do you have for beginning collectors?
Many early collectors question if they will recognize and collect what is on trend. I encourage collectors to understand that they have a personal style and taste that is in everything they purchase, in all aspects of their life. I encourage them to look at their homes, their furniture, and their interests, and to continue to believe in that. There’s art for everybody.
What was the first piece you ever bought?
The first piece I ever purchased was a Wade Guyton work on paper. I still love it and continue to collect his work for both my clients and myself.
Where do you find most of the work you show your clients?
The interesting thing about my job is that I can find good artwork everywhere. In New York alone, I visit uptown galleries, downtown galleries, auction houses, private collections, benefits, nonprofit spaces, and more. And I’m also constantly looking around when I travel. There’s always something to discover.
Where are you looking now for the most exciting new art?
I just finished a two-week trip to India, looking at collections, art galleries, and museums in Mumbai and Delhi, along with artists’ studios, private collections, and the 2013 Delhi Art Fair. It was incredible to see a different market, and to see that market’s relation to a thriving Indian culture. I had the opportunity to see Ranjani Shettar, Bala, and the most amazing show of Nasreen Mohamedi’s work. It was all the more inspiring to see these artists within the context of their home country. I also had the opportunity to visit Subodh Gupta at his studio in Gurgaon. I wrote in more detail about all of these experiences, as well as others,on my art and travel blog.
What’s the most far-flung or unusual place you’ve traveled to purchase an artwork?
I’ve traveled all over to look at art—from Delhi to Hobart, Tasmania, to Singapore—and it’s amazing how, with this business being so global, you have to go to so many different places. For example, in one year I traveled to Singapore, Hong Kong, Brussels, London, Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Basel, Miami, and Los Angeles. It’s crazy! And, needless to say, I achieved Executive Platinum status on American Airlines.
What do you consider the best perk of the job?
See answer above: Executive Platinum on American Airlines! (Laughs) To be more serious, the best perk of my job is definitely that my professional life is integrated with my personal life. I am constantly engaged in a conversation that I want to be thinking about, investigating, and questioning. What I would do on my own time is what I get to do at my day job.
How did you first become interested in art?
I first became interested in art as a child when my parents often took the family to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. (I grew up in southern Virginia and D.C. was the closest big city.) I would walk around recognizing that I liked a particular work of art, yet I didn’t understand why that work was in the museum as opposed to something else. I wanted to understand more about the artwork, the artists, and why that work was important to such a prestigious institution. In college, I seized the opportunity to take art history classes and learn more about what interested me. It was time in graduate school at Sotheby’s Institute—studying in London, traveling through Europe, and taking two years to see everything I could see—that nurtured my interest most. It was exciting, overwhelming almost, and this thrill is something that I still carry with me today.
What is the key to being a great art advisor?
For me, being an art advisor is a reciprocal process. It starts with learning to understand a client’s taste—learning what they like, learning what they don’t like, and understanding why. Then it’s up to me to find the best works I can that align with their personal tastes. There’s also an educational component, because it’s my responsibility to familiarize my clients with art so that their view and understanding broadens. And the best part is that this education isn’t a one-way street—my clients teach me new things as well. It’s part of the fun. They’re avid readers, they see shows, they have conversations with other museum curators and directors, and this all adds to our ongoing conversation about art.
The other element that I think is important is helping them be philanthropists in the art world. I feel it’s necessary that we are not just “shopping” but that we’re collecting, participating, and being part of the art conversation in ways that are not limited to acquisitions. Some of the most fun I have is helping my clients become involved with institutions and artists. Supporting artists that we champion—whether it’s with financial support for their shows and catalogues, lending to their shows, or even simply showing up at their events—is incredibly important. As opposed to spending time going to art fairs, we have been putting a majority of our time and energy in attending artists’ solo museum shows to help them celebrate these major accomplishments, and to build relationships that are mutually supportive.