Down to a fine art | Monocle

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Stephen Friedman bought his first artwork at the age of 13. At 31 he opened his eponymous gallery in London’s West End, a stone’s throw away from the clusters of art ventures on Cork Street and Savile Row’s famous tailors.

It is a rainy August afternoon when we get to the venue. Gallery manager Mary Tagg welcomes us warmly, explaining that Friedman is running a bit late. He has just returned from his holiday, she says: a four-week hiking trip in South Tyrol that, as we’ll later find out, is a luxury Friedman treats himself to only once a year – in August just before the craze of Frieze heats up.

Friedman, a well-groomed gentleman, soon pops out to invite us into his office: an elegant room with a bursting book-shelved wall and a weighty wooden desk from where the art collector and dealer runs his business. It is one of the capital’s most respected and commercially successful galleries with an international portfolio made up of nearly 30 established and emerging contemporary artists that includes Yinka Shonibare, David Shrigley, Thomas Hirschhorn, Yoshitomo Nara and Catherine Opie.

The son of an accountant and an antiques dealer, the Montréal-born gallerist grew up with an equal interest in art and business. After graduating from McGill University and a four-year stint as a marketing and product manager at a local electronics firm, Friedman moved to London in 1989 to pursue a master’s programme at Sotheby’s. A short gig at Christie’s followed until 1995, when he decided to open his own gallery.

“With my marketing background I knew exactly how to do a business plan,” he says of his first steps in entrepreneurship. “I then needed to raise a little bit of money, which I was again able to do quite easily.”

The break came about two years later when an exhibitor dropped from Art Basel and Friedman’s gallery happened to be next on the waiting list. Yet again he relied on his marketing judgment to make the most of the opportunity. With only a few weeks to go until the fair started, Friedman was aware that the catalogue was already printed but requested that the organisers make an insert on which to add his gallery.

“In the end, people were walking around the show with a Stephen Friedman mini brochure and it was fantastic free advertising. It started to build from there.” Today Friedman occupies two neighbouring galleries as well as an additional exhibition space across the street. He boasts a roster of clients from North America, Europe, Canada and – to a certain extent – the UK. “The art-buying public in London is less conservative than it was 20 years ago with the great museums we have here but it remains relatively conventional,” he says.

Still he is adamant that he will stay business-rooted in London. “As a North American living in London I find the environment much more refined and sophisticated than in New York. The energy is less frenetic, it’s much more consistent and I like the close link to the rest of Europe,” he says, showing us around the lavish green garden attached to his office.

Quite a few late evenings are going to be spent here in the run-up to Frieze. “This is an intensely busy time. You try to anticipate as much as you can. I’m quite a disciplined person and we plan every art fair almost a year in advance so that a month before we already know where almost every artwork is going to hang.”

Friedman’s support team is nearby to help: working quietly in the surrounding offices are his three gallery directors, two managers and a group of assistants. “It takes an army to run this business,” he says brightly of his staff, who have helped him organise three shows for this edition of Frieze: a main exhibition by sculptor Tom Friedman plus two solo showings by late Argentinean artist Manuel Espinosa and young Swedish painter Andreas Eriksson.

“In this business you need to have the right combination of instincts and being business savvy. My previous marketing background was really important in terms of figuring out the business side of things.”

Of his eye for detail he believes that “the more you look at art, the more refined your taste becomes. You develop a confidence in buying art once you’ve been studying it, looking at it and visiting art fairs and galleries for a number of years”.

Indeed, a lot can be at stake when it comes to a €1.15m piece, as it is in the case of Brazilian painter Beatriz Milhazes. Then there’s Stockholm-based Mamma Andersson, whose works were selling for €6,000 when Friedman first started representing her; now they easily reach €500,000.

“I’m all about longevity and a long-term career for the gallery and our artists. Tastes change and evolve quickly so the idea is to tone the heat down a little and maintain it over a long period of time. That takes a great deal of work.”

The rules

  1. What time do you like to be at your desk?
    I spend two hours doing emails at home in the morning then I train at the gym and get to the office around 12.00. I like to work into the early evening when it’s quiet in the gallery.
  2. What’s the best place to prepare for leadership? MBA or on the job?
    Management background for how to run a business is important but really this is an instinctive business and you have to be confident about your own aesthetics and taste.

  3. What’s your management style?
    Tough but fair.

  4. Are tough decisions best taken by a single person?
    Yes. A decision is made after a discussion with the wider team but the buck stops with me.

  5. Do you want to be liked or respected?
    Of course I want to be liked but I think it’s more important to be respected.

  6. Can you describe your support team?
    I have two PAs who work very closely with me and three gallery directors. Then, of course, I have gallery managers and registrars. It takes an army to run this business.

  7. What technology do you carry on a trip?
    I’m still wedded to my two BlackBerries. Plus my iPad.

  8. Do you read management books?
    Rarely. I read fiction or magazines like Artforum and Frieze.

  9. Do you run in the morning? Have wine with lunch? Socialise with your team?
    I exercise with my trainer as often as I can. I sometimes have wine with clients but it makes me sleepy. I occasionally socialise with my team after work.

  10. What would your key management advice be?
    Stay focused. It’s all in the detail.

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