Our guest today is Ronnit Vassermann, an investment banker turned art aficionado who founded her own consulting firm, Art Connect Group. She now educates and advises potential buyers of her favorite asset, art. Listen as Ronnit discusses how she transitioned from a successful career in finance to her true dream job and the importance of following your passions.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:00:01] The other thing that’s been very, very rewarding is when I’ve done events with artists before they were even known and then just seeing their careers skyrocket…
Sam: [00:00:14] When someone says art world, two contrary images come to mind. A tiny studio filled with half finished paintings or an elegant gallery with a stunning display of works. To say the circumstances and luck needed to get from the former to the latter are daunting would be an understatement. But Ronnit Vassermann found a way to make a space for herself in the art world after working for many years in finance. Her view that you don’t have to be a starving artist if you think about it as a business as well as a passion, suggests that her early experience in finance contributes to her success now. She’s the founder of Art Connect Group, a full service art consulting firm based in New York and after working in investment banking, she made the transition to advising and educating people about art, her favorite asset class. Ronnit, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show with us today.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:01:31] Thank you so much, Sam. It’s great to be on.
Sam: [00:01:35] So you spent much of your career in finance before deciding to pursue a career in the arts. That’s a tough decision for many people. How did you come to that and how do you feel finance prepared you to start your art consulting business?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:01:52] Sure. So I think it’s safe to say that I just didn’t, initially, I didn’t want to take the risk in being financially sound in the art world. So I pivoted after studying into the finance world and I enjoyed it. I think there’s something, many components about the business world, the finance world that intrigued me. And also, as a woman being part of that, was also very important to me. And while I was doing that, you know, I always used to get in touch with art-related organizations and ask them, you know, what kind of positions are available. And I think when I heard the salaries, I thought I would just bite my lower lip, like, oh, I should just continue doing what I’m doing. But it was always bothering me because I didn’t feel like I was one of those people that, like, loved what they did. Like, I’d go to work. I felt like I was really working. And it was all about the paycheck. And then after my second child, it was the only thing to force me to just stop. I was just one of those people. I just, once I’m working, I just can’t get off. You know, that whole flow. And when I had my second child, my husband had an opportunity to work in London. And so without even thinking, I said, sure, I’ll just quit my job and I’ll just embrace that whole opportunity. And of course, being in Europe, being around all this culture, I thought, you know, as soon as I get back to America, I’m just going to try to make things happen for myself in the art world. And, you know, I think it was also because I felt like I didn’t have to rely necessarily on, you know, making and keeping, you know, at the end I was able to take that risk.
Sam: [00:04:00] So, Ronnit, you make a decision to build your art consulting business. What were the first few things you did to take that idea and turn it into a business?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:04:12] Right. So I really believe every journey begins with one step. And so my early steps in networking with nonprofit art organizations initially just to get my feet wet and immersed, you know, in the art world. And I started to host private events at my home. And I would have different artists speak and I would invite friends and then friends would invite their friends. And it started to give me a reputation in my community as the art person. And then people started to ask me if I can organize art events for them. And that’s really when things started to take off in that direction as me being like an art educator by organizing all these different events. And I really feel like it’s such a crucial part and something that’s often missing. Being able to educate people about the art world, about different artists. It’s kind of like it reminded me of back in the investment banking days. You know, you have like the research departments. They do it for those asset classes. Why can’t we do it for art?
Sam: [00:05:37] That’s such a good point. Education is such a key. I want to quote to you a prevailing view in the art world at the moment as it processes the implications of this pandemic. “Only the concept of art itself is poised to make it through the pandemic fully intact. People will always make art regardless of economic situations. So the craft will remain safe.” Such a hard time for so many different organizations in the art world. How are you witnessing the art world adjusting to this new normal?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:06:15] So that’s a great question and it’s so true. It’s almost like to be human is to create art. But the reality is that every art organization is struggling right now. You keep on hearing about all these layoffs at our cherished museums in New York City and all over the world. So I feel like they’re doing a really good job embracing technology right now by offering a variety of Zoom sessions. And whether it’s just doing interviews with artists and or doing online exhibitions, I even see galleries that couldn’t have physical exhibition openings creating zoom sessions where the artists are taking people around virtually using technology like Artland. So I feel like the first steps are, you know, just embracing the technology. And I think they’ve been really successful. And it’s even just a great way for them to engage with their members who are just their overall, you know, customers who have been frequenting their institutions in the last few years.
Sam: [00:07:40] I agree, in some ways technology has sort of been the savior of all of us during this time. Ronnit, your business is deeply personal. It involves a lot of you. How do you think about scale and a business like yours?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:07:55] Okay so that’s a great question and something that I’ve experimented with. Like I really try to hire other art professionals, other people to do lectures for me or do walking tours and things like that. And, you know, not to brag or anything, but I feel like I’ve learned that I was the brand, that people wanted to hear me. You know, that that was really a big part of it. So as far as being able to scale, I feel like by networking with a lot of organizations and being like continuing education places. I feel like this scaling has really been in being able to give the same lecture, do the same tour, or do a similar artist’s studio visit event, the same ones for many organizations. But as far as just hiring other art consultants to do it. I found that that was not going to work or, you know, maybe it’s something that I need to revisit, you know, but I was beginning to feel like I was the brand of sorts.
Sam: [00:09:12] Yeah, I think it’s hard, right. And there are lots of parallels between what you do and many of the artists that you work with who experience the same questions of how they scale their work and their productivity. And I guess one approach, you know, is to sort of have a workshop of supporting participants like a Jeff Koons does. But he’s still very much the brand and kind of the central focus. I think it’s yeah, it sounds like it’s harder to move away from that model in what you do, because so much of it is so deeply personal. And there’s a kind of, you know, personal set of knowledge there that it’s hard to pass on or institutionalize with other people.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:10:00] Definitely.
Sam: [00:10:03] So as you look back, Ronnit, were there assumptions that you made when you got started that you, looking back, revised?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:10:14] Absolutely. I think in the beginning, I was naively optimistic about how easy it would be for people to trust me to sell and consult them and which art to buy. And yes, there was some beginners’ luck in the very beginning, but I think that that was something that took a few years to really cultivate. You know, people really needed to come to my art events for a few years and then say to me, okay, I want to buy some art. You know, let’s start working on that. So I think that was probably one of my earliest options of how easy, that it’s not something that people just, you know, buy casually. It’s not like buying a dress, you know. And so I think that was something that I learned that it was something that I really need to be consistent and persistent until I would really see the fruit of all that labor sort of build it and they will come.
Sam: [00:11:26] Doesn’t really hold.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:11:27] Yeah.
Sam: [00:11:30] Ronnit, you’ve worked with a number of different artists. Can you talk a little bit about, are there particular kinds of artists you enjoy working with or that take up, you know, kind of a majority of your business and what you do? And how, you know, you’ve taken, I think, many of these artists and sort of exposed them in a new way or exposed their work and then your way. Tell us a little bit about how you do that.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:12:00] Sure. So actually, there’s like three categories that I want to address. So I’m really happy to say that I have been working with a lot of African American artists for many, many years. Like, I really took such an interest in their work and their creativity and their messages. And I would spend so much time in Harlem going to the studio museum, going to the galleries, going to artist studios and even visiting the Columbia MFA show at the end of the year. And so I’ve almost gotten like an expert eye in that, you know. So I feel like I’ve become like the go-to person for seminars interested in acquiring African-American artists’ work, you know, and similarly, I’ve taken a huge interest in Israeli contemporary artists. So I’ve also been the go-to if someone is interested in procuring a work by an Israeli artist. And then also every year, Sotheby’s has an auction on Israeli art. And I’ve become like a go-to person. I was asked to give lectures over there and walk through before the actual auction. So it really helped me, you know, to kind of be part of different communities, you know, within the art world that I really enjoyed. And then I have also been very involved in championing young artists. I have visited artists all over, you know. Redhook, Crown Heights, Long Island City, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and I’ve been putting their names on the map, you know, just bringing their practice to people’s attention, especially like even before the pandemic, all these small galleries, clothing, you know, that was such a big part of the ecosystem, you know, bringing younger artists to people’s attention. So I found myself, you know, bridging that gap, you know. And the other thing that’s been very, very rewarding is when I’ve done events with artists before, they were even known and then just seeing their careers skyrocket. And that has been probably one of the most rewarding experiences.
Sam: [00:14:51] I mean, it’s so, so deeply fulfilling, right. That you’ve worked with, you know, such a variety of groups in both bringing them attention, you know, kind of raising their profile among collectors and viewers of art. That’s such an amazing combination. I love that you’ve worked with so many different kinds of artists, Ronnit. What makes some artists successful and others not so in my opinion?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:15:26] I feel like an artist can’t just produce something beautiful. It has to be more than that. There has to be an underlying message that is so powerful. It’s almost like a story, a narrative. It can’t just be about mixing colors around. You know, I really feel like when there’s like a compelling story or an underlying inspiration to the artist’s practice, that is very significant. And then also the dedication of the artist. Like, if you do feel like the artist feels like they were put on this earth to create art and that’s all they want to be doing and they’re completely dedicated to it. I think that’s also a big part of it. And then I have found some artists to be so savvy on the business side that, you know, that just sometimes brings it all together and really propels their career. I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of talented artists who maybe aren’t so business savvy, but they have the backing of like a Blue-Chip gallery. But a lot of times when I see really business savvy artists that have a great product, I think that it’s definitely the ingredients to a successful career in such a brave world.
Sam: [00:16:55] It’s so interesting because I think you’ve said two really important things in there, right? One is art. At some point. And, you know, my next question to you is going to be, when did this happen, but art at some point went from being, you know, kind of purely an aesthetic set of decisions by collectors to really being a mode of an almost like a, you know, needing to have a social commentary perspective to it without which it’s sort of almost was devalued.It wasn’t enough to just be beautiful. It needed to be making a statement, I think, as you said. But then the other aspect is that, you know, artists on the one hand need to be pure and creative and stay true to what they do. And at the same time, the art world is such and has always been such that you need a degree of commercial savvy or financial sophistication, as you were saying, to really be able to propel themselves.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:18:07] Absolutely. And then something else that I’m thinking about, based on what you just said, is sometimes artists and their gallerists conflict with each other when the gallerist wants the artists to continue making something that has a proven track record and not wanting to be creative and explore other things. And I think that’s when a lot of conflict happens or a breakdown in the gallerist/artist relationship. Then it becomes just too commercial. And it’s just like, I want you to make the same thing again and again, this is what people want. This is what you’re known for. You know, this is your signature. So it’s just an interesting thing that happens for artists.
Sam: [00:18:59] I mean, it’s such a tense balance because on the one hand, you know, as an artist, you pride yourself on innovating and creating. And yet there’s the commercial reality of what sells and what might not.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:19:11] Definitely.
Sam: [00:19:13] Super interesting. You’ve studied the art world, you went into finance, and then you’ve built now your company in art advisory. If you think about when you were studying art and when you came back to it as your entrepreneurial career, are there some critical changes that happened in the art world during that time? Like, how would you sort of contrast what it was like to what it sort of became like or is like now?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:19:49] So I feel, you know, as a student, you know, we never really teach you the art world. And as an adult, you know, that created a career in the art world. I just feel like I’m so deep, you know, in the whole ecosystem. You know what I mean? So I can’t really speak, you know, so much to the changes. But I think it’s just, you know, the difference between the academics as a student studying it and then just living it now and really seeing it, how it operates as a business.
Sam: [00:20:31] The practical realities of the business, yeah. So Ronnit, the art world is crowded, in a sense, both on the sort of supply side of artists as well as on the sort of intermediary side in terms of galleries and consultants and advisers such as yourself. How do you think about competition? How do you think about differentiation?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:21:02] Sure. So there’s definitely a lot of competition and I just feel like I don’t know anyone else that does all the things that I do as an art adviser. You know, I just know very few art advisers that are going to art fairs all over the world. Going to every major, you know, museum show, especially in New York City, or meeting all these young artists and hitting almost every major gallery, like, I just feel like I’m just so busy. Like I’m really not just sitting in an office half the day on my computer. I’m completely out there, you know, and I really feel like that gives me an edge to the point that because I really see the art world on many different levels. The studio, the auction house, museums, the important art fairs, I’m able to make predictions like I feel like an artist that’s about to have their big break, you know, because I’m so involved.
Sam: [00:22:22] That’s awesome. You’re on the front lines.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:22:27] For sure. And that’s how I feel like I distinguish myself from other art advisers.
Sam: [00:22:34] The events, the fairs, the gallery openings have become a sort of really important experiential tool and mechanism by way of which the audience for art has expanded around the world. Has that been a good thing? Is it a sustainable thing in a kind of post-Covid or, you know, living with Covid world?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:23:04] We will see. I want to point out that, you know, I spent a lot of time at the Armory Show in New York, which was really at the tipping point. Like immediately after, that’s when everything fell apart. And even then, I saw such a decline in how many people I would normally see at an art fair. And then, of course, the expense and the overhead that galleries have to participate in these fairs. You know, and of course, this is the ultimate exposure. You know, I really see these art fairs. I mean, I love them. I feel like half of the whole art world is all about creating these wonderful experiences for the collectors. But given all the uncertainty in the future and with all our social distancing, even Art Basel, like so many of their corporate sponsors, have pulled out, you know, which is really important, you know, for the sustainability of the art fair. So I don’t know. I don’t know what’s to come. You know.
Sam: [00:24:19] Yeah, very uncertain times.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:24:20] Yeah, it’s essential. But it’s really very expensive.
Sam: [00:24:27] What’s the lesson Ronnit that you feel you’ve learned from this journey that other entrepreneurs should know?
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:24:33] So the best lesson is that– I hope this answers your question. I just want all entrepreneurs to know that it’s really worth being on this path, you know, taking these steps to building your own business. And if you’re passionate about something, it will work out, you know. And if you work hard and there’s no better reward, in my opinion, than being in control of your calendar and your time. You know, I feel like it’s the ultimate form of freedom when you control your time.
Sam: [00:25:15] I like that. The ultimate form of freedom. Here’s something else you should know. An ongoing study reported that U.S. culture and arts organizations lost over five billion dollars during the March to June 2020 period. Art has long been a forum for expressing opinions about the state of politics and society through different media. Artists have commented both explicitly and subversively on everything from vanity and access to corruption and greed, and commented on everyone from the anonymous masses to the privilege to meet. It remains one of the most important mechanisms to strike a meaningful chord and leave a lasting impression. Thanks to Business Insider and Amberg Lerner for the data in today’s episode, Ronnit were inspired by your story about finding a way to pursue your passion by turning it into a business. Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Ronnit Vassermann: [00:26:11] Thank you so much. It is an absolute pleasure.
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