Maureen Bray, Executive Director of The Art Dealers Association of America.

Navigating Uncharted Waters with the Art Dealers Association of America's Maureen Bray

By Margie Fuchs

Maureen Bray relishes a challenge. Since taking the helm of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) as Executive Director in 2018, she has advocated for the arts community on a national stage and overseen The Art Show, ADAA’s annual fair. Her two decades of experience working at galleries across New York City lend a unique, insider perspective in overseeing a national organization with nearly 180 member galleries (including Jonathan Boos!).

But the emergence of COVID-19 has triggered seismic shifts in how we think about and do business, and the art world is no exception. Bray is diving headfirst into this challenge, envisioning new ways to support artists and galleries when viewing art in person isn’t always possible. We virtually sat down with Bray to discuss the evolution of the American art world and the importance of thinking outside the box.

When did you first know you wanted to go into art?

I wouldn’t say that we were a particularly art-driven family. It didn’t occur to me that art could have an emotional impact on you, but when I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston as a kid that’s exactly what happened. I immediately thought how can I be a part of something like this for a career?

I studied graphic design in college in Philadelphia and spent most weekends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I realized that if I wanted to work in the arts, I needed to go to what I believed at the time was the center of the U.S. art world: New York City. I moved to New York without knowing anyone here and enrolled in Sotheby’s one-year American arts course. After that, I got a job in advertising. One day, I got a call from the course director at Sotheby’s saying that Mnuchin Gallery (then C&M Arts) was looking for a front desk person. A few interviews followed and I had landed my first job in the art world.

The interior of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX. American abstract artist Mark Rothko designed the sanctuary, which is devoted to 14 of his monumental paintings, and it opened in 1971. Image via Hickey Robertson/The Rothko Chapel.

Wow! What was your path like from that first front desk until now?

Twenty plus years later, I’ve worked at three amazing galleries – Mnuchin Gallery, Sean Kelly Gallery, and David Nolan Gallery – and have helped bring a host of seemingly impossible projects to life. In 2017, the outgoing Executive Director at the ADAA called me to say that she was retiring and thought I should be the next Executive Director. I told her that I didn’t know the first thing about running a non-profit! But the ADAA was attracted to my experience in the gallery world and felt strongly that being run by somebody with an intimate knowledge of the business was the next stage for the organization. The more we talked, I thought, we could really do something special here and have a real impact. And here we are!

How did you approach your role when you started at the ADAA?

When I started at the ADAA, I’d often say that we were speaking the same language, but in different dialects. While I knew the galleries and understood the technical language, the ADAA was viewing the art world with a more macro lens than I was used to on the individual gallery side. Taking a more holistic view from day one helped my transition into the organization. And from my many years at galleries, I understood some of the things that would be particularly useful for our members. With this knowledge, my team and I started working to develop helpful and relevant resources right away.

Jonathan Boos has participated in quite a few ADAA seminars. How have these programs evolved?

The ADAA hosted seminars long before my time, but these were typically in New York and that information wasn’t always available to our members across the country. The first thing we started doing was recording the seminars to make sure that we were actively supporting and representing all of our members across the U.S. Next, we started compiling a list of need-to-know topics for our member galleries; the members also began requesting seminars on certain topics. We’d move quickly to find experts in each particular topic – website compliance, new sales tax laws, social media brand building – and would organize the seminar around them.

In terms of upcoming seminars, I think we need to return to cybersecurity. Cybersecurity issues ebb and flow in the art world, and now that galleries are spending more time online, and particularly with sensitive communications around transactions, they’re even more vulnerable to cyber scams and fraud. Additionally, we’ll continue to host webinars on legislative issues that are impacting the industry.

The entrance to Jonathan Boos' ADAA Online Viewing Room.
The entrance to Jonathan Boos' ADAA Online Viewing Room.

Since lockdown began, the ADAA has been providing resources to help galleries pivot to the digital realm. Could you tell us about how you’ve been supporting galleries working virtually?

When lockdown began, the ADAA pivoted to support galleries’ shows that had been closed indefinitely. We reinvented our previously planned Instagram schedule, collaborating with our members to post behind-the-scenes images, exhibition walkthroughs, and conversations with artists related to exhibitions that had been on view. We also partnered with Artlogic to develop a temporary Online Viewing Room platform for our members. These Online Viewing Rooms gave our members the ability to compete with other organizations that had already started digital exhibition practices. We’ve also provided webinars on social media and digital communication–all within the first few months of COVID-19.

Eight plus months into COVID-19, what trends have you seen in how the art world’s adjusted?

Selling art has always had an element of compelling storytelling, about the artist, about their work. This is particularly critical in the digital realm. It’s not enough to simply have an Online Viewing Room, you need an intriguing narrative to drive traffic to these virtual environments.

From a workforce perspective, it’s been especially hard for smaller galleries because they’re stretched so thin. This is why legislative issues are a big concern to us. COVID-19 cutbacks place a large burden on business owners to try to do the work of five people, when they’re already doing the work of 10.

Even while at home, we’ve been exceptionally busy, to say the least!

I’ve been hearing that from so many of our members. We’ve also found that without the constant travel from art fair to art fair, it’s given galleries time to do art dealing in a more traditional way, whether that means deepening relationships with their clients over long phone conversations about the work or the artist, or further strengthening relationships with their artists, in the case of contemporary galleries. This is a very different way of doing business than the art fair model, where your points of intersection tend to be more rushed transactions at fair booths. Jon does this anyway, but I think a lot of gallerists had gotten away from a slower, relationship-based mode of business and were pleasantly reminded of what that experience was like.

In your crystal ball, how do you think the art world will continue to evolve post-COVID-19?

I hope we don’t completely revert back to the old model of overcrowded event calendars, because I don’t think that’s healthy or sustainable in the long term. A more hybrid model, with select events that give access to different revenue points but that also allow galleries time to focus on building deeper connections without the travel would be ideal.

I think we may see the return of local and regional fairs first and then larger, more international fairs will return. Both types of fairs are important because they provide vital points of contact for galleries, but I hope we find a healthy mid-way point without packing the calendar too much.

While visiting physical fairs may still be a bit further in the future, the auction calendar is getting more robust by the day - we’re attending and advising clients at more virtual auctions now more than ever.

That’s true. Auction houses are also figuring out ways to innovate and connect people with art while at home. It’s wonderful that they, too, are reinventing these processes. We all want to continue to find ways to support the arts sustainably. I hope that collectors will help lead the charge in re-imagining the art world calendar, including turning to their trusted galleries year-round, not just during major art world moments, for access to great works of art.

Exterior of artist Titus Kaphar's NXTHVN artist nonprofit incubator.
Artist Titus Kaphar's NXTHVN is located in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut Photo: John Dennis. Courtesy NXTHVN and Gagosian.

What do you think have been some of the most significant innovations in galleries’ dealing practices since the 2008 crash?

Dynamic collaborations. Often times, artists lead the conversation around innovation and galleries follow suit. Since 2008, we’ve seen the emergence of collaborative projects and gallery programs to help artists achieve their vision. Galleries are also learning from artists’ innovative programs, such as Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock artist residency program in Senegal or Titus Kaphar’s NXTHVN program in New Haven, Connecticut, and finding ways to innovate within their own communities.

Another example of artists leading the charge!

What are the next plans for The Art Show?

As a member of The Art Show Committee, Jon has been invaluable as we discuss our plans for 2021. We’ve been hard at work projecting forward into 2021 and, in concert with the fair’s charitable partners, Henry Street Settlement, creating different scenarios for what The Art Show might look like. The Park Avenue Armory has also been an incredible partner as we navigate these complex waters.

Portrait by Joshua Johnson of a little girl in pink eating strawberries
Joshua Johnson, American, active 1790-1825. Little Girl in Pink with Goblet Filled with Strawberries: A Portrait of Emma van Name, c. 1805. Oil on canvas. 29 x 23 inches. Placed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection by Jonathan Boos.

Looking at your own personal calendar, what museum shows are you interested in seeing as we head into the holiday season?

Many of the museum exhibitions that I’m looking forward to are recipients of ADAA Foundation grants. The ADAA Foundation is a distinct but connected entity to the ADAA; it’s overseen by a board of member gallerists and distributes grants to museums, archives, and arts organizations to support art historical research and exhibition development. I learn so much about what’s happening in museums across the country by reading about our grant recipients. Two shows that I’m particularly excited about are Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore at the Washington County Museum of Art in Maryland and Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990-2001 at the Museum of Chinese in America, which is located here in New York. One of the earliest American portraitists, Johnson was a freed slave and a self-taught professional artist who worked in and around Baltimore in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Early American art is a personal passion of mine, so I’m really looking forward to this show! Godzilla was an artist collective working in the 1990s in New York to address the historical absence of Asian-American artists in museum and commercial exhibitions.

Johnson’s "Portrait of Emma van Name" is one of the highlights in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current 150th anniversary show.

I didn’t know that! I’ll certainly have to look for it the next time I’m at The Met.

What artist do you love but feel as if they’re underappreciated or not as well known?

Learning about Joshua Johnson’s contribution to early American portraiture has been meaningful to me. I would also love to see more exhibitions that study the contributions of the female Abstract Expressionists, including Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Jay DeFeo. Abstract Expressionism was such a boy’s club and the women who were in it had real fortitude. It would be great to have more exhibitions focusing on their work, and what it was like to be a woman within the movement in New York City. While history has eclipsed some of these women, I think we’re finally at a moment where we’re realizing that there’s room for a myriad of different voices in the canon.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to see art right now?

First, be honest with yourself about your comfort level. Galleries and museums are working hard to create safe spaces for the public to see art, so if you’re comfortable, I would suggest going. Personally, the first time I went back to a gallery and I stood in front of art, I thought wow, I really missed this. It was just good medicine for the soul to share the same physical space with a work. But I respect that not all people are comfortable yet. You can also engage with galleries and museums in exciting new ways through their online programming.

Cover image: Maureen Bray. Image by Victor A. Mirontschuk.