Susanna Gold’s living room feels like a much cozier version of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Like MOMA, the space—and most of Gold’s Bryn Mawr home—is a showcase for paintings, mixed media, photography and other contemporary work. Pops of color beckon from the off-white walls, with pieces placed thoughtfully to invite viewing and contemplation.
A Mat Tomezsko panel hangs opposite a Faith Ringgold piece honoring Selma Burke, the prolific black sculptor who created the profile of Franklin D. Roosevelt eternalized on the United States dime. On Gold’s coffee table, there’s a small wooden sculpture by Leilah Babirye, a Ugandan artist who received asylum here in 2018 and has since presented her work in several New York galleries and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Work by Philadelphia photographer Ron Tarver will soon be part of Gold’s collection. She also has her eye on pieces by Jay Walker and Barbara Bullock.
If these names are unfamiliar to most people, that’s fine with Gold. One of the region’s top art curators, Gold’s job is to introduce such artists to museums and nonprofits, gallery goers and private collectors.
Not so long ago, galleries, art schools and museums were helmed mostly by men—gatekeepers who decided who was worthy of acceptance into the upper echelons of the art world. These days, Gold is among the region’s most influential tastemakers. That list also includes Andrea Strang of Malvern’s Gallery 222, Berwyn’s Amie Potsic and the Wayne-based LAA Art Collective’s Lauren Anrig Addis. Sought after for their impeccable expertise and connections, all four are reframing the local art scene.
And they are also opening doors for whole categories of artists who’ve been excluded for generations, including women and people of color. “For them, it was tough getting into art schools, tough staying in art schools and tough getting into galleries,” says Gold. “There were also expectations about what they should be creating. Change has been gradual, and it isn’t at the degree that it should be.”
Lauren Angrid Addis
An art historian and freelance curator, Gold has helmed exhibits at Woodmere Art Museum, Tyler School of Art, Drexel University and Wallingford’s Community Arts Center. Art from the 19th and 20th centuries is her specialty. It’s what she studied while earning her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Gold’s curatorial efforts, however, are focused on contemporary work. Her shows tend to focus on geometric abstraction, but she’s worked with photographers and sculptors, too. For Gold, the message is as important as the medium. “I engage with regional artists dealing with interesting ideas through their work,” she says. “Abstract or representational, the ideas are what interest me.”
Right now, carefully placed on the floor of Gold’s living room is a selection of abstract and representational pieces that will go into the permanent collection that Dennis Alter, the controversial former chairman and CEO of Advanta Bank Corp., donated to Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Gold was Alter’s trusted advisor, helping him decide what to donate to the permanent installment, which just opened.
Selecting artwork for a business school may sound less than exciting, but it meshes perfectly with Gold’s mission. “I’d like to see art in more accessible places,” she says. “We have world-class museums, but we need other places to engage with art. In my perfect world, art would be everywhere.”
Gold brought a lot of those ideas—and throngs of gallery goers—to the events she curated at Bala Cynwyd’s NoBA Artspaces in 2018 and 2019. Organizing group shows poses both creative and intellectual challenges. There has to be some sort of thesis—that’s what it means to be a curated show,” she says. “Maybe artists are responding to a certain circumstance or using certain materials. The show has to tell a visual story and make intellectual sense.”
An acclaimed photographer and installation artist, Amie Potsic looks for similarities in artists. Main Line Art Center’s former executive director, she launched Amie Potsic Art Advisory last year. “High craft level comes first, but I’m also drawn to artists trying to communicate conceptual ideas,” she says. “There has to be something that speaks to the human condition or fundamental elements of existence.”
Andrea Strang takes a more emotional approach. Opened in 2016, her Gallery 222 is one of the hottest art spaces in the region, exhibiting work from more than 50 artists in monthly exhibits. Pieces start at $300 and go as high as $5,000, with an average price point of $2,400. Strang sells about half of the work in each show, which is great in the gallery world.
Strang is a “graduate” of the Wayne Art Center, where she took classes while juggling a job as a commercial insurance underwriter and raising two kids. For her, art was more of a hobby than a potential career. At local galleries, she saw a dichotomy between the “fabulous, interesting and lovely” artists and the often intimidating, aloof atmosphere of the places their work hung. “It’s like you have to speak softly and be worried that someone may come up behind you and ask art questions,” Strang says.
Doing away with that barrier was one of her goals when opening Gallery 222. “I wanted to peel away the veil of fine art,” she says.
While Strang shows a little bit of everything—realism, impressionism, abstracts, landscapes, florals, oils, watercolors, pastels and mixed media—traditionally themed oil paintings are her best sellers. Wendy Prather Burwell’s 2018 show of fruit, flower and plant still lifes was one sale away from a sell out. “Horses, hills and florals fly off the walls,” says Strang. “People who live here love the scenery, and they love Chester County art.”
Burwell is among Strang’s guest artists. The curator also has exclusivity with Jan Wier, Randall Graham and Elise Phillips. Being represented by a gallery is coveted by artists, who get a regular audience for their work.
With Strang, they also reap the benefits of her marketing power and the growing clout of Gallery 222. Wier was one of the beneficiaries when Strang shined a spotlight on her lush florals and baked goods. Gallery 222 hosted her first solo show in 2016, and she’s now one of its top sellers.
Wier’s cupcakes are a good example of decorator art—pieces bought for the home. Though still fine art, the category isn’t part of museums or academia. Her cute cupcake cubes go for $300 each, but buyers typically get three at a time for their kitchens. Strang doesn’t mind the sneering from art snobs. “If it sells, I’m happy,” she says. “My clients are happy, and so are my artists.”
Addis is on the same page. “Fine art is different than decorator art,” she concedes. “But I want to connect buyers with art they respond to emotionally and want in their home for decades—perhaps even to pass down through family.”
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Since founding LAA Art Collective in 2016, Addis has worked with a wide variety of art fans. “People are buying thoughtfully,” she says. “The decorator art market is strong, with pieces selling at $5,000 and under. Younger clients are buying at accessible price points— like $2,000 and under, which is generally to match their décor, not to grow a collection.”
Working with buyers is only a portion of Addis’ work. She also curates rotating art programs at the Freeman’s Main Line auction house, Bryn Mawr Dermatology, the Motherchic, Wayne’s Main Line Pop Up, and Amis Trattoria at Devon Yard. She was a tastemaker long before she started LAA. In 2007, she took over as corporate campus manager of Urban Outfitters’ Philadelphia Navy Yard headquarters. A year later, she created the company’s on-site gallery program. Though it’s mostly for employees to enjoy, landing there is a sought-after privilege for many artists.
Addis works with contemporary artists, including mixed-media painter Barbara Straussberg, textile artist Emily Manalo Ruiz and portraitist Kristen L. Bell. “She has an incredible hand,” Addis says of Bell. “And there’s a void in the market now for formal portraiture.”
On a more personal level, Addis loves abstract seascapes and landscapes. “I respond to texture, layering, mixed media,” she says. “I have a great mix of that in my home.”
When it comes to shows, Addis is most focused on the space, the clientele and the fans of the artists she’s exhibiting. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the end customer and what’s going to be inspirational for them,” she says.“It also has to be the right culture fit. I don’t always work in traditional white-box galleries, so I think about what story I want to tell.”
Curators are telling those stories online, too. “Social media is the biggest influence on getting people into the gallery,” says Strang. “Many of them know that they’re buying when they walk in the door. They got interested in a piece they saw on social media.”
The rise of social media coincided with the 2008 economic downturn that transformed the art market. “The economy polarized blue-chip artists and galleries, which have done better since the recession,” Potsic says. “That’s because the exact opposite happened to mid-level and lower-level galleries, many of which closed. We had a great gallery scene in Philadelphia and satellite galleries in Malvern, Kennett Square and other suburbs. But many closed and haven’t reopened.”
That void benefited Addis and Strang, both of whom fill needs for artists and mid-level buyers. When Addis started her advisory business, she didn’t just target up-and-coming artists—she worked with established artists. “The galleries they’d been represented by for decades had closed,” Addis says. “For the first time in their lives, they were unrepresented. It was overwhelming for them to not know where to show.”
In the world of private collectors, acquisitions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. New York, Miami and Los Angeles have the strongest collector markets, with works selling for the highest prices. Locally, many collectors spend less, but they strongly support Philly-based work. “Generally speaking, the Philadelphia area tends to gravitate toward pieces that are local and relate to traditions of art, like the Brandywine style or the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts figurative style,” Potsic says.Gold advances that notion. “Most of my time is spent developing relationships with collectors outside of shows,” she says. “With collectors, acquisitions happen in person, on a one-on-one level.”So Addis took their work and put it online, in the offices of her corporate clients and anywhere else she could think of.
That theory is in line with Strang’s clients, and she does a brisk business with private collectors. In business just three years, she has already nurtured collectors at a range of price points. Beginners usually buy small at $500. “When you’re up to $5,000, you need to think about it,” she admits.
Even so, Strang has sold pieces for much more than that to collectors with specific tastes. “Falling in love with an artist’s work is only half the puzzle,” she says. “If the artist is hot, inventory may be low.”
If they want specific sizes or subjects, collectors may have to wait—or even commission their own piece. The process can take up to two years.
Gold works in a similar way. But given her 20-plus years in the industry, she has a roster of collectors who make hefty art investments. “I know a lot of up-and-coming artists who I value and I think have a lot of potential,” Gold says. “Once that artist is selling for $50,000, it’s harder to acquire their pieces.”
Gold knows her clients’ tastes and contacts them when she sees pieces that fit. “They want to curate their collections the way I curate shows, so they have coherency,” she says. “I have clients who don’t just have art in their living room. They pick pieces that matter to the greater art world because they will eventually go to a museum or other nonprofit.”
Of course, established artists also want to see their work in museums and art centers. Potsic specializes in “legacy planning,” another aspect of the art world abandoned by the closure of galleries. “I saw a huge need in artists with substantial careers to solidify their place in the cannon by providing their work to the public in a way that it could be enjoyed,” she says. “A lot of artists have interesting careers, but if their work isn’t published and in interesting collections, it can’t be studied by others. Taking your own legacy into your hands is very powerful. Most of your career, you feel at the whims of the art world. This is the exact opposite.”
While preserving work for the future is important, its future financial value is less so—which is why asking about the appreciation of a piece is a rookie move. “It’s a guessing game, especially with young artists, where there’s not a built-in secondary market to resell pieces,” Gold says.
Instead, Gold, Strang, Addis and Potsic all offer the same advice. “Buy art that you love,” says Gold. “Connecting to a piece emotionally is more valuable than anything else.”