True Confessions of a Justified Art Dealer, Part Eight: My $500,000 Mistake

A property owned by the author and his wife in Callicoon, New York.


Previous entries in Mesler’s column are here.

In February 2017 my family and I relocated from New York to Sag Harbor where we are happy and building a new life. I have stopped drinking and know I can never go back. Rental, my new gallery in East Hampton, seems to be doing well. The money I have been making goes toward my children’s education. I paint upstairs from the gallery in the off season. I have a good neighbor named Harper Levine, proprietor of Harper’s Books, who not only has become a friend but who, this weekend, will be exhibiting my paintings in the Upstairs Hamptons Art Fair that he and Bill Powers have organized. I look forward to people’s reactions and to maybe making a few extra shekels along the way.

And yet, I still carry some baggage from my previous life.

Around five years ago, at the height of the market for young, emerging artists being sold by youngish art dealers, I was drunk, anxious, and selling art. I loved it. I thought, Is this how my forties are going to look? If so, please don’t ever let it end. I convinced my girlfriend at the time to go in on a $70,000 painting with me, as an investment. She had a good job as a curator for a private collection and I was selling art—lots of it. What’s $70,000 between emerging lovers?

A painting by Joel Mesler.


Fast forward a year and change. We got married and had a child and twins on the way. I had returned to my roots as an artist and had been making paintings in a studio in Brooklyn that I subleased from my preparator. Stefan Simchowitz liked them, and hooked me up with a show in Los Angeles, and I sold some, maybe 12 grand’s worth.

Because I was drinking heavily at the time, my grasp on reality wasn’t so clear, and I convinced myself that I needed more space for my revived art career. As it happened, during this time my wife and I had purchased a beautiful property in Callicoon, in upstate New York. A lot of our friends who are working artists have studios and second homes in and around the area. Gavin Brown and Rirkrit Tiravanija opened up a gallery and restaurant a town over. Mark Ruffalo has a house nearby. Our own house had been inexpensive—$200,000 for a modest four-bedroom, two-bath on five acres on a ridge overlooking the Delaware River. Sounds good, right? Well, not when you suffer from extreme anxiety the way that I did and used the booze to mask it. I built my son—who was barely able to walk—a two-story treehouse. And then I convinced my wife that I/we needed to build me a 2,000-square-foot studio adjacent to the house for my newly emerging painting career.

Only the best for me. Radiant heat runs through the flooring. Top of the line Japanese HVAC systems. Cedar siding because pine didn’t smell as nice. (Plus I’d already resided the house in cedar, and it had to match.) The garage door alone cost me $18,000, because the allotted $2,500 didn’t buy a model in the color I needed. (It needed to match the stain on the cedar siding.) Custom-built picture windows overlooking the Delaware River. I can go on and on but this new building (I now like to call the place in its entirety a “garage,” due to my shame) is top of the line everything. My builder laughed when I told him I wanted a walk-in shower and that I wanted to tile the entire 300-square-foot bathroom. “Joel, thought you were building a studio?” Fuck you, Justin, just take my money.

Inside the house.


Now, mind you, I did have some money, not a lot but when you are an art dealer you always need money around. But I ran through that money, so now what? I couldn’t stop and take a moment to consider my impeding life change—having three children and no real plan ahead. So I remembered that $70,000 painting that we purchased before we got married. I thought, We can sell it and it will be the exact amount we need to complete the “garage.” We did it, made $350,000, and sunk it right into the building.

Once my garage was complete, I barely went there, until one winter afternoon when I decided enough was enough: It was time to get serious about my burgeoning art career. After work at my Lower East Side gallery, I drove two hours north to the house/garage, equipped with just the necessities, my painting supplies, a bottle of Tito’s vodka, and a package of sliced organic turkey breast. I began working, and drinking, and after several hours I realized I was hungry. Even though I built a custom bathroom in my studio I forgot to install a refrigerator, so the sliced organic turkey was a short walk from my studio, in the kitchen of the house. It took me nearly an hour to get to the front door; I’d consumed far more vodka than I’d thought. I was alone in the woods, nervous about my trip back to the studio. I woke up on the kitchen floor, feeling lonely and missing my family.

I got clean some months before the move to Sag Harbor, have been clean for just over a year now, and am working on developing better coping mechanisms for stress and pressures. I might as well add that I am selling the place in Callicoon, which no longer fits into our life (also, my therapist agrees). It is a magical place where an artist/writer/dancer could settle in and have an entire compound. It is a good deal and I am a motivated seller. I am all in at $650,000 and willing to take seventy five cents on the dollar, and willing to talk finder’s fees and commissions. I am, after all, a dealer.

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