Seated in her office, a book-lined alcove above the Madison Avenue gallery she codirects, Lucy Mitchell-Innes is running down a mental list of great woman art dealers—Peggy Guggenheim, Martha Jackson, Ileanna Sonnabend, and Paula Cooper, to name a few who have excelled at finding and developing new talent. Mitchell-Innes thinks that women may “make better dealers since we’re used to being the support system and playing the role of nurturer.” Those strengths, she says, serve one well in overseeing a gallery’s “artist family.”
Mitchell-Innes, who opened Mitchell-Innes & Nash in 1996 with her husband, David Nash, was recently appointed president of the Art Dealers Association of America, becoming the first woman to hold the position in the organization’s 48-year history.
For more than three decades, she says, “I’ve seen life from every different angle” of the art world. That breadth of experience, she believes, “will be useful in leading the ADAA into a new economy and global marketplace.” Having lived through the contemporary-art market boom and bust of the ’80s and early ’90s, she says that the art market today is different in at least one respect: It is “much more closely linked to the financial world.”
Speaking of the different roles dealers play, Mitchell-Innes says that primary dealers are “responsible for bringing discoveries and trends to the public eye, filtering and pinpointing things which are historically relevant. It’s an important role. They are the first to see the work and decide whether it speaks to issues of the moment.” For secondary-market dealers, the emphasis falls more on “knowledge, judgment, and taste” and on practical considerations such as condition, authenticity, and title.
Asked what she hopes to accomplish as ADAA president, Mitchell-Innes talks about expanding the organization’s outreach. She thinks that the ongoing series of ADAA forums is an important way of sharing the expertise of the group’s 173 members as well as attracting new audiences. Two new topics scheduled for panel discussions this year are conservation of contemporary art and relationships between artists and their dealers, which would explore “what works and what doesn’t.”
Mitchell-Innes would also like the ADAA to have a broader geographical scope, and she would like to see more diversity both in the membership and in the art the members deal in. “My standard is excellence, whether it is a great dealer in Old Master drawings or 19th-century French paintings,” she says.
Those who know and work with Mitchell-Innes comment on her interest in all kinds of art. Jay Gorney, the former co-owner of Gorney Bravin + Lee, joined Mitchell-Innes & Nash as director of contemporary art in early 2005, after closing his own gallery. He talks about her range of knowledge, “whether it’s modern masters, young contemporary artists, or 19th-century art.” (He adds that she is also an “astounding knitter.”)
Mitchell-Innes grew up outside London. Her father and grandfather were both Sunday painters, and she knew by the age of 16 that her life would revolve around art. At the Courtauld Institute in London, where she earned a B.A. and an M.A., she focused on 19th- and 20th-century American and European art.
After working for the Henry Moore Foundation as a research assistant, and then for Air and Space, an experimental program that provided studio and exhibition space to cutting-edge artists, she joined Sotheby’s in 1981 as head of the contemporary-art department in London. She recalls the trepidation she felt when, after just two years, Sotheby’s sent her to New York, where she arrived the day before a huge snowstorm to head up its evening contemporary sale that spring. She had very little help in those days. “I was director of contemporary art and responsible for putting the sales together soup to nuts,” she says.
There were no worldwide heads of contemporary art in 1983, Mitchell-Innes recalls. Martha Baer was “the reigning queen” of contemporary art at Christie’s in the United States. ”She was brilliant at it, too,” Mitchell-Innes says. “A tough competitor and much loved by collectors.”
Those years, Mitchell-Innes recalls, were “intense. The contemporary market was growing really fast.” Within a short time she was named Sotheby’s worldwide director of contemporary art, and later she took over several other departments as well, including Latin American art and contemporary and modern prints.
She left Sotheby’s in 1994 to become a private art dealer and adviser, and in 1996 she opened Mitchell-Innes & Nash on Madison Avenue with Nash, a 35-year Sotheby’s veteran who had served as international director of Impressionist and modern art and executive vice president. When Gorney Bravin + Lee closed, Mitchell-Innes & Nash took over its large space on West 26th street in Chelsea and opened a contemporary gallery there.
Along with such modern masters as Anthony Caro and Roy Lichtenstein, whose estate the gallery handles, it also represents contemporary artists, including Enoc Perez, Jessica Stockholder, Norbert Schwontkowski, and Justine Kurland.
Mitchell-Innes and Nash live in Manhattan and have two daughters, Isobel, 19, a first-year student at Vassar, and Josephine, 22, a senior at Brown. The two dealers are avid collectors whose tastes range from antiquities to Old Master drawings to contemporary art.
“Most recently we have bought contemporary artists,” says Mitchell-Innes, “Often the ones we represent, which is a serious and good test when a gallery is thinking of taking on an artist. What is it like to live with the work of X? Is it an enriching experience for me? This is an important question. When I live with a work of art, I look at it every day and it really affects me.”
Her advice to new collectors is to be willing to take risks. “Not everything will work out. Some will, some won’t.” But always remember, she adds, that “often a work gets more interesting over time.”