How I Collect

Entrepreneur Dana Beth Ardi on What Contemporary Art Can Teach CEOs

By

Entrepreneur Dana Beth Ardi on What Contemporary Art Can Teach CEOs
The collector Dana Beth Ardi

For Dana Beth Ardi, collecting art isn't just an aesthetic pursuit—it's a form of meditation, a vehicle for building an investment portfolio, and, most intriguingly, a process that can make CEOs into savvier and more effective corporate leaders.

A PhD in education, Ardi was a partner and managing director at JPMorgan Partners/CCMP Capital for almost a decade before leaving in 2009 to found Corporate Anthropology Inc., a "human capital" and advisory firm that provides counsel for start-ups and corporate clients. As an investor, she has also played a key role at Fred Wilson's famed Flatiron Partners, the early-stage venture capital fund that has made enormously successful investments in Web phenomenons like Twitter and Tumblr. Throughout, Ardi has drawn upon her own passion for collecting artists—including such stars as Amy Sillman, Anne Collier, Sara VanDerBeek, and Seth Price—for insights into being smarter about business. And vice-versa: she has employed business strategies to be smarter about art. 

Last year, Ardi made waves in the management sector with the publication ofThe Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence—and Lead, a book that makes a compelling case that the traditional top-down, rigidly hierarchical corporate management style has been outmoded by a new approach based on inclusion, empowerment, and collaboration. Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to her about her approach to collecting, how art can help CEOs run their businesses better, and why in collecting, as Hamlet said, "the readiness is all."

How did you first become interested in art? 

I grew up in New York, and my dad owned an Army Navy retail store on the corner of Chambers and West Broadway that sold work shirts and boots and clothes that we consider hip now but at the time were really only embraced by the artist community. Many artists lived in the neighborhood, and my dad was funny and charming, so all the artists loved him—in fact my dad's sign painter was James Rosenquist, and they were dear friends over the years. So, I would work there on Saturdays, and James and other artists of note would come by, occasionally trading a print or a painting for something, and I would be curious, asking things like “What do you do? How do you paint?” So that’s where I first started to become aware of contemporary art and how unique and interesting artists are. 

Then in 1966, the Arno River in Florence overflowed, which at the time was a Katrina-like event, and I saw a sign on a board at my university that they needed students to go help, one to help clean up the city's art treasures and two more to aid with the humanitarian effort. Everyone knew about the disaster—the river had flooded to the point where cars were floating on top of the water—and the people who were volunteering to help were the called the "mud angels." It was a very romantic concept to me, to think about getting an education by really doing and experiencing the kinds of things that I wanted to learn about, so I came home to my father and said, “I must go to Italy to join the humanitarian effort, and to study art and opera.” And, although we were of a very humble background, my father said, “Well, if you must, you must.”  

What was that like?

So I went and I lived with an Italian family in Siena, and we would commute into Florence to help clean up, where we got hands-on experience wiping the motor oil off of some of the greatest statues of the Renaissance and Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" and things like that. And all the while we were studying art history, the importance of art and opera in Italian culture, and how the art treasures related to the Florentine community, all of which put me on a path for incorporating the arts into my life. So I think those events from my childhood are how I got started, but I didn’t actually physically buy anything until I moved to New York 12 years ago, because until then I didn’t have enough money. 

How did you start collecting?

When I came to New York I really wanted to get into the art scene, and I knew that I was starting to make enough money money that I could begin to acquire. So I started taking courses at MoMA—they have an excellent program of courses—and I joined some museum groups and started to sort of self-educate. I started reading art theory and to subscribe to all the art magazines. I would join Independent Curators International on studio visits. All in all, it took me about two or three years to really get to the point where I was interested, learning, forming my own opinions, and starting to understand the market and how to spot talent.

Spotting talent is something that was really interesting for me, because in my work I’m a talent-spotter. And when I try to match the best talent with a company, I look at a whole bunch of factors: I look at somebody's competence, what they believe in culturally, what their values are, and who they are as people. I look at their personal goals and motivations. I look at their careers as a body of work and how their career is evolving. And so naturally, without even being conscious of it, I started to apply some of the same algorithms—the same sensibilities—that I use to assess talent in my leadership career to the way I started to assess talent or opportunities in the art world. Not only did I look at beautiful works and how they resonated with me, but I also looked at artists' careers because I found that interesting. 

What was it that inspired you to start actually buying artworks yourself? What was the catalyst? 

So, when I think about collecting art….I had the opportunity to meet one of the disciples of the Dalai Lama at a small dinner, and I wanted to learn about meditation and the technique of slowing down and getting into a place where you transcend your consciousness to a place of calm and happiness? How do you find happiness? So he asked me if I had ever meditated, and I told him, “I don't meditate, but exactly what you described about how to get to this place of calm and letting emotion just flow through you—getting to this place of additional consciousness and mindfulness—I achieve by looking at art."

That's why art has become my meditation and my way of nurturing my soul and appealing to my senses in a way that happens on both an intellectual level but also a visceral level. It’s meditative, it’s transformative, it’s exciting to me at a gut level and provokes things in me that I start to think about and then use to challenge myself. How this works for me probably has to do with the fact that the pursuit of art is very different from my day-to-day transactions, where I'm talking and moving and doing things. With art, I am a passive observer, and I am able to find quiet and the stillness needed to really take something in—I use all my senses and energy, and it is very healing for me. 

What do you look for in the art that you collect? 

What I like and what I collect are very different. I find so many artists to be interesting, but what I collect has evolved into a lot of abstraction. I love abstraction and conceptual art, and I collect a lot of young emerging artists as well as some of the people who have influenced the artists I collect—whenever I get a chance to meet the artists I collect, I ask them about their influences, then I try to put their work in conversation with each other. I tend to collect many female artists because, in many instances, there’s a core of emotion in their work that appeals to me. And after a piece resonates with me, I like to understand what the artists is thinking about—the story around the art means something to me. Before I collect something I really like to understand where the artists has been, where they are going, what they are thinking about. There are no boxes that I check, there's just some total articulation when all these things come together that hits home with me.  

In your new book, The Fall of the Alphas, you propose that the traditional hierarchical corporate management style should be replaced by a new paradigm, with "beta" leaders building frameworks of collaboration into their businesses rather than "alpha" chains of command. How has your engagement with contemporary art informed your views about that?

There are a couple of different ways. In my book I talk about the new beta paradigm of leadership, as opposed to the top-down alpha paradigm of a World War II general. I talk about the beta paradigm of a leader as being somebody who collaborates, curates, and influences—and when I talk about curation, that comes from my experience in the art world. Here's what curation means to me: there are many, many beautiful works of art in the world, but when you put them together in an exhibition, the whole becomes bigger than the parts. This is something I can see even in my personal collection, when I move things around and put things together next to each other—they start to read differently and tell different stories, and even though each piece remains the same they make sense in different ways. Putting a historical piece by Picabia into conjunction with work by Dana Schutz and Amy Sillman, for instance, makes you start to see their work in a different context. 

How do you apply this to advising the CEOs that you work with?

So, when I coach CEOs about contemporary leadership, I tell them that their job is to be curators—that they have to look among the management in their company and curate a team for each project that, though each person comes with their individual approach, together creates something much more magical. Many times I also take CEOs to MoMA and to art galleries, and as we walk through I teach them different lessons from looking at the art. Many of them aren't familiar with art, but the experience opens up their consciousness.

I ask, "What do you think they were trying to achieve by putting this painting next to that painting? How would it look if it were next to something different?" Or, standing in front of a single abstract painting, I'll ask, “What do you see?” And if they say, “I see chaos," I'll ask, “Well, why do you think it’s chaos? Do you think it was randomly put on the canvas? Or do you think the artist had a plan for what they were going to create? If so, do you think that plan evolved as they put different things down?” And we start to talk about that, how what you see on first impression can change the deeper you look.

So you employ techniques derived from psychoanalysis?

Absolutely. Another thing I'll do is tell them to look at a painting and say, “What do you see?” Then, after they answer, I say, “You know, I've shown this painting to four other CEOs like you. And here is what they said about it.” And all of a sudden they get a big “ah-ha” moment: not everybody sees the same thing when they look at a painting, with one element resonating with some people, something else with others.

Over my desk in my office—and I talk about this in my book—I have a photograph of a guy in a gray flannel suit and a fedora holding two suitcases while walking across a street in a cold winter scene. I'll say to the CEO, “What do you see in that picture?” And they might say, “I see a man running away.” Then another CEO might come in and say, “I see loneliness. I see somebody out there alone, going nowhere.” Then still another CEO might say, “I see him going somewhere—he's moving on.”

So it becomes sort of a contemporary-art Rorschach test, and I use this as a tool to teach them as CEOs, to show them that there's not just one interpretation of a situation, and that it's important to measure what they think against the other voices in their organization. That's how beta leaders need to open themselves up and become good listeners—to form opinions, to be sure, but also to aggregate them from others. They start to understand curation, and they start to understand lessons from the art world that can improve them in their job as leaders, to bring people together to make the best decisions and innovate. So, art informs a lot of things that I do as I consult with all sorts of business, big and small. 

Conversely, what insights from your management consulting have you applied to your contemporary art collecting?

I think the things you learn about business and markets and careers can be applied to looking at artists—just like companies, artists have to evolve the way they do something and challenge themselves and broaden into new fields. I also find the art market really interesting, because I like the idea that collecting can be market-driven and beyond being for pure pleasure. I like to understand the dynamics of the art market and its global nature, the same things that I think about in business. I don’t make decisions because of the market, but I find it fascinating. And it also keeps my tool kit very sharp by applying my business skills to another market. 

You keep a portfolio of your collection and every day you talk to your art advisor to go over your different positions and receive updates on the market. That particularly seems to stem from a business outlook. 

That hits upon a couple of things, and one is that I really believe collectors need a circle of advisors and other collectors around them, for the same reason that a CEO needs a team around them to challenge their thinking and show them different ways of seeing. The dialogue around the art is really important. So I do have an advisor, and my advisor and I work as a team, with a very collaborative style. When it comes to the market, I see the responsibility of the collector to be the steward of the work throughout their life and then to allow the work to live on beyond them and become part of the larger story of art.

I see that as a big responsibility, and as a collector I take on that responsibility, so my advisor and I keep accurate records of the provenance of the pieces we have. And we loan them all over the world. Right now, for example, I have a piece in Berlin, I have a piece in Philadelphia, and I have several other pieces from my collection that will be going out over the next few months. We also allocate for taking care of them and insuring them, and we have a quarterly portfolio review to be sure that we are correctly assessing current values—again, not necessarily to sell or trade, but just to understand how to be the steward of a particular piece. 

Fortunately, I am not at the point in my life where I have to decide what happens to the collection in the future. I have some family members who have let me know that they love one or another piece in my collection, but it was really important to me in these cases to have them understand the responsibility of being a collector—how you store art, how you care for it, and how you understand values. Also, when I buy a piece, it's not just about taking it off the market and putting it in my house, it’s not about my possession. I feel a responsibility to open my house to museum groups and to share my collection, and to make sure the artist knows that if they ever need it again it's available. I also share my collection with many of my family members, so different relatives have things hanging on their walls. I just think it’s a responsibility to show the art, rather than just collect it.  

Part of that feeling of responsibility must relate to your practice of collecting young artists in depth. For instance, you have the single largest collection of work by the artist Sara VanDerBeek. 

I believe that when I encounter an artist whose work really resonates with me and sings to my heart—that is the only way I can describe it—then I like to collect in depth. I like to get to know the artist. I like to show multiple pieces in my collection by that artist. So a couple of examples of artists like that are Sara VanDerBeek and Seth Price. I have multiple works by many artists, but when we talk about really going deep with an artist whose work has spoken to me at a particular time in my life, I go about that kind of collecting psychoanalytically. I am a doctor. I could pretty much go around my apartment and tell you not only about the works of art but, just like people bookmark their lives by the music they were listening to, I can pretty much mark where I was in my psychological and emotional life by the acquisitions I made at different points time. I experience sense memories just by looking at the art around my house and remembering these moments.

What artists are you looking at today? 

A couple of artists are really grabbing my attention these days. One of them is Walead Beshty. I've just acquired a new piece, and I've been looking at some of his copper sculptural pieces, which are very appealing to me. I'm also very attracted to and supportive of a new gallery, David Lewis Gallery. He has several artists I'm interested in, Israel Lund being one and Charles Mayton being another. I'm also very interesting in Fredrik Værslev—I just find his work really interesting and worth paying a lot of attention to. I don’t have one yet, but I'm lusting after that right now. Then Michele Abeles, I have several of her photographs and I want more. I think she's a fantastic artist, and I am really interested in her work.

I also just acquired my first piece by Heimo Zobernig, a mid-career artist who is not well known in America but who I adore. Now I'm looking at several other pieces of his, and I'll acquire more because I like him. Another one is Aaron Curry—I have a large Aaron Curry in my house and I just think he is fantastic. I had a gleeful day last year going to his exhibition at Lincoln Center and watching people interact with his sculptures and seeing children have smiles on their faces and watching them experience what I experience everyday when I have my coffee in the morning. It was just fun for me to watch, like I was sharing a secret with all of these people in the plaza at Lincoln Center.  

You have worked with a wide range of start-up businesses, both as an investor and as a consultant. How is an emerging artist like a start-up? 

One of the things I love about working with young companies and working with young artists is that they are on their own course of exploration, trying to figure things out for themselves. They have ideas, they have sensibilities, they have creativity, and they are just trying for the first time to put that out in the world. It's just so much fun to watch them, you know? In technology, you put out what we call "the beta," then you get some feedback, and then you refine your technique and your business model. With young artists, it's so exciting to see them leading up to their first show and then getting their first gallerist, who becomes something like their first venture capitalist, helping them refine their thinking and expose them to collectors, who will then furnish the next round of capital, if you will.

So there's definitely a parallel process between start-ups and artists, but for me the joy is to watch artists go on their path of discovery and start to develop their technique and evolve it to the next level. You saw that with artists like Kelley Walker, whose work I collect, or someone like Dana Schutz, who keeps evolving her palette and figures and sensibilities. I mean, it's fantastic to watch. Then William Daniels is another British painter who is coming into the market, and I love the sophistication of his photo-paintings and it's fantastic to watch how they're getting deeper and more complex.  

As a collector of emerging artists, what is your strategy for staying on the vanguard of art when there are so many galleries and so many art districts around the world and so many artists? 

It's the same thing as in business—art is a global market, so you have to be in the market everyday, you have to be paying attention, and you have to be talking to people in that environment. Things move very quickly in today’s society, and that just reaffirms the value of working with an advisor and cultivating a circle of friends who collect so you can get together regularly and talk art, share ideas, and say what you're looking at. The joy of art is in the discovery as well, you know? It's fun to be able to go to your friends and say, “Oh my God, this is fantastic. Do you know this person? Where did they come from?” I think like everything else in life you have to pay attention and you have to work at it, but the most important quality to have—and this is one of the things I assess in business leaders—is the ability to cultivate your own curiosity and be open to learning new things.

That kind of intellectual curiosity is why I like to go to international fairs to see what galleries and collectors around the world are looking at. But I don’t go to art fairs to buy—whenever I do I make quick decisions and often find that they are the wrong decisions. Not the wrong artists, necessarily, but maybe the wrong piece, because it comes as a big "ah-ha" moment and there's a little bit of frenzy and you have to decide right there without having any context for it. So, instead, I go with a notebook to discover new artists and to see what different gallery programs look like. 

What was the first piece of art that you bought?

The very first piece of art I bought was an Andy Warhol Marilyn print, and I bought it with all my savings in the early days when Andy was sort of just there in the disco scene during the Factory days. I actually bought it from Andy, and it was the only piece I could afford for a long time. I had to use all my graduation gifts, every penny I had, and I really felt that it was the only piece of art I would ever own. Now, when you enter my apartment, it's still the first piece you see. 

If you could own any artwork what would it be? 

That's a tough one, and it keeps changing. Right now I'm looking at sculpture and learning about it while trying to figure out how to incorporate sculpture into my collection. So I guess if I won the lottery today, I would go out and try to buy an Arp. Is that aspirational enough?  

In closing, you used to write an advice column for the Industry Standard called, ‘Ask Dr. Dana.’ If you were to write an advice column for collectors, what would the first one be about?

It would be about following your passion and opportunities and cultivating preparedness. After learning about art, artists, galleries, and the market, you then have to understand when to buy and be prepared. There are lots of people who really want to engage in art but feel intimidated by the marketplace, and for them Artspace is really a great resource to demystify contemporary art and teach them to trust their passions. But, when it comes to galleries, people sometimes call me they say, “I am in a gallery on the Lower East Side and I am looking at a painting for $6,000 and my wife and I really like it. Should I buy it?” And I say to them, “Of course you should buy it—you said the magic thing, that you like it.

There’s a lot of collecting that happens at all levels, you know, and the worst thing that happens is that you get an artwork that you like and help support an artist in the process. But later, once you start to spend significant dollars, you need think of it as more than just something that resonates with you and begin to look at it as investment, because you're starting to spend what I call "income dollars" or "portfolio dollars." Then you'd better know what you are buying. 

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