DEBORAH GOODMAN DAVIS: The Family Business
Interview by Andrea Blanch
ANDREA BLANCH: I know that your family owns pharma science and your mother started this collection, but how did you get engaged with it?
DEBORAH GOODMAN DAVIS: I’ve had three careers in my life. First, I was an art historian. Right out of school I was a museum curator working at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Yale University Art Gallery. I was working in European paintings; I did my master’s degree in post-impressionism. After that I went to work with an art advisor in New York, Jeffrey Deitch. I had a lot of experience running major museum exhibitions, and he was doing a contemporary show during the recession in the late 80’s and early 90’s. There wasn’t too much going on there in terms of art acquisitions. He curated it for one of his clients, and it traveled all over Europe. Running that show for him sort of transitioned me out of the museum world.
ANDREA: What did you learn?
DEBORAH: In the early 90s this was a new field to me. You didn’t need to own your own gallery space, just to be able to consult on a higher level. I learned how someone runs an art advisory business, how to deal with clients. I learned how to make presentations to clients when I wanted to recommend a work of art, how to manage collections, deal with shipping. It’s like being a concierge as well as a curator.
ANDREA: Now that art curation is a far more plentiful field than it was when you began, what do you think it takes to be successful in it?
DEBORAH: I feel like what I took away from my time working with Jeffery is that he was always 100% prepared. He has a thorough knowledge of art history, and he is very familiar with the market, so it’s a perfect combination. I think what sets you apart is that understanding of the bigger picture of art his- tory. A lot of people today have an eye and sense for what is going on in the contemporary art world, but they lack that foundational knowledge.
ANDREA: How was the transition of coming from the art sector for you?
DEBORAH: I wonder about that often because the decision to work with Jeffrey took me out of my career path, but it was an opportunity to work with a genius. It was challenging yet I was in my comfort zone, because I was working with graphic designers and getting loans, making a catalogue and run- ning an exhibition, activities I was familiar with. At the time I was working with Yale. The department was Contemporary and European Art, with one curator and one assisting curator. I had transitioned out of post-impressionism into contemporary art and Jeffery was on the cutting edge and I was able to deal with artists that I had never heard of.
Then I got pregnant. We needed more space, and my husband really wanted to move out of the city, so we moved to the suburbs. I didn’t want to commute and leave my baby at home. I had been doing this major commute from New Haven to New York for a little over a year, and I wasn’t going to keep it up with a baby, so I quit my job. My parents own a pharmaceutical company in Montreal, and my father had asked me to come work for him many times over the years. But now he had a small product that had been approved in the United States and he wanted me to do the marketing. I could work from home and be part-time, which would allow me to spend time with the baby. So I started working for Pharmascience.
I stayed with the company for 13 years. I built up a small team in the U.S. and we handled a few different products out of Montreal, and I did the sales and marketing. Then around my 10th year I was able to come up for air a bit, and I was really missing art. So I became interested in photography, which wasn’t really offered when I was in school. I started going into the city to take photography classes, to go to lectures, art fairs, galleries, and just tried to learn as much as I could. Then I started collecting inexpensive photographs for myself. My mother and I would talk about it, and she would share my excitement for everything I was learning. She asked me “Why aren’t you buying them for us? We have this big office with nothing on the walls, why don’t you buy for Pharmascience?” And I said alright.
I lived in the city so I saw a lot more than her, but she was my client, so I would send her ideas to approve or disapprove. Starting off we were buying one or two, maybe three pieces a year. Then in the past 10 years it really took off. I kept thinking, how do we make this an interesting collection? When you hang a work of art it should be engaging, something that both visually and intellectually improves the atmosphere. So I kept my eye out for science-related things. We have Sugimoto’s mathematical form, but there really wasn’t a lot out there so we just focused on buying things that were intriguing. One of the first things we bought was a Polidori, of a the ballet school in Havana.
The idea to hone in on pharmacy came about when I went to a neighborhood auction and purchased a reproduction of the history of pharmacy. It wasn’t fine art, but I showed my father and he was so excited about the pieces that we had them framed, and they’re still hanging in a hallway in our office in Montreal. Then I was at a Phillips preview down in Chelsea and I saw this gorgeous Berenice Abbott inside a drug store in New York that was taken when she was documenting New York City. I was able to obtain that piece at auction and it made me realize that maybe there were more pieces in that same vein out there. So that’s how this collection really started with a Berenice Abbott.
ANDREA: You mention that the original portfolio you bought about the history of pharmacy wasn’t something that you considered fine art. So what do you consider fine art?
DEBORAH: I don’t consider that portfolio fine art because those are all reproductions. It was a marketing tool for one of the drug companies, so it’s not original art. It wasn’t quality paper or printing, it’s offset lithograph and commercial. I consider fine art anything made by an artist, an original print, a painting, a photograph. I would say if an artist makes it and they say it’s art, then it’s art.
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