Interviews with Experts: Lucy Dew, Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Lucy Dew began her career as assistant to the head of the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s in the late 1970s, a job she snagged after majoring in French and German at the University of Bristol in England. After 20 years at Sotheby’s, Lucy came to New York in 1999 to work as the gallery manager at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, then a fledgling gallery with a handful of employees. Still there today, she oversees 15 staff members and two locations.
Director, Gallery Manager
Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
Lucy Dew: My job entails everything from looking after the staff to taking care of legal issues, accounting issues, and physical issues of the building. It doesn’t mean that I do all of this every day, but it means I am kind of overall in charge of the smooth running of the gallery. I work closely with David Nash on secondary sales, especially where we have European contacts, because of my European background. Because we have two spaces, we have to make sure that we have adequate coverage uptown and downtown, so part of my job is making sure the right people are in the right place. Every day is different—that’s the great thing about working in the art world and in a gallery like this.
Q: What is your favorite part of the job?
Lucy Dew: Probably seeing works coming into the gallery after having researched them, then getting them for sale and seeing them hang on our walls; seeing the work of art as a physical object.
Last year, we had a work by Jackson Pollock that belongs to collectors in America, and when it came in, I said to myself, “I’ve seen this before.” It was in the very first auction I worked on at Sotheby’s in 1979, and even though we’d done an appraisal for this collection and I’d seen images of it, it didn’t really strike me until I saw the physical painting itself. It was a little bit like a time warp. It’s like seeing an old friend again, so that was a nice sort of feeling.
Q: What are some tricks of the trade that make your job easier?
Lucy Dew: The biggest trick is ArtBase. I call it the brain of the gallery. We’ve been using it ever since the gallery opened in 1996—it was instantly helpful. Art dealing was a simpler process in those days, whereas now it has become quite complex in many ways, so we depend on the technology even more.
Q: What was the art world like when you started, and how has it changed?
Lucy Dew: I started in 1979. I was at university studying French and German and I just had this idea that I wanted to work in an auction house. I went to the careers advice office and they asked if I had any connections at Sotheby’s. I said no, and they said, ‘You should go and do a secretarial course.’
Today that might sound offensive, but for many women in England at that time, the way into a job in the arts was by being someone’s assistant. At the time I was 21. I didn’t have somebody at Sotheby’s that I knew personally. My parents didn’t have a big art collection, which probably would have given me immediate access, and because I hadn’t studied art history there was nothing else that could get me into the company.
David Nash started at Sotheby’s when he was 19 as a porter—somebody who moves the art—and that would be impossible today. You couldn’t start off like that and become the head of a department. Now you really do need to have an art history degree—preferably a PhD in some aspect of art history. It’s a very different business.
But I do think the art world has always been, and still is, open to women working in the profession. And in a gallery like ours, it is possible to start at the front desk and, depending on where your strengths lie, you can move up. There are possibilities.
“My job means working with a wide variety of people who are passionate about what they do, and one learns all the time. The longer you’re in the art business, there’s always more to learn. It never stops.”
Q: If you could talk to yourself when you started your career (or a few years back, even), what would you say to make your path easier?
Lucy Dew: I might say to specialize in something, to become an expert so that you are the go-to person for that particular area, whether it’s painting or sculpture or an artist. I personally am a jack-of-all-trades, and I wouldn’t do it differently at all, but I think starting out, one should maybe focus a little more than I had done.
Q: What was the first major "door opening" moment for you?
Lucy Dew: It was when I had my first interview at Sotheby’s, which took place in the impressionist department library. It was a long narrow room with bookshelves, floor to ceiling. I looked around the room and saw all of these books, and I thought, ‘I could work here.’ It was a little intimidating, but it was also very inspiring.
Q: Do you have an all-time favorite artist or piece of art?
Lucy Dew: It of course changes over time. There are a few artists who I’ve sort of stuck with in my admiration for them—one is David Hockney, and also Francis Bacon, possibly because they’re both English and are artists I saw at a younger age and admired throughout their careers.
A recent exhibition we did here at the gallery was a collection of multiples by Joseph Beuys. When I was new at Sotheby’s I saw him at the Royal Academy, purely by chance, and he was such an icon. He looked exactly the way he did in photographs, and I felt very excited about that.
I lived in Germany for six years, so I also find Max Beckmann extremely fascinating.
Published January 23, 2018