wheeler dealer

Catriona Jeffries

is the undisputed queen 

of Vancouver’s contemporary-art scene, 

representing the biggest local names at galleries 

and art fairs around the world. But her biggest 

challenge just might be managing the cash flow

To find the home of Vancouver’s most internationally recognized art dealer, turn right off Main Street near Great Northern Way – just before the Midas Muffler and Kal Tire – 
continue down the street past Kirmac Collision, stop before you get to the Vancouver Detox Centre and there you are.

The Catriona Jeffries Gallery. A former auto-parts warehouse, it’s a nondescript grey box of a building. Visitors come in through the door off the alley. And then they have to stop to rethink what it means to come to a gallery and look at art. This is not about simple paintings on a wall or a sculpture with a recognizable form or idea. 

When I visit the site, I find myself, once inside the six-metre-high main space, facing a large army-style half-dome tent of white plastic. After feeling my way through its unlit entry tunnel, I end up in a small room with a video playing on a television screen at the far end. It takes a few moments to understand. The screen shows a giant rectangular television floating on water in the middle of the night. It’s on a skiff. The skiff is floating down a river, and the TV screen on it is showing a movie. What is it? It takes some squinting and patience, but then it becomes clear. It’s Lord of the Rings. The floating screen is being filmed by someone in another boat nearby, following as the skiff slowly drifts past pilings and shore lights, dreamily spinning in the water as bearded men and fantastical creatures play out their epic story against the dramatic New Zealand landscape of jagged mountains on the screen. It’s hypnotic, meditative. Coming back outside is like waking up; everything is harsh and bright and too solid.

But now here is Jeffries herself, looking properly art dealerish – dark, curly hair cascading down; chunky-heeled grey suede ankle boots, jeans and sleek leather jacket with zippers at the top and bottom – beaming with pleasure at this work by her artist, Kevin Schmidt, and all its rich associations. The way he plays with filmed spectacle, the nature of blockbuster pictures, layered landscapes of there and here, real and fictionalized, and the poetry of slow movement on dark water.

“There is the idea of landscape and the idea of this landscape that gets punctured, a tradition of landscape within this country,” she says, explaining slowly in her deep, carefully modulated voice, pausing, waiting for the next part of her sentence to reveal itself to her. “Kevin provided a next place of confusion and puncture within a historical build-up of what landscape might represent.” 

Likely, you don’t understand a word of that dense art speak, where historical context and theory meet. But that’s all right. Most people in the world don’t. The important thing is that the people Jeffries talks to – not just the museum curators but also the kind of people who make up the list of the world’s top collectors: mining zillionaires, sugar barons, investment bankers, real-estate kings and queens, and family-dynasty inheritors – understand it. More than that, they’re seduced by it. She translates art for them, helps them see the rich web of allusion and history embedded in each piece, understand why this artist is so much more interesting than another. Like having the most gifted literature professor you ever had beside you at the bookstore, explaining why you should read this particular book, whispering in your ear to pay attention to this scene, these words.

That skill is what has allowed Jeffries to take a select group of Vancouver artists (including Brian Jungen, Geoffrey Farmer, Germaine Koh and Myfanwy Macleod) and turn them into must-haves for the most avant-garde of private buyers: local collectors such as Henning and Brigitte Freybe of the deli-meats empire and über-realtor Bob Rennie; Toronto art patrons such as Ann and Marshall Webb, Jay Smith and Laura Rapp; corporate buyers such as Royal Bank of Canada; and, more importantly, major galleries in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Besides placing the newer artists, she has also become the trusted dealer for those who were established before she came along, including Ian Wallace, Ken Lum and Christos Dikeakos. 

“She has changed the game in Vancouver,” says John O’Brian, a UBC art-history professor who knows the local art world intimately. He has watched Jeffries’s progress over the years, since she was a student of his in the late 1980s, a student who made the unusual move of starting a small gallery downtown while still at school. “Vancouver was not a big centre for selling art,” he says, “but Catriona is expert at placing work. She’s respected internationally and people want to buy from her.”

Many people

love art. Some even have excellent artistic judgment. But not everyone can parlay that into the business of negotiating money for art, as art dealers – or, as they’re now called, “gallerists” – do. That takes a flair for negotiation and the ability to handle the frequently difficult cash-flow demands in a world where it can take two years to produce a piece of art and another couple of years to negotiate a sale to a major collector. And there is no vocational training for the job. Jeffries fell into it, from perhaps a greater distance than other gallerists.

The daughter of a prominent internist in West Vancouver, Jeffries and her three sisters grew up in a milieu where they were expected to contribute to lively debate at the dinner table and to see themselves as independent young women. As any well-educated liberal parents would, the ­Jeffrieses took their daughters to museums and concerts, though without any special cultural insights. A career in the arts didn’t even occur to Jeffries in those days. Instead, the eldest daughter thought about following her father, whom she clearly idolizes, into medicine. But after an uninspiring year of sciences at the University of Victoria, she left for Europe, where she stayed for three years. For a couple of winters, she ran a ski school in the southern French Alps for a British company. With her earnings from that, she travelled the rest of the time – and discovered art in Europe.

“I was struck, living between London, Paris and southern France, by the question of how a culture, a society, benefits from what appeared to me an incredible history of culture, particularly in the visual arts,” says Jeffries. “There is a history that segues itself in how people live.” When she came home to Vancouver, the place frequently seen as a city without history, she was still thinking about that question as she started taking art-history classes, first at Capilano College and then at UBC.

She opened her first small gallery on Burrard Street in 1988 when she was 26 and still a student. “It was a device for me, along with studying, to understand what is this cultural act in Vancouver and what does it mean to work with artists,” she explains. “I wanted to enact something. To this day, I thought I would finish a master’s, but the gallery, the success of the gallery, always pulled me back.” She moved the gallery to Yaletown while she was working on a biographical essay about Ken Lum as part of her academic work, examining how his life story had collapsed into his art. Then, in 1994, she moved to gallery row on South Granville, where her shows took a much more experimental and international turn.

That’s partly because she had found herself, discovering that what fascinated her most were the newer artists in Vancouver who were consciously creating works that played off against B.C.’s Emily Carr-Jack Shadbolt art era: “My personal interest then was in a counter-tradition that emerged out of the lyrical landscape painting history of Vancouver, which was incredibly important and interesting in a contemporary world.” To recap 100 hours of first-year Vancouver art history in two sentences: That contemporary counter-tradition started with Ian Wallace, the father of photo-conceptual art in Vancouver, whose UBC classes in the late 1960s begat Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum and Rodney Graham, which begat another generation of conceptual artists such as Farmer and Schmidt – and, everyone is hoping, with another yet to come. All of it is united by an approach to art that is about combining techniques usually separated, revealing the process of creation, playing with ideas of reality and much more that is as far from pretty landscapes as you can get.

Jeffries was fortunate to enter the field at a time when the market for contemporary art boomed. Sales of art in general entered a new place in the galaxy after the Second World War as private collectors drove the prices of Picassos, Matisses and Van Goghs to oxygen-deprived levels. By the late ’90s, the newest and edgiest works of contemporary art had become must-haves for collectors wanting to show they were discriminating enough to have more than just another million-dollar painting on their wall. That turned private-gallery owners into much more important players in the art scene as they catered to a new market of buyers able to pay more and move faster than public museums.

As documented in the 2009 British film The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, prices in the contemporary-art market increased 800 per cent between 2000 and 2008, with all kinds of people latching on to art the same way they did dot-coms: as something they didn’t really understand but thought they should get in on the ground floor of. In some cases, buyers wouldn’t even bother uncrating what they had bought. They’d just leave it to sit and appreciate in value.

More kindly, New York’s Acquavella Galleries owner Michael Findlay observed, in ARTNews this June (when the latest list of top 200 collectors was published), that contemporary-art collectors, who receded temporarily as the recession hit in October 2008 but have come back strongly recently, buy for a mix of reasons: “There’s a love of art, a desire for social prestige and a hankering for investments. They may go in with a mercenary gleam in their eye but wind up loving art. Connoisseurship sometimes follows.” Jeffries points out that not all of her buyers are wealthy people. Some, younger but compelled to possess, buy work from her artists on the installment plan. And about half of what she sells still goes to public museums.

Jeffries tapped into all of those streams of buyers. And she doesn’t confine herself to Vancouver, connecting directly with gallery owners and museum directors in Europe and the U.S. Her international network was strengthened when she married Nigel Harrison in 1992. Harrison had been managing the finances at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, that city’s go-to gallery for contemporary art, but moved to Vancouver in 1991 for a life change. Jeffries 
wasn’t interested so much in dating, but he won her over when it turned out he’d read every one of the novels of an author she was just starting to read, Jerzy Kosinksi. Harrison took over the increasingly complex money management for Jeffries’s gallery at the same time they paired up. In 2005 the two moved the gallery from South Granville to the auto-parts warehouse, giving Jeffries more room to exhibit.

The money part of the job is the least understood and most challenging of the gallerist’s life. As UBC’s John O’Brian notes, other gallery owners in Vancouver, gallerists without Jeffries’s international ambitions, have sometimes struggled financially. The flamboyant Diane Farris, a one-time Shaughnessy housewife who became a self-taught art dealer, had to reorganize in the late ’90s after running into financial problems that led to artists leaving when she didn’t pay them in a timely way. After her relaunch, she made a point of taking on artists who were “salable,” and she has largely confined herself to selling to wealthy local collectors. As Bob Rennie says, Farris operates regionally, while Jeffries has moved onto a global scale. 

O’Brian identifies only two other Vancouver dealers who operate close to the ways that Jeffries does: Monte Clark, who also has a gallery in Toronto, and Andy Sylvester at the Equinox Gallery. Unlike Jeffries, both of those dealers also work in what’s called the secondary art market: they advise buyers about the possibilities for acquiring the work of artists they don’t represent and then help negotiate those purchases. In contrast, Jeffries focuses exclusively on her 16 artists and creates opportunities for their work by connecting with the elite international art network. She is the only Vancouver gallerist, for example, who is invited to the first-run international art fairs such as Documenta in Kassel, Germany, or the Art Basel fairs in Basel, Switzerland, and Miami. 

All of that demands intricate cash-flow management. Jeffries is not someone who hangs things on the wall, does a little advertising and demands 15, 20 or 25 per cent of the cut. Instead, like most major gallerists, she gets 50 per cent of whatever the artist receives by selling through her, an amount that can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that’s after an intense and lengthy nurturing process that spans years. She communicates extensively with her artists as they’re in the process of developing an idea, via text messages interspersed with phone calls or two-hour in-depth meetings. She turns the gallery over to them for sometimes a month at a time in advance of an exhibition for them to experiment. And that’s after she has spent a year or two assessing their work before deciding whether to take them on and more months or years helping them develop. Very occasionally, she will even buy an artist’s work in advance of having a gallery or collector committed to purchasing it, to help ensure the artist has an income to continue.

The story of her involvement with Geoffrey Farmer is typical. The 43-year-old’s work is now being acquired by institutions such as RBC for its head office, the National Gallery of Canada and the Tate Gallery in London. But back in 1999, he was just another Emily Carr grad who wasn’t sure where he was going. He had worked at Capers Community Markets for three years after graduating in 1993 and was living in a shared house with a few other art-school grads. They had regular house parties, which evolved into art shows. After one of those parties, Farmer was offered the chance to show at the Or Gallery. Jeffries got in touch with him shortly after that to say she was interested in his work.

“If she hadn’t come into my life, I don’t know what would have happened,” says Farmer, who never saw himself as the kind of artist who would ever be in any way collectible or a hot buy. “She made me excited. She said that when it came to understanding the process of the work, I was making that visible. She saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself. I hadn’t realized my work had been linked in the way she said to the previous generation, like Ian Wallace and Jeff Wall and Jerry Pethick.” 

Jeffries’s interaction with her artists is never about making them do something to make them more commercially attractive. “She doesn’t see it as a commodity, as, How can we move these pieces?” says Farmer. 

Jeffries herself explains her working method like this: “I am not bringing the work to you, the collector. I am bringing you to the artist.”

Besides that

combination mentor-editor-memoirist role, Jeffries also goes with her artists to their shows and visits other people’s galleries with them to experience art together. “I’m in the prairie at a Jean Luc Godard conference at U of Regina along with Ian Wallace exhibition Masculin Feminin at the museum. Hope to drive into the Sask prairie, never been,” is one email she sends off in mid-September. The next: “Client and museum meetings take me to Toronto. Ron Terada exhibition opening at the Hayward and meetings at Tate Modern and Whitechapel and curators and prominent collections take me to London.”

The Toronto trip was one of three she made to the city this fall. In early December, she is booked into the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, with her 15-year-old son in tow. The art world’s equivalent of the Milan fashion fairs or the Davos economic forum, the Art Basel Miami fair is billed as “the most important art show in the United States, a cultural and social highlight for the Americas,” where only 250 selected galleries have been invited to display their artists’ works. 

It sounds exciting. But it’s demanding financially, and in every other way, to maintain that level of activity and investment. Jeffries says she hasn’t had to bring in outside investors to make it work, relying instead on a stepped series of successes she’s built up over the years. And while the recent recession has had an impact, even there she says things have worked out for the best. 

“The recent changes in economies both nationally and internationally have meant that those museums and collections that are very serious in thinking about the critical cultural system of contemporary art have become more focused and rise to the top with their commitment,” she says in a considered email. “Those collections that were developed on riding the financial boom lost the real reason for why they were collecting.  So the recession has created a necessary focus, and that focus has inspired me as well.”

Galleries typically don’t release their gross revenues or even the prices they sell pieces for. But buyers say you couldn’t get anything much below $10,000 for a just-starting-out contemporary artist. (One clue that they’re not cheap: the bill for Ken Lum’s “East Van” cross by the Clark SkyTrain station – a work where Jeffries did not get a commission – was $141,000, paid by the City of Vancouver. And that was mostly to cover the cost of materials.) An Ian Wallace work can go for up to $150,000. Ottawa’s National Gallery paid between $80,000 and $110,000 last year for Farmer’s Theatre of Cruelty, described as “a reconstructed version of the artist’s studio, filled with historic images of cruelty and violence [where viewers] step into a ‘dream scene’ where inanimate objects seem to come to life through sound and light effects.” Other Farmer works have gone privately for as much as $250,000.

Without giving specifics, Jeffries makes it clear the gallery is doing well: “It continues to move from strength to strength and permits us to provide better opportunities to help finance other projects.” She has a staff of five, with the most recent addition, Anne Low – the previous contemporary art projects editor at the London publishing house Phaidon – taking up work as the gallery’s associate director. And Jeffries is not shy about explaining what has led to that success: “It’s a gift I feel I’ve been given, to be able to apply my business skills to this world. I know how to negotiate. I can stand up to those big business guys happily.”

A skill that is a work of art in itself. n