Dominique Lévy Commencement Address
Sotheby’s Institute of Art-New York Class of 2017
Sotheby's, New York
April 14, 2018
Dear Class of 2017,
Antonio Machado is one of my favorite poets.
Traveler, your footprints
Are the path and nothing more;
Traveler, there is no path,
The path is made by walking.
I heard this poem as I was turning fifty. My immediate reaction was to look back at a 25-year-old career. As I stand before you, I have flashbacks. That magical moment where we are believers; everything is possible!
At the same time, where to start? How to start? How does one leave the cocoon of education to leap into a meaningful professional life?
When Yves Klein leaped into the void, he gained his full powers.
So, Class of 2017, how will each of you leap in the void?
Let me share a secret: I am romantic and I believe in the power of art to change the world. I believe that artists and art raise questions, provoke controversies, and force constant doubt. There is no certitude. Never!
My first wish for you, therefore, is to remain open-minded at all times, asking questions and staying in constant motion. There is no final destination. I will take for granted that you are all passionate, and hopefully idealists. If not, you have chosen the wrong career!
My second wish: your first step, as soon as you leave this building, is a quest for a mentor. I have been blessed that at every crossroad I have encountered a mentor. I count five to date: my father, Simon de Pury, Anthony d’Offay, Francois Pinault, Bob Mnuchin. Each of these men have helped shape me, define me. Why? They trusted me, demanded that I excel, allowed me to stumble and sometimes fall, helped me stand again and guided me.
Look out, be bold, knock at some doors, find your first mentor. (I noticed when thinking about it—my mentors were all men, be assured that today we have a choice of so many women mentors, too!)
Do not take no for an answer, work hard and give it all. Be prepared to start at the very beginning, stay humble and keep the ambition alive. When you find the mentor, devour information, be the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave. Make yourself known, indispensable, noticed.
Let me share an anecdote: the Tremaine sale, Jasper Johns’ White Flag (November 1988): I was an intern at Christie’s in New York, working for Martha Baer. That day the catalogues were going out. As everyone was getting ready to go home that night, Martha Baer asked where the catalogue for Mr. Johns was (Jasper Johns). Everyone looked baffled and slightly scared. I quickly realized what was happening. Martha wanted this catalogue to be hand-delivered to Mr. Johns and not sent with thousands of others. After all, his masterpiece was in the sale and his market was to change forever, as he would become the most expensive living artist then. This instruction had slipped through the cracks and it was total tsunami in the department. I offered to go through the mail room and find it. This idea was met with a grin. Nonetheless, I went there, stayed until four in the morning and located the famous catalogue. The next morning my position as intern had changed.
My third wish for you is a sense of purpose. I embrace the validity of our profession. The survival of our society more than ever relies on the arts. As long as you have artists—and by artists I mean creative minds—a civilization has knowledge, and most important HUMANITY.
I hope you can get engaged with passion in the career you will choose and be empowered by a profound sense of mission. Whether in the commercial world, the academic world, or any aspect of the art world, if you can make it meaningful, it will be essential!
Some of you may wonder how does one keep the sparkle alive, so I though I would share with you three of the many ingredients that make every day in my professional life fresh and fulfilling:
1. The first is the relationships with artists.
Their inspirational conversations and their radical generosity. I especially work with artists that are of the older generation, and strangely enough, when they reach eighty years old they become incredible risk-takers, and larger-than-life, cherishing every minute and focusing solely on their practice. I want to share with you a few anecdotes.
Visiting Pierre Soulages—He is now 98, married for 75 years and still flirting with his wife, welcoming me to the studio and showing me his paintings like I was his first visitor ever, taking me to a gargantuesque lunch with more courses and more drinking than any of us could handle, sharing stories about his practice to finally invite me, to freely choose all the works for our next exhibition.
Or my first visit to Enrico Castellani—Early morning: known to be a recluse and a very silent man. Finding myself so engaged in our conversation that suddenly it was lunch time, joining him with his current wife, and his former wife and all the children at a family-style table. He had previously declined my invitation to exhibit at the gallery and by the end of this lunch we started a collaboration of five years, which only ended with his recent passing.
Or Gunther Uecker coming to NY for his show at the Guggenheim Museum “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow.” After two days, I found him in such a bad mood. When I asked him why, he said, “I need to get back to the studio, this is where I have to be, this is where I belong.”
In each encounter, I have found an innocence that touches my soul and makes me want to be a rock and an ambassador for these artists. I find motivation and unconditional commitment in these relationships.
On to the next ingredient:
2. Wonderment in front of art.
I have worked in the art world for over 25 years and it never fails me. Standing in front of a painting remains meaningful and visiting a good exhibition always revitalizes me. So, all of you keep this secret: be out and about, see as much as you can, keep the desire to learn and discover.
And finally, the last ingredient:
3. The conversations with collectors.
When you spend time with collectors you engage at a core level. You exchange where their passion is. Conversations with writers, with designers, with researchers, with actually anyone working in the arts. It is always new, always different.
So let me close these thoughts with a hope. The hope that each of you will commit to a deep engagement. Whatever area you choose! Whatever path you find!
Traveler, your footprints
Are the path and nothing more;
The path is made by walking
Today, you are the Traveler.
So Travelers, stand up and get going.