Kim Heirston Commencement Address
Sotheby’s Institute of Art-New York Class of 2022
Sotheby's, New York
June 3, 2022
Good morning. I’m Kim Heirston. I am so thrilled to be here to share this important day with you.
Thank you to Sotheby’s Institute, Ann-Marie Richard, Gregoire Billaut, Charles Stewart, The Board of Trustees, and all of my colleagues and peers at Sotheby’s, for this invitation to speak today... What an honor! Thank you as well to each of your parents, grandparents, siblings and friends without whose energetic support, this day would not be possible.
Congratulations to you on this incredible milestone.
You are entering into a field that is so special, so important. A field that some — many in fact — consider a luxury - like a Birkin bag or a Bugatti. I happen to believe that art is a necessity - like water, food, or air. I happen to also believe that art matters.
In 1934, a group of women, some of them mothers of fallen soldiers, commissioned Constantin Brancusi to create a monument commemorating WWI heroes on the banks of a river in the Romanian countryside.
The result was the Endless Column. To those women... art mattered.
I visited the complex site in 2015. For the young lovers taking selfies, couples with their toddlers, and the elderly of Targu Jiu, who had come to revere this modern masterpiece as their very own.... art mattered.
In Northern Ireland, there are some 300-plus murals depicting the struggles between Catholics and Protestants. Has anyone seen the Kenneth Branagh film Belfast?
I visited Belfast... and Derry in 2007, and was led by a group of school children eager to point out an uncle or a grandfather who had lost his life and was glorified on those walls. Those paintings offer a sense of identity, purpose, and even solace. To those children... art mattered.
During the pandemic, when international travel felt impossible, I made a pilgrimage to Houston, through the Deep South, en-route to a renovated Rothko Chapel. For Rothko, of course, art mattered deeply.
For his patrons, John and Dominique de Menil, this art temple presented an opportunity to focus attention on social justice. Dominique called Barnett Newman, whose sculpture graces the courtyard, and asked him to rename his monumental BROKEN OBELISK, dedicating it instead to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr... As if to emphasize just how much ... art matters.
Art mattered very much in Renaissance Italy. I studied in Florence, and wound up doing my senior thesis on frescos by Ghirlandaio in Santa Maria Novella.
Art meant everything, to another teenage girl, back in the early 1400s - born Catherine di Vigri in Bologna. Catherine, who painted, wrote poetry, and played the viola, would go on to become known as SAINT CATHERINE OF BOLOGNA, Patron Saint of The Arts.
Saint Catherine was also a “best-selling” author. Her Seven Weapons of Spiritual Warfare inspired me to advance my own set of Weapons for Surviving and Thriving in the Art World, or any world, for that matter.
1. Know your history, or art history
Research, Research, Research!
Nothing will serve you more than having the confidence of a deep well of knowledge.
Read everything you can. It’s so much easier now with Kindle and Audible, in particular. You can read, say, Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci on your way to Sotheby’s, or Steven Naifeh’s excellent Van Gogh: The life, while strolling in Central Park.
Ninth Street Women, by Mary Gabriel, is my bible. It is about the 5 fierce women who revolutionized the American Art Landscape. Their stories of deprivation, and creativity, will astound. It’s great art history, great social history, great American history.... Mixed with a little housewives of New York!
2. Do the math
(This may well have been the least natural for me) If you decide, one day, to start your own business, or if you work for someone else, you must know the bottom line at all times. This wisdom was imparted to me by two of my earliest clients, one a private equity titan, the other a real estate developer. It has kept me in good stead. I have read countless numbers of self-help books, over the years. Many advocate doing your least favorite task first.
So, every week, I start with a 9:00am call to my accountant, so I know where we are in terms of our bottom line — and what are our financial targets. But doing the math might also be applied to how you parcel your time. Ask yourself this question often: Is time spent doing this task more productive than time spent doing another? Most importantly, doing the math means knowing your own value.
3. Be curious
Question everything, even what you think you already know. Truly exceptional people listen, and ask a lot of questions. The truly mediocre talk a lot, and think they know it all.
Artists, especially the great ones, are the most curious people on earth. They notice everything. They absorb everything... like superhuman sponges. A five-minute conversation with, say, Jeff Koons or Anish Kapoor, or Kara Walker, or David Salle is like a masterclass in the humanities. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity, spend as much time as you can in the presence of these, and other, contemporary prophets.
4. Check your Ego
Does anybody recognize this posture? Hint: it is not a victory sign. It is a Kundalini yoga asana called the Ego Eradicator. I do this every morning in a short series of postures - following 20 minutes of meditation.
Why do I do this? Because I have discovered that it is better to live in a world where I understand that I am not at its center - Difficult when you are an only child! Yet, it has made me a much happier person – one who is joyously interconnected with all of creation.
5. Act with integrity
I understand that this should go without saying, but it’s worth emphasizing. You will very likely be in the position of shepherding someone else’s decisions. You must honor that above all else. It means always presenting information faithfully. It means never resorting to hyperbole. It means doing extreme due diligence with respect to provenance, or a painting’s health. It means trading optimism and hope for really hard work. Sometimes the most difficult task of all is telling a client not to buy something.
Remember, you do not want to wind up the protagonist in a Netflix series like Inventing Anna. You want to keep your clients. You want to keep your job, (unless you decide otherwise). You also want to sleep at night.
This is probably the single most important attribute to surviving in the world. In our advisory handbook, one of my favorite mantras is when you hit a roadblock, find a way around it. There is always a detour. Before I was ever asked to speak at your commencement today, I had been a lifelong junkie of Ted Talks and commencement addresses.
Not that it made this any easier! In fact, it made it more daunting! Have you ever heard of Toni Morrison’s address to Wellesley graduates? It is awe- inspiring.
One address has always stood out. That of Robert Smith’s to American University, (not the one where he pays off everyone’s loan debts!). Robert Smith is an African American billionaire, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He tells the story of how, as a high school student, he really wanted an internship at Bell Labs. He called, at first, every day for 2 solid weeks. Then, he let up a little bit, phoning their offices every single Monday for nearly 6 months! Every time, they told him “No”, as the internship was for college students only. One day, he received a call telling him that an MIT candidate hadn’t shown up, and just like that... He got the job!
I love this anecdote for what it represents. My director, Sharon, has heard this story at least a hundred times! For me, the moral is: Never take no for an answer!
Personally, I once stalked Picasso’s Francoise Gilot for six years; Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse for seven, and an Umber painting by Lee Krasner for over a decade. These are all works I eventually placed.
Always keep the ball in play! Always keep trying! Never, ever give up! That brings me to rule number seven.
7. Ignore negativity
Erase “No”, "Cant”...and “Never” from your vocabulary.
I have heard NO several times in my life. The first time I can remember is when my high school guidance counselor told me I would never get into Yale. Well, Guess what? I got into Yale.
Later, in the early 1990’s, I was advised by numerous people – close friends, relatives, and those who barely knew me - Not to start my own business.
My mother - my biggest champion - even worried about the loss of a steady salary and health insurance. She was so concerned, that she took it upon herself to try to find me clients:
Guess who she wrote to...???
I am a big fan, as is my daughter, Kim. She has just started her own art advisory. Are you interested in art?... bla bla bla, bla bla bla...
Victoria A. Heirston
P.s. enclosed, please find her business card.
Thanks mom!... At the time, I remembered being utterly mortified. But fast forward to an early morning phone call from Oprah... nearly 30 years later. She was calling to ask for my help with a project near and dear to her heart. This was the By Women for Tomorrow’s Women auction - the first major sale dedicated exclusively to female artists. The auction — spearheaded by Oprah and Aggie Gund - both major power-house philanthropists — was to benefit Miss Porter’s School. That sale took place right here at Sotheby’s.
What a magical evening! I still give my mom credit for manifesting that moment. It is because of my mother that I am in the art world.
As a young girl growing up on Long Island, my mom saw to it that we went to New York City on a regular basis, to see theater, and to visit art museums. This was our thing. My mother also collected on a very modest scale, and took up painting, mostly landscapes and still life’s, often in watercolor.
My mother also suffered from severe depression. I noticed something curious, though. When mom began to paint, the sadness seemed to subside. Somehow, my young brain equated painting, or even looking at art, with... H-A-P-P-I- N-E-S-S.
So, I realized, early on, that art could also function as an antidepressant, which led to my understanding of how art encourages empathy.
Every time you look at a painting, you are seeing into another soul.
Every time you stare at a photograph, you are immersed in someone else’s perspective.
Every time you walk around a sculpture, you are entering it’s creator’s space.
These are privileged spaces... Sacred spaces.
Today, I think a lot of people have lost that connection to why art matters... Everyone puts so much emphasis on the money - which yes...is an important part of our business... But the vast sums of money come precisely because art is so very powerful.
Back in the early 1990’s, it was inconceivable that a work could sell for a half billion dollars, or that a painting by an artist in her 20’s could fetch over a million. It took the great Color Field artist, Helen Frankenthaler, 63 years after her breakthrough painting, Mountains and Sea, for the artist to breach the million-dollar barrier.
I should know, because I had been waiting for that moment...
I was there, in the room, when it happened. In 2015, Saturn revisited blew past its estimate of $600,000-800,000 to achieve a whopping $2,800,000. I was over-the-moon with this new milestone, even if a bit disappointed that I didn’t get the painting. It happened right here, at Sotheby’s.
Back in the 1990’s, you would have never seen a Kerry James Marshall, Mark Bradford, or Amy Sherald – not to mention Ernie Barnes! – in the evening sale... much less, selling for tens of millions of dollars. Back then, I was probably the only person of color in the sales room. Today, we see a rainbow of colors here, there, and everywhere in the art world. This makes me so very proud, even if there is still work to be done.
Back in the 1990’s, in the technological stone age, I would manually type labels for slides of works by Warhol, Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois, and Joan Mitchell... on an electric type-writer. These then had to be duplicated at a company called Dugall, which could take up to 72 hours, or more. Then, the images had to be sent out by messenger, or Fedex.
Today, by contrast, an image enters your inbox, you hit a button, and SWISH, it’s in Australia 30 seconds later!
The times we live in have changed dramatically, and will continue to change radically. So buckle up, be ready, and embrace the change!
But .... these times are also challenging, to say the least. We have barely emerged from a pandemic, only to be confronted, again, by an epidemic of gun violence. We have a war on Europe’s front doorstep and a grueling war on women’s bodies. We have suffering families who cannot afford to fill their tanks with gas, or refrigerators with food, in a hopelessly divided nation. I wish I could stand here and offer you answers to these challenges, but I do not have any.
The only thing I can say is that art has always been there for me, sustained me, through the darkest of times - like on September 11th, 2001, or September 4th 2009, when my beloved mother, and my most ardent cheerleader, passed away, suddenly, in her sleep.
In those difficult times ...art has always been there to pull me through and offer me solace.
And, this I know for sure:
Art connects us to one another.
But art can be more than that....
Art can take you on a journey. Art can build bridges.
Art can enhance your intuition. Art can inspire greatness.
Art can change lives.
You ...can change lives.
Remember that as you enter into this most magnificent world.
You can change lives.
And, Yes... Art matters!!!!
Thank you, again, for having me... I am touched and honored to be sharing this day with you.
Congratulations classes of 21 and 22! I look out at this room and see the future of our industry and could not be more excited. You will be the gatekeepers of our world.
Now... go out and make art your superpower!
Be super-spreaders of knowledge, light, empathy, healing and love - and of all the glorious gifts that art has to offer.