The Art of the Deal
Meet Skot Foreman, a 36-year-old Boca Raton native who once was a successful corporate banker with a stable (and sizable) income but gave it all up. These days he can make $100,000 in a single day. Or he can earn nothing in weeks. He owns an art gallery and deals in contemporary fine art, which he says is the high-stakes journey of a lifetime. "That's not to say it's all about being glamorous," Foreman clarifies. "This is no fucking romance. It's a grind."
Foreman's days at the mill, or rather at his chic gallery, are filled with the potential to make lots of moola. At six-foot-three, with a 190-pound build sculpted by yoga, surfing, and regular gym workouts, Foreman radiates a personable, self-assured aura that serves him well. Not only does he attract established artists (he doesn't represent newbies), he appeals to clients seeking a knowledgeable and trustworthy negotiator to help them build one-of-a-kind collections.
Foreman has worked hard during the past ten years to distinguish himself in a region that, from West Palm Beach to Key West, is rife with both honest purveyors of art and scammers. So what makes him unique? For one thing his gallery is located in Dania Beach, far from the gallery meccas of Palm Beach, Boca Raton, South Beach, and Coral Gables. For another he lives in a modest-size home in Fort Lauderdale. And perhaps most significant, he recently made the gallery circuit's A list, as evidenced by his selection to exhibit at last month's prestigious Art Miami, South Florida's largest fair. (In this, its 11th year, Art Miami chose 135 galleries from around the globe; only 15 from South Florida.)
On this day, with less than two weeks to go until his Miami debut, Foreman seems incredibly calm. "I'm hoping we'll do well," he says in a deep monotone, referring to himself and his assistant, Ellen Prowler.
At 2 o'clock on a mild January weekday afternoon, Dania Beach's antiques district, a two-mile stretch on Federal Highway, is bustling. Shop owners are busy arranging old clocks and bric-a-brac in plate glass windows, lunch crowds bob in and out of taverns, and Foreman, parked on the sidewalk at the white-columned entrance to his eponymous art gallery, is hoisting a sculpture of a male torso made of coiled steel onto his GMC pickup.
"The madness has begun," Foreman quips, outfitted in a sleek black knit top, tailored gray wool slacks, and black leather loafers. But the twinkle in his piercing gray eyes says madness is a good thing. The winter season is off to a good start, and the snowbirds are in a buying mood.
Today, for instance, a couple in South Miami's Deering Bay Estates have told Foreman they want to give their three-bedroom bayfront condo a facelift. The art dealer hopes the $22,000 torso by Ira Sapir is just the thing. (Sapir is a well-recognized sculptor who lives in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood and whose works are featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) For a night the clients will try out Sapir's artwork, plus four other pieces from Foreman's gallery, an arrangement he calls "selling on approval." Foreman could garner $70,000 from the sale.
The next morning Foreman slowly paces the concrete floors of his airy, sunlit gallery, a 6000-square-foot space housed in the historic Dania Bank Building. As three huge ceiling fans shaped like palm leaves whirl 20 feet overhead, Foreman juggles calls on two cellular phones. On one line he promises a client a prompt call back. On the other he speaks with the buyer from Deering Bay. (Citing privacy concerns, Foreman declines to furnish names.)
"Yes... of course I understand.... I'll be there today...." The affluent couple, Foreman says, were pleased with the artwork, but a family member who had dropped by for a visit didn't like the torso. Still, they plunked down nearly $20,000 for several other pieces, including a molded glass and stone sculpture by New England artist Thomas Scoon. "I usually get better odds than that, closer to 50 percent of what clients take on approval," the dealer says. "But, hey, that's show business."
But Foreman isn't a showy guy. True, he's a promoter and salesman. But if he's playing a role, he does so with a sincere, down-to-earth manner that brings to mind Kevin Costner. Foreman talks about pieces of art like living organisms capable of bonding with humans. "You look at the quality of the piece, the technique, the control, the balance of the composition, the rhythm of it," he says. "It's like you can't put definition to a piece of good jazz or blues, but you know it's some good shit.
"I'm trying to bring a quality international aesthetic here [to address] the lack of an arts movement," he continues. "Nobody's going to come up with a new aesthetic. It's all been done. But the arts are becoming more diverse, and eventually we're all going to be in one skin."
Tom Robinson, a general contractor who helped Foreman refurbish his gallery, lends additional perspective on the art broker. In December the two men traveled to Costa Rica to inquire about purchasing land to build an ecotourism resort. "We didn't know the laws, and you've got to be wary of being a foreign investor in property," says Robinson. "But Skot's take was, "Look, the downside is that we might lose some money. But the upside is that we might save some of the rain forest.' That's the kind of person Skot is.... He's a firm believer in karma.... He wants to create a legacy." (For now the Costa Rica deal is still in limbo.)
In building a legacy, Foreman has one thing going for him: a clean slate. Public records show no lawsuit, no drunk driving charge or other criminal activity, no creditor filing civil suits, no baby's mama screaming for child support. (In fact Foreman, who is single, has never married and claims he has no child that he "knows of.")
That said, legacies in the world of fine arts are hard to build, particularly for gallery owners. South Florida's art venues are often overshadowed by shows in trendy places like Los Angeles' Getty Museum, Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery, and Chicago's Schneider Gallery. Calvin Klein, Madonna, and Donald Trump come to South Florida to dance salsa and to sunbathe, not to attend art openings.
But some people say all that's changing. During the past decade, South Florida has improved its reputation. "We are getting more international attention with [expos like] Art Miami and Art Palm Beach," says Ginger Gregg Duggan, a curator for Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art. "For years artists were developing here, and when they got some attention they would leave and go to the major art centers. Now they know there are galleries and centers here that can foster their careers."
For many area galleries, attracting good talent -- and good clients -- means choosing a location with a prestigious address. Thus Foreman's decision to set up shop in a comparatively remote place like Dania Beach seems odd, foolish even. But at least one art consultant in Miami (who, fearing ridicule from the art establishment, asked not to be identified) thinks Foreman's location allows him to be more independent and creative in his choice of artists. "Around here so much attention is paid to Cuban artists, and it's terribly unfair to think that's all we represent," she says. "No group alone can create an arts movement, either by their consistency or their message, and for Foreman to be away from that scene is good."
Playwright and journalist David Hay recently described the local art scene this way in The New York Times: "A new generation is serving notice that the Miami art world is no longer the exclusive preserve of émigré artists from Cuba or Haiti or even New York."
Foreman's account of why he chose Dania Beach has nothing to do with cultural politics. Instead he says places like Miami and Palm Beach have gotten too "commercialized, trendy, and rather played. Dania Beach might be known for antiques, but it has got a funky edge to it and [with its proximity to Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale International Airport] lots of potential to attract people."
Besides lower rent, Foreman chose Dania Beach because he does not want his place to be perceived as just another local gallery. By distancing himself from the pack, Foreman contends he reaches more of a national and an international audience than he might if he were just a midlevel dealer in a more popular location. He maintains a Website (www.skotforeman.com) and regularly advertises in trade publications in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Latin America. Clients in those places, he contends, account for more than a third of his business.
"Skot believes in artists who are not in the mainstream of the Western art world, and he's not into categories," offers Carol Damian, chair of Florida International University's art department. "He is certainly bringing something different to the area, even though it's a struggle to build credentials and gain recognition."
For now, Foreman's trajectory is up. Besides exhibiting at Art Miami and Art Palm Beach (where his gallery has twice been featured), Foreman has gathered 16 artists in what he calls his "stable," some of whom have studios in places as far away as Vermont, France, or Bogotá. Some of them have been trained at institutions like Columbia University, the School of Visual Arts in New York, or the Corcoran College of Art. Also among them is Miami's ghetto prophet Purvis Young, a reclusive self-taught painter whose works, which he once sold for $20 apiece just to survive, now list for up to $10,000.
Indeed Foreman's Rolodex shows more than 200 clients, 50 of whom he claims buy artwork several times a year. (During the reporting for this story, at least several of those regulars and artists checked in with Foreman by phone almost daily, asking the gallery owner about market conditions and new items for sale.)
Foreman, perhaps understandably, declines to disclose his personal income, saying that "if it were only about the money, I wouldn't be in this business." Still, when asked whether a trip around the world, for instance, would be affordable, Foreman grins. "Yes," he says, "but it wouldn't be prudent."
Tim Foreman, a Miami Realtor and elder brother of the art dealer, adds: "His work is such a large part of his life. He believes in sweat equity and is very focused... and that makes him a lucky person, because he truly loves what he's doing."
It took Skot Foreman a while to figure that out.
A week before the Art Miami expo, Foreman, relaxes at home with a glass of zinfandel in front of a fire in his Turkish-style den. He lives alone in a quaint and sublimely decorated place in the Lake Ridge section of Fort Lauderdale. While Foreman's house is valued at a reasonable $100,000, it has the look and feel of an elaborate temple. A large bronze Buddha statue sits atop an antique chest facing the front door. Clusters of thick pillar candles fill tables and ledges. Velvety fabrics and thick pillows cover antique settees. A tabletop waterfall tinkles while vintage Miles Davis plays on the stereo. "Those are my lullabies," he gibes.
Foreman grew up in the Old Floresta section of Boca Raton with his brother, Tim; his father, Jim (an attorney turned judge who died from cancer in 1995); and his mother, Charlotte, who says her son "was a scrappy little guy who loved to surf and wanted to go to the beach every day."
She continues: "We traveled a lot, and I remember once, when Skot was 12, we took him to Paris to visit the Louvre, and all of a sudden he got lost." The boy had wandered off to follow another tour group. When they found him, Charlotte was amazed to hear him "recount everything he'd overheard about the exhibits. He remembered everything verbatim."
"I went to see the Mona Lisa," Foreman elaborates. "I became part of this crowd, 12 deep, that just stood there gawking. It spoke to my soul. That's what this field does for me. I know that I'll never fully be able to get my arms around the art world, because it's so dynamic and broad-based and there's so much history."
Foreman is uncomfortable discussing his privileged upbringing in Boca Raton, saying only that while he attended private grade schools, he "didn't feel like a part of that whole trip." That's one reason he chose to attend the University of Florida at Gainesville. While there Foreman pledged the Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity and began organizing campus concerts. Before graduating in 1987 with a degree in finance and a minor in art, Foreman helped bring artists like Sting and Elvis Costello to campus.
"Some people in the fraternity system have a tendency to stay close to their brothers," says Jeff Weibel, a travel-industry executive who has known Foreman 18 years. "But Skot was always interested in expanding his circle of friends. He was the type of guy you could count on, someone with a great heart and a great soul."
Because he enjoyed promoting concerts, Foreman thought about working in the music business after graduation. But when he shared that idea with a friend over pizza, the friend "looked at me like I'd lost it and said, "A record label? You're going to waste four years and all your parents' money to wind up in somebody's mailroom?'"
So Foreman landed a job at NationsBank (now Bank of America), allotting two years to decide if corporate life was for him. "He was a great commercial banker, very aggressive and into it," says Mike Fitzpatrick, a former banking colleague and current client of Foreman's. "But when you went to Skot's home, you got a whole different picture. The floors were painted, and there was all this art. He doesn't go to Baer's to get furniture. He buys pieces from the 1950s. Art was always his thing."
After two years Foreman left banking and went to work for the Rosenbaum Galleries in Fort Lauderdale, one of the largest art houses in the southeast. "They were a wholesale gallery that wanted to expand their corporate art sales base, and I had this business background," says Foreman. "At the time it was the perfect marriage." For the next three years, he traveled around the country to art fairs, buying, selling, and learning the tricks of the trade.
By 1995 Foreman began to think about striking out on his own. His father had died from cancer, and the young man started thinking more about his own life. Standing on his back patio, which has been modeled after a chickee with cedar pillars and a rusted tin roof, he recounts a story that his father taught him about karma: Foreman's grandfather Bob decided that upon his death his wedding band should go to his grandson. But he didn't put his wishes in writing, so one of Bob's sons (Foreman's uncle) claimed the elaborately carved gold ring. That upset Foreman's dad, who decided against starting a family feud and instead bought his son a pearly white elk's tooth set in an intricate silver band. "My father never was into jewelry, but he brought this back for me from one of his travels," Foreman says, glancing down at the ring on his left index finger. "I never take it off... and not a day goes by that someone doesn't comment on it." In business, however, Foreman learned that creating good karma is bedeviling, like making a good soufflé.
Foreman went into business with a veteran Fort Lauderdale art dealer named Larry Clemons in April 1995. They operated in a small, 950-square-foot space called Gallery 721 on Broward Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale. After the partners split in 1997, Foreman opened his Dania Beach space. "Gallery 721 was a great place, and we put on some exhibitions that blew people away," says Clemons. "Essentially the business just grew larger than both of us, and our relationship started to get bumpy. But Skot's current gallery is phenomenal, and he's proven himself... and he busts his butt."
Foreman declines comment except to say: "We had a different vision, which is why we no longer do business." Several others who know the two men simply say they had different goals.
Clemons was enthusiastic about "outsider art," a controversial term used to describe self-taught folk artists like Purvis Young, whom the two men once represented together. Today Foreman still represents Young, but he also tries to "attract both European and American contemporary artists, some of whom might fall into that category of outsider."
When he first went solo in Dania Beach, Foreman didn't sell just fine art. He also sold exotic furniture and antiques he had collected during several trips to places like Nepal and Indonesia. The items sold well, he claims, but sales from the art "outstripped" them. "Ultimately [selling furniture] was taking away from my effectiveness," he says. "I decided I had to stick with my real passion and distinguish myself in the art field."
First Foreman had to concentrate on building his stable, which he did mostly by calling on friends from his Rosenbaum days, as well as networking with interior designers. Today Foreman says he receives several unsolicited packages a day from artists across the country looking to get solo exhibitions. (For example Foreman recently rejected a California artist whose cheery watercolor portraits didn't "fit with" his style, which leans toward bronze, stone, and glass sculptures; mixed-media works; and a little pop art in the vein of Andy Warhol.)
Additionally Foreman had to build his client base. His former banking colleague, Mike Fitzpatrick, recalls how he started collecting. "Here I was in banking, and for me to make a purchase, it meant using my whole $2000 bonus... which really counted," says Fitzpatrick, who now owns a Fort Lauderdale marina. "But Skot's enthusiasm rubs off on you. You trust his judgment, and he gets you excited about the art."
Today the "proud owner" of Purvis Young's artwork, Fitzpatrick convinced his brother to start collecting. Then his brother got a few of his friends interested. And so on.
But all that good will, Foreman contends, doesn't automatically translate into a fortune. Foreman admits he marks up artwork 100 percent "or more" after he and an artist settle on a price. His margin has been enough for him to buy and refurbish his small home, to own and maintain a 1969 Mercedes convertible, and to make investments.
Overhead costs cut his profit, though. He pays rent, a full-time assistant's salary, entertainment costs for prospective clients, and bigtime promotional expenses. He places quarterly $4000 ads in Florida Design Magazine as well as numerous other national art publications. He creates glossy artists' biographies for mass mailings. And for receptions, which run on a six-week rotation, Foreman spends thousands more on invitations, fine wines, and hors d'oeuvres, as well as travel costs for his artists.
Among six artists interviewed for this story, no one expressed concerns that Foreman might be making too much.
One of those artists, Chris Dolan, moved to Miami in 1997 after enjoying a successful career in France. A single mother with three kids, the painter says she was careful about selecting an art dealer. "I had concerns about integrity at some galleries," says Dolan, whose mixed-media works go for $5000 to $20,000. "But with Skot I felt immediately comfortable, and he's done very well by my work. We price things so that I have a certain [financial] security, and he keeps me aware of everything that's going on with a client. He would never do anything to make me unstable."
Foreman declines to describe any specific deal. But deals hypothetically work this way: He agrees with an artist on a price of, say, $10,000, with the artist garnering $4500 of that. A client makes a firm offer of $7500. Foreman may ask the artist to lower the price. If he or she declines, he may decide to sell and decrease his take. (In some cases he's also made more than the expected amount.)
That kind of deal is par for the trade, comments Helen Kohen, a former Miami Herald art critic. "It's standard procedure that certain gallerists take a certain percentage, usually 50-50; sometimes 60-40," she states. "Most important dealers -- even Picasso's dealer -- never publish their final prices. It is a private, word-of-mouth matter. There are conventions in this business, but there are no rules."
It's a brisk afternoon in mid-January at Foreman's gallery, the day before the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Macuria Montolanez, a SoHo artist who splits her time between Vermont and Costa Rica. With a Pat Metheny CD playing on the sound system, Foreman stands atop a tall ladder dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and a baseball cap. After taking down one of Dolan's giant paintings, he says he is disappointed in the December exhibition of her works because he sold only 30 percent of the artwork. Usually he sells around 50 percent.
Next to the exhibit area, through a concrete-and-brick archway, is a larger space called the south gallery, where he rotates artwork every few weeks. "I don't like people to come in and see the same things over and over," says Foreman, "because if they do it means two things: one, you're not selling, and two, you're not stimulating people."
Stimulation helps sell art, Foreman contends. He carefully hangs the 14 works by Montolanez, some 6 feet tall and just as wide, along the 20-foot-high walls. The oil-painted wood and canvases are filled with dark, subtle images (thus the exhibition's title, "Shadows and Silhouettes"). The pieces are filled with a kaleidoscope of warm hues: greens, yellows, ambers, and plums. He must arrange them so that the colors are in stark contrast. A washed out aesthetic would hide the works' essence, like a snowman with white button eyes.
"This is the editing process.... You have to achieve the right balance," Foreman says, hefting pieces from place to place and leaning them against the walls, then standing back to study the effect before hammering metal brackets with thick nails. When he finishes hours later, having aimed small spotlights at the works, Foreman displays the energized serenity of a Tibetan priest who has just completed an elaborate mandala.
The following night is showtime. Two uniformed Broward sheriff's deputies are stationed outside the gallery to protect wealthy patrons, who are likely unaccustomed to Dania Beach's very unglamorous environs. Inside the gallery all is artistic ambiance. Dozens of white candles flicker from plate glass window ledges. Waiters in black tie serve shrimp and salmon tea sandwiches on silver trays to a crowd of 150 or so people from academia, corporate America, and bohemia. Thumping house music, not too loud, plays from overhead speakers. The giant palm-leaf fans whirl hypnotically.
The time is 9 o'clock, an hour before the reception is to end. Three small red dots are pasted next to three of Montolanez' pieces, meaning negotiations to sell are or soon will be under way. The artist, a warm fortyish woman duded up in shiny black leather and spiky hair, is a veteran exhibitor. She basks in the crowd's admiration. Foreman, attired elegantly in black jacket and slacks but looking tired around the eyes, is also working the room.
In this setting Foreman courts his clients in a style that is neither obsequious nor imperious. Instead of pitching the artwork, he easily develops a rapport with people. He listens as they talk about their travels, businesses, and families. He makes their interests his own.
"Have you seen the new photography book about hats in African-American culture?" asks a fashionably designer-clad black couple from West Palm Beach.
"No, I haven't," Foreman responds, "but it sounds interesting. Is that something that stems from the South?"
Later that night Foreman says that, when it comes to dealing with people in general and those from other cultures in particular, he's "like a sponge, just taking it all in. But I also try to be humble in whatever I do. This business is all about developing relationships. I've had clients who have vacillated over paintings for a year or two."
Randy Leib, a collector from Atlanta who has bought 12 pieces from Foreman over the past three years, adds: "I know that he's knowledgeable, but I also like the fact that there's never any pressure in buying. Skot makes you feel like you've been invited to his home rather than his business. Other galleries put on too many airs."
What galleries can't put on too many of is shows. And long before this night is over, Foreman is already thinking about the fact that he has only a few days left until perhaps his most significant event of the year.
On opening night of the five-day Art Miami show, an entire wing of the Miami Beach Convention Center, where representatives of 135 galleries from 24 countries have converged, has been converted into a giant maze. White walls have been erected to separate collections from Korea, Colombia, Spain, and France. Foreign languages mix in the aisles like liqueurs in sweet mixed drinks. A couple thousand guests at the invitation-only event walk around sipping wine and smoothies, browsing the eclectic artwork with checkbooks in hand. "Honey, we could transfer the funds from our mutual," an elegantly attired woman suggests to her husband, who scribbles some figures onto a check. They are pondering the purchase of a bronze nude sculpture from a Madrid gallery with a labeled price of $9500.
In the far left corner of the cavernous space, Foreman stands at a curved glass table, pouring Susan Farver, a New York Times advertising rep who has collected from him for ten years, some merlot. Normally a casual dresser, Foreman has opted to go more formal, wearing a black suit, white shirt, and silk print tie.
On three walls illuminated by soft spotlights, Foreman has hung a variety of paintings from his stable of artists. Featured are Purvis Young's warrior figures painted on plywood; Chris Dolan's human figures glistening with oils in neutral, earthy hues; Nick Vukmanovich's yellow painted canvases featuring, as Foreman says, "sexy little deviants" with large, shockingly pink eyes and pistol-like purple nipples"; and Lina Binkele's paintings and sculptures of horses. Binkele, who has flown in from Bogotá for the show, chats in her limited English with guests.
In the first hour of the opening, with two more hours to go, Foreman appears to be off to the races. Binkele's work is hot; two of her paintings, listed at $9000 each, have sold. "Things look good, and we've had several clients stop by who have expressed an interest in all the different artists," says Foreman with that twinkle that signals madness is in the air.
By evening's end Foreman has sold or is negotiating to sell six works. They might bring in a total of $30,000 or perhaps $90,000. The result depends upon the input of dealer, artist, and collector.
After spending 31 hours during five days talking up the artists' works and trying to close deals, an exhausted Foreman says he's "all talked out." Like the sale to his clients in Deering Bay, things didn't go quite as well as planned. He has broken even, he contends, having sold about $50,000 worth of art while paying the same to cover costs associated with the show (framing, movers, lighting, artists' expenses, and the exhibit space itself, which apparently isn't cheap but also isn't disclosed, in accordance with Art Miami policy.)
All in all, Foreman says, he is satisfied. "There were galleries who came from long distances that didn't sell anything," he reports. "Then again I heard there were some million-dollar sales. Knowing that, I've got no complaints. I'm happy." Besides it's only January, and the snowbirds will be around until April.
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