There’s a clever maxim that states “The ‘earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘eh.’” For two young women forging their own path in the exciting, elusive and ever-changing world of art, it rings especially true.
Rachel Cole and Chelsea Petronko are the co-founders of Vernissage, an art advisory firm based in Los Angeles. Although they grew up in different parts of the country — Rachel studied art history at the University of Michigan with subsequent stints at The Guggenheim and Christie’s in New York, while Chelsea traveled the world as an international model before studying art history at Sotheby’s — their paths would eventually cross in 2016 when both worked at De Re Gallery in West Hollywood.
After working together “all day, everyday,” the two soon realized they would make a fantastic team and thus was the birth of Vernissage. (It’s a French word that refers to the day before an exhibition’s official opening.)
Focusing on artwork from both established and emerging artists, including British-American abstract expressionist artist Sarah Robarts, the pair procures and sells artwork for individual collectors as well as museums.
It’s no small task breaking into an industry that has long been dominated by men, but Rachel and Chelsea are creating their own ripple in a growing sea change that now finds women occupying top positions in every part of the art world.
The dynamic duo recently spoke to Homegirl Talk to share their insights on navigating the volatile realm of art, starting a business with your BFF and why integrity is the key to a truly artful life.
Hi ladies! First of all, tell us about Vernissage. Does being art advisors mean you help people buy and/or sell paintings?
Rachel: Yes. We essentially act as brokers that represent both sides of a transaction. If our clients have an artwork that they would like to sell, we can help them generate a value through an appraisal, and then find a qualified buyer for the work. Our clients maintain their anonymity and we keep the process stress-free for both parties. Most of the artworks we broker are $50,000 plus, so we spend our time placing high-end artworks within high-end collections and private museums. In addition, we maintain close relationships with top-tier galleries and auction houses, providing additional resources for our clientele.
Chelsea: It also means that we advise our clients on the right time to buy or to sell an artwork. We watch the market very closely and keep up with all of the trends. We help our clients loan their artworks to museum shows, in turn increasing the value of their artwork. We really want for our clients to have a collection of art that they truly love, that they would never want to sell, but that they could sell it if they absolutely needed to and have it still be a sound investment.
Vernissage is officially based in Los Angeles, but you both are quite peripatetic. How does working from remote help or challenge your business?
Chelsea: We do have to travel very often in order to attend art fairs, inspect artworks, and call on our clients. We find that it helps our business! The more that we travel, the more people and shows we can visit, so we just end up seeing and learning a ton.
Rachel: Just from September to December of this year, we will be in Chicago for EXPO, London for Frieze, Paris for FIAC, New York for the auctions and Miami for Art Basel. Every time we travel, we meet the most incredible people: clients, colleagues, bits of inspiration from all sectors of the art world.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in art?
Chelsea: I knew I wanted to pursue a career in art back when I was living in Miami. Every December, Art Basel would bring incredible artwork and art enthusiasts to Miami. Each year would be completely different than the last and I just knew I had to be a part of it.
Rachel: I studied Art History in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Paris, France during my undergraduate studies. It wasn’t until I worked at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that I knew I wanted to spend all day, every day for the rest of my life surrounded by art. It’s thrilling being in a field where there is constantly so much news, opinion, information, and fluctuation in value of a subjective and intangible field that stems from beauty. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
How long had you both known each other before deciding to start a business together?
Rachel: We have known each other since April 2016 when we met while working together at a gallery in West Hollywood. A little over a year after that was when we decided to start Vernissage. We realized that many of our clients were interested more in secondary market, blue-chip artworks by artists like Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, etc. and some more contemporary artists like Jonas Wood, KAWS, etc., so we began to focus our energies there.
Chelsea: Even though it was the slowest time of the year, we immediately got to work. It was a slow start, with weeks of little sleep and not enough hours in the day. We had to be sure not to step on any toes, and it took a little bit to find our footing in specifically what we wanted to focus on. That said, it was the best decision we ever made. I am so thankful that I met Rachel and that we work so well together.
There’s an old adage that says don’t mix friendship with business. Did either of you ever have any concerns that starting a business together could ruin your friendship?
Rachel: When we were working at the gallery, it was just me and Chelsea. All day, every day. We were able to learn A LOT about one another: our goals, our strengths when working individually and together, and we realized we make a really good team. We work perfectly together, but it is very lucky that we are also really great friends.
Chelsea: We know everything about one another. We share our calendars, we’re logged into each other’s emails, and we work through professional and personal situations together. Just like with any partnership, trust and communication are the most important things, and we are very lucky we have that unwaveringly with each other.
You are both millennial entrepreneurs. What you think of the term ‘millennial.’ Does it have positive or negative connotations for you?
Rachel: We like that it offers key insight to one of our strongest demographics: millennials beginning their own collections. For example, many of our relationships with our clients are professional, but also friendly and accessible. We text with our clients, meet up for drinks, attend events together, and know one another outside of an email chain. These relationships are lifelong, and friendship and trust is a big part of that.
Chelsea: I like the term millennial and I’m glad that I’m a millennial. I think that it means that we are willing to work outside of the boxes that were set up for us. On the negative side is that there are still a lot of people in the art world who are not millennials and that can make it a bit harder to be taken seriously. However, we quickly prove them wrong.
The art world can be fickle and pretentious, neither of which describe you. What has been your experience, particularly as young women, navigating this industry?
Rachel: It hasn’t been easy. It is a very male-dominated field, which we realized even more so once we went off on our own. We noticed many advisors, with whom we don’t work with anymore, were quick to bully us in hopes we would slip up and reveal our clients. We were always super careful in preserving our relationships with our clients and our integrity.
Chelsea: At the end of the day, we want to be good people and good art advisors. Like Rachel said, our integrity is all that we have. In person, on our website, in interviews, wherever, we are very public about who we are. We are young women and we know that we don’t have anything to hide. Regarding pretentiousness, fine art is for everyone now. We are in a period of social change, and with that, people are attracted to artworks that reflect their values.
Who are the female role models you look up to?
Rachel: Amy Cappellazzo, absolutely. Her art advisory firm was bought by Sotheby’s two years ago for a staggering amount and she is the epitome of female art advisor and total badass.
Chelsea: Frida Kahlo. We were able to see her meticulously rendered portraits in San Francisco earlier this year. We learned everything there was to learn about her. Her heartache, hardship, health issues — this woman persevered through it all. She is truly remarkable.
What makes great art? Is it truly in the eye of the beholder?
Rachel: Chelsea and I learned about “art” in completely different ways. At school, I learned about art entirely from a historical context: What was going on politically? Within art movements? What was the norm and how did these artists contradict or confine to it? I’d learn about these works from a small reproduction in PowerPoint, not fully understanding the magnitude of the works until I saw them in real life.
The best example of this was studying Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii or Gericault’s Rath of the Medusa, knowing these paintings and artists inside out. Two years later, I went to the Louvre for the first time and just about lost my mind. It was so much more magnificent than any book or lecture ever could have ever described.
Chelsea: Great art always feels fresh. I remember years and years ago wandering through museums or art fairs with no formal art history knowledge yet. I was immediately drawn to what I liked: the colors, the subject matter, the emotional response I had. I would go home and study everything about that artist: I’d read every book, article, watch any movie or documentary, and become a master of that artist. I’d put the pieces together and learn about that art movement as a whole, so my education was first sparked by an instant aesthetic appreciation.
Tell us who some of your favorite artists are and why they inspire/intrigue you.
Rachel: I’ll give an example of past and present: Gustave Courbet, a French painter from mid-19th century and Toyin Ojih Odutola, a Nigerian-born contemporary artist. Both of these artists manipulate artist techniques and genre to make a statement on class, race, and identity over 150 years apart.
Chelsea: I love Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama. I was first introduced to both while I was living in Japan. I used the inside of a Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture as my regular meeting spot and I was inspired by being enveloped in something that was meant to be scary. Yayoi Kusama is just endlessly fascinating — she turned her fears into her greatest accomplishments and I just love that. Artistically, she really held her own even when she was up against someone as dynamic as Andy Warhol.
Is there one overall message or purpose for the work you do?
Rachel: We want to bring back a sense of transparency and trust in the art world. Once art started selling publicly at unimaginably high prices, it flipped a switch for many people. Everyone wanted to collect, but needed a little assurance. Clients of ours began to realize they can be purchasing art that they aesthetically love, can live with and enjoy, and still be making a relatively secure alternative investment. We want to help our clients find pieces of culture and history that they can bring into their home that inspire them each day.
Chelsea: We want to bring back the fair market and give more people a chance to participate in it. We lead by example to prevent collectors from being taken advantage of by advisors that tack on higher commissions than what is fair. When that happens, the prices of artwork inflate and collectors end up overpaying just to qualify to purchase a painting. We have been working to ensure that everyone can have art that they love and truly feel great about.
What’s your advice to women out there who are struggling to make their dreams come true?
Chelsea: Every day is a process! Our most important takeaway is to stick with like-minded and supportive women.
Rachel: There will be plenty of people that aren’t happy with your success, and try to push and pull you in all sorts of directions. Go with your gut and stay true to yourself and your beliefs, and the rest will come.
Explore the world of Vernissage and get in touch with your own creative curiosities.
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