Gary Metzner is the ultimate civic-minded Chicagoan: connector, cultivator, and connoisseur. He can put together a premier art tour with local artists, dealers, and collectors at a moment’s notice, and is a go-to trusted advisor to many in his role as Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s and Head of Office for the Midwest. Metzner was trained as a generalist in paintings, prints, and sculptures ranging from Old Masters to Contemporary, but his vast knowledge also extends to work as a talented auctioneer on the charity circuit.
Raised in Glencoe, Illinois, means that he definitely knows the lay of the land from the city to the suburbs. His deep ties to the community include active involvement with various institutions, currently on the boards for the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, the DePaul University Art Museum, and Chi Arts: The Chicago High School for the Arts.
After graduation from Indiana University, Metzner furthered his art history studies at the University of Chicago. His first job was at the Hokin Kaufman Gallery, and after that he took a post as Director of Fine Art at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. Metzner joined Sotheby’s nearly 25 years ago, becoming a keen observer of the art market and its shifts. It is this perspective that has prepared him for embracing the challenges and changes for seeing and selling art within the current remote working restrictions. More than 70 percent of Sotheby’s auctions were online in 2020, bringing an increase of 40 percent in new buyers and doubling the number of those clients under the age of 40. In an interview excerpted below, Metzner offers reflections and insights, both personally and professionally, on how it all started and how it’s going now.
Share a little about what initiated your interest in the field of art, and your own passion for collecting… In a way, it just happened. I had a love for art even as a child and was in art competitions in 1st and 2nd grades. There is a painting in my office here at Sotheby’s that is signed ‘Gary 7’ from the age when I made it. Luckily for everyone, I decided to sell art rather than make it. I do recall buying my first work of art, a French poster that also hangs here, and purchased at a Temple Beth El art fair in 1976, with money from my Bar Mitzvah. Early in gallery days, a set of Alex Katz prints were the first works I bought as an assistant on a trip to New York to organize a show with Marlborough Gallery. Over the years, my husband Scott Johnson (a medical physicist in health care technology) and I have switched out half the works that either I bought before we met or we have collected together over the last two decades. We do purchase at auction, and of course often from Sotheby’s, but a lot as well from local galleries and art fairs. This year we have “virtually” purchased four new works since March. It has always been something we enjoy doing, building relationships with dealers and curators, meeting many local artists. It has really challenged and enhanced our notion of what it means to live with a work of art.
What do you feel stands out about Chicago collectors and collections? I hear it from my New York colleagues all the time. Chicago is such a tight-knit community. People look out for each other and there is a sense of camaraderie and warmth. There is also a great early history of collecting in Chicago from many periods of art. Many firsts. I have learned that from my colleague and mentor Helyn Goldenberg (former Sotheby’s Midwest Chairman and Director). Her stories are priceless. Plus, it is great to see the Chicago Imagists finally getting global attention.
How has your routine of a typical workday been altered over this past year? The best thing about my job has always been that no day is the same, and that said, especially now. I think the entire world has reimagined the way they do business. I used to travel quite a bit. These days so much is done over the Internet with digital images. I still go into the Sotheby’s office regularly and see clients masked-up and distanced. I’ve worked with over 20 organizations to help them re-envision their galas virtually. Many have been extremely successful, and I enjoy that opportunity in my job at Sotheby’s to use my creative and people skills to the best of my ability. You never know what you are going to see or discover, and right now technology and access at sothebys.com is a valuable, influential, and beneficial part of the trade. I’ve been so proud and excited by Sotheby’s pivot to online auctions. People are furnishing new homes, others instead of spending money on travel are now filling walls with art.
The Internet has brought immediate gratification to consumerism, how has that impacted Sotheby’s space online? Our newest platform—the Buy Now Marketplace—has been created to connect collectors with beautiful objects easily and quickly across fine jewels, contemporary art, collectible sneakers, watches, designer handbags, decorative objects, interiors, and pens. The model is a fixed-priced format that complements our seasonal auction business, meaning that buyers can purchase items instantly at their convenience. The marketplace is “always open” so it offers buyers and sellers the ability to purchase and consign outside of our traditional auction calendar. We’ve also made the process for sellers incredibly easy, creating a full-service solution encompassing all steps of the selling process, from curation to photography to moving and delivery.
To close, what has been one of your top career highlights? Definitely being able to secure the Kerry James Marshall Past Times from Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority was so special. It set the record in 2018, and the one that still holds today for a living African American artist at $21.1 million. As published, Sean Combs purchased it and I bet we will hear more about it post-pandemic. In my other role as an auctioneer, I am incredibly proud to have probably raised close to that amount for charitable causes over the past several decades in the auction arena.