Culture Scouts

Consultant Joan Brochstein guides clients to galleries such as Barbara Davis Gallery.
Phillippe Diederich

If there is a focus point in Beth Madison's wooded one-story home, it is the dining room, where an oil painting of a voluptuous Gauguin-like woman welcomes you. On her head is a large bowl overflowing with food of scumbled fall colors that glow with gentle invitation. Madison, a single insurance executive, was so captured by the painting when she first saw it in New Orleans that she brought it home with her — so captured that she had her entire house repainted to match the color scheme of that artwork.

Now if she could only finish redoing the rest of her house. Between the lighting expert, decorator, landscape artist and tree specialists working on her home, not to mention her own job, Madison doesn't have the time to look for art. So she has someone else do it: art adviser Jacqueline Hamilton.

Hamilton, who has been art advising for two decades, knows Madison's house and, hence, her tastes. When Hamilton viewed a show of artist David Bierk's work, she knew that Madison would enjoy it and took her to see his landscape paintings. Madison fell for two still lifes of peaches instead. The gibbous pair now hang in her dining room, too.

While Hamilton admires the works for their high quality, Madison connects to them on an emotional level. "There's an old kind of romance about them, like they've been there for a long time," she says with the care of whispering a secret. "It's very vibrant, and it makes me feel vibrant, like it's going to be an exciting dinner party."

Hamilton says she knows she has done her job when she matches clients with artworks that "speak to them." "I'm turning professional cartwheels," she says. "It gives me as much pleasure that she owns them as if I owned them myself."

Art advisers are the real estate agents of the art world. Although the profession is hardly new (corporations regularly rely on them), the recent upswing in the economy has more well-to-do people willing to collect art, and more personal art consultants with bustling schedules. Houston appears to be in a trend like that of New York, where advisers may rival personal trainers as the new status symbol.

Advisers evaluate their clients' needs (yes, art is a necessity for some), steer clients to galleries or artists' studios congruent with their tastes and negotiate purchases. They also help move the art to its new home and assist with framing, lighting, installation and security. Some charge by the hour (from $50 to $250, depending on experience), others by a fixed fee or a commission usually ranging from 10 to 25 percent.

An art consultant's palette should include a passion for art, knowledge of galleries and artists, and good communication skills. Being a middle-aged white woman also seems to be part of the trend.

Those who are best, art consultants say, possess an intangible talent, akin to an artist's vision for creating masterpieces. Sally K. Reynolds, who has been an adviser for more than 20 years, says she fell into it by accident when she was appointed to oversee an art project at the corporation where she worked in communications.

"You just have to begin. You make some mistakes and you learn. Your eye becomes refined," she says. "You have to see a work of art and understand. That can be developed, but the genesis of that, some people have, and some people don't."

Because it seems like an easy, degree-less way for dilettante consultants to make money, some clients can fall into the wrong hands.

Barbara Davis, owner of Barbara Davis Gallery, says, "I've just been amazed at the people who come in and it's rush, rush, rush! They take their client to so many galleries in the same day that by the end they don't know what they've seen." She strokes swiftly at the air to describe them. "Anyone can have a card made out that says 'art consultant' — there's a lot of that going onŠ Some are thinking about just making a sale, whereas some have a sense of integrity."

But there are more subtle ways an adviser can be less than honest, such as blurring the lines between art dealer and consultant.

"I have a real bone to pick with galleries who call their sales representatives art consultants, because their priority is to sell their inventory," Hamilton says. "A true art consultant is not tied into inventory in any way."

Kathleen James is an adviser who does have inventory; in fact she has James Gallery. But she says she draws a clear line between gallery owner and adviser. "If I show them work from my inventory, I make the distinction that these are works from my space."

With her hair tied back and a trim ensemble of long skirt and cardigan, James appears as much the serious art connoisseur as the bookish librarian. She says art advisers should charge by the hour to avoid ulterior motives, such as promoting a piece that would yield a higher commission for the consultant.

Money, after all, is the root of all evil, or at least of some misguided choices. As gallery owner Davis says, "You can spend a lot of money on terrible things.

"Joan Brochstein dresses both sensibly and stylishly. But when she pulls her Infiniti out of the parking garage, on go the aerodynamic, pearl-textured sunglasses colored the curious green of cooked cabbage. This is a woman with a subplot, with a hint of the offbeat, a woman who is a psychotherapist by day, art adviser by weekend.

Brochstein started art advising on the side two and half years ago. In her high-rise office, she keeps a stack of manila folders, one for each Houston gallery, filled with the glossy postcards galleries send when announcing a show. Stacked on the bottom of a bookshelf, the files threaten to fall over and spill art. When Brochstein works with art clients, she shows them the postcards to gauge their tastes, then points them to galleries where she hopes the pieces will light up their eyes. And by that she means love at first sight. Brochstein likens art consulting to matchmaking.

Buying art, she says, is deeply personal. "In psychotherapy, when a session is going well, they realize something about themselves, something's clicking. In art consulting the same thing happens when they find a piece of art they want; they find the truth for themselves about something."

But for some, the match doesn't go well. They may view an abstract painting with a $900 price tag and think they see the truth — that their child could do that. That's when the art consultant should explain what's so special about the work or the artist's philosophy.

"I think the responsibility of an art consultant is to really try to educate the level of thinking with the client," gallery owner Davis says. "It's so frustrating when a client comes in and says, 'My child can draw that,' and the consultant doesn't answer. They don't have to hang it up in their living room, but [the consultants] have to get them to respect it."

Nobody knows that better than the artist himself. Abstract painter William Steen explains that some art consultants plan cookie-cutter collections and are not genuinely interested in the content of a piece. "It's not so much that they're interested in your work, but that you fit into their preconceived structure or project or collection," he says. "It's kind of like the Miss America bathing suit competition. There has to be some meaningful place where your art is going, so that you're not just another woman in a bathing suit walking down the runway."

This is, after all, not about filling the wall with decorative prints. This is art, where creative and intellectual ideas are possibly at work, where there's a community with certain ways of doing things. And that scares some people.

"Sometimes people that have never been exposed to the visual arts feel intimidated and hesitate to go to a gallery," says adviser Reynolds. "Never let your lack of experience hold you back. Artists make the art for you, not just for the wealthy or for those who took art classes. They make art for everyone to look at."

To look at, sure. If only we all had the wallet to match what we see.

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