Out of the blue and on Clematis, too
“Things are great!” Steve Hartman says. The owner of the newly opened Contessa Gallery at 539 Clematis St. says his “out of the blue” decision to sign a short-term lease on the property was the right one.
And at 8,000 square feet, this is the biggest gallery Mr. Hartman has ever had.
“It was meant to be a pop-up gallery to test the market,” Mr. Hartman said, “then it was a satellite gallery, and now hopefully it’s a permanent home.”
And you couldn’t ask for a warmer reception. The new gallery has been enthusiastically welcomed by the city of West Palm Beach and the Downtown Development Authority.
"This gallery, and the high-caliber artists show-cased, is a win for Downtown West Palm Beach and further validation of the growing appeal and attraction of the area as a destination for the arts," said Raphael Clemente, executive director of the DDA.
Mr. Hartman came to West Palm Beach from Cleveland to exhibit at the Palm Beach Modern + Contemporary Art Fair held Jan. 12-15. It attracted nearly 18,000 people, including top art collectors, connoisseurs, advisers and museum professionals, and even a few celebs (Tommy Hilfiger and NFL legend Joe Namath were spotted). More than 50 international galleries brought the work of about a thousand artists to the four-day exhibition, and one of those was Contessa Gallery, which exhibits at four to six of the major arts shows each year.
Mr. Hartman opened Contessa Gallery in Cleveland in 1999 with Karen Tscherne, a friend who shared his love of art. “We called it The Contessa Gallery, because ‘contessa’ means something very refined, culture and dignified, and we liked that.”
He had recognized a hole in the art market in Cleveland. When he began collecting in his early 20s, he couldn’t find what he wanted in Cleveland. “The type of art I wanted wasn’t available,” he said. People from Cleveland were going to New York or Los Angeles to buy their high-end art. Mr. Hartman knew he could fill that void. “I saw an opportunity and I took a risk.”
He said he knew from then on that he’d own a gallery one day. His parents were not interested in art. Mr. Hartman’s father was a lawyer and his mother was a homemaker. Hartman fell in love with art as a child and says Rembrandt was an early favorite. “I could always draw well,” he said. “And since I was 5 years old, I loved collecting and organizing and classifying the things I collected.”
“I had a highly photographic mind. A spatial mind. And a thirst for knowledge. I was a voracious reader and I was self-taught about art,” he said. “I don’t like to be influenced, but I do like to have information to make my own informed decision. And I’ve always been able to spot things before other people. I just picked up things a little faster.”
Mr. Hartman left Cleveland long enough to get a BA in finance from the University of Michigan, which landed him a job as an as an investment adviser for UBS/Paine Webber, one of the world’s top wealth and asset management firms. While there, he gained leadership skills by completing the Wexner Leadership Development Program.
He kept his day job while building clientele at Contessa. Four years later, in 2003, Mr. Hartman opened a second gallery, and he retired from USB/Paine Webber. He had achieved one of life’s most difficult goals: He had turned his passion into a successful vocation.
That year, Mr. Hartman was named one of “Forty under 40” by Crain Cleveland Business. The annual award honors local individuals for their professional success and civic contributions.
Mr. Hartman said studying finance in college and working in the stock market gave him confidence to navigate the art market. “I was fortunate that I came from a financial background. I’m one of few people who know both the artistic and financial side.”
Julie Macdonald, publisher of the trade magazine Art Business News, said of Mr. Hartman, “He has been able to show credibility, marketability and sales."
Today, Mr. Hartman represents the works of prominent artists from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol, with price tags from $1,000 to $1 million. “To me, art is the highest form of communication. Poets, artists, musicians, they see the world in a different way. They’re visionary. They speak for the times.”
His interest is in the two art forms and artists he says are speaking loudly and dominating the world of art today: pop art and street art. His interest led him to Mr. Brainwash. The white-hot street/pop artist, born Thierry Guetta in France in 1966, is one of Mr. Hartman’s great gets. “Mr. Brainwash pushes the envelope. His work is upbeat, positive, colorful, layered. It’s happy. It’s not like a lot of street art that’s anti-government, anti-social, anti-everything.”
Mr. Brainwash uses a lot of black and white splashed with bright colors and dominated by cultural images and pop idols. Some of his work looks like a graffiti-covered wall, with many layers one on top of another cleverly embedded with cultural iconography. His use of pop idols from Marilyn Monroe to Mickey Mouse adds a playfulness to his work.
Some art dealers speak about art as an investment, but that’s not why you should buy art, Mr. Hartman said. “Buy art because you love it.” Then if it goes up in value, great. If it doesn’t, you still have a piece of art that you love.
“I see buying a piece of art as an investment in yourself, not just financial. It’s about what you value, your core beliefs, and what art speaks to you. Everyone is affected differently by art. It should touch you on several levels: Physiologically. Intellectually. Emotionally. It should open your mind, and alter your perception.”
Our brains are influenced by what we see, Mr. Hartman says, and “I prefer to focus on the positive. So much of the art world, and the world in general, is negative. There’s an important place for people who view the world as positive.”
Mr. Hartman says his early years were about collecting, but these days, “It’s about the hunt. I love the hunt! Tracking something down. The quest.”
He is on a new quest now. What to do with the Clematis Street gallery? His lease is up April 30, and he might have to close, so this may be your only chance to get a look at the art on display. Mr. Hartman hopes he can extend his lease. But if he can’t, he’ll likely find another option. West Palm Beach seems to be bringing out the kid in him. “I’m 52, but I have the energy of a 20-yearold,” he laughs. “I feel, max, 25.”
But Mr. Hartman is destined to be a snowbird, because there’s no way he will ever leave Cleveland for good. He’s proud of his Midwestern roots. “We’re salt-of-the-earth people,” he said. “We’re kind, humble. We have a strong work ethic. It’s the core of who you are, and I value those people who came from good stock and with that kind of character.”
Even though Mr. Hartman’s not 100 percent sure of what his future holds, he’s sure it will work out the way it’s supposed to. He’s an optimist, after all.
“And I, like art, evolve.” ¦