An Interview with a Dealer: Betsy Nathan

Each week CGN interviews a local art dealer to discuss the ins and outs of running a gallery in the city of Chicago. This week we caught up with Betsy Nathan of Pagoda Red.


Gallery: Pagoda Red

Name: Betsy Nathan

Previous occupation: Media Monitoring in China


Favorites from this week:

Restaurant: Ramen Takeya, Fulton Market

Shop: Robin Richman, Bucktown

Read: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Neighborhood: Lake Michigan via paddleboard


Chicago Gallery News: Tell us about your art background. How did Pagoda Red begin? 

Betsy Nathan: It’s been 20 years and I am doing anything but what I thought I would be doing. You could say I couldn’t help it. All roads led here. My mother, the gallerist Ann Nathan, was a voracious collector. Our house was full of naive and fine art. As a kid, I remember Roger Brown and Ed Paschke in our living room.

I studied Mandarin in Beijing for a couple of years in my twenties—this is where I first fell in love with Chinese furniture. From there I amassed a collection of furniture, paintings and objects from Asia and beyond. Pagoda Red was the natural extension. I love the soul and authenticity of what I do. It’s been a fantastic journey bringing the spirit and cultures of the artists together. 


CGN: Please describe your gallery’s program in one sentence.

BN: We preserve and promote extraordinary and meaningful objects. Comfortable yet refined, inviting and unpretentious, personal and meaningful—ours are the everyday from the past and far away reflected amidst the contemporary. We are excited by the way rough and smooth, old and new come together to make places and moments rich and deep.


CGN: Share a typical day in the life

BN: I enjoy the quiet morning. I usually wake up an hour before my husband and four boys. It gives me time to do some writing, yoga, or walk near the lake with our dog. After I get the boys settled at school I then head to the gallery.  Sometimes, I stop by the warehouse to discuss restoration with our conservator. The gallery is nestled in a garden. Often times I organize my meetings with artists, writers, event planners and collectors outside amidst our collection of 18th c. garden stones. It’s a great place to plan as we watch the microcosm in action—this summer it was a brood of baby skunks on the berm, robins eggs in one of the cherry trees, birds bathing in the meditation stones and city cats taking note of it all.

Before homework with my boys gets started in the evening, we like to cook vegetables from our garden at home… they are into lacrosse, chess, theatre and history. I sleep well every night. 


CGN: Best sale you ever had?

BN: Not sure if it was the best, but it was thrilling to see one of our monumental scholars' stones placed as a focal point in the landscape of a major collector’s property. This was a southern gentleman. I remember him asking me to keep my eye out for just the right stone for him. When I found the three-ton sculpture, I began to get a bit nervous about how to install—he didn't hesitate..."I'll be there tomorrow to pick it up.”  And sure enough, his very own crane arrived to pick it up the following day.


CGN: Share some successes as well as challenges this year.

BN: Our foray online has been a huge step forward. It has been a great opportunity to connect with distant audiences. Learning how to deliver with the same touch (as we have locally) to distant islands in the pacific is another thing.  We are learning one day at a time.


CGN: What are some unique aspects about running an art and antiques business in general as well as in Chicago?

BN: There is never a dull moment. We know our clients well.  An antique is like a work of art.  It only gets better with time.  As my mother always says, “With art you are speaking to the soul. No one needs a work of art.  It must move them, anger them, excite them or thrill them. Otherwise, forget it.”


CGN: What do you want to tell a young person considering this business?

BN: Don’t think about it too hard. This is not a rational business. Take it one day at a time and surround yourself with colleagues that you love to work with. In the end it feels better to laugh and cry with people you respect and appreciate.


CGN: One piece of advice you would send back to yourself when you started out?

BN: Simplify.


CGN: Favorite cultural pursuit outside of the art world?

BN: Exploring outside. Mostly hiking, paddling and pedaling with my boys.


CGN: Favorite work of public art in Chicago?

BN: The Dubuffet outside of the State of Illinois Center (James R. Thompson Center.)


CGN: Artists you admire most.

BN: Today, I am thinking about the unnamed masters who created African dance masks in the early 20th century. They did what they loved. It poured out of their spirit. No training, and yet, beautiful forms. There was nothing to prove in the world that we know but, rather, creation that called out to another world. It’s no wonder they were a primary inspiration behind the prolific expressionists and cubists recognized today.


CGN: What’s coming up next at the gallery?

BN: The debut of the African collection that my mother, Ann Nathan, collected for the past 25 years in the backroom of her gallery. The primitive forms juxtaposed with the fine lines of Chinese furniture and contemporary art pushes the mix I truly love. 


Betsy Nathan is the owner of Pagoda Red located in Winnetka and Chicago. For more information about her gallery visit: Pagoda Red.