An Interview with a Dealer: Martha Schneider
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 Martha Schneider of Schneider Gallery who is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the opening of her gallery in River North. Join her for the opening reception of Then + Now: 30th Anniversary on Friday, July 14 from 5-7:30pm.
Gallery: Schneider Gallery
Name: Martha Schneider
Previous occupations: Assistant secretary at law office
Hometown: Buenos Aires
Chicago Gallery News: Please describe your gallery’s program in one sentence.
Martha Schneider: Contemporary photography from around the world.
CGN: How did you become an art dealer?
MS: I started when my husband was a lowly resident in psychiatry and I fell in love with collecting art. He soon said I needed to find my own way of making money, so I started getting more involved in the art world, making friends with dealers, collectors and artists. My husband and I are originally from Argentina, so I started bringing small works back with me, and finding friends in my social circles to buy them. My circle grew and with the help of time, persistence and word of mouth I had a nice and growing base of collectors. I made some more important connections with larger corporate collections like US Bell. Eventually, I started to use my home for a display space and invited groups to view the work. For example, when I lived in Park Ridge, I invited the members of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to come to my home and look around.
I moved to Highland Park and began advising people about art from home. I could be with my children and continue to pursue art dealing. I dedicated one of the bedrooms into a small home-gallery. From there I generated more clients and followers. Everything was working fine until one Sunday my doorbell began ringing like crazy; still in my pajamas, I opened the door to discover three clients in need of an emergency present for a friend. We solved their problem, but the experience was enough to make me decide not have my home disrupted any longer. So, I rented a gallery space on Green Bay Road in Highland Park, on the second floor. I opened it in 1982 and at the time specialized in ceramic and handmade jewelry. In 1988, my husband and I decided to move to the city, so the gallery moved with me to the River North and there it stayed. It’s from the River North location that I started to add photography. The ceramics faded, and today I focus on contemporary photography exclusively.
CGN: How did you decide to focus on contemporary photography?
MS: I had been collecting contemporary photography, and when I was still representing ceramicists, one of the photographers I met, Luis Gonzalez Palma, asked what was on my walls. When I said nothing, he insisted, “Put my photos on your walls,” and so we started. Today, I still believe that photography is the media of our time. When I began, there were not a lot of galleries interested in taking a risk on photography, and contemporary photography especially. Some may say that I was a pioneer, but I just think there are some interesting living artists making powerful work, and I want to give them a platform.
CGN: What’s the first thing you do each morning when you get to the gallery?
MS: I turn on the lights, grab a glass of water and start up my computer to begin checking my email.
CGN: Thumbs up or down on art fairs?
MS: Thumbs down, for me personally. I do have mixed feeling about them, but I don’t enjoy the rhythm of them from the dealer’s side. I enjoy taking time with my clients, and don’t feel I can work the same way at a fair. I will go to fairs to see what is out there, who the new artists are, and what is being shown. The one thing I always come away with is a reassurance of what I like. I don’t usually find the best work at art fairs.
CGN: Artists you admire but don’t represent?
MS: Pierre Goonord, Fazal Sheik, Cindy Sherman, and David Hilliard, among others.
CGN: Best sale you ever had?
MS: The best part of any sale, for me, is being part of what connects the artist and the collector. Money keeps us alive, but it is not the most rewarding part of the exchange. I like working personally with specific clients, and my favorites are the ones who come back year after year to look, talk and share what they have seen and in turn what I’ve seen to recommend for them. They are friends more than anything else. Some of my most faithful patrons are couples—one duo of lawyers out of New York, another major collector and museum patron out of Nebraska, some Italians who live in France, and a man in the hotelier business from Indonesia.
CGN: Your gallery is celebrating its 30th anniversary. What advice would you offer to your younger self?
MS: I am celebrating my 30 years in River North and 35 years as a dealer. However, my work in this business of art began quite a time before. When my oldest daughter was 9 months old and just starting to crawl, one of the members of the Museum of Contemporary Art came to my house and was interested in the art that I’d brought back from Argentina. He acquired a few copies. So in less formal ways, I’ve been in this business for more than 40 years.
As for advice, I would say first try to start with some experience in both art and sales. Try to establish a few clients and grow slowly and steadily. Keep a moderate sense of goals in the beginning, and stick with it. You must know what you like, and stay true to your own aesthetic. If you can, you will be able to transmit why to existing and new patrons.
CGN: What’s coming up next at your gallery?
MS: The anniversary show. It opens the 14th of July and is on display through the first week of September. It will be a wonderful selection of old and new works by artists we have worked with through the years. The work I’m most excited about is some new pieces we will have from Luis (Gonzalez Palma). As I mentioned, Luis was the artist who helped me shift from ceramics to photography, and probably the artist I was most influential in developing through the years. It’s a special moment to have his work in our show, and they are as beautiful as ever.
CGN: What major successes have you had this year? What about challenges?
MS: I worked with Father Terry Dempsey to put a show together for Erika Diettes in the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis, Missouri that was very successful. Luis (Gonzalez Palma) is having a traveling retrospective in Spain that will likely travel more broadly in Europe, and he was also invited to contribute work to a site related to the Venice Biennale. This is the third time he is being affiliated with the global art initiative.
35+ years in business is also a major milestone for me.
The challenge is staying relevant and alive in the art world with critical work and not resorting to “fluff” that is easy to sell, but not as critical or valid as the sort of work we have stood by all these past years.
CGN: What is your favorite interest outside of the art world?
MS: My husband and my family. Also, traveling plays a huge part in my life and major interests. I love seeing how other people live and their customs. I believe that experiencing other parts and people in the world is important.
CGN: What’s your favorite work of public art in Chicago?
MS: The Jaume Plensa Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Millennium Park.
CGN: What are your five favorite places to see art in Chicago?
- Art Institute of Chicago
- Galleries including Stephen Daiter Gallery, Addington Gallery and Ken Saunders Gallery
- Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
- Museum of Natural Science
- Exhibition of college graduates at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Martha Schneider is the owner of Schneider Gallery located in River North. For more information about her gallery visit: Schneider Gallery.