The Art of Exhibitionism

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Class of ’61 | “If I could paint, I’d be a painter; if I could write, I’d be a writer,” ruminates Sanford Smith W’61. While his creative ambitions may remain unfulfilled, Smith’s career is intimately linked to the art world. He doesn’t make art; he promotes it, and the exhibitions he organizes are among the most anticipated and important in the world. 

They include the International Fine Print Dealers Association Fair; “Modernism: 1890-1990, A Century of Style and Design” (which focuses on contemporary furniture and decorative arts); “Art of the Twentieth Century”; the Outsider Art Fair (which exhibits works by the untrained, the criminal, the mentally ill); and the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. (See for more details.)

For Smith, a former sociology major, it all goes back to his undergraduate involvement with the theater. “I was active with the Pennsylvania Players, backstage and as a stage manager,” he recalls. As a junior, his entrepreneurial nature drove him to strike out on his own. “The Penn Players were big on Oklahoma and The King and I—shows that were meant more for high-school students,” he says. In pursuit of more challenging fare, he founded an organization called the Drama Guild, and a number of notable successes followed: His troupe was first in the country to stage Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot, as well as an obscure Shaw play called The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles—all productions unlike any before seen at Penn.

Upon graduating, Smith spent an exploratory year in law school, then went on to earn a master’s degree in communications from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A Brooklyn native, he returned to New York with job offers from NBC Sports and several advertising agencies. Instead, he joined his father in managing the family’s funeral home—a career choice he came to regret. “I hated it,” he admits. “So I started doing some other things on the side.” 

At first these included selling Art Nouveau- and Art Deco-inspired jewelry, and also antiques. He founded a small publishing house. Then, in 1979, he decided to mount an exhibition of American furniture to benefit the American Museum of Folk Art. It proved wildly popular.

“We had the most successful first show ever in the history of the business,” he recalls. “I figured out that what I do today is basically what a theatrical general manager does. He gets the venue; helps with the casting; puts the show together; helps with the advertising, the promotion, the publicity; gets the gig; and all the other things that I do now. So what I did at Penn [with the Drama Guild] was a first step toward the things I eventually did many years later.”

Today Smith’s shows are among the most important events on New York’s cultural calendar, and they invariably dominate their fields. “What I’ve found my most success at is identifying a market,” he explains. “Either I’m the first one to enter that field, or I do it better than anyone else and it becomes the top show in its field. All the shows I still have are the top shows in their individual fields.”

As their scale and polish demonstrate, Smith’s exhibitions represent quasi-military feats of planning and organization that, by now, have become second nature to him.

“You start by coming up with an idea, and then you find a place to hold it,” he explains. “Then the tough part usually comes in soliciting the dealers to exhibit at it. But once you get them, you start getting your publicity, your advertising; you get a sponsor; and you have an opening-night preview party.” Smith’s benefits—elegant affairs populated by the famous and well-heeled—have raised millions of dollars over the years for various museums and organizations.

His office, the former drawing room of an 1830s East Village townhouse, reflects his eclectic interests. It contains, among other things, a three-foot-long ant carved from sugar maple; a life-sized, pasteboard flapper complete with bobbed hair (a former department-store mannequin); a toy car collection; an equestrian cowboy bronze; nautical oils; and a very affectionate cat. It strikes a balance between a Salvation Army thrift shop and a Renaissance gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities.

But one would be lucky indeed to discover any of Smith’s treasures in a second-hand shop. He points to one of the artworks—a primitive but charming stone bust. The subject, he reveals, is Little Orphan Annie. “It’s by an ex-slave, William Edmonson, the first black man to have a show at MoMa, in 1939,” he explains. Noting that it was about to go on tour, he adds: “When it gets back next time it will have been in 10 museum shows.”

Smith makes no apologies for his meandering tastes. “I buy what I like,” he says. “I don’t buy in any one particular area. I’m not really a collector; I have a dealer’s mentality—I buy whatever interests me, whatever appeals to me—everything from pottery and contemporary woodwork to sculpture; I buy paintings and watercolors, military miniatures—just look around; a little bit of everything.”

Despite his remarkable successes, Smith remains down-to-earth. “My only talent seems to be organizing interesting events,” he says offhandedly. “And the best thing about having your own business is that you can wear dungarees to work.”

—David Perrelli C’01

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