What I've Learned - Daniel Soma - Michael Reid

What I’ve Learned – Daniel Soma

What I've Learned

As Director of Michael Reid Sydney and Art Program at Michael Reid Murrurundi, Daniel Soma reveals making connections with collectors is key, as is ensuring the gallery stays connected with a new virtual audience. Plus shares how his favourite artwork — Kunstmarkt TV by Christian Jankowski — embraces both ideologies.

Editing by Emma-Kate Wilson

I had no artistic influencers in the home growing up. As fantastic as they are, my parents were and still are remarkably unartistic. They don’t own art and probably never will. I didn’t grow up in galleries — working-class families in Western Sydney generally didn’t because nothing like that existed in those areas until very much recently. I took my mum to the MCA when I was sixteen years old. Needless to say, she didn’t understand, but she made an excellent attempt and was genuinely curious. These are fruitful qualities I inherited and still employ today.

I was seventeen when I finished my HSC and decided to go to art school, so I was always a young man surrounded by artists and art figures. That was sixteen years ago. This industry is confusing due to the sheer diversity of what you can do with a Fine Art Degree, but ten years ago, I decided that dealing art was an avenue that I wanted to explore. I took an entry-level sales role with a commercial gallery.

It was frightening — but I’m curious and creative, and the next ten years would see me fashion my own methods of art dealing that have served well.

I think my role can be summarised in one word. Creativity.

I think my role can be summarised in one word. Creativity. I am the Director of Michael Reid Sydney and the Art Program at Michael Reid Murrurundi. It’s my job to realise creative financial and artistic decisions for the gallery and the artists we represent. My job is about manufacturing how we employ our resources to create the best possible outcomes for the gallery, our artists and our collecting patrons.

I’m not so interested in accruing things, so outside of art and books, I’ve never really collected objects. My art collection has grown substantially in a short period, though. My collecting taste could be considered, unvarnished, let’s say. I don’t buy art for decorative reasons, and although I don’t necessarily seek it out, many of the pieces I own disrupt what is considered ‘domestic’ collecting (in Australia, at least).  My partner is a Lego fanatic, so I guess you could also say Lego by proxy.

My favourite artwork has gone unchanged for many, many years. I first saw this piece at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in about 2011, and in an odd way, it was a precursor to the life that was to soon arrive for me.

In 2008, German artist Christian Jankowski was commissioned to create a new work for Art Cologne, and his response was to create a live QVC style home shopping network at the fair. Kunstmarkt TV was broadcast to the German public selling works of art by Raymond Pettibon, Vanessa Beecroft, Liam Gillick and others. The presenters, who were actual TV salespeople, attempt to sell art to the viewing public. I believe this might be the first use of mass media to sell individual works of art.

I’ll always consider it one of the best artworks because the meaning changes as art consumption habits evolve with technology and time.

Unfortunately, this work is very difficult to find. The final product sold on Kunstmarkt TV was the recording of the work itself, which I assume was purchased. No video evidence of the work exists online.

You must be able to separate the art that you enjoy consuming from the art you are responsible for promoting. Your personal taste cannot direct any decisions you make for the gallery, your artists or the needs of your collectors. I think this develops with age, or perhaps more fittingly, it’s through getting to know the reverse side of the visual arts in intimate detail that washes any pretence out of you. I’m certainly at this stage in my career now, but like most people in a role like mine, I wasn’t always. 

I adore producing exhibitions and everything that involves, but my true drive is the collectors. In a role like mine, you’re always speaking with collectors, but every so often, you make a leap and take that relationship to a new level; you become an art advisor. You know when this happens because now your conversations break the walls of your own gallery, and it’s at this point that you begin discussing that collector’s portfolio in more profound ways. It’s an exciting threshold to reach. Real trust is established, and, in some cases, you may even become good friends, and that is truly lovely.

The emergence of the pandemic brought a set of challenges in the art market that, for industry people, was frightening and confusing. I was actually in Germany, producing and selling a group exhibition of painters when the borders began to close, and I was terrified that I would be locked out.

While I was attempting to get out, I kept my sanity by carrying on with selling my show — which I did do, by the way. I made it back in the end, and when stay at home orders were enforced, and people were uncertain about their jobs and finances (myself included); I refused to let those circumstances intimidate me.

2020 forced me to critically assess how Michael Reid presents its exhibitions in the digital space and how we speak to our audiences remotely. The abolition of any formulated approach to digital display at Michael Reid has set a new benchmark, and I’m now seeing examples of this being replicated by other galleries in this country.

I adore producing exhibitions and everything that involves, but my true drive is the collectors.

An observation I’ve made is that we suddenly find ourselves in a world where collectors can immediately be in touch with artists via their social media accounts. This channel between artist and collector has never really existed for those outside of the industry. This new change is shaping how galleries, artists, and collectors are now engaging. It’s gradual though, even amidst this change, artists tend to channel their enquires back to their galleries. They are, after all, too busy and successful to take time away from making their work.

So, as we account for these new channels of communication, service is now paramount. The programs my colleagues and I curate in the gallery, although exceptional, scratch only the surface of our abilities to broaden opportunities and audience reach for the artists we represent.

Galleries not achieving exemplary service for their artists and collectors will be left behind.

Be stoic. And get to know your colleagues well, allow them to be your friends and you be theirs. Empathise with your colleagues and their responsibilities because when it’s your turn to have a bad day, it’s that empathy that allows you to (momentarily) fracture under pressure with grace.