The fact that the art world can be intimidating is something Katharine Earnhardt, founder of Mason Lane Art Advisory, readily acknowledges. Art moves us, and so we move it—from studios to showrooms to fairs to living rooms and bedrooms and sometimes even vaults. And there’s just so much of it moving around at any given time that even experienced collectors can suffer from choice fatigue: surrounded by an ocean of culture yet unable to take a sip.
Earnhardt’s background includes stints at MoMA, Christie’s and Gurr Johns. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Economics from Williams College and a Master’s in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Her work can be seen in publications like Architectural Digest and House Beautiful. But she makes it abundantly clear that her approach to working with advisory clients is neither pedigogic nor grandiloquent. She not only helps people purchase art they connect with but also gives them the tools to understand why they feel that connection.
In our recent talk, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Earnhardt discussed her firm’s focus, the challenges entry-level collectors face and how she and her team help clients navigate the vastness and complexities of an ever-changing art market.
Are most of your clients newer art collectors or do you work with people at all stages of the collection journey?
When I started this firm, it was always my intention to gear it toward the entry-level collector who wanted something interesting to live with—and to help them find artwork that was compelling to them on a personal level. But after nine years, many of those entry-level collectors have worked with us for an extended period, and I would certainly call them seasoned art collectors at this point.
So we’re serving a range of collectors, from newer collectors to those who have collections we’ve helped them build that truly reflect the evolution of their families and the values they feel are important. We’ve always been very good at understanding client taste. Matchmaking clients with artwork they feel connected to is what we do, and it’s why our clients keep coming back to us for more artwork.
What are some of the unique challenges that entry-level art collectors face?
The reason why clients come to us is not that they can’t find art; it’s because there’s so much art out there, and they don’t know what’s what. It’s overwhelming. They can go to a fair like the Armory Show and then leave after three hours without seeing anything they like. But the main challenge they face is understanding what they want.
When we work with new collectors, the first thing we do is work to shift their mentality away from looking at what they like or dislike to thinking about what’s interesting to them and why. When we do that, we open their minds to the stories behind the art and how those stories relate to their personal experiences.
For example, I’m thinking about a particular photographer who lives in Maine who does these experiments with light exposure. His work looks abstract, but if you learn about how he thinks about photography and where he lives and how he’s thinking about light and reflection and fresh air, you see people’s eyes widen. They’ve experienced the same curiosity or nostalgia, or they see something in the artist’s mentality that relates to their past, their future or their goals.
By telling the story behind the art and artists and guiding clients to consider what interests them on various levels, we help them feel connected to artwork. People don’t buy art because it’s pretty. They need something more, even when they’re buying to make their homes look a certain way or to improve a portfolio.
You’re working with people who want to understand and experience art versus flipping it for profit. In that vein, what do you offer clients beyond helping them acquire art for their collections?
I wouldn’t ever recommend anyone buy art for the sole purpose of flipping it. When we’re helping our clients buy wisely, we’re certainly looking at value and quality and a few factors in the market for that artist, and I will always be transparent. It’s my duty to give my clients as much information as possible so they can buy wisely.
Internally, we’ve thought about adding the word education to our mission statement and haven’t yet, but we are starting to offer courses that have been really well received. Last summer I taught a course on the New York art world where I took ten people to a museum in one session, a gallery in the next and an auction house in the third session. We’re doing another course this auction season around the marquee sales in New York.
But I want to make clear that when we educate clients, either through traditional means like a class or more subtly as we’re showing clients art, it never feels like an art history lesson. I never want people to feel intimidated, because art history can be intimidating or dry. It’s a different animal than going out to galleries and looking at contemporary art for your home.
I have degrees in art history, as do my colleagues, and so we’re really good at translating ‘art speak’ into layman’s terms. There’s an educational element to what we do, but what we’re doing is teaching clients about the possibilities and how to think about art. It’s not an academic lesson but something more relevant and fulfilling—the goal is for the client to understand and be inspired by the art they live with.
How do you nurture relationships on the other side—with galleries and artists?
The relationship with galleries and artists is built over time and involves simple facetime, going to galleries, expressing genuine curiosity about the artists and really just befriending people. My relationship with many of my contacts isn’t just about art, but I do want to be front of mind when new work comes out, which helps me get access to the best work for my clients.
That said, I work with galleries all over the world, so I’m not logging facetime with all of them. One thing that helps is that my firm is not just me. We have an office in Brooklyn that I run, and then we have several offices elsewhere, including in Toronto and Minneapolis. And we’re opening an L.A. office next month. That’s really helpful for our relationship with galleries—everything we do is under the Mason Lane umbrella.
Who is Mason Lane?
I wanted the firm’s identity to be separate from my individual identity and to have growth potential. I also wanted something that sounded boutique and that felt established. The name actually came out of a big family dinner discussion. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how to expand to other cities, but now I’m really grateful that I chose a name that wasn’t limiting.
Are there unexplored markets that new collectors should be tapping into, geographically or otherwise?
The Canadian art market has been so wonderful for us to explore, and it really is a market that largely stays in Canada. A lot doesn’t make its way to New York or into the high-end Chelsea galleries, so having a colleague there with impeccable taste has helped us find these undiscovered artists making compelling work that looks at environmentalism or our place in the universe and uses mediums in new ways. I’m so grateful that we’ve become extremely well-versed in the Canadian art market, giving those Canadian artists opportunities to expand into the U.S. market and into important collections
In terms of other untapped markets, I think what’s important is to just help clients go into the process with an open mind. Many times, people are focused on the aesthetics when we start, and we recalibrate how they’re thinking about art so they think about the stories behind the work, then they start to open to the idea of collecting art by artists that they might not have considered. I’d tell new collectors to think less about markets and more about opening your mind to the possibilities.
What’s one thing new collectors should know as they embark on their journeys?
A lot of people come to us interested in buying art, but they have this idea that since they are not “collectors,” they will never understand or appreciate art in a meaningful way. They believe that they won’t have the eye for identifying pricing and quality differences, and they’re accordingly uninclined to invest time, money or effort in quality pieces.
What’s important to note is that when we work with clients, we are helping train their eye and share the stories behind art that enable buyers at any level to readily identify quality in a way that informs their buying choices and excites them about the process. Entry-level collectors generally have a better eye than they may believe, and seasoned collectors are always learning. Helping each individual trust that eye and get in touch with what makes them tick on a personal level is a mutually-rewarding part of every client relationship.