– AN ART OF A RIDE –
Exclusive Interview with ERIC SMITH, President, Redwood Media Group by Dr. Asaf Rolef Ben-Shahar.
Eric Smith, one of the strongest figures in the contemporary art world today!
As CEO, Eric Smith oversees all creative aspects and the production of the Redwood Media Group, which operates more than six shows in different cities in the US, including Artexpo New York, SPECTRUM Miami, Art San Diego, Red Dot Miami , [SOLO], and [FOTO SOLO].
Under Smith’s direction, Artexpo New York will continue as the leading trade show of the popular and fine art industries, offering industry professionals access to thousands of wholesale works from artists and publishers from all over the globe under one roof.
We are most honored to have an exclusive interview with one of the most important figures in the art industry!
Asaf: Good morning, Eric. Where do I find you?
Eric: I work out of my home. So you’re always working when you work out of your home…
Asaf: Yes. Could you start telling us what makes you tick? Where’s your passion?
Eric: My passions are motorcycles and tennis. I ride a Husqvarna 701 Enduro, which is an on-off road bike and I mainly ride in the dirt. I grew up racing motocross together with my two brothers. I played tennis in high school and college and rode motorcycles, so I didn’t have time to party. I was too busy playing tennis and riding. Later on I married and then my two daughters came along and I stopped riding and stopped playing tennis. In 2009 we divorced and the first two things that I did was start playing tennis and riding again.
Asaf: Second round
Eric: I’ve been riding with both of my brothers in the last few months, and it had brought us together.
Asaf: There’s so much adrenaline in sports, how do you get your kick from business?
Eric: Running business is a blast. I get my kick by employing really good people and giving them complete authority to make their decision and backing their decisions. I’m a very hands-off manager. We don’t have an office. I have people in Lowa, Seattle, Washington, Monterey California, Hinckley, Ohio and here in San Diego… and you have to trust that they are doing what they have to do. And that’s exciting.
Asaf: So how did you shift between the worlds?
Eric: Yes. I grew up in the motorbike industry and worked for O’Neal USA and Bell Helmets and I loved it, it’s a complete lifestyle. I was the purchasing manager for O’Neal USA, which is a motocross distributor, and I then wanted to get into sales. My brother-in-law owned a frame shop and he recommended I approach Martin Lawrence Galleries and so I applied to work at the gallery. He actually meant that I should apply to work in the wholesale department of their Corporate Headquarters but I applied at the gallery. And they offered me the job. I remember reading as many art books as I could in three months, because I knew I should know more about art than the people I was selling art to. And within a year I was running five galleries. I ended up running twenty, and had 105 people working for me.
Asaf: What a change. Have you come to feel as excited about art as you feel about motorcycles?
Eric: During that three month period I learned a lot, and I truly like the art world and I like learning about art, and I have good business acumen, so I felt that I could help artists and galleries on the business side of it. I worked in Martin Lawrence for more than ten years, and one day the president said to me “it’s time for you to move on,” because I was growing in the company and the next stop would have been, I guess, to be president of the company and they already have one of those… he wasn’t going anywhere.
I was offered a job as director of sales for Art-Expo New York and that was in 1997, and I spoke to the MLG president Barry Levin, who was a mentor, and as I said to him, “I think I’m going to take that job” and he said,” I’ll bet you’ll end up owning that show one day”. And I said, “yeah right”. And he was right! Today I own that show.
Asaf: So you kind of stumbled across art, and you’ve directed all your attention there and have become a central figure in the art world. Tell us about your business focus.
Eric: The portion in the art world that we focus on is the accessible art. Art price ranges at our shows are usually for a thousand to a $100ks. Most of the pieces are under $15-20k and for those people with means they can pull a credit card and buy a piece of art. And we also focus on the education of artists and galleries. We put buyers and sellers (or dealers and collectors) together.
Asaf: Is your choice of market population a business choice or a principle one?
Eric: It’s both. We produce art fairs. We have six shows now are launching two new ones next month. But really, we do not compete on the very contemporary gallery level. The people that are doing Art Basel or Frieze or the Armory Show, they compete on a different market – we are more accessible. If you go to Art Basel in Switzerland, out of every thousand people who go through the door, there are maybe two or three who are actually buying something. One tenth of one percent are buying these really expensive pieces; we play in the more accessible realms, that’s where we focus on all of our shows and we’ve had success. We have some good sponsors with UBS bank and Cadillac, for example.
Asaf: And where would you like to develop next?
Eric: Well. In my personal life right now, I’ve cut back on my work and work six instead of ten or eleven hours a day. I play tennis every morning, and at 58 years old you start thinking of enjoying your life a little more and not challenging the world so much. I make sure that any new launches and any new shows we are running are going to be successful and not going to hinder any of my staff, I have 14 people, or upset any of our clients. So we run a good research. We have had great success in the Miami Area with Spectrum Miami and Red Dot Miami, we literally started that show five years ago and it is our second largest show today.
Together with Art Basel, UBS just put out “The art market 2017”, a document by Dr. Clare McAndrew (an art economist). And in this document they claim that 41% of art sales today are through art fairs. Art fairs a very interesting product. Let’s take Art Expo New York, it is 40 years old and there are 400 exhibitors which will see about 32,000 people during four days. That is more people they would see in their galleries in three years. So it enables them to reach a bigger crowd in a very short amount of time.