For 2019’s first Frank Talk we chat with Michael Jerch, who is the Director at Palmieri Fine Art, Inc., a bespoke full-service Art firm based in New York City founded by Gabriela Palmieri, with whom he previously worked at Sotheby’s from 2006 to 2008. Michael is accountable for all aspects of PFA’s activities including logistics, research, accounting, appraisals, auctions, as well as taking care of anything their clients need. Prior to rejoining Gabriela in 2017, Michael was the Collections Manager at Ruth|Catone, and he holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography summa cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We are thrilled to share Michael’s insight here with you! Please enjoy.
What was your first job in the Arts?
I started out as a registrar at Sotheby’s colorfully named Central Receiving, which we referred to as “The Cage” because it was an actual metal fenced-in room where every object entered the building to be processed. I was living in Chapel Hill, NC at the time and so listed a friend’s NYC address on my resume. When I got the call to come in for an interview the next day, I made up some reason why I needed two days. One Chinatown bus and a friend’s futon later, it all worked out.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
Nearly every single day you would learn of a new artist, new terminology, and interact with new people. That sounds a little maddening, but I think it was one of the best parts. You just had to absorb everything.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
I went to an extremely nerdy public science and math boarding school (NCSSM: Durham, NC) before college and fully pictured I’d be some kind of computer engineer. The school has an annual spring tradition wherein everything pauses for two weeks, and you are encouraged to study or create something new, regardless of your curriculum.
My group stubbornly chose to make a mockumentary about our aborted efforts to make a fictitious action movie. Naturally we all starred, and it’s as silly as it sounds, meaning it was well received by our peers. That led to a serious consideration of film schools and ultimately falling in love with color photography, and earning a BFA at UNC. Later, I found a real affinity with the systems and concepts that background the art world.
What do you do now?
I am the Director at Palmieri Fine Art, Inc. Not completely unofficially the title is “Director of Everything,” as Founder|Principal Gabriela Palmieri puts it. It’s difficult to summarize, but we work with private collectors and have an exhaustive range of advisory services.
Where are you from?
Fayetteville, North Carolina. I am the only Southerner in a family full of Yankees. The accent comes out here and there. When I need it, y’all.
What is the arts community like there?
I’m not aware of a particularly booming arts community in Fayetteville, although Methodist University’s gallery continues an exhibition program and – as I have just learned – absorbed the Fayetteville Museum of Art’s collection after it closed many years ago, so there’s that.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Be open to the possibility that, while you might not know how something works at first, or maybe are intimidated by established and knowledgeable voices, or simply do not yet know what is right for you, if you are hardworking and receptive to constructive criticism, that dedication and flexibility will ultimately be the source of your success in the art world.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
This is going to sound generically nonspecific, but I am proud of being thought of as the most detailed and organized person in the room.
What has been a challenge for you?
At times I’ve had some confidence issues, which comes as a surprise when I explain it, so I must be managing it well, but perhaps it’s not that uncommon. In a sense it’s a matter of presentation: Was this a successful viewing? How could I have prepared more? Was I engaging?
What is something you do every day at work?
Databases may not be glamorous, but when you design one completely from scratch, and it’s a foundational tool for your team, there is seemingly something to improve or update literally every day. Ours is a totally custom in-house system which has evolved from humble beginnings to something we now show off, encompassing different research, accounting, and obviously inventory roles, while also being the basis for standalone versions that are tailored to clients’ needs.
What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?
Any good registrar keeps a list of absurd situations they come across, so that when they one day retire from the arts, they’ll finally sit down to pen that memoir. One chapter of mine might be titled Tree Pants, a work by Peter Coffin consisting of a pair of denim jeans literally sewn upside down onto a tree at a point where it bifurcates in such a way to resemble a waist and legs. It is whimsical and fun but a hassle to install and preserve. Finding a local seamster and walking them through what exactly I needed them to do was always fun and weird, and explaining it to non-art people was doubly entertaining.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
For me, the most important quality in a good employee – be they a direct report, a superior, or a colleague – is reliability. There is always a learning curve, and we all collaborate and assist each other for sure. But on a base level, it’s a good quality to be able to own a particular something, and for others to have confidence in your ability to reliably execute that something.
I find that a good boss is at once a mentor, a sounding board, sometimes a colleague, and the voice of reason. My father is a retired engineer and factory manager who has taught me that, once you become a boss yourself, your tendency is to replicate the best attributes of your past good bosses, so remember them. In other words, it’s a two-way street.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?
Be punctual figuratively and literally. These are not hard to do with a little effort. If you are not early, you will be late. If your emails are commonly not proofread, it will be noticeable.
What are things you can do proactively boost your CV?
Many a late night with colleagues has taught me that we simply do not advocate on behalf of ourselves enough in this industry. You should have trusted friends review your CV and give you advice. This goes as well for reviews and requesting increases in your compensation. I find that most do not speak of themselves highly enough, or they do not find the best words that distinguish their truly noteworthy accomplishments and traits.
Are there any tips you can give people entering the workforce?
We are all very busy to the point that it is a cliché to even mention it, so having a friendly demeanor on a day to day basis whilst being able to still engage in overlapping projects is a great – albeit unfortunately not universal – quality. Basic things like “good morning” go a long way. It’s great to work with like-minded colleagues both professionally and courteously. And it is not hard to be both.
In your experience, what are things to do and things to avoid during an interview?
I would agree with all of the standard suggestions such as dress well, be early, etc. What I would advise for the art world in particular is to try to put yourself in the shoes of the potential employer. Interviewing and hiring is not easy, and many arts organizations are too small and/or do not necessarily have HR departments, nor may they even go through hiring processes very frequently.
I appreciated when interviewees came prepared to me with their own questions; it helps structure the end of the conversation, which might be awkward for the interviewer, and it shows that you were prepared. Certainly one question could be about salary as that is fair, but also think about straightforward questions that maybe just haven’t come up naturally in the interview. What was the last employee in this position like? What are the usual business hours? What does a busy day look like for you, and a slower day? You are not interviewing your potential employer, so keep it simple, but I think this shows that you are thinking about your addition to the team in a practical sense, and questions with simple answers can put the interviewer at ease.
Any other anecdotes about your experience in the art world that you would like to share?
Another chapter of the memoir might be titled The Jute Webbing. Tejo Remy’s “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory” Chest of Drawers is a grouping of individual drawers all held together by a single fabric strap. The strap is a textile product called jute webbing. Its primary use is in the making of chairs. This particular Chest of Drawers had been reinstalled several times, so the strap was frayed. You can Google “jute webbing” and find many many options to buy it online, as I did, but you will never find any with the exact same color banding as my Chest of Drawers. The reason has something to do with them being country-specific. Five months off and on and many unsuccessful emails with manufacturers in Bangladesh later, I determined my strap will have to come from The Netherlands. This should probably have occured to me earlier as both Remy and Droog Design are Dutch, but my point is that the strap was identically replaced and backups ordered. I doubt anyone has or will ever notice this.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?
Félix González-Torres, Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Louise Bourgeois.