Sara Friedlander at Russ & Daughters restaurant at the Jewish Museum in New York. Photo Daniel Dorsa

What I’ve learned: Sara Friedlander, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art

Our International Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art reflects on growing up around art in New York, why Van Gogh made her cry and the challenges of installing a work consisting of a cage of pigeons and figures made out of birdseed

My parents are rabbis, so I grew up in the business of religion and spirituality. But, for me, museums were the synagogues. Standing in front of a painting worked better than the Torah as a way of understanding the world and my place in it. I was fortunate to have parents who grasped that quite quickly.

My mother and her husband have a beautiful Judaica collection, so I’ve always been comfortable with the idea that objects can be special and holy. My father collects early 20th-century photography; in his house the shades were forever closed, because he didn’t want light to touch the Kertész prints. That gave me an early understanding that objects need to be cared for and protected.

At the same time, my work is very tactile. I am always lifting pictures off walls, taking them out of their frames, examining them under blacklights so that they can bare their souls. I get a little uncomfortable when people are too precious around art, because these are things you live with, they bear witness to your life. You don’t want anyone spilling coffee on your artworks, but you have to see them as functional in some sense.

New York has the most engaged collecting community in the world. It is this rich and dense environment where people can look at art and buy art and talk about art. I was born here, I work here, and I know that something about New York makes you feel everyone collects.

I studied the decorative arts at graduate school, but had no feeling for materials. I spent a week with a cabinetmaker in London, looking at different kinds of wood, but could never tell which was which. It was painful, like trying to learn a language in which you can never be fluent. I would escape to galleries to look at contemporary art, and I found myself thinking: now this is a language I understand.

‘I get a little uncomfortable when people are too precious around art, because these are things you live with, they bear witness to your life’ — Sara Friedlander

Van Gogh made me cry. I don’t remember it, because I was three years old, but my grandfather took me to the Met and I burst into tears in front of Van Gogh’s painting of crows in a field. I found it so scary. But the artist who made me think differently about art is Brancusi. The notion that art can be removed from the formality of the pedestal, that an object can be something in and of itself, that was earth-shattering to me.

I think we are experiencing a big aesthetic shift. When I studied art history, I believed that all the real excitement began with Pollock’s drip paintings and Rothko’s multiforms. Now I think it is almost impossible to find a groundbreaking contemporary abstractionist. It is not that there isn’t great abstract painting — there is. But the market has seen a lot of the same-olds, and I find myself veering towards artists who are investigating the figure — which hasn’t been in fashion for a while — or sculpture, or conceptual art.

One of my biggest challenges — logistically, commercially, curatorially — was the sale of Flying Rats, by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia. It was the first big project that I worked on. The installation consists of a cage full of pigeons along with figures of children made out of birdseed. Over the course of a week the pigeons ate the children. It was wild, and a fascinating exercise in what art can do. Ultimately we were selling a concept, because the purchaser didn’t receive the pigeons or the cage, just a certificate.

Kader Attia (b. 1970), Flying Rats, executed in 2005. Sold for $90,000 on 26 February 2007 at Christie’s in New York

Kader Attia (b. 1970), Flying Rats, executed in 2005. Sold for $90,000 on 26 February 2007 at Christie’s in New York

I am quite obsessive about books — buying them, seeking them out. I only purchase art books: they are my way of assembling a fantasy art collection of my own, as well as being a working library and a constant source of inspiration. Books are pretty much everywhere in my life right now.

The most interesting clients have a collection that exists only in their head. It consists of all the things that they can’t have, or missed, or regret having passed on... I speak to clients just as frequently about the pictures that they didn’t buy as I do about the ones they did.

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Estimates are psychologically a very complicated thing. When I speak to buyers before a sale, they know the estimate, they usually have a good idea of how the market stands, and they have to match that to their own desire. Yet an estimate can be anything, and it can create a reality of its own. Most clients get that, and they think less about the estimate on a piece, and more about its value. Estimates are more for the seller’s benefit than the buyer’s.

I see my job as connecting great people with great art. I am lucky to work with pictures, a medium I have always loved, and to be in a world where other people are equally obsessed. It’s a lifelong journey of matchmaking.