April 12, 2017

Q&A with Donald Christiansen of Chelsea Art Group

In 1996, Donald Christiansen founded the Chelsea Art Group. Today, the art consultancy firm services some of the biggest names and museums out there—we just can't always tell you who/which they are!

by New York Spaces

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A few weeks ago, we accompanied Donald Christiansen, the founder of Chelsea Art Group, on a tour of The Armory Show. What resulted, was an eye-opening experience that brought forth this Q&A so that our readers could get to know more of what Christiansen specializes in. With over 20-years experience in art consultancy to the trade as well as consumers, investors, and collectors alike, Chelsea Art Group is in a category of its own.

Donald Christiansen
Donald Christiansen, Founder of Chelsea Art Group.

NYS: Why did you decide to found Chelsea Art Group? What there a niche you felt was missing? How did you fill it if so?

Donald Christiansen: Twenty-two years ago I had sold a business I started when I was 13 years old. It was in the luxury service and automobile industry. I had some time on my hands and a former client suggested I join the Young Collectors council at the Guggenheim Museum. I instantly became intrigued by viewing art and the history of art. What was born from an interest, became a passion. I started collecting, reading, and learning as I went.

Chelsea Art Group was born out of that interest, a desire to expose people to what is a fascinating world of beauty (or not), history, and the value of buying artwork and living with it. I saw many friends using art to decorate their home and then losing nearly all of what they spent when their tastes changed, moved, or had an event which altered their life. I knew there was a better way.

To accomplish this idea, I also needed to fill in the areas where I did not have the knowledge. In the beginning, I

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol.

brought on Sylvia Roth, a well known artist and printmaker, to explain the techniques used to make art. She is also a huge help when it comes to art history, and actually worked with some of the most important modern and contemporary masters. I recently partnered with Igor Orlovsky in Los Angeles, which is home to a rapidly growing market, and have hired a client relationship manager to serve all of the individual needs of our clients.

NYS: What is Chelsea Art Group's mission? What do you do for your clients and what kind of clients do you have?

Our mission is finding great art and matching it to the interests and personalities of our clients.

There are two basic categories: The client who would like to fill their home with some major art and live with it every day. I am happy when our clients learn that art, by the very artists who have or have had work in major museums like the Guggenheim, Whitney, and MoMA, can be enjoyed in their homes.

The other type of client is the serious collector and investor. They buy not only because they want to enjoy the work but to also diversify their portfolios.

NYS: Does your expertise lie in a certain area?

Robert Rauschenberg.

Donald Christiansen: I advise and sell mostly modern (1900-1950ish) and contemporary masters (starting with the abstract expressionists in the late 1940's and running through through todays artists). I also deal with career and mid-career artists. Recently I have begun to look at some of the younger, more interesting emerging artists.

NYS: You obviously love art and are incredibly knowledgeable. How do you balance the idea of supporting incredible talent and making sure your client buys something they can sell again—and sometimes most importantly—at a profit?

Donald Christiansen: We try very hard to define the mission whether it is over a single item or all of the art in a person's home or collection. We recognize our clients have their own aesthetic which attracts them. There are so many talented artists, and unfortunately, only a small group are elevated to a level to be considered investable. While I often talk about value and profit potential I also have to recognize the individuals choices. I am very upfront about the art/artist people acquire and suggest people set a limit on what they spend on a work they will enjoy, but which is not in a category which may increase its value over time.

One of my first inspirations was at an auction of collectors named Gant. They would only ever buy an artist's work if the artist was—in other words, who had had shows at major galleries and institutions. They never acquired an artist's work while he was on his way up.

This resulted in paying a bit more for the artwork, but it also demonstrated an artist's relevance in history and view towards their longevity in value.

Julian Opie
Julian Opie's " Walking in London" Complete Suite of Five Prints.

I will use the analogy of a shopping cart. You buy items and put them in the cart and hopefully the value in the basket as a whole will be more than you paid for the items. With art, you also have the benefit of enjoying the work over the time you own it.

NYS: Do you ever work with clients and museum professionals to bring works of art into public collections? What is one of your more notable accomplishments.

Donald Christiansen: Discretion is important in this category and I need to be careful with this information but I have placed several works among museums and in public spaces, such as sculpture parks and in schools. I can't say much more than that.

NYS: What artist or artwork would you love to have in your possession right now?

Donald Christiansen: I am always interested in work by Robert Rauschenberg. He is arguably one of the top five artists in the last 50 years or so, and I am intrigued by the diversity of materials he used over his career. He has a huge exhibition at the Tate Museum in London which is coming to New York soon.I also see him as undervalued in the market.

At this years Armory Show I acquired sculptures by Julian Opie, a Thomas Ruff photograph and an Ivan Navarro light box work. This is the second Navarro I have acquired in the course of a year.

NYS: Chelsea Art Group seems like a fantastic resource for interior designers. What would you like them to understand about how each of your fields can work in tandem?

Chelsea Art Group.

Donald Christiansen: I always welcome teaming with Interior designers on projects. I can help them find artwork by an artist they do not know about or a work which is off the radar and is being sold privately. It's fun to brainstorm with creative people about how to do something different in a home or office. I am working with my LA partner and the design team for a Yacht currently being built in Rotterdam.

NYS: Do you have a variety of repeat clients? If so, what is that experience like for you?

Donald Christiansen: Yes I am very honored to have clients that have been with me for twenty years or so. Some deal exclusively with me. For many, I have built their entire collections, buying and selling off pieces during the process. Along with my CAG team, we build experiences in the art world for clients beyond just selling them art. Museum shows, Art fairs, and gallery openings are happenings we try to schedule events around throughout the year.

NYS: Do you ever collect and buy your own artwork to store for a potential client or to hold on for market value? If so, can you share with us which pieces you might have now?

Donald Christiansen: Sure, and often times I partner with clients on items. I currently have some works by Sigmar Polke, Frank Stella, and Ed Ruscha that I am holding.

NYS: What are some of your most notable sales?

Donald Christiansen: Again I need to use maximum discretion here. Two years ago I was involved selling a

Claude Monet
Claude Monet.

painting by Mark Rothko to one of the world's top collectors. Honestly, I was very excited!! More recently, I represented an incredible Cy Twombly painting for a seller and partnered with another dealer who had the buyer. I do not even know who the buyer was, but it was an eight figure deal. Today, I signed a contract to represent a very rare, and new to market Joan Mitchell.

NYS: What would you say are the 10 most important art fairs to your line of work?

Donald Christiansen: It seems there is a fair somewhere in the world every week. I do a crazy amount of traveling

Certainly the Art Basel fairs which occur in Switzerland, Hong Kong and Miami Florida each year. The Miami fair(s) is especially fun and we have developed a program to guide our clients around that week.

Jeremy Thomas
Jeremy Thomas.

The Frieze fairs are in New York in the spring and London in the fall.

Documenta occurs in Germany and this year also in Athens Greece

The Armory Show and the ADAA just occurred in NYC

FIAC in Paris

ARCO in Madrid

TEFAF in Maastricht, Netherlands iss recognized as one of the most prestigious and oldest Art and Antique fairs. they have recently expanded and will also be showing in NYC using Frieze week.

I went to ZONA MACO in Mexico City last month for the first time. It was great to be exposed to galleries from South America.

NYS: We love the idea of living with art. Do you have pieces in your home you would never let go of? If so, which and why?

Donald Christiansen: Lol, I always say I will not sell off a certain artwork, and then someone comes over and sees it and I let it go. I have both a Rauschenberg and Oldenberg print, which I bought when I first started. Sentimental I guess.

I am very excited about the Navarro work I just acquired. I don't think I will sell it. Time will tell

NYS: Who are some of your favorite artists?

Chelsea Art Group
Chelsea Art Group.

Donald Christiansen: I love the work of Rene Magritte a modern surrealist master. On the contemporary side I already mentioned Rauschenberg and Oldenberg.

NYS: Do you ever work on installations? If so, what is your role in creating special projects and/or facilitating them?

Donald Christiansen: Not generally that is usually a huge undertaking and I leave that up to curators and installers. I can barely hang a painting level.

NYS: What are you currently working on right now?

Donald Christiansen: Along with the usual individual sales, I am working on building a valuable collection for a company's new offices in Madrid. Spain. I will be starting work on a large offices for a New York Law Firm.

*Interested in more articles like this? Sign up for our Newsletter!