Suzanne Snider has been running the hidden treasure that is Ford Fine Art gallery long enough to know its best years are still ahead.
Delray Beach is not where one would expect to find the most significant collection of Central American modern masters and established artists in the country. But that’s exactly what the gallery houses, according to Snider, who used to be the executive director of The Children’s Museum of Iredell County, N.C.
A move to Costa Rica and several chance encounters later led to a business partnership with Mark Ford, the gallery owner, with whom she shares a love for drawings. After meeting Ford, she spent the next six years traveling and learning about Central American art. Slowly, she built and managed a handsome inventory that now features more than 1,000 pieces. Buyers come from local areas as well as Europe and Central America.
With two Art Basel shows behind her and interest building up by the hour, Snider now looks forward to the culmination of two projects: a new gallery space opening in Nicaragua and the upcoming release of a book that should stimulate the conversation on Central American art. Last month, Nicaraguan pieces from the gallery were on display at the Highland Beach Library.
Our chat took place on a recent Saturday morning.
I know that you actually travel to these countries and meet the artists. How do you go about finding them, especially the new talent?
Every country is different, you know. I go there with an open mind that things are going to morph the way that they are supposed to morph.
I have an interesting story about Nicaragua. While staying in Managua, I saw these paintings that were like from cave drawings, but they were done in oil and there was one man sitting there, in this big empty restaurant, and I said: Who did these paintings? And he said: I did. They are from the caves of Nicaragua. We started to talk.
Well, he had been represented here in Delray Beach by a gallery years ago and he had lived in Lake Worth where I was living at the time and we were laughing about these coincidences. He is a highly respected artist and he drove me around and introduced me to all the major artists.
So I go there with an open mind and it just happens, you know.
And here’s the funniest part, I don’t speak very good Spanish. I speak enough to get a point across, but I don’t speak well enough to negotiate a business deal. But it doesn’t matter because you are talking about their art and their country’s art. It’s important to them and it’s important to me and once we make that connection, the language doesn’t seem to be a barrier.
Obviously you are not just interested in the old masters, but emerging artists as well.
I call them contemporary artists because emerging artists to me is someone who is just starting out and tasting the market and acceptance of his/her work. These artists that I deal with have become masters in their own time. Maybe they don’t have the moniker of master yet, but they are making their living out of art and have put in the time and are being collected by their own museums.
Isn’t it harder for a gallery to sell a less-known name than a name that is already recognized?
The important difference between a Roberto Matta and Armando Mejia is price. You are going to be paying $15,000 to $150,000 for a painting by a known master whereas with a contemporary artist, you can buy a large work for $5,000 to $8,000. It depends on the collector.
I have some collectors who invest in the contemporary artists because they know that there is going to be a significant rise in the value of the works. I have other collectors who like figurative and others who are looking only for abstract.
The really cool thing is that most artists go through phases. I have two very famous artists: Armando Morales, the most well-known Central American artist, from Nicaragua, and Benjamin Cañas. Both went to the United States and to European countries to study. In the ’60s they both go through a period of abstraction. After abstraction, Cañas went through a period of Mayan imagery and Morales went through a still-life period. At the end of their careers, both went into figurative. It’s interesting to watch those parallels.
Tell me what “provenanced art” is, in your own words.
Provenance is the history of whatever piece of art is involved. It’s the story, where that painting has been.
And I imagine that’s what collectors find most attractive sometimes: the story behind it.
Yes. Going back to Armando Morales, he had a technique, which most people don’t know about, of taking a blade or razor after he completed his painting and cutting into the outline. That helped his figures come away to create this illusion of space, which he was noted for. Collectors like to know that. It makes the work more interesting.
Provenance is one thing. Now, there is something new and that is certificates of authenticity. This is kind of a new demand of collectors, especially with Cuban art. It can help you determine if a piece is fraudulent, but the problem is that a lot of the certificates are fraudulent. They are almost easier to duplicate than the works.
Provenance really tells you where everything’s been. To me, it’s a better way to ascertain authenticity. The other thing that’s really good for obtaining authenticity is the published records of the artists when they make a catalogue raisonné.
We are working on making the catalogue raisonné for Benjamin Cañas with his daughter and his widow. We have seen pieces of his artwork for sale that were not his. We know when it isn’t.
If you have a piece of art that you wanted to get authenticated, you really have to take that piece of art to someone who specializes in that artist. Not to an appraiser. Like for Armando Morales, I can go to a man in Nicaragua who has a gallery that carries his work and he can tell me right away.
I bet you have learned a lot from experts like him.
Well, you have to have resources. I have to tell you, I have bought a piece that was not correct and I cannot sell it now.
But you learned from that.
Oh, big time!
Tell me what sets you apart from other galleries?
We are probably the most unique art gallery in Delray. That is what sets us apart, that we have decided to delve into this very interesting area of modern and contemporary Central American art.
Coming from Costa Rica, I was interested in the masters there. My business partner owns property in Panama and Nicaragua and he was interested in investigating the masters there. So we started off with the original Latin American collection, which included a lot of Mexican art and we will continue to carry it because we believe in those Mexican artists. But along the way, we realized that there was hardly any information and very little promotion about these fantastic Central American artists who did the same thing as the Mexican and South American artists but in a different way.
They were not all from wealthy families. Sometimes they were promoted by their own governments and sent to study in France or the United States. Some of them remained there — Armando Morales stayed in France for 20 years — but a lot of them came back and merged their indigenous cultures. I think that is the most interesting thing. Nowhere else do you have the Mayans and the Boruca Indians of Costa Rica.
I’m going to say this and you tell me whatever comes to mind: Emotional response vs. educated response.
I like an uneducated viewer because then I can tell the stories. But I really like the educated person. The person who comes in here and knows that that’s a Vladimir Cora just by looking at it, those are the people who really excite me.
When I visit museums and look at their exhibitions, I usually don’t read anything about them before hand. I probably should, but I try to resist and just see what I feel. What is your personal approach when looking at art?
I’m so glad to hear you say that. Whenever I go to a museum, I refuse the headphones and I don’t even read. Sometimes I’d check a name or a title, but until a piece grabs me I don’t investigate further.
I tell a story of how I was in New York one time and I went to a museum and the entire show was Cy Twombly. I walked around and I just didn’t get it, you know. But there was one piece I kept looking and thought about a lot. Later, I was studying photography when, suddenly, I saw a photograph of grass emerging through the snow. Then I understood Cy Twombly. That was a very important moment for me. It helped me to discern what I liked in art. I like that the things that are hidden or the power of nature or the invisible things are brought out in a visible way.
How important would you say is instinct when searching for good art?
With the modern masters is easier because you have studied them. With newer artists, I look for things that are different: a different imagery, a different way of making art, something unique about their styles. I know when I see it and it says something to me.
What is your opinion about artists who start out with something intimate and personal and end up taking the commercial route?
You can’t blame them. They should sell their work. Absolutely, that’s what it’s all about. What I don’t want to see is them bastardizing their work by making too much or not putting in the effort that they originally put in to create their art. They start to make too many pieces too fast because it is selling. And that happens sometimes. None of my artists ever do that.
I have a lot of printmakers and they make prints, but that’s considered original art. It’s not reproductions. I understand why people do it and I wish them well, but I think they start to lose the essence of their gift when selling is their motive.
It must be so hard to resist that temptation, especially in the times we live now. Even dying is an event now. You must do it big. If I were to say that I paint just for myself and out of joy, I have a feeling nobody would understand.
We live in a very material world now. That’s what people understand. I wear this very nice little purse I bought in Guatemala for $8. It’s handmade and I like it, but it doesn’t have any name on it. Some artists don’t buy into that and some do. I guess it’s just a preference.
Are you an artist yourself?
I’m a printmaker. I studied printmaking years ago. I never did it for a livelihood. I would like to do it again and probably will. I was a photographer as well, but I have never been a painter. I never even had the desire.
When does the book on Central American modern masters come out?
I went down to each country and met with historians, artists, art directors, anybody I could find, to talk to them about the book. We are doing a coffee-table style book with luxurious images. We will have six essays written by authors from each country and the book will be in Spanish and English.
We are trying to seek out more information than just “born in…” and “exhibited at…” We want to get into those interesting stories about why and how these artists made art, what their art brought to their countries and what their countries put into their art. We are asking those types of questions.
Ford Fine Art is located at 260 N.E. 5th Ave., Delray Beach, and open by appointment and most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.