Woman Of Substance: Joyce Varvatos


Growing up in a cultured household where attending operas, the ballet and touring museums with her family was standard, Joyce Varvatos’ learned appreciation for art in every form began to unfold at an early age. Although she may not have known it at the time, being well-versed in matters of art from a young age would later prove to be an invaluable catalyst for her success professionally. After college, Varvatos climbed the corporate ladder at Procter & Gamble and later enrolled in graduate school, earning her an MBA. Upon completion, she realized that she was headed down the wrong path, and rerouted her career to return to the world that was innate to her: art. With little academic experience in the field, Varvatos landed a job at the international contemporary art magazine, Art in America (A.i.A.). “I remember fudging my way into A.i.A. and secretly going to NYU at night for art history classes,” recalls Varvatos. “Within six months of working I got the art bug and started representing emerging artists and curating shows at friends’ galleries.”

While working at A.i.A., Varvatos began to curate shows of her own. “I curated my first show back in the early ’90s at my sister’s apartment with artist Mac James,” Varvatos says. “Mac was then picked up by a real gallery and given a great review in Artforum. It was just the confirmation I needed that I was on the right track.” But holding a permanent role at A.i.A. and launching a career on the side as a curator wasn’t enough to fill her plate. Varvatos yearned for more. Simultaneously, she embarked on what would be the highlight of her career. Varvatos co-produced and directed Off the Canvas (OTC), a documentary film that profiles some of the most influential and successful contemporary art dealers of our time. The documentary preserves the stories of Ileana Sonnabend, Holly Solomon, Marion Goodman, Paula Cooper, Mary Boone, Barbara Gladstone, Andrea Rosen, Annina Nosei and Virginia Zabriskie. “You truly get an inside look into the passion that drives their artistic and business choices,” Varvatos says with pride, “and you are able to hear from many of their artists and collectors.”

The concept to make the film came to Varvatos and a colleague while working at A.i.A. “We weren’t sure exactly what we were getting ourselves into,” she explains, “but we knew we had to try and tell these stories.” Over the course of four years while producing OTC, Varvatos would learn that she had chosen a career that, as a woman in business, knew no bounds. “Art dealing is one of the few careers where there is no glass ceiling for women,” Varvatos affirms. And the proof is in her list of enviable accomplishments.

After spending some six years at A.i.A. and cementing her expertise in the field, Varvatos made the decision to become an advisor. Her instinct for talent and the knowledge she has gained from personally interviewing some of the most renowned female art collectors in the world equipped Varvatos with the tools to embark on a solo career path as a successful advisor. To become a great advisor, Varvatos upholds two fundamental principles.

“The first is truly knowing the art and being able to distinguish the great works from the mediocre,” Varvatos explains, “which for me, came from years of traveling, looking at and discussing art.” Varvatos’ craft involves constant education and fine tuning. “I equate it to learning a foreign language,” she continues. “I had been working in the art world for 10 years before I felt I had the ability to advise others on building their collections.”

Varvatos attributes the second most important quality that makes a great advisor is having the ability to fully listen and understand a client. “This is crucial,” Varvatos maintains, “even if someone is just beginning to collect, their input is just as important as the advisors.”

The industry mecca for exploring established and emerging talent is undoubtedly Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB). Hailed as one of the most well-attended art fairs in the world, ABMB has become a cultural hub for industry greats not only in art, but in fashion, hospitality and media to come together with other like-minded collectors and tastemakers to celebrate creativity. Now in its 14th year, Art Basel Miami Beach the show has set the stage for other art fairs including Design Miami, NADA Art Fair Miami Beach, Scope Miami Beach and several others. One of the most lauded neighborhoods in Miami gaining international exposure is the Wynwood Arts District ― the masterpiece of late developer Tony Goldman.

Wynwood is now home to more than 70 art galleries, retail destinations, antique shops and eclectic bars, not to mention myriad murals created by some of the best street artists in the world, like Shepard Fairey, Peter Tunney, Domingo Zapata and RETNA. “I love Wynwood and what’s happening to the area,” Varvatos says enthusiastically. “Watching a neighborhood evolve while it maintains an edge is rare; the graffiti walls are incredible and ensure the integrity of the area’s edgy vibe.”

For the 2015 installation of Art Basel Miami Beach, Varvatos will take up residence at W South Beach Hotel and Residences, a property that she constantly revisits because of the hotel’s keen attention to detail and superior art collection. Throughout the week, Varvatos will spend the majority of her time at the Convention Center and visiting ancillary fairs. The highlight of the week for Varvatos, though, lies in the suspense. “The museum shows and the surprise installations popping up all over the city are what I most look forward to,” she says.