Feature article on Art Resource Group
Style and Substance: An Inside Look at Newport Beach's Art Resource Group
by Lauri Mendenhall
Many London or New York art auction houses can certainly boast of stratospheric sales made to wealthy collectors for a blue chip masterpiece or two—a scenario that occasionally even makes front page news. Then there are the stories from seasoned and novice collectors alike about easy profits made from their own talent trifecta: a keen eye, good timing and an intuitive clue about how an artwork’s value will increase.
Nevertheless, these tales are fleeting. Buying art at random strictly for investment potential is tricky at best—and the chase for acquiring museum-quality art is a journey that needs a good itinerary and an illuminating tour guide. Your best bet is to work with a professional art advisor whose discerning guidance adds sage counseling to your search. There is such assistance right here in Newport Beach.
Miriam Smith’s lifelong passion for art not only characterizes her soothing spirit, patience and sophisticated style, but also is the key ingredient for her successful enterprise Art Resource Group (ARG), which has been offering a full-suite of art advisory services for a diverse clientele since 1987. The first impression one gets of ARG’s facility—a slick, 1,400-squarefoot studio-like space near Newport’s Back Bay—reads like most galleries: large clean interior with tall walls for art exhibits, generous vertical storage, an impressive art reference library, organized office quarters and a pristine area for client presentations. But that barely begins to tell the story.
The Vocabulary of Art
To begin with, most showcase galleries represent an ongoing stable of artists and are primarily focused on furthering those artists’ careers through sales and scheduled exhibitions. However, as a consultancy-driven business, ARG is all about the client, from concept to completion—whether it’s architects and designers finishing a residence or corporate facility; city governments venturing into public art projects; or, most commonly, individuals needing appraisal services, or perhaps looking to purchase and/or sell art as they build a private collection.
“Art has its own visual and verbal vocabulary that not only takes years of experience to learn, but can be quite intimidating to someone who’s unfamiliar with the art scene,” Miriam explains. “My primary role is to temper emotion with professionalism in an unbiased, personalized manner. We spend a lot of time talking to clients in the beginning to determine their artistic taste. Next we arrive at a budget, which allows us to set a focus. The best collections happen from this interactive union, especially since investing in art can be frightening at first.” But once people understand there’s no set formula for selecting art, and that fantastic pieces are available in all price ranges—from a Picasso or Hockney to emerging contemporary artists—they relax and are much more open-minded. “There’s always a sense of pride once the client sees the cohesion of works in their collection,” she continues. “For me, this is the most rewarding part of the business, seeing how art can change people’s lives— how a decision to enhance a living environment with some colorful paintings may end up becoming an all-consuming passion.”
Dr. Jeanne Spudick has been a steady client of Miriam’s since 2004 after seeing a knock-out painting by artist John Serl in the window of ARG’s former Corona del Mar location. “From that first phone inquiry, Miriam amazed me with her knowledge—about the painting, Serl’s background and career, and other artists I might like. By the end of the week, she had made arrangements for me to view the painting in my home; soon afterwards I bought it and was hooked.” Jeanne says. “Miriam sparked my interest the same way a good teacher would, and I started doing research about art to educate myself. Mine is a slow-growing collection and I ponder over each piece before buying. I just completely trust her vision.”
An Artist’s Eye for Excellence
Interestingly, Miriam’s extensive understanding of art history mirrors her own background as a working artist. Raised in Southern California, she attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and Otis Parsons in Los Angeles during the vibrant ’60s, a time and place that nurtured scholarship in conjunction with being in the studio, and where she ultimately honed her skills as a painter. From 1973 to 1986, she exhibited her work in a number of solo and group shows in New York, Philadelphia and throughout California. A longtime resident of Laguna Beach, this time period also connected her to the local art community where, for the last 30 years, she has actively served as a board advisor to the Laguna Art Museum.
Along the way, she became intrigued with the business side of the art world and in 1981 went to work for art consultant James Lodge & Associates. She spent six years learning the ropes there, and after heading up his corporate art division, struck out on her own to establish Art Resource Group. Ironically, one of ARG’s in-house experts today is James Lodge who joined the team a few years ago. His 40–plus years as a top-notch advisor (specializing in 20th century American art from the 1930s on) saw many important acquisitions for major collectors worldwide. Consequently, Jim’s talent for research—matched with the benefits of his longstanding relationships with galleries, dealers and art professionals on both coasts—has allowed ARG to greatly expand its range of expertise.
“There’s almost a ‘private eye’ aspect to seeking out the appropriate painting or sculpture for each project, so Jim’s viewpoint is always invaluable to me,” says Miriam.
Appraisals, Estates, Auctions and Therapy
As the economic downturn continues to send people scrambling through their jewelry boxes and attics in hopes of finding valuable items to liquidate, ARG has seen a dramatic increase in the appraisal division. Most revolve around resale strategies for clients wanting to divest heirlooms or part of a collection; estate management for clients working with attorneys and accountants in sorting out a settlement, insurance issues, or IRS donations; or, authentication and certification of individual artworks employing the highest standards of the Appraisers Association of America.
“Many factors can affect the value of a piece,” Miriam explains. “Recent auction records, comparable sales and specific market for the artist, the work’s condition and provenance—all these things enter in to it. Actually, there’s also a bit of therapy involved as we work with people to figure out the true value of what they have. Sometimes great surprises happen, but if expectations are too high about what something is worth, it can be very disappointing. However, we will answer all inquiries—even the many Monday morning calls from folks wondering if what they bought at the weekend garage sale just might be a treasure.”
As a sort of one-stop shop for all things art-related, ARG’s strength is that it oversees many cumbersome tasks: conservation of a worn or damaged artwork, photographing paintings and sculpture, framing, shipping, cataloguing of a collection, and professional installing and lighting of artwork. Miriam will also negotiate contracts with auction houses for clients wishing to sell artwork and even be a standin by phone or in person to bid for her collectors.
As a topper, ARG also maintains a comprehensive on-site inventory of original artwork by significant 20th century American artists, with an emphasis on post-War New York modern and Abstract Expressionism, as well as work by California artists. With this visual “selling” library of more than 250 works from which clients or dealers can peruse through to purchase or get ideas, ARG definitely makes the list of must-do destinations for art aficionados. “To experience this distinctive gathering of artwork under one roof is rare,” says Melissa Tominac, one of ARG’s key associates who heads up the branch office in New York City. “You would literally have to travel all over the country to duplicate the experience you can have from a couple of hours spent at the gallery.”
New York consultant Debra Force (who appears on “Antiques Roadshow” as a specialist appraiser) agrees: “What sets Art Resource Group apart as an art haven are the re-discovered American Modernists from 1940 - 1960 that stand out in its well-rounded collection. It is always exciting to see quality works by lesser-known artists who may have been popular in their day, but were somehow obscured over time until someone savvy resurrects them with the scholarly appreciation they deserve. Miriam is truly on the cutting edge of this material, and the recent collecting interest in ’50s and ’60s art and design.”
So, with a connoisseur’s approach to clients, dedication to detail and a sophisticated style in managing projects, Art Resource Group combines a confident wink to the past with a steady eye on the future. Consider it a DeBeers delight in the adventurous arena of art.