The first time I saw Laura Grenning was at a lecture at the Florence Academy of Art. There was a rumour that a gallerist was coming, and a new buzz embraced the crowd. Laura approached a circle of students and handed her business card to a recent graduate. It was as if she had been anointed. A young art student, plucked from obscurity, handed her introduction to the art world. A few years later Laura visited my studio in Florence, and after two hours spent sifting through my paintings and asking me questions, she smiled and told me that she would like to represent me in her gallery.
Laura is a fantastic gallerist who is generous with her guidance, has an eye for what sells, and always pays her artists. I recently called Laura from my studio in Florence to her Gallery in the Hamptons to ask her a few questions for this interview. The Grenning Gallery is located in Sag Harbor, New York, a quaint town in the Hamptons with plenty of available wall space. Before opening the gallery, Laura worked on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs in Equity research. She moved to Hong Kong three years later, to work as a senior stock analyst for six years. She obtained numerous qualifications to advise people on investments, a skill which would later assist her as a gallerist.
“When you’re picking a stock there are all the numbers to crunch on the history of that stock but in the end, you have to take a stance today and try to project what’s going to happen going forward and that is where you create a story, or a theme based on what you already know. And that part of the job when you’re deciding on investments is very similar to the choices you make if they’re buying a painting. It’s the ‘Je ne seis quoi’ part of the investment and there are fundamental things I look for in an artist before I invest my time and energy to promote them, just the way you have fundamental qualities you look for before you buy a stock, so the way of thinking is very similar.”
I was interested to know what advice Laura could give to artists who’d like to approach a gallery such as The Grenning Gallery.
“The number one rule I can say is definitely look at what’s going on in the gallery and edit yourself. Look at the gallery and the taste of the gallery owner before you just send images. I get emails from people who are doing things that have nothing to do with my taste, either it’s a mass email or they’re hoping I’ll engage with them, so know your audience is the first thing I would say.“
“The second thing is that you don’t go from zero to sixty. If I like the work, then we have something to talk about, and in some cases I’m very patient and I play the long game, if someone shows me talent and we sell a few paintings, I’m very interested in giving them feedback and a little guidance on where to go if they don’t know where to go with their work and that’s the cultivation phase. If you can get a dealer to help cultivate your work and your career, you’re a very rare item. I’m getting five to ten people a day cold selling me images and maybe once every year or two that’s how I find an artist.”
“There are a couple of big fat no no’s that young artists can make that will end your career, certainly with me and with most galleries, one of them is to leverage off of my marketing ability and my name and then start selling directly. If you want to be an Instagram artist selling your own work, go for it, don’t waste my time.”
Laura has always had an interest in art. She recalls begging her mother to buy her a print at the National Gallery of an El Greco painting when she was 6 years old. When she worked on Wall Street, Street Art and Pop Art was hitting an all-time high. Andy Warhol had just died, and she’d walk past street art by Keith Haring on her way to work. Her limited time off was spent in galleries in SoHo, and she continued to source and buy art during her time in Asia. At 30 she achieved her only material goal, to stop working for other people and to own a house on Shelter Island in the Hamptons. A few days later she met a painter on the beach – Nelson H. White, who she still represents to this day. He gave her painting lessons for two years and then advised her to go to Florence, Italy to train at The Florence Academy of Art.
“When I first went to The FAA in 1997, I was blown away that there was somewhere on planet earth that could teach me how to make paintings and drawings that I had just hoovered up as a consumer of fine art. The good news was that it was a teachable skill and wasn’t a mystical thing they were drinking 500 years ago. The bad news was it took five to seven years to master just the basics.”
“Although I say I like to paint, I don’t have the personality to sit still for seven hours a day. I’m what you call a Shadow Artist, I’m in the arts, I like being around artists and in art studios, but I’m not actually putting my heart out there. I have a very deep respect for artists who paint and are willing to show their paintings.”
“Sometimes I’ll just grab a few oyster shells and I’ll paint those, I’m inspired by really simple still lives, I also like Odd Nerdrum, he did a still life of a brick, it’s just luminous. If you’re in love with your subject, it really doesn’t matter what it is. Subject is ancillary, you want to be entranced or motivated by a light effect or colour, to be focused on the thing that got you interested in it and follow that thread. Don’t think ‘Book still-lives are selling’, the artists that ask me what’s selling are the worst sellers. You can’t paint to the market; you’ve got to paint from your heart.”
During the first trimester at FAA, Laura’s mother fell ill and she returned to New York to take care of her. She married and had a daughter, and never returned to study at the Academy. Before leaving Florence, she took a number of paintings back with her, including one in particular by Anthony Ackrill, a teacher at the Academy, who Laura still represents today.
“The painting that started this gallery is a painting of an old artillery shell box that the Americans had left behind, that Ackrill bought at a market in Florence. He set three tomatoes on a vine on it, one of them was dripping down over the side. I was so mesmerised by that painting I bought it before I left Italy and I kept going around showing it to people saying, ‘look what’s happening, look at what these people are painting right now, it looks like it came from hundreds of years ago.’ I couldn’t help myself I was so inspired by the beauty that he saw in some junk and a really beautiful tomato, it just sang to me, I couldn’t stop talking about it, and I ended up starting a gallery because I kept wanting to show the painting.”
In 1997 Laura opened the Grenning Gallery in SoHo, New York. After eight months of reverse commuting, she moved the gallery to her hometown of Sag Harbor.
The Gallery’s online presence is growing. They have a YouTube channel where they regularly post tours of current exhibitions and have a very active Instagram. Megan Toy is the tech-savvy gallery manager who is essential to their online success. During the pandemic, the gallery more than doubled their sales from the year prior, and began sending paintings all over the world. Laura and Megan will often take a number of paintings to a client’s home, to spend the day with them trying different things. They recently took 40 paintings to a client’s home, to sell 12.
“A lot of our business is repeat. Once you put a Grenning Gallery painting on the wall, the other stuff doesn’t look so good. One of the things I’ve said all along is nobody needs a painting, we’re not in the healthcare business. It’s got to be fun buying from us, and we’d better make it really easy and undeniable that they want the painting. I do not want anybody to have a painting on the wall that they aren’t happy with.”
Laura and Megan are responsible for beginning and continuing the careers of many artists. They are the conduit between the artist’s studio, and the art lovers.
“I feel really honored to be a part of that. There were no classical art galleries or classical painters in the 90s, it was almost impossible to get access to the training. I give a lot of credit to Jacob Collins, Dan Graves and Charles Cecil for doing the research and setting up the ateliers so they could revive what would have been basic training 150 years ago. I see it as a dying visual language, and I’m just a little part of keeping the language alive. I believe the revival of classical painting has a lot to do with the revival of what the contemporary world calls ‘figurization’, they have all these ugly words for beautiful things. The human figure is back in fashion, I believe because of the classical movement. There are a lot of us who are in the cheering section, and I feel very satisfied because my goal at the beginning was to make sure the artists have a living wage so that they can continue. The fact that I’m helping a group of artists to continue their research and their work and to expand, that’s the thrill. One of the best days of the week for me, is writing the checks to pay the artists. Unlike a lot of people, I set this up from the artists’ perspective.”