In this new series put together by art advisor and curator Daria Borisova we are speaking to knowledgeable collectors in the art world. Through personal anecdotes and in-depth interviews, we’ll be educating women about the cryptic art of collecting. Our guest is Ghada Dergham, an outdoor living designer based in Palm Beach. In addition to her successful landscaping businesses, Ghada also has an impressive art collection. She has varying tastes with a special penchant for Richard Hambleton, aptly named ‘The Godfather of Street Art.’ Ghada has been collaborating as co-curator on a new Hambleton exhibition at the Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art in Munich. Unfortunately, the show was postponed due to Covid-19, but is scheduled as a future exhibition at the museum. In the meantime, Ghada stays busy with her business and her art dealing. With decades of experience collecting, we spoke to Ghada about her collection, thinking of art as investment and the advice she would give to women in the business today.
What do you do for a living?
I’m an entrepreneur. I own several businesses and have always needed multiple ongoing projects; it’s how I feel [my] best and help myself thrive. I’ve been an outdoor living designer for 20 years, which has led to being featured on several TV shows, as well as design collaborations for various films and music videos. I also own a boutique hotel on an island off the coast of Colombia. It was a love project of mine— I completely redesigned the space, and it was truly rewarding.
What was your first introduction to art?
When my family immigrated from Lebanon to the US, my sister lived in New York City, and I lived upstate. I would travel into the city, and over many of these visits when I was young, I would experience museums and the culture of art. I would say I definitely fell in love with art when I was around 15 years old because of these trips to see my sister.
What was the first piece that you bought?
I think it was a Picasso piece. I was 19 working at a gallery that was closing, and they owed me some commissions, so they paid me in a Picasso etching. Back then, a Picasso etching wasn’t that expensive, but I’ve had it ever since— it’s a nice reminder of how I started.
How did your collection evolve after that first Picasso?
Initially, I collected street art.This was a form of art that wasn’t approved by anyone; it was just considered graffiti. The idea that these artists were taking a chance at being put in jail was intriguing. And many of them didn’t even have the money for canvases, one reason for using walls found in the streets.
How do you actually go about collecting street art?
Street art evolved from the street to the canvas during the 80s when it became acceptable for ‘serious art collectors’ to collect street artists. This was in the period of Keith Haring, Richard Hambleton, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. When I would visit my sister, she would warn me to not go to the Lower East Side because it was unsafe. But, of course, as a teenage girl, I did just that. It was chaotic, and I remember seeing a figure on a random wall that absolutely petrified me. I didn’t realize, until years later when I was collecting myself, that this was an actual Richard Hambleton. When I was first collecting art, I wasn’t doing it as an investor; I did it because I was drawn to the work. I never dreamed that I would end up being an art collector who would have this substantial collection.
So initially you didn’t collect art as an investment. Has that changed now?
Of course. I’ve been involved in the art market for decades. I still stand by my recommendation to my own clients— purchase what you love. And I still collect art. This is why I’m involved with emerging artists. I’m willing to purchase their works because I love them, and as their career flourishes, I get the benefit of growing with the artist.
Can you tell us about the Palm Beach art scene?
Palm Beach has a very wealthy community, but you also have people ranging on the other side. The collecting is all over the spectrum. There are people who love old masters and have stuck with them; and then there’s people who are a bit more open minded and have ventured into different art genres. So there really are no specifics to what people in Palm Beach collect. The collecting is quite diverse.
Which artists would you tell people to keep an eye out for now?
One of my favourite male artists is Adel Dauood. He was influenced by Egon Schiele, which you can see in his strokes and style. I fell in love with his work on vacation in Vienna. I walked into a gallery and sat staring at his work for hours, [and ultimately] purchas[ed] many of them. I had no idea he was a Syrian refugee. I’ve purchased many more of his paintings since that experience in Vienna, but they can be hard to part with. There’s a balance of wanting to keep them for myself and introducing others to his work. I feel like he’s going to be part of art history.
Do you ever get clients from your landscape business?
Over the years I’ve been landscaping homes of the wealthy so, in the process, I would enter their homes and see their art, and a natural conversation would progress. I started to form relationships with these clients and pull them into the art world. Essentially, I tied these two worlds together. Of course, in the art world, you meet people with the same passions.
You have some experience with the stock market. How would you compare the art market and the stock market?
I feel that art is a more tangible asset. You buy it, you have it, maybe it will fluctuate in price, but it’s still tangible and [physically] there, so you can enjoy it. Over the years, the stock market has been a big loss. When companies fail, there’s nothing there, and the investment is gone. But with art, you still have something, whether it’s a painting you love or a painting you’ve invested in and can sell to get something back. You get nothing with the stock market. So I always believe in tangible assets, art being one of them.
What advice would you give to women in the art business?
Women in the art world have to do a lot more work than men. We have to know our subject matter better and really be educated because we are at a disadvantage. After all, it is a male-dominated industry. But now, you can really see women are making a change and leaving their mark— they have always been in the art world, but now they are making it their own. We’re seeing women in more leadership positions and owning their own businesses. This is different than even ten years ago. So my advice is that women need to educate themselves. Who you know is important at first, but it’s really what you know.
Who are your favourite women artists?
Two of my favourite female artists are Frida Kahlo and Yayoi Kusama. Both had disabilities and turned to art as a way of healing. Frida had polio, and then an accident in the 1950s forced her to return to her childhood hobbies, including art. Her work wasn’t discovered until the 1970s, which is why emerging artists should be a focus [for collectors]. Kusama also took her disability and used it with art as a means of staying sane. And, of course, there are some amazing emerging artists, including Cayla Birk and Maria Kreyn. It’s not just the art, but the message behind it. Again, that [message] is driven by passion.
Can you tell us a little about your most recent purchases?
My recent acquisitions have been purchased in auction houses. Due to Covid-19, there’s a strong buyer’s market and a lot of opportunity. I purchased an 80s Richard Hambleton work and a painting by George Condo at Sotheby’s recently. People are sleeping, and they should be awake. They should be keeping an eye on the art market because it’s alive and well. In that same auction, Sotheby’s sold over $13.8 million.
What are your plans for the future?
To keep an open mind and a careful eye on emerging artists because that market is where true opportunities appear, and it’s a good indicator for seeing potential growth in the art world. My dream is to buy a villa in Italy and create a residency for emerging artists. They can stay for a month, and we can get to know each other while they paint away, and I can see their evolution. I invest in people, not just in art. Allowing me to see the process of their artmaking is incredibly intimate, and I will get to interact with them and their work personally. My collecting is always, and will continue to be about connecting to the artists on a personal level. Collectors must be connected to the art and artist on a personal level.
Interview conducted by Daria Borisova, a Russian-born, London-based, curator and art advisor. Her work focuses on young and emerging, as well as established artists who inspire progressive understanding and promote lasting change. With an emphasis on transparency and education, Borisova has built collections for prominent private and corporate clients. She maintains relationships with philanthropists, organizations and art industry luminaries.
In her curatorial work, Borisova seeks to utilize non-traditional spaces to create immersive exhibitions and present emerging artists that often work in new media. Her most recent curatorial work includes: Global Call for Artists in partnership with W1 Curates x Amplifier – a digital public art installation in London, Winter Show at Harlesden High Street Gallery in London, House of Togetherness in London and Alla Gorka: Heroine presented by White Ribbon in Ukrainian Parliament and America House Kyiv.