Janis Gardner Cecil, art advisor, curator and art historian, wants you to make room for art in your life


North Salem resident Janis Gardner Cecil at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, CT in December 2022. (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

Following the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in October, paintings and sculptures from his collection netted $1.5 billion at auction, the biggest sale in art auction history. It’s the type of milestone that makes for an eye-popping headline, to be sure. But for art aficionados and those who work in the world of fine art, the Allen auction represents a landmark moment.

“These paintings won’t be available anywhere else. This was the last opportunity to buy paintings of this quality,” said North Salem’s Janis Gardner Cecil, an art advisor, curator and art historian who has worked in the art industry for the past 25 years. “They’re extraordinary testaments to visual culture.”

Cecil met with the North Salem Post the day after the Allen auction, which coincided with New York auction week, a twice yearly event in which the Big Three auction houses–Sotheby’s, Christie's and Phillips–bring to market some of the world’s most significant modern, post-war and contemporary art. Cecil was thrumming with excitement about the real-time shifts that were happening, and she pulled up several websites and art images on her phone to help explain just how important this moment in time was for those who are passionate about fine art.

“Art becomes a signifier for the time that it’s in and the vision of the person who’s making it,” Cecil explained, adding that it all intersects with religion, politics and society.

Case in point: the last several years have seen a surge in appreciation for art created by historically underrepresented artists. Art that is representative of the LGBTQ, Black or LatinX perspective have been extremely popular, Cecil noted. She added that in the last decade more collectors have become aware of–and are specifically seeking out–art made in Africa. The number of collectors in Africa has also been on the rise, collecting art made by other African artists as well as from international artists. In 2019, artist Kehinde Wiley–widely known for his portrait of President Obama that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery–founded an artist residency program in Dakar, Senegal. The program aims to “incite change in the global discourse about what Africa means today,” according to its website.

“The artists who create art and the community supporting that art is absolutely a whole wheel,” Cecil said. “You have artists who make the work, art professionals who teach painting and sculpture, critics who review shows, museum curators who curate the exhibitions, galleries who support artists, who are selling the work and curating collectors…it’s an entire ecosystem.”

Over the years, Cecil has occupied different positions within that ecosystem. She grew up making art and attended the prestigious Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. as a high schooler before going on to study art history at Barnard College. Cecil spent much of her career in gallery roles, organizing acclaimed exhibitions as Joan Mitchell: At the Harbor and in the Grande Vallée, curated by Dr. Jeffrey Grove, and Ed Ruscha: Ribbon Words, curated by Dr. Dieter Buchhart. In 2017, she founded JGC Fine Art, New York. In this role, she educates collectors, places works for resale and sources important works for purchase.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

As an art historian, Cecil especially loves researching the stories behind works of art. She currently has a painting from Dutch-French painter Kees van Dongen which the artist painted when he was working in a French studio rented for him by Pablo Picasso.

“They’re literally creating cubism,” she said, referring to a style of painting developed by Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1900s, “and he’s creating his portrait. My historical side loves doing a deep dive around the art history of an object. That kind of research adds a lot of value to paintings.”

One of Cecil’s more visible projects is the fine art program she created for renowned chef Daniel Boulud at his flagship Restaurant DANIEL in Manhattan. Here, fine dining and fine art become one immersive experience for restaurant patrons. Cecil curated an exhibition of large-scale landscape paintings by iconic American artist Alex Katz in collaboration with the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York. The exhibition is on display through August 2023; a new artist’s work will go up in September 2023. The project also includes works by Robert Mapplethorpe from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. “The fact that we’re changing [the exhibit] and the level of artists we have is special,” Cecil said.

In Cecil’s view, fine art and fine dining make for a natural pair; they’re both signifiers of culture. “What creates the story of humanity is culture,” she said. “When you have something that is a talisman for a certain time and place it’s extraordinarily valuable because these are touchstones in people’s lives.”

An industry evolves

As it did with nearly every industry, COVID-19 had a significant impact on the art world. Cecil said that the pandemic significantly accelerated online viewing and buying, and opened up the art world to a broader global audience well beyond the typical markets of New York, Miami, Paris and Hong Kong.

“The comprehensive set of digital tools clients can now access has not only broken down barriers to entry but reduced the need to view or physically handle works in person prior to purchasing,” said a Sotheby’s art market expert in a 2021 report. Indeed, 47% of people who started buying art less than three years ago made their first art purchase online, compared to 30% in 2020, according to Hiscox Online Art Trade Report.

Meanwhile, art is also thriving right here in the Hudson Valley. Last summer was the third iteration of what Cecil referred to as “a great wave of stuff happening,” including Upstate Art Weekend and a proliferation of residencies, artists studios and museums popping up all throughout the region.

Cecil stresses that anyone can develop an interest in and appreciation for art. “It doesn’t matter on what level someone is collecting art. It could be any kind of painting or sculpture. The creativity that art brings to your life, both to live with and also to make, is really important and should be encouraged and explored.”

A few of Janis Gardner Cecil’s favorite places to experience art near North Salem:

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