New River Fine Art gallery owner Lisa Burgess has been in the industry for the past 23 years, but she reveals she’s never experienced a year like 2020. The Philadelphia native opened up about the ins-and-outs of working in the South Florida arts scene during the pandemic and more. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Lisa Burgess image by Shaun Cruz Photography
You worked in media until you were phased out of your position following a merger. How did that lead to your current career? Was it a scary transition?
“You know, I didn’t know what I didn’t know so I jumped in headfirst. I was a national sales manager for a broadcasting company for three radio properties and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve been selling air for the past 10 years, I can certainly sell art.’ It was actually my mother’s idea. She said, ‘You always loved art’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you open up an art gallery?’ It was an interest, a hobby and I turned it into a career.”
Fast forwarding to 2020. How did the pandemic affect the arts world?
“I had to close the gallery for a period of time, you know, as many other businesses did. Some art galleries in the world are still closed and some will never reopen sadly. We were fortunate in that being in Florida, we had one of the shortest mandatory closures for non-essential businesses. We turned around and put a lot more things online and ramped up our online selling.”
“I also contacted our collectors and talked to them and reached out to them. And it wasn’t so much that I was making selling calls. I was making concerned calls. Checking on people, ‘How are you?’ You know, we have strong relationships that have developed over 23 years in business. And we contacted the strongest people first and in some cases I had collectors contact me and God bless them, say, ‘What do you want me to buy? How can I help you?’ And we made sales. And in some cases, some very, very special sales. It got us through the mandatory closure.”
What happened once you were allowed to reopen?
“I brought everybody back and I said, ‘It’s quiet. People are not coming through our doors.’ So, I called [street artist] Mr. Brainwash. We put together an exhibition with him, it was called ‘Keep it Real.’ It was the right message and the right artist and the right exhibition at the right time because the response was absolutely tremendous. We invited people to come in if they wanted to. We did a video installation, we had still pictures, so we put everything online but we also had it in the gallery. People did come in. We had a phenomenal window display. So, it was really very eye-catching, but we made it very easy for people. We did an online catalog. We made it very easy for people who didn’t want to leave their homes or who weren’t comfortable coming out to a public place and we were willing to take it to their homes if they lived in the area. We got very creative on how we could help people come to make buying decisions.”
Speaking of artists, who are some you think we should be on the lookout for?
“Because his work is like nobody else’s. He is very, very unique. He is well connected in the art world. One of his mentors was Eric Fischl. His backstory is he was a professional basketball player in Europe and then he was a trader on Wall Street. He always had an interest in art but after 9/11, he lost many friends and he reevaluated his life and decided to make art his fulltime career. And he is getting some really interesting public commissions and is getting a lot of press. He just had a 20-foot sculpture installed in Hodges Bay in Antigua. I’m very, very excited about his work.”
How do you decide which artists you want to represent?
“Sometimes they come to me. Sometimes I go to them. Something that I look for is obviously [someone] well trained, whether that training was formal training or whether they were self-trained. They’ve mastered the basics, they know how to paint, but they’re doing something and expressing something in a very unique manner, not copying what somebody else has done because they made it.”
Besides your work with the gallery, you’re also part of the Florida Council on Arts and Culture. What has that experience been like?
“Well it’s a four-year appointment. I was appointed by Governor DeSantis. I’ve always been a supporter of the arts locally in South Florida through Funding Arts Broward, through several different alliances, through doing fundraisers at our gallery, being a judge for some things at ArtServe. But this is an opportunity to work statewide. So, I jumped at the chance. The people that are involved are incredible. It’s a 16-person advisory board that is meant to advise the Secretary of State on cultural matters. Whether that is the visual arts, the performing arts, even like museums of discovery and science. We vote on and recommend grants, millions of dollars’ worth of grants, that we hope get funded in the state budget.”
“It’s something like a 3-billion-dollar industry in Florida alone. It brings in a lot of money. Between the jobs it creates, between the revenue that it generates and the cultural wellbeing and the benefits to the community both spiritually and mentally that it imparts is profoundly important. I mean, just the number of jobs alone and the tax base.”
“We’re living in a very divisive time in our society. The arts [give] people a creative and peaceful way to express their feelings and their beliefs as opposed to smashing windows and resorting to violence. So, whatever part I can play in helping children become exposed to the arts… I am happy to do so because I think that if we can make less war and more art, the world will be a better place.”
Lisa Burgess shared plenty of insights on art! Are you feeling inspired to create your next masterpiece? Shop set below for your next creation