Discussion with Stuart Feld: Director and President of Hirschl & Adler Galleries
Stuart Feld is the Director and President of Hirschl & Adler Galleries, a major New York art gallery that specializes in American and European paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts. In addition to being a partner at Hirschl & Adler for over 50 years, Feld has authored many difinitive publications on the subject of American art. He studied at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard and holds an A.B. in Art & Archaeology from Princeton.
In an interview with BT (William Keiser), Mr. Feld talked about his journey from the academic Art History world to the museum world and ultimately to being a longstanding partner at a private art dealership.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
BT (William Keiser): What were you like during your undergrad days at Princeton? How did you spend your time?
Stuart Feld: Well, first of all, when I was there, there was a huge workload. Princeton was not coed and there were not the distractions that there are now or the opportunity for weekend and weeknight dating. I started at Princeton as a pre-Med, which was less my idea than parental, and that that in itself was very demanding.
BT: What made you switch your major?
Feld: In the second semester of my sophomore year I had room for an elective for the first time. There were only two courses which fit into my schedule: one was a class in the department of Art&Archaeology called “Medieval Architecture". It was the driest lecture on campus, I’m sure, but I absolutely loved the course. And did very well in it. And without any further ado changed my major from pre-med to Art History, and the rest is sort of history.
BT: Okay, let's fast forward to 1957. You’ve just graduated Princeton with a degree in Art & Archaeology.
Feld: But first, I wrote a three-hundred-plus-page senior thesis. Then I applied to several graduate schools in Art History. A family friend who was very connected to the Fogg Art Museum, which is the department of Art History at Harvard, said, “You are going there.” I was interested in American architecture at the time and I didn't know that Harvard really didn’t teach an awful lot about American art. But I went and had a phenomenal art history education and actually was a teaching fellow in a course in American art before I ever took a course in American art at Harvard. I did a masters in one year.
BT: How did you get from there to the Metropolitan Museum?
Feld: I never completed my graduate school courses.
At the beginning of my fourth year, most of my classmates were making plans to go abroad to write their doctoral theses. I was still interested in American art and wanted to do a thesis on an American subject, but I found very little help among the Harvard faculty and was pretty frustrated about that, so I decided it would be a good course of action to find work at a museum.
I went to my advisor and he thought that was a great idea. I said, well, I’m a New Yorker, I’d like to work at the Met. I assumed that I would thus be placed in the department of American paintings. I was told to call the director of the Met and set up an appointment when I was going to be in New York for the Christmas break. When I came to New York I had an appointment and arrived and in about thirty seconds [the then director] told me that I had been granted a fellowship. Then he asked me if I’d like to meet the person for whom I’d be working. I worked in that department until the end of that year and in the meantime I got to know the director of the Met extremely well and he asked me if I would like to be switched the second half of my fellowship to the American wing, which in those days was just the department of American decorative arts.
BT: How long did you stay in that department?
Feld: I spent a very active 5 months in that department. I recatalogued a vast number of things and wrote an article on a part of the collection which was then to be published by the Met. I had only arrived in that department in January, and then in February, the director called me up to his office and offered me a job in the American wing. I turned the job down. For many and complicated reasons, I turned him down, it was just not exactly what I wanted.
BT: What was the job that you turned down, exactly?
Feld: It was to be a young curator in the American wing: furniture, silver, ceramics, glass, lighting, textiles, and so on. Instead, I continued to do the work that I was doing in that department.
When I got back to Cambridge after Christmas break, I went to see my advisor and very close friend who had made the overture for me. I said, Thank you so much, I have been offered the fellowship at the Met. He already knew. But I was wondering why I was put in the department of post-Renaissance Western European decorative art. He said to me, “You’ve gotta get this American thing out of your mind. You’re worth more than that.”
I don’t know exactly how I took that. But I have to say I learned a great deal in that academic year, working in the two decorative art departments at the Met, so I have absolutely no resentment whatsoever.
BT: How and why did you decide to leave the museum world and enter the art dealing world?
Feld: In the beginning of April, during my fellowship, I got summoned up to the Met Directors’ office. Meanwhile, I had seen him many times, we had many lunches together, I used to go over and cook with him and his family. I got a call saying the Metropolitan museum was offered three Ford Foundation grants to publish its american paintings collection and he had put my name down as the recipient. So although I had kept my apartment in Cambridge and planned to go back, indeed to write my thesis and get a PhD, I found myself with the job that I was getting a PhD to get, and decided that if I didn’t take it, that it could be another generation or two before such a job opened up. And so I took it without thinking about what I was going to do with further academics, and I’ve never looked back. I’ve never felt hampered by the fact that I did not get a PhD.
That summer, I started being offered jobs in the art dealing world, which was not something I had anticipated doing. But the more I thought about it, the more interesting I thought it might be, because what I really loved is working with objects.
So I interviewed with three different firms, one of which was a clear no for me, for personality reasons. One was a nominally interesting proposal, but I felt if I were going to be an art dealer, the job would not keep me busy enough. And the third one was an equal partnership in a very major firm in New York and that’s the job that I accepted and started fifty years ago.
BT: Hirschl & Adler is primarily dealing in American art, right?
Feld: No. When I arrived they had a very good business going with European paintings, and that was their primary interest. However, during my Met years, I had bought from Hirschl & Adler, and they saw my business sense at that time. What they were interested in was establishing equal exposure and quality in American art to what they had in European art and felt that I could do that.
BT: What have you seen change in the 50+ years that you’ve presided over Hirschl & Adler?
Feld: At the beginning, American art was still very underappreciated, and I did buy some very remarkable things for the Met when I was there. The most expensive picture that I ever bought, because there was nothing on the market more expensive than that at the time, was $35,000.00. Of course, today, American art has become extremely rare because so much of the best of it has gone into museums and into private collections, like the collection that John D. Rockefeller III built and bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. There, a great many wonderful things passed into the public domain, so American art’s become much rarer, much more valuable. I’m talking about the best. The lesser stuff, you know, is still there, it might be more expensive than it was fifty years ago, but it’s still available and in quantity. So that’s been the big change.
BT: I want to ask specifically about your role, how your role in the company has evolved.
Feld: When I arrived I was one of three partners. That was in 1967. In 1972, one partner left, so I became a half-partner. And in 1982, the second partner left, he was of retirement age, so I then came into ownership of the entire firm, which has been the case since 1982. it’s hard to believe that it’s been 35 years.
BT: What’s led to your longevity? What’s your secret?
Feld: That’s a good question. I guess good genes, an exercise routine, and eating sensibly. And I love the material that I work with. I find every day exciting, because one never knows at 9 AM what the day is going to bring forth.
And I think, as it turns out, that I would not have been a good doctor because there are parts of medical life that I do not like. There are parts of the art world that I don’t like either, but we have our own bailiwick here. We do things the way we want to do them, and lots of people subscribe to the way we do things. We’re fastidious about scholarship, fastidious about honesty, and have built many great collections over the years, some of which have gone into the public domain and some of which have been dispersed, some by us, some otherwise. It’s just been a very happy career. I still love it day by day.
BT: Last question. I’m a student at Princeton studying the arts. Very often, students are dissuaded from going into fields in the arts, because of fear, economic or otherwise. What advice would you give to students based on your career?
Feld: Clearly, when you speak of the arts, it is such a vast field in itself. The idea of studio art becoming a major part of Princeton with the Lewis Center shows how broad the field is. Within that huge field there are a huge range of entry points. There are people who would be very happy being a preparator of works of art. On the other hand, there are others that would aspire to be Director of the Metropolitan Museum. Each of these levels comes with its own payscale, which is certainly higher today than it was when I was in the museum world - I mean, take a museum director - many of them can make more than a million dollars a year. On the other hand, the number doing that well is very limited.
Of course, it’s not all about economics. It depends upon what you want to do. You can make a great deal of money and be extremely unhappy doing it, or you can make very little money and be ecstatic doing it. People’s demands are different. It depends upon where you want to plug in.