Erica Friedman, executive assistant at Sotheby’s on the business of art, being “in the room where it happens,” and what she’s learned as the right hand to art-world icon Lisa Dennison.
TA: How did you end up at Sotheby’s?
EF: I was a painting major in school and received a bachelor of fine arts at Cornell. The problem was I didn’t necessarily want to be an artist, at least after graduating. Being an artist means a whole other kind of lifestyle, and I was not sure it was for me. It was rare to be a sorority girl and also in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. I straddled two worlds for a while.
TA: You don’t scream Bushwick, Brooklyn to me.
EF: I don’t. I know. Actually, I became very good friends with the other artists there, but I was curious about what else I could do with my art background outside of painting.
So I had internships in fashion with Fendi and Oscar de la Renta, and then also at the Whitney Museum in major gifts where I began to understand fundraising and planned giving. I was just trying to explore all that was out there.
TA: What did you end up doing when you graduated?
EF: I decided to get a master’s degree in contemporary art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art here in New York.
TA: I had no idea Sotheby’s offered a Master’s program.
EF: Christie’s has an education program as well.
TA: It makes sense—it’s a big business!
EF: It is a great way to get your foot in the door, especially for students like me. I had spent the last four years in Ithaca, New York, and didn’t have much exposure to anyone in the art world. As I progressed in the program, the for-profit luxury lifestyle component at Sotheby’s felt like it was becoming a good fit. The auction world is enamoring, and being in NYC was also a draw. So towards the end of the program, I interviewed for the floater program at Sotheby’s.
TA: What’s that?
EF: The floater program is a full-time, paid, entry-level position—like a notch up from being an intern. The idea is to ‘float’ between the different departments wherever there is a need. If it’s a nice fit, and you are lucky, then maybe a position opens up for you.
TA: Is it hard to get accepted to the floater program?
EF: It’s definitely sought after. Not everyone from the Institute automatically gets in. There is another fantastic program that Sotheby’s offers as well. This is called the trainee program. It is very competitive, and the rotations within different departments are planned out. Also, the trainees attend regular lectures, workshops, and museum visits with senior executives and work on projects with their fellow trainees.
TA: Can you become a trainee after being a floater?
EF: Not really. It’s usually one or the other, but both are a route to permanent roles. It’s what you make of it. And a little luck! I ended up floating for a bit over a year, even though the program is only supposed to run for about a year.
TA: Do you think they didn’t want to let you go but didn’t have a job for you at the time?
TA: Now you’re working as the right-hand to Lisa Dennison, Chairman, Americas.
EF: She is amazing. Post floating I ended up being permanently placed in the executive offices; I was the assistant for two male executives who were relatively new to the company at the time. They were great to me, and the role taught me how to actually be an assistant, which would come in handy about two years later when they left the company, and I was suddenly in need of a boss.
TA: Lisa’s desk was open?
EF: Yes, her assistant left around the same time. And, I did have to interview for the position.
TA: I would think that position would be extremely coveted.
EF: Yes everyone wants to work for Lisa! I interviewed, and it was a nice fit. It felt like an organic transition. It certainly helped that I was already an executive assistant because someone at her level I believe really should not have an assistant starting out who doesn’t know the ropes—at least somewhat! That was over a year and a bit ago.
TA: What is your day-to-day like?
EF: The role requires being on your phone 24/7, constant multitasking, and knowing what to prioritize. You think you’re going to do X,Y, and Z in the next hour, and then along comes something that is much more important, and you drop everything. No day is ever the same. The business is very client oriented, and Lisa’s clients are highly transactional. My role is to assist Lisa who helps the art find its home. I track and manage the presale process, the contracts, shipping the work—making sure all the ducks are in a row.
TA: You are dealing with works of art that cost millions of dollars. There is really no room for error, huh?
EF: We’ve talked about that. Lisa thinks I worry too much. I do have this fear of dropping the ball—a big one—or some unexpected error happening. But we haven’t had one on our watch together thus far, thankfully.
TA: Not to contradict Lisa, but that might be because you do, in fact, actually worry too much.
EF: Well, you have to worry in my job to some degree. Things can’t fall through the cracks—even the smallest details can have significant repercussions. Lisa is great in that I don’t think she wants me to worry. She has a great attitude that “everything can be solved.” But day to day, I feel responsible for making sure the presale and post-sale processes happen smoothly. We also handle a lot of valuations, many of our clients want their work appraised. And I am the liaison between Lisa and all of the different departments and parties.
TA: So you are really the facilitator. It’s project management, essentially.
EF: That is the perfect word. If I had a different title, that would be it.
TA: And probably communications director, and if you stay here long enough you’ll really begin to function as a little chief of staff of sorts.
EF: I read in one of the interviews on your site where someone said she gets frustrated because the people she’s dealing with see her only as a mere secretary, and not someone who can actually make decisions. Sometimes when dealing with third parties, I can relate to that. There are no actual secretaries here, and I do fulfill that role for Lisa as well, but it is just a part of my job. I do more than that.
TA: I’m sure Lisa knows that.
EF: She does! But at the same time, I also respect her seniority. When there is something that I know I need her authority on I’m not afraid to ask her. She is great about guiding me on how I should respond on her behalf, or perhaps when something requires her to step in and handle it directly.
TA: That is key to maintaining a good relationship. You can be friendly with your boss, but at the end of the day, they are your boss first and foremost.
EF: Lisa is not only highly professional but also warm, a reason why everyone loves her.
TA: She’s been a major figure in the art world for a long time, right?
EF: She was at the Guggenheim for 29 years and ultimately became the chief curator, and then director. Then, Sotheby’s came in and kind of plucked her away!
TA: I read the piece on her in New York Magazine.
EF: In the press, she’s been referred to as a superwoman, and she’ll say, “No I’m not.” But I’m telling you, I work with her every day, and I think she is.
TA: What is the most valuable thing you have learned from her?
EF: Lisa is incredibly grounded. In times of real difficulty, she remains extremely rational and calm. People turn to her in tense times. When a situation arises, people are in and out of her door like you wouldn’t believe. They know whatever it is, she can handle it.
TA: Maybe that’s why she tells you not to worry. There is this saying “don’t get wrapped up in other people’s hysteria.”
EF: Yes! She’s what I would call a calm fixer. And just as important, she has a team mentality combined with humility and humor which is why she is a pleasure to work with.
TA: Have you experienced anything extraordinary in this role?
EF: I think there is a rush that comes from attending the evening sales; what I like to call being “in the room where it happens” —to quote the Hamilton play lyrics— is quite a thrill. Lisa and I work together to see who of her clients might be interested in the upcoming works, and then to be in the room and see how it all unfolds is very exciting. Also, during other sales such as our day sales, I have gained experience in phone bidding with clients on my own. When a client is successful with you on the phone, it is always fun to state the allotted ‘paddle’ number to the auctioneer and to tell the client congratulations!
TA: Who decides who gets in?
EF: Most sales are open to the public. Evening sales in Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern Art, however, are ticketed events. Sotheby’s has clients who try to go to every auction. We also have clients who request tickets that maybe we don’t think of initially. I’ve never been unable to get a client a ticket, but there is a limit to how many people we can put in that room.
TA: It safe to assume each evening sale is basically filled with the major collectors in the world, who’s who in the art world?
EF: Definitely. And Lisa knows all those people. There is something intrinsically magical about it. It is like being at a movie premier. Each one is intense and exciting.
TA: Do you attend all of them?
EF: I attend every sale with Lisa in New York. I’m grateful for that because not all staff members can go. We want to maximize the space for our clients.
TA: You must be learning so much in there, and meeting people from every angle of the industry.
EF: Sotheby’s is an excellent place to network. Just now in the café, we ran into one of my favorite clients. You meet people very organically here. And of course, some people can be very tough, just like in any business. I’ve learned so much from Lisa regarding how to best manage those people and situations. She rarely says no to clients. She has a very can-do attitude. But there is a way that you say yes. If she really has to say no, it is only after exploring every possibility trying to make it happen for them.
TA: So, it’s like saying no without them realizing you are actually saying no.
EF: There is no one better at that than Lisa.
Erica was photographed at Sotheby’s in New York by Casey Feehan.