Jeffrey Fraenkel profile picture

Jeffrey Fraenkel

President, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

What’s the background to the business?
When I graduated in 1977 I moved to San Francisco and got a job at a gallery (which is actually where I met Roger Odenberg, founder of OUM). One day I was taking out the trash – I was the gallery assistant – and saw a press release from an auction house in New York announcing the discovery of 2 rare albums by the 19th century photographer Carleton Watkins. Though no books on Watkins had yet been published, I’d seen a few images reproduced here and there, and his photographs sent an electric shock through me. Much of his life’s work had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake so the discovery of the 2 albums was, for the photography world, something like the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

I knew I had to go to New York to see these prints coming up at auction. That was when I spoke with my dad about borrowing some money to buy the albums and opening my own gallery. With the help of 3 other investors, I was able to buy 1 of the 2 albums. That turned out to be a fortuitous move. Soon after the auction The New York Times published an article about the up-and-coming photography market, and mentioned that Fraenkel Gallery – which hadn’t yet opened – would be exhibiting the Watkins photographs.

At the time these were the most expensive photographic objects ever sold at auction, and most of those prints sold during our exhibition. I’ve since gone back to the collectors who bought them and attempted to buy them back ― with varying degrees of success.

BUSINESS BRIEFING

Business goal for the next 12 months: I’d be quite happy to continue doing business at the same level we’ve been doing it for the last few years. Some galleries have expanded by opening branches in other cities, but that holds little interest for me. I enjoy focusing our energies on one location in this great city, and hope the Gallery continues to be a place that people from all over the world come to visit.

Advice you wish you had known: I can’t point to one particular area. I received such good advice from my father at the beginning that it’s been a great guide through all these 35 years. He continues to be an important inspiration for me and other gallery staff.

Best business decision: I was lucky to identify certain artists early in their careers who have since proven to be influential. Artists like Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, Katy Grannan, Richard Misrach and Hiroshi Sugimoto, for example. Their work is now featured regularly in museums throughout the world. I was also fortunate to work closely with Richard Avedon during the last 10 years of his life. And I’ve had a stupendous long-time business partner in Frish Brandt, the Gallery’s Executive Director.

Toughest business decision: The worst decision I ever made was almost 30 years ago and still haunts me to this day. I had just landed in Houston and was carrying a portfolio of rare, irreplaceable photographs. I got into a taxi and, at the taxi driver’s insistence, agreed to put the portfolio in the already-full trunk of the automobile. As we were driving down the freeway, the trunk flew open and the portfolio was strewn over the road and shredded by oncoming traffic.

I’d worked hard to convince the owner to consign these photographs, and was planning to show them at an art fair that week. Though insurance covered payment to the owner, it was terrible to lose these incredible objects, now gone forever.

Person most admired: The art dealer Leo Castelli, who ran a gallery in New York from the 1960s through the 1990s, exerted a huge influence on me. I met him only 2 or 3 times, but learned a great deal from many visits to his gallery. He exhibited only what he deeply believed in, and the respect with which the art was treated (even if it wasn’t especially commercial at the time) was palpable. I learned the value of staking a claim for what one believes in and not insisting on instant returns.

Like most about job: I’m able to work in a place where we’re surrounded by incredible works of art. Really, who wouldn’t enjoy working with these brilliant artists? I also have the privilege of working with 16 talented staff members, several of whom have been here more than a decade.

Like least about job: Everything that doesn’t have to do with art. Lease negotiations, for example, or the increasingly litigious temperament of the business world. Another minor headache: in the world of photography, as in the larger art world, there have been some very good fakes of late. Every museum curator and gallerist has had to keep an ever-keener eye out for crooks.

Dream job: My other dream job would be delivering the mail, since I could then be outside hiking, and wear shorts to work daily.

BEHIND THE SUIT

Birthplace: I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. My father ran a furniture wholesale & manufacturing business, which he founded in Baton Rouge. Throughout his career, doing the

right thing by his employees and clients has been my dad’s main motivation; certainly more important than trying to make money (sometimes to my mom’s chagrin). His company grew to employ about 500 people and was the first in Louisiana to institute an ESOP. He wouldn’t have been disappointed if I’d gone into the business, but he fully supported the Gallery and loaned the initial funds to get it started. Both parents live in San Francisco now and our family is close.

Education: I went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The guiding precept there was to use one’s profession to make the world a better place. In fact, there was a statue of Horace Mann on the main lawn, engraved with the words: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”. Whether or not I’ve been able to achieve that, the concept definitely made an impression on me.

Like most people, I didn’t know what I was going to do when I entered college. During a junior year work experience in London I secured a job in an art gallery. It didn’t take long to realize I was never going to be a very good artist myself, but I enjoyed looking at art and discussing it with people, and thought perhaps that would be part of my future.

The art scene in San Francisco brought me here in the mid-1970s. I came to the city on a work/study program at age 19 and, like many others, fell in love with the place. San Francisco has a rich history in photography, dating back to the beginnings of the medium. Important photographers like Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, were all based here or nearby.

Favorite book: There are 3 books I return to periodically – ‘Howards End’,> ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’. I’m interested in their moral compass and their understanding of human complexity, even though they were written in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Favorite movie: I go to movies all the time, and especially love films from the 1970s. San Francisco has one of the few great movie palaces on the planet, The Castro – I would rather see a mediocre movie at the Castro than a better one at a multiplex. In the last week I’ve seen ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Double Indemnity’ – both of which were intensely enjoyable, and get better with time.

Outside of work: I hike a great deal and enjoy exploring California; there are so many jaw-droppingly beautiful places easy to access from here. In general, I prefer any place that doesn’t require getting on a plane.

Community: I’m involved with museums throughout the Bay Area. I still try to retain a sliver of life for myself and for my family, and have found I can be most effective through philanthropy in a variety of fields.

Family: I’ve been married to my great husband Alan for 23 years and spend as much time as possible with parents, sister, niece, nephew, and god-kids.