“Accessing Latin American Art: Art dealer Mary-Anne Martin makes a lifelong commitment to the work of our Southern neighbors,” by Chris Byrne

A photograph of a woman in a bright blue sweater holding a Frida Kahlo doll and standing in front of bookshelves
Mary-Anne Martin in her library, photographed by Deborah Roan

Note: This interview with Mary-Anne Martin by Chris Byrne was published in the February/March 2021 issue of Patron Magazine

Mary-Anne Martin is an influential figure who formed the seminal Latin American Art department at Sotheby’s in the late ’70’s before opening her namesake fine art gallery in 1982 at Amster Yard in New York City. Four years later, the gallery, known for its scholarship and breadth of major Mexican and Latin American painters and the development of younger artists, moved to its current space in a Beaux Arts townhouse at 23 East 73rd Street. In 1990, Martin acquired Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo, marking the first time a Latin American artist broke the $1 million threshold at auction.

Chris Byrne (CB): In 2010, I had the pleasure of organizing a symposium with you in Dallas – can you tell us about your history with the artist Frida Kahlo?

Mary-Anne Martin (MAM): My first encounters with works by Frida Kahlo were when I was organizing the first Mexican auctions for Sotheby’s and was looking for consignments. Almost nothing was written about her in English, and art students in the US were not taught about her work. I had the good fortune to be introduced to the art historian Hayden Herrera, who was finishing up her doctoral thesis on Frida Kahlo, and we started trading information. If she located a painting by the artist she would tell me, and if I found one I would let her know. She wrote so well that Harper & Row offered to publish her thesis as a book, and things took off after that. The biography, complete with 35 color photographs and 96 black-and-white illustrations was released in 1983. It sounds funny now, but in those days it was almost unheard of to include so many photographs in a scholarly thesis by a commercial (not university) publisher. That was 37 years ago, and the book is still in print and read in many languages around the world. Over that same period of time Frida Kahlo has become a feminist icon and possibly one of the most faked artists of all time. That was the subject of the symposium in Dallas that you mention. My library shelves are buckling under the weight of the books on Frida Kahlo that have been printed since that first biography.

CB: After working at Sotheby’s for over a decade, you became head of their paintings
department and, maybe more importantly, the first female senior vice president and officer of the board.

MAM: In those days it was difficult for women to advance in most companies. Feminist writers enjoined us to “throw away our typewriters,” and a book in 1977 told us to “dress for success.” I remember a British print expert telling me it was a waste of time and money to train women as cataloguers because they just got married had babies and left the firm. To make things more difficult, Sotheby’s was a British company, having acquired Parke-Bernet Galleries, an old American firm, and they were even less informed about women’s lib than the Americans. I was lucky in a way because one of the British experts (who was exactly one year older than I was) thought I had a good eye for art and taught me how to look at paintings. It’s a lot different from standing in a museum behind a velvet rope, and I found I had my true calling. When I joined the board, he taught me how to listen and say very little. That turned out to be the secret for women to be considered brilliant and “team players.”

CB: In 1977, you organized the first auction of Mexican paintings in the US— were you pleased with the reception? Was this the impetus for you to found the Latin American Art department at Sotheby’s?

MAM: Your question makes it sound more “corporate” than it was in those days. We discovered there was a demand, and then we gave it a name. I chose “Latin American Art” because Mexico is in North America so we could not say “South American Art.” Latin American seemed to cover all bases, although things have changed a great deal since the 1970s in the US, and the department has been cancelled and then revived a few times since then. At this time Christie’s, which entered the competition in the early ’80s, has kept their Latin American department and auctions without a break.

In my own case, I found that no one stopped me from experimenting if things went well, and if they didn’t go well I found out soon enough (at bonus time). The first Mexican sale was successful, and it had some useful side effects. For example, US museums and American collectors who had owned or inherited Mexican works from the ’30s and ’40s suddenly noticed that there was an opportunity to sell them at auction in New York. I started traveling to Mexico regularly, and collectors there were excited to learn that high quality Mexican art (including portable Diego Rivera murals originally painted for his first one-man show at MoMA New York in 1931) was available in New York. When they arrived at Sotheby’s, they found other things of interest as well, such as jewelry, antique furniture, and Impressionist art. The auctions (which I convinced our CEO should be held in the evening) became a regular social event for prominent collectors such as Jacques and Natasha Gelman, David Rockefeller, Peter Wray, Dolores Olmedo and many others.

CB: After opening a gallery dedicated to Mexican and Latin American art in 1982, you’ve fostered relationships with members of the Dallas/Fort Worth community.

MAM: In fact, I had a serious relationship with one of Dallas’ great collectors, Stanley Marcus, long before I left Sotheby’s to start a gallery. He was an avid collector of Mexican art and had Cubist Riveras, paintings by Gunther Gerzso, pre-Columbian antiquities, and a rare and famous little painting by Antonio Ruiz (el Corcito) of a rabble-rousing dictator standing on a chair and haranguing a crowd of pumpkins. Every year Mr. Marcus would write me a one-line letter asking me how much the painting was worth in today’s market. The big challenge for me was to compose a reply that took up less than three pages. It was for that reason that he was a great success in business and I was not. And he was a true collector, meaning that he did not stop buying art because he was old or because he ran out of wall space. He visited my gallery whenever he was in New York. I remember that he bought a collage by the Veracruz indigenous artist Nahum B. Zenil when he was 91, and a painting by Elena Climent when he was 92! I still cherish a painting by Gunther Gerzso called Southern Queen, that came from Stanley and Billie Marcus’ collection. Many people have asked me for it, but I have always smiled and said it wasn’t for sale.

Other passionate collectors and experts on Mexican art in Dallas who have become friends and advisors include Dr. Salomon Grimberg, who has written extensively on Frida Kahlo and who is now preparing a definitive catalogue raisonné on the work of Leonora Carrington. Finally, there is Agustín Arteaga, whose career I have followed from Mexico City, to Ponce, Puerto Rico, to the MALBA in Buenos Aires, and finally to Dallas. It is so exciting to know you have a new director at the Dallas Museum of Art who is a genuine expert in Mexican and Latin American art, and who has strong connections with major museums around the world.