The first word that comes to mind when I think of Ricky Manne is “charming.”
A Jew from South Africa who wound up in NYC after growing up in Atlanta, he possesses the charm of a Southern gentleman, the global awareness of an African, and the savvy of a New York businessman. He’s also very good looking and has a killer accent.
A partner at the internationally renowned contemporary art gallery Marianne Boesky, which has the requisite location in Chelsea and opened another more recently in Aspen, Manne is, among other things, responsible for representing “the American postwar giant” Frank Stella.
The gallery, which represents emerging and mid-career artists from around the globe, was established in 1996 and is itself considered one of the great ones.
I caught up with Manne at his home in Brooklyn where he schooled me on Spitfire war planes, why South Africa and Atlanta aren’t as different as one might think and, of course, the business of buying art.
Periel Aschenbrand: I remember when I first met you, I couldn’t figure out where you were from but I was obsessed with your accent. You probably get that all the time and I’m sure it’s so tedious.
Ricky Manne: It is.
RM: South Africa until I was ten and then Atlanta and then I moved to NY when I was eighteen.
PA: And that’s a really unique sort of trajectory, isn’t it?
RM: No. Not really.
PA: This is going well. I’m glad we’re off to such a good start. There are a lot of South Africans who move to Atlanta?
RM: Yes. Tons. I think the number is over ten thousand South African Jews there.
PA: Who knew?
RM: They opened a Jewish Museum in PA and had one of the first exhibitions of the exodus of the Jews from South Africa and Cuba because those were two of the biggest Jewish populations. I like to joke with people that my family didn’t even get to make it to the Holocaust because we were thrown out of Eastern Europe by the Russians in 1880. My grandfather fought for the Royal Air Force for South Africa but none of my immediate family was killed in the Holocaust because they killed us way before that.
PA: So crazy.
RM: Our attachment to the Holocaust is through fighting in the army. My grandpa flew a Spitfire against the Nazis. He shot down like nine Nazi war planes over the Indian Ocean. He got a commendation from King George. He was also shot down four times. But back then, war was different, obviously. If you were shot down flying a plane, it didn’t mean automatic death.
PA: I mean, I’ve never been to South Africa, but I have to imagine it was quite a shock to move here?
RM: Not really.
RM: I lived in the suburbs in South Africa and went to Jewish school and then moved to the suburbs in Atlanta and went to Jewish school.
PA: Same same?
RM: Same same.
PA: Why did you guys move?
RM: SA is a very dangerous place. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had if we stayed.
PA: Is that why your parents moved? So you and brothers would have opportunities.
RM: I don’t know. They don’t talk about it much. I imagine something happened along the way. Everyone knows someone who’s been robbed, everyone knows someone who’s been killed, hijacked.
It’s better now, than it was, but it’s not a safe place. It’s marked a lot by haves and have nots. There is such a disparity between the rich and the poor there.
PA: And the wealthy people are insulated?
RM: I think that’s the right thing to say.
PA: I really want to talk to you about art.
RM: My grandfather was an artist in South Africa and I always loved art and was interested in it and liked to see it.
PA: Even as a kid?
RM: Yes. And when I was a freshman at college my roommate was dating a painter and he introduced me and I went to work for her.
PA: What artist, if I may?
RM: Her name is Jennifer Bartlett and she’s a great artist. And then I was around a number of artists and I learned that these people wake up and whether they make money or not, all they could do is get up and make paintings. And that wasn’t how I felt about art. It wasn’t the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning and what people tend to forget about art is that making art is not romantic. It’s a business. Especially if you’re doing it in NY. Tim Cook can’t wake up and say I don’t feel like making iPhones today. He’s got thousands of people counting on him.
RM: And I think that’s very similar with artists. Obviously there is an integrity to production and everything else. But Jeff Koons can’t be like, “Sorry guys. . .” That’s 200 people out of a job.
PA: I could be wrong and I would defer to your expertise but my sense is that that’s not the driving force.
RM: No, it’s not the driving force. But this is what I realized.
PA: I see.
RM: I liked the other side.
PA: Tell me about the other side.
RM: Frank Stella said it in an article, “Only fools get into this to think they’re going to get rich.”
PA: So what was the part that turned you on, so to speak?
RM: I like artists. I like selling art. I like money. And I think it’s cool.
PA: Especially when you put it like that. And, you have an eye.
RM: Sure. I have an eye for what I like. It’s not always what’s most popular in the market and I’ve definitely lost money on things. But if you’re talking about art like a mutual fund, twenty of the stocks might go down, but as long as three go up high enough, thumbs up.
PA: And Marianne has supported your decisions.
RM: Marianne believes in people. She genuinely cares about your well being. She’s incredibly loving and a very family-oriented person.
PA: That’s amazing.
RM: As cliché as it sounds, she gave me the ability to blossom. She gave me permission to be myself and do it the way I wanted to do it. She did. And it worked.
PA: Do you love the risk?
RM: I’m not betting the farm on these things.
PA: You strike me as a very smart business person.
RM: I don’t do things stupidly.
PA: You have something. . .
RM: I also like to sell. And I care very much about artists. And for me, owning art is not because I love those paintings the most. I buy pieces because I love them but also want to support artists I believe in.
PA: That’s unique to your incredibly generous spirit, though.
RM: I mostly don’t buy art as investments. I buy it because I love it and it just happens to work out nicely. Very nicely.
PA: Ha! This is a terrible segue but did you grow up very Jewish?
RM: My great grandparents came from Lithuania and my grandfather was the Shamash of the Chabad in South Africa and so we still belong to Chabad synagogues.
PA: That’s insane.
RM: And a lot of Yiddish and a lot of questions.
PA: But your parents are progressive?
RM: They still belong to Chabad. Men and women sit separately.
PA: And were you like, this is insane?
RM: What do you mean? No, I was like, this is the way it is. I don’t eat bacon, I don’t eat shellfish.
RM: Still! And it’s not because I actual have a moral aversion, it’s just that I never had it so why start now? I have enough bad habits.
PA: I like bad habits. Unfortunately, I think I’ll have to save them for another interview though. To that end, what’s your favorite drink?
RM: I’m a beer guy. Stella.
PA: Frank Stella isn’t Jewish is he?
RM: He’s Italian but everyone thinks he is.
PA: I wonder if I could work that angle. How do you drink your coffee?
RM: However someone brings it to me.
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?
RM: I think Pesach is most fun, even though it shouldn’t be.
PA: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah?
RM: I did.
PA: What did you wear?
RM: I wore a suit to shul.
PA: What shampoo do you use?
RM: Dove or Head and Shoulders depending on how dry the season is.
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
RM: Gefilte fish.
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
RM: Just my cell phone. And an extra battery. Who needs five things to leave the house?
PA: Most people! What’s your favorite pair of shoes?
RM: I tend to wear shoes until they are destroyed. Right now I have a pair of brown Ferragamo loafers.
Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.