Sukanya Rajaratnam Redefines the Canon at Mnuchin Gallery
A partner at Mnuchin Gallery since 2013, Sukanya Rajaratnam has played an important role in connecting some of the world’s most respected collectors with artists whose work has been previously overlooked or undervalued.
A partner at Mnuchin Gallery since 2013, Sukanya Rajaratnam has played an important role in connecting some of the world’s most respected collectors with artists whose work has been previously overlooked or undervalued. Trained in finance but finding her way into the art world, Rajaratnam explains that although she is self-taught in art history and deal-making, her experience looking for value in the financial world has been instrumental in her role as an art dealer. In this podcast, she talks about the exhibitions Mnuchin Gallery has put on for artists like Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Lynda Benglis, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and more.
Maneker I wanted to talk a little bit about managing Gallery's program, in part because there’s been a progression in the last couple of years. That seems both a reflection of the market but also somewhat of a reflection of your background and interests.
Rajaratnam Mnuchin Gallery has long been known for its place as a platform for blue chip postwar, mostly American, but occasionally European artists. … I became a partner in 2013, and with it came a greater responsibility to program the gallery and what it would look like for the next 10 years. I very much respected what Bob had done as had the whole world. But I felt that I needed to bring a particular viewpoint that was not only cohesive with my belief, but also a reflection of where the world was going. And so slowly I started making changes to the program in a way that was not terribly strategic at the time. It looks like it now, but I went very much with my gut. The David Hammons retrospective exhibition in 2016 was a turning point. The gallery had done two previous shows with David back in 2007 and 2011. I had been very involved in the show in 2011, and I had always felt that a retrospective show was warranted. Ideally with us. … In the course of spending that very precious time with David, we started talking about artists who had been overlooked, who were not part of the narrative and names started coming up. Mainly Ed Clark, who was a friend of David's. … I realized in doing some reading, some talking to people that there was an entire generation of these artists who had been completely overlooked by the market and given the success of David's shows at the gallery. I thought it was only the right thing to do.
I started with Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and it just kept growing. …Most recently with Betty Clayton, and what's been profound for me is that even though it started with an almost social justice mission on on my part, the market was also simultaneously turning in this direction. And as a former banker, something I do almost unconsciously is look for value.
One of the things we did well with all these shows is place these works with our client base, our regular client base. … And now you can see an Ed Clark next to an abstract de Kooning in one of our collector’s homes, and that contextualization shifted as well. And I don't want to just focus on African-American artists. You see a Lynda Bengalis show currently on and again, as a woman, a woman artist, I feel like her market had been left behind for a long time. And she's an amazing artist, and this show has really shifted the way people look at her work, the way the marketplace responds to her work. The auction record doubled in the course of a month after our show launched. We have a huge place in moving markets, and that is remarkable to me.
Maneker You come from a finance background. The founder of the gallery famously had one of the all-time great finance careers before even getting into this industry. In another interview, you mentioned that when you first were hired, Bob's attitude was “Well, you don't really know much about art, but I'll give you a try.” I'm curious to hear more of that story.
Rajaratnam So I was trained as an economist and became an investment banker. And my training was in high yield and distressed debt, which is automatically geared towards value. I did that for five years, and I knew at that point that I really wanted to be in the art world and made the shift by becoming an unpaid intern at Christie's. I started my internship in 2004, just as the postwar market was in its ascent, and I worked there for three years. My unpaid internship turned into a paid job at some point, and my training, since I wasn't trained in art history, was to write the evening sale catalog from cover to cover. … After three years, I felt I was ready to make a shift from the back room to the front room. And I met Bob and he famously said at a breakfast meeting to me, “You don't know much about art but I'll take a chance on you. Why don't you show up on Monday?” This must have been in the middle of the previous week, so he essentially said, OK, I'll see you tomorrow, and Bob's famous for taking these good chances. In our case, it's worked out really well.
Maneker You had some level of knowledge. What you didn't have was experience selling.
Maneker So that must have been a very big transition.
Rajaratnam It was a very big transition, and Bob is the ultimate dealmaker. So I think that's what he meant when he said, you don't know anything about it. … It was about dealmaking. I understood where he was coming from. It was a big shift. … I never think of myself as selling. I always think of myself as placing and placing with the context of value, with the context of art history, with the context of responsibility. Those three things go together for me.
I had no Rolodex when I came in here, I did not know a single collector. I just built it up over time and I grew up in Sri Lanka. I don't have much family here, so when I came here, it's not as though I had this huge network. So everything's really happened on its own over time, and I'm I surprised as the next person out there that I'm also very proud of it.
I don't believe in being transactional. I believe in being relationship driven. So what I do with clients, especially new clients, is get to know them, get to know who they are as people, what they would like, and then having that sixth sense of what to show them at the right time. And I've shaped several collections this way, especially with this group of artists bringing them into the fold of very established postwar collections. Knowing when to do that, how to do that is essential, and that's determined by trust, which in turn is determined by a knowledge of the person.
Maneker Do you collect?
Rajaratnam I do. I've collected at least one piece out of every show of curated at the gallery.
I feel very strongly that you have to stand by what you put on. And if I wasn't buying the artists that I was showing, how could I expect other people to? So I really believe in what I do. First and foremost, I don't do things purely for commercial viability or trendiness or any of that. I think belief is important. People latch on to that, and your belief enables other people to believe and trust. I'm not the how shall I put it, show a person in the art world. I'm relatively quiet and introverted where I take a stand. However, people know that I'm serious and that's who I am as a person, and that's who I am as a business person.