Friday Tips: The Fire

This story is lifted from Living the Artist’s Life.  It happened ten years ago now, a good time to review past disasters, and recoveries:

    It was in March of 1997 that the manager of the Hotel Savoy, where my first gallery was housed, called me one Sunday night.  He asked if I was watching TV.
    I told him I wasn’t.
    He told me that was good.
    I asked him why?
    He said because my gallery was on fire.
    I let the words sink in to be sure I understood them, but of course I didn’t really understand them, so he said it again.  He paused, and as he did I could hear men shouting in the background, the sound of gushing water.  Then he said that I should probably come downtown.
    I told him I’d be there in thirty minutes.  I made it in twenty.
    I parked down the street from the hotel, beyond the yellow-taped cordon, and walked up among the fire engines, firemen and cops.  Smoke was billowing out the gallery door and water was pouring down the steps.  When everyone realized that I was the owner, there was quiet commotion and words of condolence.  Then a platinum blonde with thick makeup, a microphone in her hand, and a cameraman at her side walked up.  She asked if I wanted to be interviewed.  I looked at her tense, career-driven face and told her, no, I did not want to be interviewed.  Then I went inside to look at the gallery, or what was left of it.
    The fire had started in the storage room behind my space, caused by a carelessly left cigarette.  It destroyed the storage room, the room above it, and half of my gallery.  Most of the paintings and sculpture, thankfully, had all been moved out by the firemen and hotel staff.  Though smoke-damaged, those works had mostly been saved.  Everything else—furniture, files, my computer—was ruined.  I looked around at the mess as one of the fire captains came up.
    He expressed his sympathies.  I thanked him, and thanked him also for having moved out so many of the paintings; he acted like it was nothing.  Primarily he was concerned about the damage to the gallery; he told me that he sure hoped I had good insurance.
    My insurance policy had lapsed three weeks earlier, since I’d opted to pay the phone bill, an overdue advertising bill, and two months of back-rent instead of the policy.  I had been planning to catch up on the policy in another week.
 I told him, you bet, I had real good insurance.
    When I got home my wife asked if everything was okay.  She was sitting up in bed looking nervous and worried, certain we’d been ruined.  I told her about the damage, and the extent of it.
    She asked if the insurance would cover everything.
   I told her sure it would: that it would pay off the debt, allow me to open a new gallery, and that everything would be just fine.
    She kept watching me, as if trying to make certain that what I said was real.  My expression betrayed nothing.
    Finally she smiled, and said she was glad that everything was all right.  Just watching the relief on her face was worth the price of the lie.
    Later she went to sleep and slept very soundly.  I got to sleep at maybe four, getting up at six to go downtown and face the mess I’d gotten us into.

    The damage came to $40,000, more than enough to square my debt and set me up in a new space—had I only been insured.  My gut wrenched in triple knots when I thought about it, but there was no point in thinking about it.  What was done was done. 
    I set about cleaning what remained of the gallery, trying to figure a way out once more.  While I was cleaning it, most of the other gallery owners in the city called to see if I was okay.  I thanked them, and told them I was.  Friends called, artists called, then one of my sisters called.  A skilled businesswoman, this sister is always boiling with ideas.  As we talked, she told me the fire had been necessary.
    I asked her to explain.
    She said it was simple, that my fate was trying to tell me it was time to move on and start over.  She said I wasn’t making it where I was, and that the fire would force me to move someplace else, and continue growing—if I interpreted it that way.
    I told her I could always grow, but that I needed to be able to feed my family in the process.
    She said that was no problem, that all I had to do was have a fire sale: clean all the paintings, discount everything twenty percent, sell the inventory, and move on.  She was certain it would be a snap. 
    It wasn’t exactly a snap, but I did take her advice.  With the help of some relatives and friends, I cleaned the paintings, and repainted and reopened the gallery.  Then I called in the press, including the platinum blonde with the microphone.  By the time they all came to interview me I was upbeat again, and gave each of them a story on how you can always rebound, you just have to decide that you want to.  I told them that this is America, and that you can do anything here—which to me is true.
    They loved it.  I got coverage in all the papers and on all the TV stations.  The sale was a relative success, and with the $12,000 I netted from it I was able to rent a space in a better location.  The new space needed a lot of work, so I spent my days running the old gallery, and my nights renovating the new one.  My days had never been longer, but I didn’t care.  I could sense that my life was turning a corner, and was anxious to continue the journey.  Sure, I was facing $90,000 of debt now, but I could sense that bigger things were coming, if I could just hold on.  Somehow, I managed to. 

    The odd thing is, the combination of these experiences—and several others—made me a better writer.  Those difficulties reawakened a hunger in me, and a lust for life, that the business world had sent sleeping.  They made me savagely determined to succeed as an art dealer, and writer.  I didn’t want those things for purposes of fame; I’d been too humbled by life to even care about fame anymore.  I just wanted the success for my family, my artists, and especially because I felt I had something to contribute.  I had made so many mistakes.  I wanted to learn from those mistakes, and finish the job I’d started.  Perhaps now I could.

6 thoughts on “Friday Tips: The Fire

  1. Paul,

    My wife Marie and I have read many of your blogs and find them very interesting and informative. This week’s “Friday Tips: The Fire” is riveting. We heard your talk regarding the Artist/Gallery Relationship recently and have ordered a copy of your book, “Living the Artist’s Life.” Your writing is exceptional.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences in the art world! It is very much appreciated.

    Tommy Thompson

  2. Sounds like the Law of Attraction at work to me. I’m sure all will be fine and I’m sorry you had to endure this!

  3. Tommy and CML: Thanks for the remarks. Wasn’t all that much to endure, at least in retrospect. Now somebody losing a child, or leg, in Irag–that’s something to endure. I don’t know how anyone deals with that, yet people on both sides do each day.

  4. I read your story in your book, and the feeling was just the same as I re-read it this morning. I too have come to realize that God often has to shove me through new doors, as I tend to stay in the staus quo even when dissatisfied. And what a shove you got!
    What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, we see as a butterfly.
    My goal now is to figure out how to make those changes without being forced to, as you were by the fire…..but is that really possible?
    God bless the firemen for saving what they could! Reading that was a pleasant surprise.

    And if you don’t mind, one final point that has bothered me….. though you were “protecting” your wife from the worries, you probably hurt her and yourself in the process by blocking her from being your partner & support. I’m sure you had to tell her shortly after, anyhow. Just my .02c…

  5. I just bought your book yesterday at my local art supplier. When i brought it up to the counter the girl asked if she could take a peek- and I laughed and said sure, this is it, I’m really going to be an artist now! She grinned and said she was proud of me. Awesome! I’m only a few pages in and I’m really enjoying it. I have a feeling this copy is going to end up quite well loved, with a permanent and revered place on my studio bookshelf.

    I remember hearing about Chuck Close’s story when i was in art school, and I’m sure you know it well, too (so let’s hope i get it right) Of course, he was initially renowned as a photo-realistic painter, and when he fell ill and was confined to his wheelchair it probably seemed like he might never paint again. When he did have his next show everybody turned up to give their support, but what he revealed was a bajillion times more fascinating, original, and astounding then ever. And without that terrible, debilitating struggle he might never have found a whole new way to make his art.

    I just wanted to share that because it’s one of those stories that keeps me going, and I wanted to say that I admire your tenacity, too.

  6. Thanks much. Do hope you enjoy the book. Yeah, Chuck’s story is astounding. A lot of people think I have tenacity, but that THAT dude really does. Of course the twists and turns of my life, and the many curve balls I’ve been thrown, have been a determining factor in how things have turned out. But this was only because I insisted on interpreting disaster as opportunity, and learning from it. Could I be as tough as Chuck in his situation? Man, I don’t know.

    Annie. Good name. I know a wonderful woman who shares the same.

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