In Profile

Rick Wester

BY Sarah Schmerler, September 1, 2010

Rick Wester once enjoyed the dubious distinction of holding what was then the shortest-lived membership in the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD)—a whopping six months, in 1992. He had first hung out his shingle as a private dealer and consultant ten years prior, working out of his home in Westchester, and later New York City, building up a diverse and distinguished list of corporate and private clients (Chase Bank, Debevoise & Plimpton). Business was good—so good, in fact, that in 1992 Christie’s scooped him up to head its photography department. Though reluctant to leave his private perch, Wester accepted—and stayed on in the auction world another nine years. “I had just been voted into AIPAD in late 1991, and what I learned was that my career path was something of an anomaly,” opines the fit, straight-talking 53 year old from his current Chelsea digs on West 25th Street. “Usually people go to an auction house, use it as a training ground, and then leave it to work in the primary, private market. I did it ass backwards.” Today, however, he’s back in the primary market and a member of AIPAD once again, having opened RWFA (Rick Wester Fine Art) in 2007, specializing in emerging and mid-career contemporary photographic artists. In the front room of his intimate, brightly lit space, you’ll currently find a suite of new, large-scale color works with haunting, open-ended narratives by the 30-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Jonathan Smith. “This is kind of like the final frontier,” Wester says of his current gallery, “the fullest realization of what I’ve been doing in the field.”

Wester originally trained as a photographer, growing up in Westchester in an “art-­historically-oriented” family whom he regaled by precociously memorizing passages of Lives of the Artists, by the 16th-century art historian and painter Giorgio Vasari, when he was scarcely ten years old. Summers and after-school saw him working in his father’s Old Masters prints and drawings gallery in Hastings-on-Hudson. He went to RIT, majored in photography and immediately after graduating in 1979 took a job at Light Gallery as assistant preparator (and later registrar). But by the age of 24, Wester figured he was ready to strike out on his own. “I had very little money, very few connections, no artists,” he says, “just an idea that I could make a living somehow selling pictures.” His aforementioned ten-year run as a private dealer ensued, as did the nine-year term at Christie’s. In 2001, Wester felt it was time to move on; he took a directorial post with Gagosian Gallery, where he set about bringing heavy-hitting practitioners like Vera Lutter and Roger Ballen into the stable—until the events of 9/11 threw him a curveball, and Wester took a well-deserved hiatus from the field. “That year I basically got married, quit my job—and started playing baseball,” says Wester, who literally trained in the sport daily and played in what he describes as a semi-pro league (he still plays regularly). By 2004, he was back in the swing of the auction market—this time as Worldwide Head of Photographs for Phillips de Pury & Company—where his “27 Exceptional Photographs” sale of 2007 set a record-breaking average of $190,000 per lot. “At the auction market you’re relying on what you can get to sell and what the market is demanding,” Wester offers. “But when you’re running a contemporary gallery, you’re dictating the program; you get to play a very big role in a living artist’s life. Maybe it goes back to my obsession with Vasari. I don’t know. But it’s incredibly important for us to protect the work of our time.”