GOING THROUGH STAGES. Graham Steele is a private art dealer, adviser and collector who lives between Los Angeles and Brazil with his husband, Ulysses de Santi, and their young daughter, Asher. Born in rural Vermont, Steele attended Georgetown University, Washington D.C., followed by UCL in London, from which he graduated with his MA in 2004. He started his career at Sotheby’s, joined White Cube in 2006, and is a former partner at the eminent contemporary and modern art gallery Hauser & Wirth, a role which he left in 2020 to start his own business.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Graham Steele, you launched the Fer-Garb Scholarship for applicants to the UCL MA History of Art programme in 2017. Have things changed a lot for you? 

It has been a very big change. For me, everything starts with education, and I still support the UCL Professors Briony Fer and Tamar Garb who brought me to England after I had been on a scholarship at Georgetown University, where I graduated at age 20 and then was not sure what to do. The idea of being someone who wanted to live with and be around art was unquestionable, that was always what I wanted to do. I got to the end of the Marshall Scholarship process – a postgraduate scholarship for young Americans to study in the UK – and I was the only person being interviewed to talk about art history. I presented what later became my thesis with Tamar and Briony at UCL, which was queer art history in the 20th century, specifically Tom of Finland. 

Were you accepted for a Marshall Scholarship? 

Very sadly not, but I was in the last round and you had to literally write down the two universities that you would go to in the United Kingdom. Very early one morning in the January before I graduated Georgetown, I got a call from Briony Fer saying, “We haven’t heard from you.” I said, “I didn’t get the scholarship,” and she said, “That’s not a problem. There are eight open scholarships in UCL and we’d like to offer you one.” I would not be sitting in Brazil talking to you were it not for the generosity of these two amazing professors who not only made it possible financially, but with the idea of come and study whatever it is that you want to study, we want to support you and we want to hear your voice.

“Everything starts with education”

Graham Steele

Ulysses de Santi and Graham Steele’s living room in Los Angeles, featuring a mix of Brazilian mid-century design and contemporary art.

Graham Steele, why did you define your interest in art as being in Queer art history? Does it matter if you are a queer artist?  

I’m doing a book right now on Paul Cadmus, a gay American artist who hated being known as a gay artist. It came down to a generational conversation, and for my generation coming of age academically in the 90s, there was this idea of queerness as separation, as an identity that had been thrust upon the artist or an artist fighting back. Certainly in the AIDS generation, the idea of queerness was far more important than it is to the generation now. The dialogue around queerness was something that I was very passionate about exploring, and Georgetown University had a phenomenal art history department but these new dialogues, be they around race, religion, or sexuality, were not things that entered the curriculum. So for me it was something that was exciting, and the idea that was offered at UCL was that if you’re interested in something, we entertain that, we will support it, we will find tutors that will help. There was a radicality of thought, based in a strength of character and of philosophy. This gave me the confidence to be able to say: this is who I am, this is how I live my life, and this is how I want to express myself.  

How do you feel in the world of today? 

Within the echelons of the art world or the academic world, issues of gender and sexuality are now not just accepted, but are explored and respected. My husband Ulysses and I have a very important collection of expressions of queer desire, be they lesbian, transgender, gay, male. This is intrinsically a part of our lives, and my daughter will grow up with an understanding that having two fathers is different and fantastic. At the moment I am more preoccupied with her understanding her Jewish heritage in a world which is returning to an anti-Semitism that we have not seen. I never thought that I would have to see the kind of anti-Semitism that happens today, and so casually in so many places.  

Have you travelled widely? 

I’ve always looked at places where other people were not necessarily looking. My first international business trip was that I asked Jay Jopling, my boss at the time at White Cube, to let me buy an economy class ticket to Korea for five days, because at Sotheby’s I had been working with certain Korean families that were doing very interesting things across various different categories from European furniture and silver, to old master paintings, to contemporary, to jewellery – and I thought there was something interesting there. I’ve been working in Korea since 2004, and I’ve seen massive change.  

What kind of change? 

Upon arriving in Korea as a boy who grew up in Vermont and was very much lost in translation, I realised that there was an immediate understanding of the kind of things that I would have learned in Briony Fer’s class about minimalism. Not just Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Dan Flavin, but an understanding that looking at Korean art in the 1960s there was a similar impetus towards a reduction of form, and you have an amazing dialogue that started to be realised internationally in 2015 to 2018 with many shows. We’re seeing that more and more as the art world opens up and realizes that there are artists other than the ones that have been canonized.  

And the prices have changed too? 

To relate it to the market, you have more artists today selling for more than $1 million than ever before. When I started my career, selling for $1 million meant something, especially as someone who came in from the academic world. I had to very soon accustomize myself to the somewhat staggering sums of money that were being paid for different artists at the time. I started working with Damien Hirst in 2006, and the first time I sold a painting that cost more than my house in Vermont – which albeit was rather quickly – you had to reconcile something in your head: that there were people that you were going to be working with who thought nothing of spending more than the place that you grew up in and that your parents paid off over 40 years. There’s a mind shift that happens there. That all of a sudden there were so many artists from many different backgrounds selling for all of this money was incredibly exciting. 

Collecting is incredibly personality driven”

Graham Steele, how is the market for you today? 

I find the world to be a very troubling place, and there are moments of pause that need to be respected. It’s not as though I’m not working to sell art every day, but I am working in different ways, and I am focusing in different areas. There’s a lot of the philanthropy that is going to be needed more and more, and the kind of things that my husband and I do, and the shows that we support, be they for queer artists or artists of colour or artists that we’ve supported for a very long time. There is a danger at the moment that we all sense, be we Jewish or afraid of the kind of policies that certain politicians have, were they to come back into power in America. There is darkness. 

What is the response to that? 

When horrific events hit the news every day, when we are in political turmoil, when one’s allegiances to certain assumed positions are questioned on a daily basis, invariably you question your entire life. That doesn’t mean that one stops doing what one does or what one loves. The people who speculate are first to go, because if they were just trying to make money and then they can’t anymore, of course they exit what they see as a market. When the marketplace contracts, what you have left is a real group of people who are passionate about art.

What do you advise people to collect?

I always advise people to collect with their eyes and not their ears, collecting things that mean something about the way that they live their lives. Collecting is incredibly personality driven. Some people live their lives within very specific parameters. They like to be in controlled situations, and so they collect with controlled restrictions. They only buy artists that were born in their lifetime; or they only buy artists of colour who are working in painting; or they will only buy artists of colour who are working in media that other people don’t collect; or they will only buy women artists. And so on. What is wonderful about parameters is that someone has thought through what they want to collect.

What do you collect?

All my different hats of being a collector, a dealer and a very small philanthropist, influence me, so I have different collections. The Queer Art collection, for example, essentially can be any media, but they need to be relatively small because the collection is housed in a small space and meant to be enjoyed in dialogue with each other. I will buy larger works, but for the most part, when those bigger works come up that I think are important I’ll buy them for a museum.

Is your taste and the taste of your husband Ulysses de Santi the same?

Very much not. No. Which is a wonderful thing. Ulysses is very minimalist. There are some collectors as couples who will not buy anything unless they both agree. We are not that couple. If I love something, I buy it. If he loves something, he buys it. If we love something together, oh, fantastic! we buy it. My vision is everything all together, all at once. Sir John Soane is perhaps my spirit advisor. I love ceramics. I love craft. I collect a lot of women artists. I’ve always worked with artists of colour, queer artists, artists who have  a different perspective. I love many of the things that my husband has, but I also love impressionism and paintings of the figure.

Graham Steele

Sandy Campbell by Paul Cadmus, 1941. Egg tempera on Panel, 6 x 8 inches. Featured in the forthcoming publication Paul Cadmus: 49 drawings from Monticello press and edited by Graham Steele, with essays Graham and Richard Meyer, and contributions by Jarret Ernest, Doron Langberg, Nash Glynn and Oscar yi Hou.

Graham Steele

Ulysses de Santi and Graham Steele with their daughter Asher Elettra with a work by Emanoel Araújo from his exhibition in New York at Jack Shainman Gallery in October 2023.

Graham Steele

Graham Steele in his office where the collection of Queer art is installed salon style, with works ranging from 1500 to today are installed side by side.

Graham Steele

Graham Steele with Maman by Louise Bourgeois, in the collection of Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and currently installed at their Hoam Museum on March 24 2024.

Graham Steele

An installation shot of the Museum Afro Brazil Emanoel- Araújo, highlighting a large scale map of the trans Atlantic slave trade set against a statue of the Orixa Xango from the North of Brazil.

Graham Steele

Emanoel Araújo in the museum he founded and standing Infront of one of his most iconic sculptures, Baoba.

I am in the business of helping people find things that are relevant to their lives

Graham Steele, has your collection grown greatly in value?

Some have, but there’s also so many things that I absolutely adore that have not gone up in value. They may have gone down in value, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to live with them. I always say, if someone is only interested in investment, then frame checks and put them on the wall, or make your own sculptures out of solid gold blocks. We very often move things around, and there are certain things that I bought when I was 23 that have different resonance for me today. The life of a collector goes through stages. I am about to enter a middle age where I have a lot of things, and some of the things are in storage so I need to ask the questions about what to keep. I would like to build something for my children and my grandchildren that stands the test of time.

Do people buy and collect in more troubled times?

There are always people buying and there are always people collecting. My godfather was a small antiques dealer in Richmond, Virginia, and he said, “Every night before I go to bed, I pray that people with money will get taste and people with taste will get money.” This is something that I think about with humour on a daily basis. The luxury of working the way that I do is that I generally deal with collectors who have vision, so I am in the business of helping people find things that are relevant to their lives. That doesn’t always mean the $25 million Picasso or the $8 million Cecily Brown because it’s the best of the best or whatever it is. That also is me in Brazil, going and having conversations in artist studios where the works are 20,000 reais, which is $4,000. We’d rather nurture artists’ careers and support institutions and have dialogues, and bring younger artists to the attention of some of our younger friends and collectors.

Do you still go to the many art fairs of today? 

You’re not going to see me in every single Frieze art fair. Luckily I am unyoked from the wheel of pain that is the art fair cycle. Art Basel is something that I will not miss, because you see amazing things and I also love the Basel museums. I’m excited about this Venice Biennale. I’m going to the opening because it is curated by Adriano Pedrosa, who we have been supporting here in Brazil. He is the artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) and we very much believe in his vision for this Venice Biennial, which will be seen, hopefully, by many hundreds of thousands of people.  

Are there many interesting museums in Brazil? 

One of the most interesting is here in Sao Paolo, the Museu Afro Brazil. In Brazil, there is no other museum that deals directly with the legacy of slavery and Museu Afro Brazil was started by an artist named Emanoel Araújo, who I was lucky enough to meet before he passed away. It is a fascinating museum because it’s one man who grew up very poor and broke his way into the art world as a very gay, very black and very northern man, which essentially is the equivalent of RuPaul running MoMA! It is a unique vision, and brings in a remarkable amount of people, despite the fact that it’s underfunded.  

Why do you live in Brazil and L.A. rather than New York or London?  

I live in Los Angeles because I was offered a great opportunity by Iwan Wirth to come and work at his amazing museum-level and museum-scaled gallery and open that gallery in Los Angeles. At the time I was living between Hong Kong and London, and was extremely tired. I had just met my husband, who loves Los Angeles more than any city on the planet. If it were only up to me, I would probably live between Sao Paolo and New York, but I’m not moving us out of Los Angeles just yet. I love the people, the institutions and the energy of Los Angeles, and I love the vibrancy of Brazil, but I have to admit that I very much miss Europe. I’m someone who would be roaming around the world in many different places and stopping off and living in a different way, but I also am about to be the father of two children – we have a boy on the way – who will need some stability.  

Are you content to no longer be part of a prestigious group such as Sotheby’s, White Cube, or Hauser & Wirth?  

I am incredibly happy in what I do, and I’m also hugely grateful for those who have shaped what I am able to do, and those who continually support what I do. Leaving Hauser & Wirth was extremely difficult. It was something that I did in order to be able to do the kinds of projects that I wanted to, and be the kind of father that I wanted to be able to be. I can make my daughter lunch and sell a Picabia, and work on an exhibition and a book and go and do a studio visit with a young artist. Those are things that I deeply cherish. I am incredibly grateful for that flexibility. I also love being able to work with those people that I had worked with so closely at Hauser & Wirth on many artist collaborations and on many shows. I really do have the best of both worlds.  

Thank you very much for talking to me and good luck.

All images courtesy of Graham Steele.