Meaghan Steele: Associate Business Manager, Sotheby's
New York City
WFU Class of 2011
Double Major: Art History (Honors) & Spanish
Meaghan Steele studied abroad, mastered the Spanish language, and dove headfirst into art history during her Wake undergrad years. Upon graduation, Steele worked internships in museums and galleries before landing in the auction house realm. Speaking to us now as a Sotheby's associate business manager, Meaghan discusses her path and lessons learned along the way.
DeacLink: What did you study at Wake? How has your career unfolded since?
Meaghan Steele: I was an Art History and Spanish double major. I went abroad and studied at the Wake Salamanca program in Spain my junior year. In one of my classes there, I learned about an oft-forgotten Valencian artist, Josep Renau, who I ended up writing my senior thesis about. My thesis showed me just how interconnected my majors were. And, since graduation, I’ve continuously seen how helpful it is to have a second language; especially if I had decided to go the academic route, I definitely would have needed that second language for research.
At Wake, I figured out pretty quickly that I wanted to study Art History because I took AP art history my senior year of high school and missed taking a course solely devoted to the arts my freshman fall. I knew I should start getting experience in the industry as soon as possible, so the summer before my sophomore year of college, I interned with a local museum on Long Island (the Heckscher Museum of Art). I interned for them again the following summer and the summer before my senior year, I interned with a larger museum, still on Long Island (the Nassau County Museum of Art). During my senior year, I had this belief that the only logical career path was working for a museum, and I was already thinking that I would need to get my Masters; however, during my senior spring, I took the arts management course, and that’s when I met Cristin [Tierney]. A whole new world of opportunities opened up for me after that course as I learned about all of the different facets of the art world and the jobs in the art market beyond the museum space, which ended up being instrumental in how my career has since unfolded.
After graduation, I moved back home to Long Island. I interned for Cristin and then moved to part-time that fall, while still applying for jobs. Ultimately, she offered me a full-time job as the gallery’s Administrator and Registrar starting in January 2012 and I worked for Cristin until March 2014, when I moved to Sotheby's where I currently am.
I initially joined the Floater program at Sotheby’s and floated in Client Services for a few months before moving to a specialist department in early summer 2014: the Watches department. Now, I had no experience with watches or a really an interest in them, but it was a specialist department and any opportunity like that for a Floater was a good one. And, it ended up being really perfect timing because while I was floating in the Watches department, Sotheby’s announced that we would be selling the most important watch in the world - The Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication - for sale in November 2014. In July 2014 the Watches’ Division Director asked me to be the go-to person for all things related to the sale of the Supercomplication, so I more or less became a project coordinator for the sale of this incredible piece.
Now, at the same time that we were preparing for the sale of the Supercomplication, a man named Daryl Wickstrom was moving back to New York from Hong Kong to assume the role of International Managing Director of the Global Jewelry and Watches Division. So, by working on the sale of the Supercomplication, not only did I gain incredible experience working with the international team, but I also started to work with Daryl; when he moved back to New York that fall and was looking for an Assistant, everything fell into place. So, I transitioned into a full-time permanent job at Sotheby’s as Daryl’s Assistant after Thanksgiving 2014, and held that position until May 2015.
In May 2015, I transitioned to a new job: the Administrator for our Business Manager Group. Along the way, while working on the sale of the Supercomplication (and later the Lesedi La Rona 1,100 carat rough diamond) and working for someone whose job was focused on global strategy and the business, I realized that I did not want to go back to school whatsoever and did not really have the same interest in research and writing that I had when I was in college or after I graduated. Rather, I was so much more interested in the business side of auction (and the arts) so becoming the Administrator for the BM group was a natural next step. As the Administrator I got to know all of our Business Managers and the Finance team, and started understanding how P&Ls work with the ultimate goal of becoming a Business Manager myself. And then this past summer I was promoted to Associate Business Manager.
DL: Would you mind telling me more about what you're doing at Sotheby’s? How that transition from the gallery to auction house world?
MS: As a(n Associate) Business Manager, I partner with our departments and serve as the link between not only the specific department with which I am working and Finance, but also that department and the rest of the company. My departments include the Asian Art Division (Chinese Works of Art, Chinese Paintings, and Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art), Human Resources, including our worldwide Learning & Development budget, Legal, Post-Sale Services, Shipping, Catalogue Production and Photography, and our Corporate departments. For all of these departments and the people who work in them, I act as a sounding board for ideas and work with everyone to troubleshoot problems and find solutions, provide historical data, navigate corporate governance, track budgets and costs, and help plan and strategize for long-term growth and success of the departments and the company. I also help our selling departments conduct auctions and organize private sales.
DL: How much did your time at Wake inform your career path?
MS: I would not be where I am without the Arts Management course. While I was a student, it was really the only opportunity for me to network and seek guidance for a life in the arts after Wake.
DL: How have you found the different jobs you've had?
MS: My job with Cristin came from meeting her during the Arts Management course. When I was ready to move away from the gallery, I used NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) and combed through their art world job posts board. NYFA is your best way to see what is available in New York and other places in the country. Jobs are often available on there before Glassdoor, Linkedin, and other big job search sites, which still do not really cater well to all of the arts whereas NYFA does. It’s how I found out that Sotheby's was hiring for the Floater program and applied.
DL: Auction Houses, and Sotheby’s in particular, seem to be a popular career option for art alums. How did you make the transition, and what is the hardest part about breaking into this field?
MS: In terms of transitioning from a gallery to an auction house, the biggest shock was going from a staff of 3-4 people, where you rolled up yourselves and fixed everything yourselves, to now over 500 people in our building and people that have jobs to help you fix your problems. At the gallery, we had to be on the phone with say Verizon if we had any issues. The resources at Sotheby’s were a shock. I knew it going in, but it was a different animal. The other thing that was amazing to see was just how much crossover there is between a small-staffed gallery and an auction house. I think a lot of people are surprised I have worked here only three and a half years, and they think I have been here longer, and I credit that to working with Cristin in a contemporary gallery and the arts market class.
The hardest part about getting an auction house job is having the right experiences, and it's about how you present yourself on paper. There is a huge pool of applicants for every role. You have to be attentive to detail and show that you are knowledgeable and not afraid to take on a challenge. There are a limited number of jobs available, and you have do what you can to stand out from the crowd.
DL: How do you like living in New York? What advice do you have for students considering pursuing a career in the city?
MS: The arts is one of the more difficult industries to break into. There are so few jobs for so many people. It is a “who you know” type of world. It’s huge if you know someone that can get you in the door for an interview or make sure your resume is read. Once you are in the industry, it is much easier to find your next opportunity.
I am very fortunate in that I am from Long Island. To work in the arts, there is no better place to start your career than New York since it is the hub. For me, I was able to live at home for a year and I wouldn’t have made it here otherwise. New York can be a challenging place to live; however it’s home for me. Being in New York, there is always something to do or to see, or a new person to meet. It is certainly never boring.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?
MS: The arts market trip itself is not necessary but I think it’s extremely advantageous. Even without it, the school should still have the class. I think that’s my biggest piece of advice for the University.
The OPCD should also know the nuances of cover letters and resumes for art people. They were not very helpful when I was a student since they focused on writing resumes for business jobs. I didn't get what I needed to succeed in the industry from the OPCD but I am hopeful that the feedback and change in administration since I graduated has helped more recent students. Nevertheless, I feel fortunate every day to have been able to attend Wake Forest; to have been an Art History student and to have made the lasting connections I have with my peers, fellow alums, and my professors. The Wake Art community is very tight knit and we all support one another. I would not be where I am today without Wake Art and the incredible people who work in Scales.