My first mentor in the art world began simply as a name. A name uttered by one, repeated by many, heard while I was pursuing my Master’s degree in London in the autumn of 2007.
I first heard the name during a “lecture” – I wouldn’t call it a proper lecture, more like a rambling, self-absorbed collection of words by a gallerist from Amsterdam – the lecturer now long-forgotten. But his opening statement captured me, “Maureen Paley is the scariest woman in the art world. When she sees me, though, she gives me not one, but two kisses.” With raised eyebrows and hyperactive ears, I retained this name for my internal log. Later that day, after a long and fairly pointless excursion through some galleries in the West End, I approached the lecturer to find out more. “You can’t just talk to her. She would not speak to you.” My back went up, cat-like. “What do you mean, she ‘won’t’ speak to me? Why not?” He simply stopped talking at that point. But I was injected with red-hot curiosity: who was this person and how many gatekeepers stood between her and me?
Fast forward to December 2009. I was given two VIP passes to Art Basel Miami Beach, an event I had only heard of but had never been to. A high school classmate accompanied me. We treated it like a social event, with no intention of engaging in the vast, complex network of art professionals and gawkers. Suddenly, I passed a booth whose white placard above it said, “Maureen Paley: London”. I grew nervous, tingling with fear, but turned to my friend and said, “Could you wait for me for a minute? I want to ask them a question.” She obliged.
I remember what I was wearing. My hair slicked back into a high bun, like a ballerina’s (I had a long run as a kid in all kinds of dance classes). My dress was a tight, asphalt-coloured kimono with black silk trim. I wore python-skin heels. I felt I was dressed well for the occasion, but now none of that mattered. The small, insignificant person I was would now be presented before the altar of art world-renown, fashion be damned. I inched forward through the throng of onlookers, approaching a folding table covered with books and two sets of business cards. A tall, light Englishman with a Paul McCartney haircut turned to me. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry to trouble you, but my name is Shana Mason. I just graduated from Christie’s Education London and I was recommended to come to see you, I mean, your gallery.” He was quiet, patient. “Of course, welcome, Shana. I’m Oliver, lovely to meet you.” Then, with a pick in my throat, I turned to my right and saw a small woman with a very large half-up-half-down beehive coiffure. She was clad in deep black and blue. It was like I was looking at who I wanted my future self to be. “Is…is that Maureen Paley?” I asked gingerly. “Yes, that’s Maureen. Would you like to meet her?” My eyes went gigantic, I barely exhaled. I nodded, “Please.”
Oliver guided her over with a gentle hand on her shoulder. I had no idea how to begin, how to make myself seem worth her time, but I had to say something. “Ms. Paley?” I stuttered, “My – I’m Shana Mason. I bring greetings from John Slyce from Christie’s Education in London.” She rose her head slowly, “Ah yes, I know John.” I smiled awkwardly, but went on. “I have heard so much about you and was really eager to introduce myself to you. I had the pleasure of seeing Wolfgang Tillman’s show at the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin. An amazing show.” She smiled slightly and practically whispered, “Yes. Wolfgang is…quite special.” I smiled back, “I would love to learn more about your gallery and come to see you in London, if I may. I live here now in Miami, but I’ve started doing some consulting work. I’d love to keep in touch.” She smiled again and lifted a business card from her deep, black pocket. Again, almost a breathy whisper issued from her, “You call me anytime, Shana.”
Vindication. Victory. Utter amazement. The “scariest” person in the art world just addressed me by name, with seemingly endless grace and sincerity. Whoever this lecturer was talking about, surely this was not the monster he had illustrated. That moment was pivotal for me. It kicked off a decade of friendship, learning and admiration between Maureen Paley and myself that I treasure, to this day. But above all, it was a lesson that my own intuition and determination created an open door that I continue to step in and out of. It may not be active on a daily basis, but it is always present and available to me. This is something that every young person engaging in the art world should possess: an open doorway to someone who is supportive, patient, knowledgable, and of high repute that is – even peripherally – in your corner. If I could pass on any piece of advice after fifteen years of navigating the treacherous waters of the contemporary art ocean, it is that you must always have sight of a safe landing spot. You don’t live there, you don’t hang on for dear life, but you know it is there, as a mental anchor reminding you that you are valuable, you are worth someone’s time, and you are worth listening to.
Find your “scariest person in the art world”, and then pursue them gently, confidently, with humility. The reward will present itself over and over again. Oh, one more thing, make sure they have fabulous hair. Very important.