Preserving the Legacy, Embracing the Future
The link between Burning Man’s annual bacchanal festivities and Sullivan Goss Gallery’s 30-plus-year legacy of celebrating important 19th-, 20th– and 21st-century American art may seem tenuous, but it was a visit to Burning Man that first sparked Nathan Vonk’s interest in art and the friends he made in the desert that first brought him to Santa Barbara.
Armed with a master’s degree in post-modern literature theory, Vonk taught night school at Ventura College and walked dogs during the day. He eventually bought out the owners of the dog business, ran it for a few years and then sold it for a profit, right before the market crashed in September of 2008.
Now fully enmeshed in the Santa Barbara scene, Vonk contemplated going back to school and getting a doctorate in art history or curatorial sciences and asked Sullivan Goss curator Jeremy Tessmer if he “could volunteer some hours at the gallery, so I could see if it was something that I wanted to do in graduate school.” Vonk laughs, “I came in and volunteered for the week, and on Friday, Frank [Goss] offered me a job. I never went back to school, and I’ve been there ever since.”
He continues, “I was the one guy in the whole country who got a new job in October of 2008. When everyone else was going on unemployment and Bear Stearns was crashing, I was one of the luckiest people in the country. I’ve been at Sullivan Goss ever since, and I couldn’t be happier.”
So happy, in fact, that when Goss told the team (which includes Tessmer and fellow curator Susan Bush) he planned to retire after 2016, Vonk bought the gallery because he wanted to make sure the legacy continued, with its staff intact.
“If you think of arts in Santa Barbara as an ecosystem, the part that Sullivan Goss fulfills—if that goes away, the whole ecosystem suffers greatly and it’s not a part that someone is going to step in and fill that void. That was a large part of my motivation to take on the risk of running a commercial gallery,” says Vonk.
He and his wife, Erin Smith, have a son, Lowen, who, Vonk says, “has been to more art shows at age 2-1/2 than I think the average Santa Barbaran probably has.”
Part of what Vonk loves about Santa Barbara is its casual, egalitarian nature. “I think we all understand how lucky we are to work in a gallery like this, in a town like this. Shortly after working for Frank, I had the opportunity to go to New York and visit galleries…the whole vibe there is so different than it is in Santa Barbara. If you don’t look like you can afford it, they don’t give you the time of day.…It kind of left a bad taste in my mouth about the whole situation, and it made me all the more excited to come back and work for Frank, because we don’t operate that way. In part we can’t, because the man or woman who comes into our gallery in shorts and flip-flops could very easily be a billionaire, and I don’t know that. So I have to treat everyone like they are billionaires, and I like that.”
Vonk views part of his art-dealer role as acting like a sort of docent, saying, “What we sell are not just pretty pictures; they are pretty pictures that come with a history and a provenance and some other interesting part of them that, hopefully, people who are interested in buying them will understand that if they buy them, they are only going to be a small portion of that object’s history.”
He also clearly loves the work. “One of the great things about Sullivan Goss is that I was sort of an academic, and I loved studying and writing essays and we do all that.… We’ve written four or five books…all the things I wanted from going back to school I got. Plus I got to stay in Santa Barbara so it was even better.”
Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.