Keyes To The (Art) Kingdom

Anybody who knows Julie Keyes — and a lot of people do, since she’s been a bastion of the art biz on the East End for the past 20 years or so, along with being super-friendly — knows that she has that quality sometimes referred to as “moxie.” But when describing how the gallery owner broke into the coveted realm of providing art for large A-list hotels like the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Mandarin, the Breakers, and so on, her chutzpah factor is off the charts.

“I had a ceramic factory, which had turned into an art gallery. I was at a dinner party in New York, and I was seated next to Adam Tihany, a premiere hotel and restaurant designer. And he says, ’What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I’m an art gallerist and dealer,’ when in fact I was doing real estate, a little of this, a little of that, a hundred things, like everyone out here. And he said, ’I’m in the middle of doing CityCenter in Las Vegas. Would you be able to handle something like that?’ And I said, “Absolutely! That’s what I do!’” she recalled, bursting into laughter.

“I went in to the office, and being from the Hamptons, I had access to the most fantastic artists in the world; they’re all my friends,” she said. “I brought in this and that — Danny Christensen, Donald Sultan — people who internationally are ’holy f*ck’ kind of artists. So, I got the job.” The late local artist and master printer Michael Knigin went to work making up prints of the artwork for Keyes. “So, without any real expertise from me, except the luck of having these people in my life, I looked like an incredible art dealer. After that, everybody started coming forward.”

A lot of it was trial and error. At the Mandarin, Keyes and her crew installed a series of art in the hotel’s hallways featuring Chinese characters — “about 500 pieces, just beautiful” — and then found out that the message inscribed was “So sorry for your loss.”

“So here I am with an ego the size of Manhattan, when I get a call from the CEO of all the Mandarin hotels worldwide. I’m thinking he’s going to tell me how fabulous we are, but instead I get, ’All of my hallways say ’So sorry for your loss,’ what are you going to do about that?’ I ended up hiring everyone I knew between the ages of 17 and 25, we flew to Vegas, and we ripped it down in one night, and replaced it with other art. We were literally finishing up on the top floor while they were cutting the ribbon in the lobby,” she said.

Although Keyes received her Masters from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she has also attended Long Island University in Southampton. “I always had an attachment to the area,” she said.

Keyes Art Consulting also has a gallery — the only art gallery — at the months-long horse show in Wellington, FL this year, right next to the Grand Prix ring. “Wellington was expanding its arts presence, and the timing was perfect for me. I was able to move in there and get this fantastic space. I’ve ridden all my life,” she said. “I’ve had horses since I was seven. So, it’s the wonderful combination of the things I love. A lot of the people there are old friends, it feels uniquely special. The connections are acute.”

It would seem like that would be enough to keep Keyes busy. But she also, on January 4, in the dead of the off-season, opened a new gallery space in Sag Harbor, right next to the American Hotel. The opening was packed with great art and great artists; pieces from Bert Stern, Amy Zerner, Dan Rizzie, Nathan Slate Joseph (who is Keyes’s life partner), and many others adorned the walls of the long, narrow space, which also boasts a bright basement and a backyard.

Why the brick-and-mortar? According to Keyes, it’s key. “I get the opportunity to work with artists, like the Bert Stern estate. With hotels, it’s kind of one-and-done. But I like being in an art gallery, the interaction. I like to put the art in someone’s home. I like to foster artists and their work.”

Her last gallery was in East Hampton, but Keyes feels that Sag Harbor is home. “Sag Harbor is my community,” she said. “I love Sag Harbor, I love the people. In 1979, I was waitressing at the Corner Bar. I waitressed at Dockside. I have long-term relationships with the people there, ever since I went to Southampton College. There is no one in that town I don’t adore. And I want to be that person there. The idea of being next to the American Hotel, right in the center of town, it is my dream come true,” she said.

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