Interview With Francis Mill of Hackett Mill
Newsletter September 8, 2020
In this issue, I interviewed Francis Mill, co-founder of Hackett Mill, a preeminent San Francisco art gallery. Francis has an impressive breadth of knowledge about art, architecture and design. He takes a mindful approach to art collecting as an artist and educator, cautioning us to slow down and avoid the frenzy of fashionable collecting in favor of seeking deep, meaningful connections with artifacts and our environment. Please read my interview with Francis and enjoy!

All artwork shown this month's newsletter are courtesy of Hackett Mill.
Please stay healthy and safe during this time.

Andrea Z. Roth, Ph.D., ASA
Artist and Educator First, Dealer Second!
Andrea: How did you get started as a dealer? 

Francis: I never did because I don't see myself as a dealer. The role of a dealer has limitations. I am an artist first and educator. But if convention says that a dealer is one who sells art, I suppose I started at 4.5 years of age when I sold my ink painting of five fishes that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. I started learning art and the making of it at the age of four from my father. My first undergraduate degree was in architecture and later an undergraduate and master's degree in fine art painting. I taught college level art and was a dean of a graduate school for ten years. My purpose is always an artist and educator. 
Howard Hodgkin
'Italy,' 1993-96
32.25 x 34.35 inches
Oil on Panel
Masatoyo Kishi
Opus No. 65-J-2, 1965
34 x 34 inches
Oil on canvas
Jules Olitski
Fanny D, 1960
89 x 89.5 inches
Magna acrylic on canvas
Doing Business During a Pandemic
Andrea: What has been the greatest challenge in doing business during the age of COVID-19? 

Francis: The same as before, encouraging people to have an authentic experience with art and expand their minds with knowledge and inspiration. There is often too much noise that is a distraction from a true experience with art. I define the true experience with art to be learning about who the artist is, how she or he arrived at their personal handling of materials, the time in which the works were made, and how the works find relevance today in our own lives. That is the kind of conversation I sought daily and I periodically found it with a good number of clients throughout the years. I dislike social media and technology, mainly because they falsely convince us that we are more knowledgeable and more informed then we really are. But as a tool, they become useful during these times as we can still continue an authentic conversation from afar and I am having many of such continuous inspiring exchanges with many clients, artists, and other educators of note. It is not technology that brings such authenticity. It is our willingness to have those authentic conversations. 
David Park
'Nudes and Ocean', 1959
59.75 x 49.75 inches
Oil on Canvas
Andrea: What advice are you giving your artists during this time? 

Francis: I say "Let's talk about art." It sounds simple but in the complex and superficial world we live in, I find it to be a rather provocative proposal. The most engaging conversations I have had recently has been about the art making process. The conversation is endless and it can touch on many subjects, even beyond art. I find that my conversations often cannot continue without bringing in the subject of architecture. As for architecture, I think we have been doing it all wrong for so long. But that is a heated subject for me and for another time to discuss at length. Art and architecture are highly important topics for me and my work. 
Andrea: What are collectors saying is their greatest challenge in buying art during this time? 

Francis: Technology has always helped to keep us connected. But in working with collectors, I have always maintained an active in person presence. I have always found that to be important and necessary in having an authentic relationship. As an educator, nothing fully replaces being present in the classroom or in any space. I find that most have missed this personal interaction. 
Andrea: What do you see as the most important features to keeping galleries afloat during this time?
Francis: Cut the excess and find your true voice. It cannot always be what the market dictates. That I find boring. There has to be authenticity in why we do what we do. At this time, do we still need to wonder about the value of art in our lives? There is so much more to learn and gain from art and the art making process, its history, its context, then how well it fits above the mantle. Why have we allowed ourselves to be so limited in the experience of art. We need to always push beyond those artificial boundaries that convention has built. We need to always move that scholarly needle forward. We need to always look at how to improve on how art is experienced, not just during a pandemic or a period of social unrest. These are not surreal times, rather this is reality. Art does not happen in a vacuum. Art is a direct reflection of its time. When it is authentic, truly felt, and mature in its creative execution, the art can and will transcend the time in which it is made. It is why we can revisit certain art throughout history and still find relevance and meaning for today. 
So there is an opportunity here because of the challenges we all have in how to engage in art during a pandemic. It is a good time to evaluate and assess what conventions we have followed in a mindless way. Frankly, as an artist, I do not see how experiencing art in a big white box is effective. The greeter with only their forehead exposed does nothing but uphold conventions of privilege. It is sterile and generic architecture that we have come to embrace as some kind of high standard. I find it rather empty of soul! Art is alive with ideas and emotions. The process of making art for the artist can be fraught with challenges, anxiety, struggle, fear, even turmoil. This artistic process is largely unfamiliar to many who are not practicing artists. How do we bring such insights to a public that may not know how to engage in such a dialogue?
Manuel Neri
'Window Series No. 5', 1958-59
68.75 x 68.75 inches
Oil on Canvas
I think it is time to bring in architecture into the conversation and I do not define architecture in the conventional manner of walls and floors. Architecture is space. For me, architecture is as vital a component in a phone conversation as it is during a symposium in Kalamazoo where the primary participants are words. 
Speaking of floors and walls, I have not had a conventional office with enclosed walls and a door for years. Why incur expenses to uphold conventions that do not invite accessibility to art? For years now, in my atelier, a director greets visitors. My desk is fifteen feet from the front door. I have stopped using the term gallery to define my space. I prefer using "atelier" because it is an active workspace with different overlapping functions that happen each day (or hour) that defines the space. I have had lengthy unexpected conversations with visitors that in the end completely inspired them. 
The Future of Art Dealers
Milton Avery
'Conversation on the Rocks', 1944
22.5 x 30.5
Gouache on Paper
Andrea: How do you see the pandemic affecting the art market in the long run?

Francis: With every moment of reset, we reprioritize. If we accept that there is value in experiencing art without the noise of market trends and what is deemed fashionable at the time, then there just may be a willingness to look at art, artists, and movements that may have been bypassed and marginalized previously. This would be a significant breakthrough that would be very difficult to achieve in previous times because too much was governed by trend and fashion. There is a fundamental difference between focus and tunnel vision.
It is the inability to distinguish the difference between the two that has directly contributed to artists being marginalized in the first place. I hope that during these times of reset and reprioritization, we gain a better awareness. 

Andrea: Have you found that potential buyers are more or less interested in making art purchases during this time?

Francis: The interest in art never really goes away. It is an essential part of life regardless of how politicians with little knowledge of art categorize it during this pandemic. There are art acquisitions being made. Whether the interest is greater or lesser than previously is less interesting to me than the increased meaning in the actual purchase today, such as actively supporting an artist they have always admired and/or collecting a quality work that they would not have considered before (either because of opportunity or simply why wait?). 
Andrea: What feedback do you get about buying art online?

Francis: I mainly use online as a tool for communication. I see art collecting and the purchase of art less as a mere transaction but rather as an experience where inspiration and knowledge is gained. Therefore, the purchase of art in my world still is about the personal relationship and interaction. 

Andrea: What do you miss most about the old “normal” way of doing business? 

Francis: Nothing. There was too much superficiality and lack of authentic artistic exchange. Definitely, there was a shortage of real looking. Genuine art collecting is not about having a shopping list of names. Such strategies do not encourage looking and learning because if it is not on the list, one would not give much attention to it. 
Joan Brown
'Girl Taking Her Clothes Off #1', 1962
30.5 x 25.5 inches
Acrylic, Collage on Paper
Such strategies do not encourage looking and learning because if it is not on the list, one would not give much attention to it. Most discoveries that I have made in my life and career was unexpected and often by chance. The key factor was maintaining an open mind and willingness to look, and engage. Art should affect people and make them think and learn. Even if you don't buy the work of art, why not stop, look, and learn something about it and expand your mind? Because when you do, you file that information away in your brain and it actually informs your eyes when you look at the next thing. Let's be honest, there isn't much movement of the scholarly needle when all you are doing is looking for a red painting. 
Francis Never Stops
Andrea: How are you spending your time when not working? 

Francis: As an artist, it is always work for me. If it is not my art business, then it is my own upcoming art exhibition that I have been working on for the past year. I am creating an art installation. For over a decade, I have been researching, designing, and building an architectural system for living. All of its parts are in active daily use. I will recompose all these parts in an autobiographical installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose later this year. Upon completion of this exhibition, this architectural system will return to my home and most likely take on a different form. For me, architecture is autobiography. I am blurring the lines between artist, architect, curator, educator, archivist, proprietor, exhibition, and living. My inspiration has been in development for over thirty years beginning with my first read of the book "Poetics of Space" by Gaston Bachelard, which I read in my freshman year at Berkeley as a student of architecture. 
Francis Mill is an artist with a BA in architecture and a BFA and MFA in fine art, from the University of California at Berkeley. A painter his entire life, Mill began teaching right after college at the age of 24 at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and later became the dean of the graduate school. 

As a practicing artist, Mill is also the co-founder of Hackett Mill, a preeminent San Francisco art gallery, with a focus on building private art collections of rare works from the 1950s and 1960s by significant American, European, and Asian artists. Mill's primary focus is as an educator and he says that "for too long we have not questioned the prejudices and biases that have conditioned our way of understanding art history. We have much work to do in order to truly look at art and arrive at a genuine understanding of it." 

Engaging his passion and deep insight for art and architecture, Francis Mill is working on a major art installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose, in 2021. This exhibit will bring to the forefront his serious interest in art and architecture with a challenge to the conventions that we have so blindly accepted. 
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