I was born and grew up in the projects of Jersey City, New Jersey, to a drug-addicted, alcoholic mother who was incredibly abusive to me and my siblings. I never knew my father. We had no toys, food or even furniture, except a mattress on the floor that the six of us would huddle on. We often had to climb out of the tenement window and scale down the building to go pick through garbage for food, or beg or steal to survive.
When I was five years old, I found a bag of buttons on one of these trips. It was decided that I would try to sell them to people to make some money to buy food at the corner store. That was my earliest memory of entrepreneurship — being handed money in exchange for a “product.” It was one of two experiences that would change my life and create my future destiny in the arts and as an entrepreneur.
The second experience I had was around the same time. One day, when my birth mother was out, I saw a small bag in the bathroom. I opened it up and inside was makeup! I brought the bag into the hallway of the apartment and started smearing its contents on all the brown and dirty walls. Blue eyeshadow, creamy lipsticks, eyeliner…a cacophony of color. It was pure delight and I didn’t stop until all the materials were used up. I had a deeply satisfying feeling of the color, the material and making my first piece of art.
I knew I was going to get into trouble but that didn’t stop me. In that moment, I was free. I had a voice. I could express myself and play. Without even knowing the word yet, I was an artist.
A new beginning
Fast forward, and I was adopted by a wonderful family at nine years old. I learned how to read for the first time and started school. I started working various jobs at 13 years old and my entrepreneurial and creative spirit was ignited.
I ended up as an Art History and Studio Art major at Bucknell University, a liberal arts college known at the time for its engineering and biology departments. After graduation, I struggled as a starving artist working in top galleries and museums for many years until I decided I had had enough. This was my turning point and it started with the simple question, “Who is making money in the art world and not struggling?” I knew the answer: the top contemporary artists and the top gallery owners.
There it was for me. The first piece of the puzzle. I decided to go buy a business book at the local Barnes & Noble to see if I could find more answers. I stumbled upon a book by Michael Gerber called “The E-Myth” (Ballinger Publishing, 1988). I purchased it and read it cover to cover over two days. I had my answer, and it was in front of me and inside of me all along.
I had been operating as a business owner in every single job I worked in. I absorbed everything I could and contributed ideas that turned into money for the business owners. At the time, I was working in a startup gallery in Philadelphia and not getting paid what I should have been for my experience and contributions. It was time for me to take the leap of faith and open my own gallery business.
Realizing my entrepreneurial dream
I opened my gallery in Philadelphia in 2001, right before 9/11. The first year was incredibly challenging and lean. People left the city for the summer to head to the beaches and sales were slow. 9/11 kept people inside and spending money on art was not on people’s agenda. But my optimism was high — I vowed to work hard and make it through the first year to not default on my lease for the gallery space. I put in 60-hour work weeks and was relentless. I made it.
In year two I decided to cut down on my personal expense of rent and moved into the basement of my building. I told no one, as I didn’t want people judging my decision and deciding not to buy art from me because of it. I put that money into advertising so people could learn about me outside of Philadelphia. It worked. More people started showing up and buying art.
My gallery business has now been open for 16 years. I recently opened an advisory business in California and I have consulted for top clients and corporations. I have had museums purchase work from me and I am currently working on several museum exhibitions and projects with gallery artists.
I learned to keep persevering through all the challenges. I kept pushing myself to work harder and learn more. It took me five years to hire my first assistant and start making any money, and another five years to start saving. The first 10 years I kept investing every penny I made back into my business: staff, buying my building and renovating it, advertising and better systems to make my business function at a top level.
I love encouraging entrepreneurship for gallerists, artists and creatives and have recently expanded my path to teach this. I couldn’t have imagined a better path for my dreams and for my personality.
About the author: Bridgette Mayer is the founder and CEO of Bridgette Mayer Gallery and Bridgette Mayer Art Advisors, working with top artists and art collectors around the world. She is also the author of “The Art Cure: A Memoir of Abuse & Fortune” (Lioncrest Publishing, 2016).
Edited for length and clarity by Nicole Taylor. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Nicole at email@example.com with your pitch.