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“Art helps,” states Nathan Vonk unequivocally. “It’s there to make you happy. It’s a constant in times of trouble and change, and it’s something that you share with loved ones and friends.”
Vonk is the gregarious owner of one of Santa Barbara’s greatest cultural institutions: Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery. Boasting an inventory of more than 3,000 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, and sculptures, Sullivan Goss is a primary West Coast resource for those seeking to build private and public collections of important American art.
On December 23, 2016, Vonk bought the business from its founder, Frank Goss, an icon in the Santa Barbara art world. “Frank and I worked for six months to make it happen,” Vonk explains. “Sullivan Goss is such a big part of the art community, and that’s why it was important for me to take it over and make sure it continued.”
But soon after the election of 2016, Vonk became concerned about how things would work out. “People need stability to buy art,” he explains. “I wasn’t prepared for the reality of Trump being president.”
As it turns out, that first year was one of the best for the gallery. But then the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow happened, and it took the gallery a year to recover. Fortunately, the business is flourishing today.
Currently, Sullivan Goss is working on the most ambitious project in its history: a book that encompasses the career of painter Hank Pitcher. The galley previously published a tome on the late Ray Strong, but the Pitcher project is focused on a living painter and is 50 percent larger.
“This book will catapult Hank,” declares Vonk. “We will be sending copies to curators and galleries, getting the word out nationally.”
Vonk started working at Sullivan Goss in October 2008. “I was thinking of getting a PhD in art,” he explained. ”I decided to volunteer at the gallery instead. I came in on a Monday and was hired by Friday. Frank and I got along, for we’re both English majors. The only art history classes I’ve taken have been at SBCC. Everything else I learned on the job.”
Vonk was born in rural Iowa, near Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. “I grew up on a farm on a road that is not paved to this day,” he says. “I was from a perfectly stereotypical Iowa place.”
He graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1996. “What I wanted to do was astronomy,” he confesses. “I was really into Stephen Hawking. I liked his big ideas. I soon had to come to terms that studying physics and astronomy was simply a romantic notion.”
Instead, he majored in English at Reed College, where the unofficial motto was “Atheism, Communism, and Free Love.” Nathan was interested in narrative theory, and his undergrad thesis was on James Joyce’s Ulysses. After graduation in 2002, he moved to Portland, Oregon, and worked as a valet at a hotel.
Then he was invited by a friend, who was a reporter for the Ventura County Star, to go to Burning Man, the prominent festival that’s an experiment in community and art. “I was fascinated by the enormous, resource-intensive art projects that are then gone forever,” Vonk recalls. “I found that fascinating. That propelled my interest in art.”
In 2003, he went to grad school in Brighton, England, at the University of Sussex. “It was there that I dove into the arts,” he explains. “The campus was only one hour from London, and I visited galleries and museums and taught myself art.” He finished his dissertation early so he could go back to Burning Man the following year. Then he came to Santa Barbara, following artists who’d participated in the festival; they’re still some of his closest friends, including Alan Macy of SBCAST.
In 2004, he got a job at Ventura College as an adjunct professor. “My job was not to teach the students what to think but how to think,” he explains. He also worked during the day as a dog walker for Paws Over Santa Barbara, eventually buying the business and making it profitable.
“I’m very happy how things turned out,” he reflects. “The dog business is part of a long series of happenstances that led me to buying Sullivan Goss. I’d never imagined my career path. I’ve always winged things, and I’ve always gotten lucky.”
Six years ago, Vonk married Erin Smith, a special ed preschool teacher. They met 15 years ago at The Press Room. She was reading Shakespeare from the same edition he owned. They have a son named Lowen, who is now in kindergarten.
“The most fun about being an art dealer is finding the perfect home for a work of art,” says Vonk. “When you find the right match, you’re making the buyer happy but also supporting the artist and his family. You’re helping the art ecosystem thrive.”
Nathan Vonk answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your current state of mind? Excited. We are just opening shows by Meredith Brooks Abbott and Phoebe Brunner, two of our most beloved artists. And we have books coming out for Hank Pitcher and Patricia Chidlaw in the next few weeks. So there is a lot to look forward to.
What is your motto? If we all liked the same things, art would be incredibly boring.
What is your greatest extravagance? Other than art, which is a constant, it’s kitchen gadgets. I love to cook and have a pantry full of specialty tools that are really only needed by cooks who are far better than I am, but I get incredibly excited whenever I have an excuse to use one.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? I am happiest when I am traveling to new or far off places. This could be a long road trip around the country or an adventure on the other side of the globe. I used to do this a lot when I was younger, but I don’t get to do it as often as I would like these days. I love the idea of waking up in the morning and having no idea where I might end up that day, of being able to be spontaneous and creating opportunity for serendipity. Being able to do that with my wife and son would be the greatest joy.
What do you like most about your job? I enjoy helping people discover new passions, whether that be for a particular artist or era or aesthetic. I love watching as people who come into the gallery get excited to learn more about what they saw here. These are things that I am passionate about, so it is really exciting to share that with others, and to see that it connects with them.
Alternatively, if someone comes in looking for pieces to add to an established collection, I get the pleasure of joining them on their treasure hunt by helping them look for things that will get them excited.
What is your greatest fear? Mental illness. I love reading, learning, and thinking about all sorts of crazy ideas. I’m most afraid of anything that would remove my ability to do these things.
Who do you most admire? Greta Thunberg. She has to be one of the most badass, courageous people on the planet.
What is the quality you most like in people? Kindness.
What is the quality you most dislike in people? Dishonesty.
What do you most value in friends? A sense of shared intellectual curiosity. I love long conversations about complex and complicated ideas that don’t have easy answers.
What is your most marked characteristic? Punctuality.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? No worries.
Which talent would you most like to have? I wish I could draw.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I wish I was better at remembering people’s names.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Buying Sullivan Goss from Frank and Tricia Goss three years ago. I hadn’t planned on becoming a gallery owner and would have been perfectly happy working for Frank for the rest of my life. But he had earned his retirement, and I thought it would be a terrible loss to the community if Sullivan Goss were to close its doors. So, we found a way to keep the legacy going.
Where would you most like to live? Outer space. Or more realistically, the Oregon Coast.
What is your most treasured possession? A collection of 50 or so 35mm slides from the ‘50s and ‘60s that I found at Art From Scrap years ago. It was all from one family, and I spent hours looking through hundreds of slides to find my favorites. There are photos of summer vacations in National Parks, Christmas Day, a sweet 16 birthday party, and high school prom. And the same family members show up over and over again through the years. I have no idea who the people are, but I bought a slide projector and bring them out every so often to marvel at them.
What makes you laugh the most? Absurdity.
Which historical figure do you most identify with? Apparently, I’ve never given this any thought before, and now having done so, I came up with nothing.
On what occasion do you lie? When I tell myself I shouldn’t buy a piece of art.