by Len Lear
Almost everyone loves a story of rags to riches, a saga of someone who has overcome an excruciatingly painful background and through extraordinarily hard work, tenacity and just plain guts, has become super-successful in business, the arts, etc. Someone who has even become a role model to be emulated by anyone who believes life has dealt him/her a rotten hand.
This is a carbon copy description of the life of Bridgette Mayer, 43, whose name will be familiar to anyone who follows the art gallery scene in Philadelphia. Bridgette, owner of her eponymous 17-year-old multi-million dollar gallery at 709 Walnut St. and an advisory firm in Los Angeles specializing in artwork sales and private and corporate consulting, is sophisticated, charming and erudite.
But she was not exactly born into wealth and privilege. As her recently published memoir, “The Art Cure: A Memoir of Abuse & Fortune,” tells us, Bridgette’s bleak, agonizing childhood in Jersey City gave no indication of the expert who would eventually work with some of the world’s most influential art collectors.
“I was abused as a child from infancy until when I was adopted at 9 years old,” Bridgette revealed in an interview with this reporter last week. “It was intense and frightening for me since my birth mother had issues of alcoholism, drug addiction and mental issues. She had six kids and would beat us with brooms, belts and even hot irons.
“I grew up with a lot of fear and uncertainty and didn’t start going to school until I went into a foster home at the age of 7 that later became my adopted family. It took years of struggle for me to catch up, and I had a lot of emotional issues to deal with from my childhood. I wrote my book to help people, especially women and creative types, to know that no matter how much you have been through or how tough life is, you can still create the life you desire.”
Bridgette lived in at least a dozen foster homes until she was 9 years old. “It was frightening for me as some of the homes had many children in them,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t really know what was happening or if I would see my siblings again … I grew up in sheer poverty and uncertainty before I was adopted. On the positive side, it has enabled me to build an inner strength that has helped me go after many things in my business life.”
In her book, Bridgette heaps praise on her adoptive parents, Russ and Elaine Mayer. “They were my life angels!” she insists. Thanks to the Mayers and her own inner strength, Bridgette graduated from Bucknell University in 1992 with a BA in Studio Art and Art History.
After graduation she worked for a top gallery in New York, traveled abroad and worked in Asia, worked at an architectural firm in California before moving back to the East Coast and started working at a start-up gallery in Philadelphia. She then started an art consulting firm that led directly to Mayer’s opening a gallery one year later.
Why on earth did Bridgette decide to open an art gallery, surely one of the more risky and difficult things a 26-year-old neophyte could undertake? “I decided to open a gallery … to show art that I loved that was being made by young artists. I could not find any art showing that reflected my generation. And I was tired of being a driven employee who was bringing ideas and success to the galleries I was working in but was not getting compensated enough to make a decent living.
“I decided to take my own financial fate into my own hands by opening my own business. It was risky, and I have seen over a dozen galleries open and close since my gallery opened in 2001.Once I got through 9/11 and then several economic crashes, including the one in 2008, and still continued to grow, I knew I would be able to keep building on that success.”
When Bridgette opened her business, she worked non-stop — 60+ hour weeks — and sacrificed a personal life, “including waiting to get married and start a family of my own, which I did just three years ago!” She now presents 10 exhibitions a year in her 3,000-square-foot space.
Bridgette began writing her book three years ago. Dredging up the sad old memories was difficult, of course. “I also stopped at a certain point as I was not sure I wanted to share my story with the world,” she said. “What kept coming to me was that I might be able to help or impact some people who are struggling or stuck in their own lives.”
Who are Bridgette’s own favorite artists, living or dead? “My favorites are all the artists I work with. They are like my extended family, and my favorite artist who made me want to go into the art world was Jean Michel Basquiat.”
Who are Bridgett’s heroes in real life, living or dead? “My number one hero is my mom, then my best friend Tariq and George Washington.”
Her connection to Chestnut Hill? “I have worked with a few artists and galleries in Chestnut Hill and also have many clients who live in the area. It is such a beautiful and unique community.”