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Running with the bulls (and bears) Skidmore's investment performance
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Art whirl Joan Fioravanti '75 makes a living in the NYC art world
Teachers' pets Faculty dog-owners wag a few tales


A living in art, and the art of living
by Barbara Melville

Visit New York City and a certain kind of woman always catches your eye—she is so New York. She might be the elegant and knowledgeable museum patron, the dancer sprinting to ballet class, the arts expert with one eye on an object’s beauty and the other on its market value.

Or, like Joan Fioravanti ’75, she might be all of the above. Fioravanti’s style is as chic and fast-paced as Fifth Avenue, but how she brings it off might surprise you.

First, there’s her day job at the Jewish Museum’s satellite shop on the upper West Side. Then there’s her night job for New York Times/CBS News pollsters several evenings a month. Fioravanti explains, “We call people across the country and ask questions like, Do you approve of the job President Bush is doing? What do you consider ‘middle class’? How do you feel now about 9/11?” The work, she says, is “so removed from the rest of my life that it’s a refreshing change of pace.”

The “rest of her life” revolves mostly around her freelance career as a costume and textile appraiser for auctioneers, estates, and museums. A morning with her at the private Cora Ginsburg gallery offers a glimpse inside a highly specialized art world. Open by appointment only, the discreet little gallery in a brownstone off Madison Avenue has no sign outside.

Inside, it’s filled with treasures: an imposing gold brocade kimono, bolts of dizzily metallic “modern” cloth, a snappy Christian Dior number with big ’50s polka dots—and a seventeenth-century velvet bodice, its exquisite leaf and seedpod patterns embroidered in silk thread. “The colors are soft and natural,” Fioravanti notes, “because in the 1600s thread was dyed with herbs, not chemicals.”

Now she focuses on an embroidered linen waistcoat, circa 1735. She lifts the coat and turns it, examining its yarn-covered buttons. “You look first at the physical condition,” she says. “The fabric, details, label, whether it’s hand- or machine-stitched, and whether there are any alterations—the piece is worth less if it’s been cut or hemmed. Then you look through auction records and catalogs to see what items like this are going for.”

To date and value a garment, all she needs are a tape measure, a camera, and access to research libraries. “It’s a low-overhead profession,” she says with a smile. She fell into her esoteric field through an eight-year stint at Christie’s New York auction house, complementing that on-the-job training with New York University courses leading to certification by the American Society of Appraisers.
“A passion is a focus and a filter that sharpens life and makes it richer.… Dance, art, museums— sometimes I think, My god, I am so lucky.”

Outside the gallery, the day turns warm, but Fioravanti swings smartly along Madison Avenue, never losing her stride—or her end of the conversation. Her favorite assignments? “Any piece special in its era: a beaded flapper dress, a superb Balenciaga, Luther Vandross’s fantastic stage costumes… And a 1920s Callot Soeurs dress with silk flowers. So pretty. Felt like air.” (Yes, sometimes she gets to try the clothing on.)

In the spare time she fiercely wedges into her three-job schedule, Fioravanti dances—”four to six times a week, whenever work allows.” Never dance-trained as a child, she skipped dance courses at Skidmore, where she majored in art history. But after graduation, back in the city she grew up in, she plunged into everything from ballet with Melissa Hayden and modern at the Martha Graham school to jazz, Middle Eastern, Indian, and flamenco. “I push myself into new dance forms—to do something I don’t know how to do,” she says over a lunch of roasted vegetables at a bustling deli.

“A passion is a focus and a filter that sharpens life and makes it richer. For me, dance is a whole way of being, from carriage to performance, that carries over into everything I do.”

Next, it’s only a brisk walk over to Fifth Avenue to view “Dangerous Liaisons,” a clever historical exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here gorgeously dressed mannequins pose in tableaux among eighteenth-century French furnishings. A ballroom scene, for example, glitters with rich gowns and jewels; one lady is aswoon amid her satins. “Her stays were too tight,” quips Fioravanti, who riffs brightly on such subjects as the French textile industry, the exhibition’s dim lighting (“light hurts old fabrics as it does paper”), and the way the gowns’ side-bustles “made the ladies look as broad and flat as roadkill.” Spotting a ribbed-silk gown credited “Courtesy of Cora Ginsburg LLC,” she marvels, “I’ve touched these things.”

In a shared taxi whizzing through Central Park, Fioravanti recalls being invited to a baroque ball in the East Village. She couldn’t afford to rent an expensive replica costume, so she Cinderella’d one together, scooping a long skirt into bustles stuffed with bubble wrap and accessorizing with long gloves, feathers, and a fan. She went, she learned a little baroque dance, she had a great time.

Clearly, money isn’t superabundant, yet “I have a very rich life,” Fioravanti says suddenly. “Dance, art, museums—sometimes I think, My god, I am so lucky. I’m getting the best they have.” Hopping out of the taxi at Lincoln Center to pick up the evening’s ballet tickets (perks of her dance-world connections), Fioravanti vanishes swiftly into her city.