How Nicole Berry, Executive Director of the Armory Show, Gets It Done

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Teddy Wolff

The Armory Show may be just three days long, but it takes an entire year (and one seriously dedicated team) to put it together. On September 8, New York City’s Javits Center will transform into a buzzing hive of contemporary and modern art from more than 200 exhibitors. For Nicole Berry, the fair’s executive director, this is “crunch time.” Not that there’s ever really a slow time: “As soon as the fair ends, we begin planning for 2024.” Since she took over in 2017, the show that welcomes up to 65,000 visitors has weathered a number of crises. For one, Berry was promoted just after her predecessor resigned in the wake of sexual-misconduct allegations. In 2019, she got troubling news a mere week before the event: The venue, Pier 92, was “structurally unsound.” “It was something that I was not aware of was even a possibility,” she says. “There was no contingency plan.” She snapped into action and moved the entire event to Pier 90 without any of the exhibitors dropping out. Then COVID-19 hit. In July, the Armory show was acquired by Frieze, just months before the event’s start date. Luckily, Berry welcomes the pressure. And after the past few years, any challenge seems manageable. “Knock on wood,” she says. “I don’t want to jinx myself.” This year’s theme is historical narratives, and the fair will tackle subjects like colonialism and migration while hopefully selling millions of dollars’ worth of art in the process. Berry lives in New Jersey with her dog and her husband. Here’s how she gets it done. 

On switching careers:
In my late 20s, I had gone through a divorce and was burned out teaching elementary school in San Francisco. I knew that there was something special about art, from watching my mother’s reaction in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà when I was a child to taking an AP art history course where everything clicked. I didn’t have experience, but I felt very confident as a teacher. I think that set the foundation for me to get my master’s in art history and feel like, Okay, I’m going to jump into this. I had no shame about starting at the bottom. I was one of the oldest interns that Sotheby’s has ever had. In fact, one of the co-interns jokingly called me “Mommy.” I’m a doer. I roll up my sleeves, and I make it work. A gallerist I was interviewing with told me I was too ambitious. He was like, “You’re going to steal my client list and go open your own gallery.” He didn’t hire me, and in the words of Julia Roberts, “Big mistake. Huge.” I wear my ambition like a badge of honor. This is something I’m very invested in. I gave myself five years to move to New York and try to be successful. I’m still here.

On constant cycle of working and planning:
Fair life is not for everyone. My husband has a joke that I’m busiest in the six months leading up to the fair and the six months after the fair. Other than that, I’m totally relaxed. It’s kind of true. Everyone thinks that because crunch time is right before the event, that it’s the most stressful. But we have a lot in place by then. It’s just landing the plane. As soon as the fair ends, we begin planning for 2024. I do a lot of travel to various fairs, biennials, and museum exhibitions. There are VIP cultivation events that we throw throughout the year. We have to select curators, solicit applications, and plan the programming. The winter involves a lot of gallery selection. People think that once the exhibitor list is announced, the show just runs itself. But that’s really when the fun stuff starts.

On managing travel: 
I’m usually on the road one or two weeks every month. In October, there’s the Frieze London and Paris. Then there’s the Venice Biennale. I have friends who think, Oh, Nicole’s traveling again. It’s so glamorous. But I am boots on the ground the minute that I land, working from the early morning ’til the late evening. It’s hard to find time to even grab water. I often carry gluten-free snack bars in my bag so that I remember to eat. One thing that’s been life-changing for me, especially if I’m flying to Europe, is taking a day flight as opposed to a red-eye. I don’t really sleep on the plane, so I know I’m going to land and be exhausted. It’s better for me to be productive on the way over. My meditation teacher says planes are one of the best places to meditate because you can just sort of drown out everything else that’s happening. No one can get to me when I’m up at 30,000 feet.

On winding down:
I’m not great at making sure that I take a vacation religiously at a certain time every year. I find little pockets of time to sort of take a moment. I love retail therapy. When I travel, I try to find out-of-the-way boutiques and interesting pieces that you don’t see everywhere else. Statement jewelry is my thing. I find some of the best necklaces at museum stores. If I have a long day when I’m in town, I love a good crime drama, or any home -enovation show. On the weekends, my husband and I take our dog Jake, a min-pin-dachshund rescue, on a long walk. He keeps me sane. No matter what has gone on in my day, his tail is wagging and he licks my troubles away.

On her work ethos: 
I think relationship building is the key to the entire art world. It’s very small. Your clients are not selling jeans; they’re selling artwork that has emotion involved. A gallery owner is very committed to their artists and feels very strongly that their program is fantastic. They have to trust you to put a lot of time and effort and money into a presentation at the fair. Our team is known for its customer service. Obviously, the priority is to get VIPs to buy art. But the goal is that every single exhibitor has the best experience possible. That starts with the loading of their art, to the installation of the pieces on the walls, to personally checking in with every single exhibitor. We want to make sure they come back.

On getting comfortable with delegating:
I am a perfectionist. I am the face of the fair, so I’m the one who gets either the accolades or criticism. But it’s not healthy for me to be doing everything. Now that I’ve been the director for six years, I’ve learned how to do a better job of giving that power and autonomy to my core team of eight. Everybody has a question that needs to get answered, especially in the lead-up to the fair. As we’re making some of these final decisions, whether it be on the floor plan or signage, I have to sort of give the final stamp of approval. Sometimes I have to shut my door and say, “Please don’t disturb me unless the building is on fire while I tackle this project.” Being able to let go of some daily minutiae is a goal for myself. I want my team to feel empowered to make some of those decisions without me having to look at every last thing. Looking forward to strategy is really going to be interesting for me.

On the people who help her get it done:
My husband is my anchor. He supports me in all my crazy adventures and keeps me grounded. I’m an only child, and I’m very close to my parents. They recently moved from Santa Fe to Connecticut, so it’s really great to be able to see them more often. I could not do my job well without my incredible team. I am truly blessed to work with such talented and interesting people. And I can also give a shout-out to my acupuncturist. I also tell her that she’s my therapist because when she asks me how it’s going, I tell her.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How the Executive Director of the Armory Show Gets It Done