The Artful Entrepreneur: Claire Distenfeld Olshan

Design | Dec 2017 | BY Mieke Ten Have

Claire Distenfeld Olshan considers herself an equal opportunity aesthete. “I don’t believe I am particularly better at one thing in aesthetics over the other; if you have a creative mind you can kind of work in any world,” says the born-and-raised Manhattanite. While known for founding the meticulously edited boutique FiveStory, which purveys cult brands like Rosie Assoulin, Aquazzura and Olympia-Le Tan set in a Ryan Korban-designed townhouse on the Upper East Side, Distenfeld Olshan wasn’t just another girl who dreamt of working in fashion when she grew up. “When I was 15, I knew I wanted to go into the art world,” she says.

At 16, she took a job as an assistant at the Nohra Haime Gallery (then situated in the Fuller building), which has a specialty in South American art and was selling works by the likes of Botero at the time. “Being a real New Yorker, I was extremely goal-oriented and ambitious,” reflects Distenfeld Olshan. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I became a fly on the wall.” There, the high school student found affirmation that the art world was her calling. What followed were a series of fortuitous encounters coupled with academic devotion (including a bachelors in fine art from NYU and a masters in contemporary art from Sotheby’s). After a stint at the New Museum, Distenfeld Olshan was hired as the director of an up-and-coming gallery on the Lower East Side founded by Joel Mesler.

Called Rental, the concept initially was to be a rotating exhibition space for visiting galleries who had hopes to set up a short term Manhattan foothold, akin to a pop-up. “I told Joel that I thought he should build out his own gallery. So, we started to go over a bunch of artists he worked with.” What soon followed were shows by Henry Taylor, Matthew Chambers and a private sale of works by Rashid Johnson.

“This all happened when the economy started to fall apart, but instead of struggling, we were thriving—people who were used to spending $5 million were now spending $50,000 and looking for promising artists,” says Distenfeld Olshan. Instead of finding fulfillment, however, she was ultimately unhappy. “I realized art was a passion and a hobby and it was not something I wanted to make money from—I didn’t have that manipulative, cunning mind for it.” After 10 years spent in the art world, the young gallerist quit without a definitive plan for her next act. “I took a walk through Central Park—first time in my over-scheduled life that I had nothing to do—and I came up with the concept for FiveStory. I acted immediately—if you can find something that doesn’t exist in New York City, you have to do it quickly,” she recalls.

Her instinctive prowess in art similarly translated to her foray into fashion retail. FiveStory, which launched in April 2012, presaged the trend in shopping away from department stores to something much more personal, in a decidedly more residential environment. It didn’t hurt that Distenfeld Olshan had a knack for picking up-and-coming designers before many of the large, luxury retailers followed suit.

Nowadays, the aesthetic entrepreneur is a savvy art buyer—for herself. “I think being a collector is the greatest side of the coin,” says Distenfeld Olshan. “You get to meet artists and you get to learn—I forgot how much I loved that.”

Distenfeld Olshan has made a point of buying the work of female artists she greatly admires, including Louise Lawler, Nicole Eisenman, Isa Genzken, Cosima von Bonin and Laura Owens. She and her husband, Michael Olshan, have a taste for Berlin gallerist Daniel Buchholz’s roster, including a recently acquired piece by Wolfgang Tillmans. “You have to be very discerning to create your own collection—mindful and particular, which pieces you choose and why you choose them, where you will put them,” Distenfeld Olshan says. “Being a collector, you get to live with art, which is the greatest experience of all.”

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