As a graduate student in art history at Princeton, says Paul Provost *94, “My game plan was to be a curator for a while, and then go back and get an MBA,” with an eye toward moving into museum leadership. Instead, Provost’s business education came on the job at Christie’s, and in 2019 he became the first CEO at Art Bridges Foundation in Bentonville, Arkansas, which “inhabits a space in between a museum and a foundation,” Provost says.
Provost studied American art at Princeton and wrote his dissertation on Winslow Homer. “I loved teaching,” he says. “But I also realized that while I can write, I don’t love to write. I knew that I wasn’t cut out to be a real academic because being a real academic means publishing and researching and writing and writing and writing.”
Instead, he started his career in 1993 as the curator of paintings, drawings, and sculpture at the New-York Historical Society. In 1995 he moved to Christie’s, one of the world’s preeminent art auction houses, and quickly discovered he had a talent for business.
Hired as a specialist in American art, Provost moved to the business side in 2001 and became deputy chairman in 2011. Along the way, Christie’s sent him to finance boot camp at Columbia Business School and to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to take courses in negotiation.
The art market, Provost says, “is a fascinating thing, but it wasn’t something we discussed in our seminars at Princeton. In recent years, the study of how the art market works has become an area of academic study.” And, he adds, “When I’ve gone back to give seminars to graduate students, I tell them, ‘Learn how to read a balance sheet, because even if you’re a curator, you’re going to need to learn some business along the way.’”
As his run at Christie’s was winding down, Provost realized that he wanted to return to the nonprofit sector. He was tapped to build Art Bridges, a foundation launched by philanthropist Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, to expand access to American art. The fourth person hired by the institution, Provost has helped grow it to about 30 people.
Art Bridges acquires works of art that it loans to about 220 museums and provides funding for education around that art. “Our galleries are the galleries of our partner museums around the country,” says Provost. “I joke internally that Art Bridges is in the art distribution and education business.”
Throughout his career, Provost has maintained his passion for art. “One work of art that I am tremendously excited about which we acquired recently is a work by a contemporary Native American artist named Jaune Quick-to-See Smith,” he says. “It’s just a fantastic picture by a major contemporary living artist who is an Indigenous woman. It’s an amazing thing for us to be able to send a work of that caliber and quality to communities that don’t have works of art like that.”