Michelle Brandt was doing it all: Short North gallery owner, artists' advocate, community leader, wife and mother. But stage IV colon cancer had other plans for her. It sounds crazy, but she's glad it did.
Standing in the basement of her Short North art gallery, Michelle Brandt points to the corner where the water leaked in, trickling down the wall and pooling on the floor after a nearby sidewalk collapsed due to construction. She’s surrounded by rows of paintings—all stored six inches off the floor, as mandated by insurance—which are easily worth a few hundred thousand dollars, she says. She doubts the water would have reached them, but the moisture in the air could have ruined the cotton canvases, destroying the artwork.
The water crisis at Brandt-Roberts Galleries happened in 2018, not long after doctors diagnosed Brandt with stage IV colon cancer. While the water seeped in, chemotherapy pumped through Brandt’s body. She was exhausted and in pain. Her business was slumping. And the water would not stop.Stay up to date with the region’s movers and shakers, top employers, philanthropic causes, real estate developments and thriving creative and startup scenes. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
It was “one of the lowest points,” she says.
Today, Brandt, 46, has been in remission from the cancer for a year-and-a-half. She practically vibrates with energy and drive. The basement corner is freshly painted white. Business has bounced back. Instead of wearing a scarf to cover her head, she wears one tied fashionably around her neck.
How do you run a business and care for your family when everything is falling apart? For Brandt, the answer involved giving up control, asking for help, and relying on others.
“I don’t think I could have gotten through everything I’ve gotten through and come out on the other side without the people in my life.”***
Brandt grew up in the western Ohio village of Saint Henry, where she discovered her love for the arts in school. During study halls, “I would be in the art room. It didn’t matter if there was a math test coming up, I’d be working on a sculpture.”
She earned a degree in art education from Ohio State University and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to teach middle school. She had a friend with a gallery there and became fascinated with the business, quitting teaching to work in a gallery. “I like people and I like sharing art with people,” she says.
In late 2002, she and her husband, Brian moved back to Columbus to raise their sons closer to family and be near her husband’s farm. Brandt stayed home while they were babies, then worked for two Columbus galleries before opening Brandt-Roberts in 2010 to showcase art made between the post-war period and modern day.
“People think a gallerist puts up art on walls,” she says. “That’s not it. It’s client-relationship building.” For someone to spend $5,000—or even $500—on a painting, they need to trust the art is worth it. Brandt, who earns money from commissions, also does appraisals, represents art estates and sometimes sends art to auctions.
Her collectors range in age, sexual orientation and gender, and most live in Ohio. Many are in the upper socioeconomic strata, but she also has clients who lay concrete or manufacture steel. When people deeply connect with a piece of art but can’t pay for it flat-out, Brandt puts them on a payment plan. “Art has an inherent value. It’s not necessarily a dollar amount. The value can evoke a memory. It can create an emotional connection. It can be challenging—that’s OK, too. It’s a great communicator.”
Brandt represents roughly 25 artists, 75 percent of whom are Ohio-based. She feels an intense sense of responsibility toward her artists, knowing she helps them make a living creating art. She spends a lot of time nurturing these relationships, making studio visits, critiquing their work. However, “I never dictate creativity,” she says.
When asked why she prizes art and artists, she pauses. Finally, she says, “A true artist can make you think differently about something, even a tape measure,” she says, glancing at a tape measure on the table. “Maybe that’s it, that’s the gift. I can render a tape measure. But an artist can make you think differently about it.”
Her relationships with her artists helped pull her through the cancer, she says, as she knows she’s responsible for at least part of their livelihoods. “I took that responsibility very seriously.”***
Brandt was 44, married and with sons ages 12 and 16 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. “I was in shock. My husband was in shock.”
Over the next few weeks, she learned the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and her liver. When her treatment began, Brandt needed help with everything. Her artists, including painter Christopher Burk, began volunteering at the gallery.
Brandt has represented Burk, whose latest works depict flooded Midwest landscapes—a commentary on climate change—for six years. She’s sold 75 to 100 of Burk’s paintings, he says. She texts him at odd hours, suggesting concepts for possible shows, or how to get his art into bigger exhibitions. “Because of her, I’m making art full-time and have been for five years,” Burk says. “She’s given me the confidence to show elsewhere,”—New York and Chicago—“and that’s a big deal.”
Painter Cody Heichel, who grew up in the rural northeast Ohio village of Shreve and often paints the quiet landscapes of Midwestern towns, was the first artist able to support himself by making art once Brandt represented him. “I really owe a lot of that to the opportunity she gave me,” he says.
When Heichel first brought his work to Brandt’s gallery, she hung it up, and they sat down in front of it and had a conversation. She told him what she liked, that he had strong control over watercolor. She told him he could grow by improving the composition. Then she brought up points he had never considered—she wondered if he could paint on a surface that didn’t need to be behind glass. Collectors, she knew, prefer art not behind glass. “Her eye was well-trained. I wasn’t pulling anything over on her. She could sense where I was, and she also saw potential,” Heichel says.
Brandt was diagnosed with cancer and scheduled for major surgery shortly before Heichel’s spring 2018 solo exhibition at her gallery. In a phone call, she told him what was happening, but when he asked if they should cancel the show, she refused. “I look back on that now, and I suppose it would be a pretty big testament to how much responsibility she feels toward her artists, her business and her staff,” he says. “In that earth-shaking moment, she wanted to make sure everyone else felt stable.”
Just over a month before Heichel’s show, Brandt had parts of her colon and liver removed. Yet she put on a yellow dress and worked the opening.***
Brandt was in incredible pain just trying to stand up during Heichel’s show, she says. Her staff kept trying to make her sit down, but she felt obligated to talk to her collectors.
When the show closed at 8 p.m., she hit a wall of pain and went home.
Several weeks later, she started aggressive chemotherapy. She stopped scheduling exhibitions.
For the next six months, she had chemotherapy every other week. Friends and family members put together a care calendar. A good friend sat down with her to make a six-month plan for the gallery. Until now, Brandt had controlled every aspect of it. Giving up that control was hard. “I wouldn’t have been able to ask for help if it wasn’t for the therapy I received at the James,” she says of Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital. “I needed help with work, with my family, with meals, and with my mental state.”
They limited the gallery’s hours, and friends introduced her to other creatives to help run the gallery. Brandt had to learn to let go, that not everything had to be done her way.
While Brandt underwent chemotherapy, the Short North was under construction. That year, 2018, her gallery’s revenue was half what it had been the year before because of her restricted hours and abilities and the construction, Brandt believes. People avoided the neighborhood.
Then the construction caused the sidewalk in front of her space at Russell and North High streets to collapse, sending water into her basement, the moisture endangering 200-plus paintings. She and her staff kept mopping the floor, but the water kept coming.
Brandt hit her limit. “I’m not proud of this,” she says, “but there were two engineers down in the basement with me, and they were implying there was moisture there before the sidewalk collapsed. I was hooked up to a chemo bag. And I lost it.
“To say I raised my voice was an understatement. They didn’t know how hard I was battling to keep the doors open at the gallery, and how much I was battling to stay alive, or what type of physical pain I was in.”
Not long after, the leak was fixed.***
Through it all, Brandt never seriously considered closing the gallery. Whenever her thoughts were darkest, someone in her community would lift her spirits, she’d receive a text from a grateful artist, or an encouraging card, or a call from an old friend.
Or a pair of Wonder Woman earrings. Shortly after Sherrie Hawk, owner of Sherrie Gallerie, learned Brandt had cancer, she stopped by. Many of the Short North galleries work in partnership, and Hawk, Brandt and Duff Lindsay of the Lindsay Gallery regularly meet to talk business and support each other’s work.
Hawk gave Brandt the Wonder Woman earrings, made by two artists Hawk represented called Pomo. “I had the idea of just empowering her in a simple little way,” she says. The effect was much more than that.
“I can’t stress how important that was,” Brandt says.
At the time, Brandt served on the Short North Alliance board. “Michelle was very much an advocate for the eclectic small business community that’s always been in the Short North,” says Columbus businessman David Teed, who has been Brandt’s customer. “She would often reach out to the business owners and bring their suggestions to the Alliance.”
Brandt also has collaborated with the Columbus College of Art and Design. “The work that Michelle does in the gallery, in supporting artists and creating a space where new artists and new arts patrons can learn what it means to be part of a gallery scene, is really incredible,” says CCAD President Melanie Corn, another of Brandt’s customers. “It’s really important for CCAD students and alumni.”***
Shortly before Brandt was diagnosed with cancer, she was asked to curate two exhibits for the hospital’s art gallery. She did it once she was in remission. “That curatorial experience was something completely different. To say it was cathartic would be an understatement,” she says.
Brandt’s exhibit featured Terri Albanese, who works with glass. One evening, a patient came into the gallery, leaning on a cane to walk. She stopped in front of Albanese’s sunflowers, yellow and bright. She asked who did this? Albanese, who stood nearby, introduced herself. The woman said this was the first time she had walked on her own in two years. When she turned back to the painting, her cheeks wet, she said, “Oh my gosh, your work is tearfully beautiful.”***
Brandt credits her community with pulling her through the cancer crisis. Before cancer, she acknowledges she spent more of her time on autopilot. Now, she actively prioritizes the people in her life. “Today I’m leaving [the gallery] at 4:00. My son has a water polo game at 4:30. I’m not missing that stuff. I’m not missing it anymore.”
Gallery sales are back, too, at 90 percent of where they had been.
She’s a bit opaque about her future plans for the gallery. “They’re percolating,” she says. But her thoughts revolve around reaching a broader audience. She mentions the kids she taught in South Carolina, the ones who were so poor they lived in campgrounds. Then her thoughts wind back to art and she asks, “What is it about art in the first place?”
“Why do artists create? They feel compelled. Why do I have a gallery? Because I feel compelled. It’s fundamentally why I come to work every day, to share art. There’s such a value in expression.”*** Q&A
Michelle Brandt had to face turning over control of much of her life when she battled cancer.
How did your leadership change after you were diagnosed with cancer?
I’m a bit of a control person and I had to really let that go. I had to learn how to ask for help. That was one of the hardest things that I had to do. For both my family and my business, I had to let go of the fact that things weren’t going to run how they would run if I were in control.
I wouldn’t have gotten to that place without the therapy that I had.
I was a decent leader prior to cancer, but I’m hopefully a better leader now by giving people more autonomy. It doesn’t always have to be done my way.
What does giving up control look like for you?
Before I had everything planned out. Now I have no choice but to live with uncertainty. I’m uncertain about my scans [for cancer], about a lot of things. But I’m not worried about it.
I can try to be the best gallerist … but invariably, there’s just so much uncertainty with the economy, etc. I’m certainly planning for things, but I also know that I can’t be in control of that. I’m not going to try to control those outcomes anymore. I’m still going to work really hard and be really driven.
But at the end of the day, cancer taught me that uncertainty is OK. That has led to me being more open to ideas about different things for the galleries.
You brought on a number of volunteers and staff to help run the gallery while you had cancer. How was that for you?
I came out of [this experience] with a really, really strong staff. And I learned how to delegate more. I like having a staff.
I suspect I’m a little bit of a pain to work for.
The gallery is in a better place after cancer, because I had cancer. Cancer is an awful disease, and I’m very careful about talking of the blessings of cancer because other people don’t make it through. In my case, I am lucky to survive. I’m better and the gallery is better. I’m a better leader, a better wife, a better mother, a better friend. I don’t have to be in complete control of everything.
Amy Braunschweiger is a freelance writer.