Popular Art: Meet Izzy Sulejmani

This Toronto gallery owner has meticulously gained the trust of some of the world’s most legendary artists, celebrities and collectors.

Kate Moss and I were having Champagne and oysters at London’s Soho House in the spring of 2017 when I brought up my friend Izzy’s name. As one of the iconic model’s biggest fans, Izzy Sulejmani had briefly met Kate a year earlier, outside his Yorkville photography gallery. He was smitten, and had been entertaining the notion of inviting her to come back to Toronto, where he’d present an exhibit in her honour. When Izzy heard I’d be seeing Kate in London, he asked me to remind her that she had an open invitation to return to his gallery. “Oh, I adore Izzy!” gushed Kate. “Let’s get him on the phone.” Moments later, I had Izzy on the line. “Someone wants to talk to you,” I impishly informed him. The next few minutes proved to be a love-in, as Izzy, incredulous on the other end of the line in Toronto, listened to Kate as she promised to come back to his gallery so he could present his fantasy show. The following September, Kate arrived in Toronto to be fêted at a private opening at Izzy’s gallery. It was the ultimate tribute to Izzy’s cool. That swish event was merely one night in a long string of impressive openings that Izzy has staged since establishing his photography gallery in 2011. Run with the help of his brother Damir, it’s a mecca for collectors who appreciate the art form: Izzy exclusively represents a roster of 15 international photographers, many of them bona fide legends. From Albert Watson, Melvin Sokalsky and Frank Horvat, to Erwin Olaf, Mary McCartney and Arthur Elgort, Izzy’s high-end stable of artists is a contemporary-photo-lover’s dream. And with many of his shooting stars rooted in fashion photography, the work Izzy displays is a magnet for style-savvy collectors who long for fashion’s old glory days.

Izzy, who left his native Serbia in 1991 and spent a year in Greece framing art before moving to Canada, didn’t grow up with any kind of art education or appreciation for the subject. But his wife, Deana Nastic, a Serbian artist who studied in Belgrade, exhibited in Greece and taught at the Art Gallery of Ontario after arriving in Canada, managed to teach him plenty. Inspired by her innate passion for art, the pair opened a gallery in midtown Toronto in the 1990s, framing and selling oil paintings. But in 2005, while visiting a gallery in the Hamptons, New York, Izzy came across a huge photograph of Marilyn Monroe, shot by the late Bert Stern, one of the last photographers to shoot the legend before her death in 1962. Mesmerized, Izzy couldn’t get the image out of his mind. He tried to get the gallery to give him a deal, but the piece was far too costly. Three years later, the financial
crisis erupted and consumer mentality changed. “People understood that less was more, and they were looking for value in their purchases,” notes Izzy. He called the Hamptons gallery again and they offered him a great deal. With Deana’s urging, he brought the photograph back to his gallery. “I used to think anybody could take a photo. But Deana made me realize the caliber of these images—they were collectible and a good investment. I didn’t sleep for two weeks because it was so expensive.” Quickly though,
it sold. “And then I bought another one—and that’s how it started.”

Getting some of the world’s most important contemporary photographers to trust you to represent them is no easy feat. Izzy says the common feeling among the cynical international masters was, “Who is this guy in Canada with this new idea?” His work was cut out for him. “You really have to prove yourself in a big way,” he reflects. Izzy discovered the work of the late Harper’s Bazaar fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, who was still alive at the time, and, at 92, was still working. He wanted to blow up her photos and exhibit large-scale images of her work. She was reluctant at first, but after she gave him carte blanche to choose the images he would put in the show, she applauded his taste and agreed to do the show. But just before it was set to open, Bassman got cold feet, convinced that these large pieces wouldn’t sell. Desperate to stage this monumental exhibit, Izzy promised Bassman he’d buy every piece personally—even though he didn’t really have the money at the time. Bassman agreed. The show sold out, giving Izzy the cred and confidence to pursue other greats in the field.

“If you have instincts, you learn,” says Izzy. “So then I had the guts to call Albert Watson.” Watson, the wildly successful Scottish photographer, globally recognized for his fashion, celebrity and art images, was one of Izzy’s heroes. He proposed that he’d simply purchase Watson’s works, and as soon as he’d sold them, he’d buy more. “There was no risk to Albert—this wasn’t a matter of selling things on consignment,” explains Izzy. “This was the turning point for us. Once we gained Albert’s trust, we could pretty much get anyone.” Izzy’s talented eye has continued to evolve, as have the strong relationships he’s built with photographic masters. They trust his taste and appreciate his easy-going, no-nonsense attitude. “With so many of these artists, I’d go to their archives, get down on my knees to search through the negatives, and often find images that no one was paying attention to. And I’d say, ‘‘This is amazing!’ And the artist would say, ‘You think so?’ So we’d put the image in the market, and it would sell out within a year. That’s how I earned the trust of so many,” he says.

Izzy is particularly proud of his recent partnership with the Herb Ritts Foundation, and being able to represent that late photographer’s legendary work. And this past summer, Izzy joined forces with superstar Bryan Adams to present a collection of his riveting photographic work.

A true bon vivant, Izzy also loves a good party, hosting buzzy openings at his gorgeous 1,900-square-foot Bay Street gallery. There’s a lot of serious buying happening at these events, and it’s usually beyond investment purposes. His passion for every piece he exhibits is infectious. “I believe if you love what you’re selling, it sells,” says Izzy. “People feel it. If I bought the idea that a piece was right, that’s reflected to my clients. Once I fall in
love with a piece and buy it, it’s easy to convince my clients.”

“Art shows your sadness, your happiness, your past, where you are now,” he says. “It shows everything. So for me, a house without art is such an empty place.”

Photography courtesy of Izzy Sulejmani.