UCL Giving


How Graham Steele went from scholarship recipient to launching his own

Why renowned art dealer Graham Steele is supporting the next generation of art historians with the Fer-Garb Scholarship.

Graham Steele

1 December 2021

Graham Steele (MA History of Art 2004) is a prominent figure in the international art scene. Having cut his teeth at auction house Sotheby’s, he worked in London and Hong Kong before returning to his native US as Partner at Hauser & Wirth’s Los Angeles gallery. In 2020, Graham set up his own art dealership: Graham Steele Inc. 

Since graduating from his MA at UCL in 2004, Graham has kept up a strong relationship with his former department, and in 2017, he launched the Fer-Garb Scholarship for applicants to the MA History of Art programme. With this in place, things have come full circle for Graham as he was supported by a scholarship himself.

“I wanted to both pay back and pay it forward,” says Graham. “I would not be where I am today without UCL. I credit my high school and UCL as the motivation and the engine of my success and my ability to be successful in what I do.” 

The Road to UCL

Graham’s higher education journey began at Georgetown University, Washington DC. A standout student, he was set to graduate aged 20, but felt unsure of his future. After meeting with an academic advisor, the university felt that Graham should apply for the Marshall Scholarship, which funds intellectually distinguished students to study in the UK. 

He says: “I applied to study queer theory in art history. I was super interested in writings from UCL professors Briony Fer and Tamar Garb, and I realised that UCL had one of the best programmes for art history by a mile.”

“From the beginning, this was something that I hoped to pay back in some way. There was such generosity of spirit from UCL.” 

But the Marshall Scholarship process is notoriously competitive, and after making the top 30, Graham found out that he had missed out. Devastated, he started looking for a plan B. Then he received a call from Professor Briony Fer – as part of the scholarship process, UCL had reserved a place for him. “I told Briony I couldn’t afford to come, but she said ‘There might be a scholarship for you here that we can apply for.’”

And with that, UCL entered Graham’s life. He says: “Briony and Tamar bent over backwards to help me. From the beginning, this was something that I hoped to pay back in some way. There was such generosity of spirit from UCL, welcoming this foreign student who just wanted to study queer theory in art history.” 

Honing his craft 

Graham moved to London and felt himself growing at UCL. His professors taught and coached him with care – even if it was the first time he failed to get top marks. “It was funny, I’d never gotten below an A in my life!” says Graham. “I remember my first essay for Briony, I got a B minus! I was floored and depressed. Briony said: ‘Graham, you’re great and I just want to make you better.’ 

“The course allowed me to lose myself in the passion and flow of art theory, and learn the reasoning and analytical skills to make insightful decisions. The linking up of critical periods and ways of seeing modern and contemporary art served us all so well.”

After graduation, Graham maintained tight bonds with Professor Fer and Professor Garb – crossing paths with them regularly. He put down roots in London, starting his career in client services for Sotheby's before moving to White Cube in 2006, where he launched their Hong Kong space as senior director. In 2015, Graham moved back to the US and started at Hauser & Wirth. But UCL was never far from his thoughts. 

The Fer-Garb scholarship

In Graham’s words, funding a scholarship ‘just made sense’. 

In 2016, after conversations with UCL, and spurred on by political developments, Graham knew it was time to act. “I couldn’t stop thinking about the ways that Brexit was going to affect UCL’s funding,” he says. “I spoke to Briony and Tamar about the potential of starting a scholarship in their name.

“It began with funding an international student – something that was very personal to me. To be able to pay for someone to have their education at UCL is hugely important. It gives me some pleasure to do this. It was a ‘debt’ that was owed and paid back with love. And will continue to be.” 

The first three scholarships enabled by Graham were designated for overseas students. One such student was Darya Aloufy from Israel, who graduated from UCL in 2020 and is now Assistant Curator at the Tel Aviv University Art Gallery. 

She says: “The scholarship made me believe in myself. It helped me realise not just that I was in the right place, doing something I love, but also that others believed in me. It gave me the freedom to be a full-time student, which enabled me to complete the MA with Distinction. Without the scholarship, I doubt that I would be where I am today.” 

Furkan Inan, from Turkey, is the 2021 recipient of the scholarship. Furkan received offers from universities across the world, but didn’t have the financial means to realise his dream. He says: “UCL is the best possible place for me to be. Receiving the scholarship was a moment of relief and empowerment – finally my hard work meant something. I am deeply grateful that the scholarship has made this experience possible. 

“I am now able to see things I previously couldn’t, and write much better. Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t even be able to travel to London, let alone join the programme.” 

As of the 2020/21 academic year, the Fer-Garb Scholarship has been open to UK-based MA students, reflecting the Department of Art History’s focus on supporting groups who are currently underrepresented in academia and who may not otherwise be able to take up their place to study at UCL.  

Graham is excited to see how the next generation of art professionals thrive under the guidance of his former tutors and the department as a whole. To new students, Graham offers this advice: “Find your own way and be present. Take advantage of every opportunity and enjoy it. There’s no ‘right way’ but showing up is half the battle. You never know what opportunities will come up when you’re open to them. And if I can pave the way for people to show up, that works for me.”

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