Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Art Galleries Do

How Galleries Support Their Artists

  • Exterior of Jack Shainman Gallery’s Chelsea location. Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.
A regular reader of the news has likely seen headlines about a Damien Hirst show, a record price fetched for a Jeff Koons sculpture, or a new work of street art by Banksy. And there’s some visibility to the touchstones of an artist’s trajectory: group and solo shows at galleries, price appreciation and a good showing at auctions, and ultimately an appearance in a museum show or collection.
What’s less immediately visible to the wider world is the role that galleries play, and how a gallery itself becomes established. There are a handful of so-called “mega-dealers” whose names may be familiar even to those on the fringes of the art world, GagosianHauser & WirthPace, and David Zwirner among them. But galleries are still the beating heart of the art world, the mechanism through which many artists find their way to institutions, the world’s great collections, or just the homes of people who love their work.
Galleries have multiple roles, both visible and invisible: to incubate and support their artists, often by going above and beyond the normal work of putting on shows, promoting their artists, and selling the works; and to providing services such as financial management or book publishing, in order to help their artists focus more fully on their work.
“There’s the things that you see in our gallery that are in front of the scenes, which are obviously the exhibitions, the publications that we make, then there are things that are behind the scenes, which could be everything from working with an artist on their archives or working on research for an exhibition for years or maybe researching artworks that passed through the gallery in terms of secondary market,” says Julia Joern, a partner at David Zwirner.
Galleries come in all ages, shapes, and sizes too. Art Basel and UBS’s Art Market | 2017 report estimated there were roughly 296,000 dealers and gallery businesses in 2016. Just under 40% of them had annual sales of less than $500,000, while a similar share had sales totaling between $1 million and $10 million.  Nearly two thirds of all galleries employed five or fewer people, and only 4% had 20 or more employees.
Regardless of size, at the core of a gallery’s identity is its “program.” The term generally refers to the roster of artists a gallery represents, but can also describe a conceptual framework or area of focus that guides that roster, as well as other activities such as collaborations with other galleries, performances and lectures, or fair appearances. Most will stress that their primary role is to facilitate their artists’ production of great work, in any way they can.
We spoke to representatives from three galleries of different sizes and ages, recognized for their strong programs, to learn more about how galleries serve their artists, evolve as institutions in their own right, and what it means for them to succeed.

Night Gallery

Night Gallery started in 2010 in a strip mall in Los Angeles’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood, and has since moved to roughly 5,800 square feet, spread across two spaces in the city’s gallery-heavy downtown. Founder and artist Davida Nemeroff initially opened the gallery with a roster of her peers, fellow Columbia University MFA students whose common thread, she says, is a visual language that references or critiques the popular vernacular. While it’s not necessarily obvious in each work, she sees it in the work of Rose Marcus, which often includes photographs of New York City landmarks or icons, or the signage that sometimes works its way into Mira Dancy’s figurative paintings.
In the early days, Nemeroff and her former partner Mieke Marple had a modest goal: Be able to hire a gallery assistant. Although Marple is no longer with the gallery, Nemeroff now has a staff of four full-time employees (not including herself), which allows her to spend more time outside of the gallery, including about 20 hours a week on studio visits with her artists as well as others she doesn’t represent. She also sees her role as helping ensure her artists are consistently engaged in work they’re excited about, and ideally achieving “breakthroughs.”
She also devotes a good deal of time to traveling and supporting artists in person, going to openings and shows in other cities, such as Winnipeg, Canada, and Durham, North Carolina. Especially for a younger gallery, collaborating with other galleries is “huge,” she says, helping create a “multicity support network” for her artists. It’s also part of her role to serve as an intermediary between her artists and the wider critical conversation.
“One of the strengths of any great gallerist is really knowing what’s going on in the scene and in the conversation,” Nemeroff says. “Knowing that will also help your artists be part of that conversation and leading the conversation.”
She’s also seeing more evidence that she and her team are doing something right: more sold-out shows, more placements of her artists into public collections and prestigious private collections, and acceptance into higher-profile art fairs. These are all assurances Night Gallery has come to be “regarded as a serious gallery, and not just a cool party gallery,” she says. But even as she savors what she and her team have accomplished, she knows there’s much more to do.
“It’s a battle,” she says. “I’m of the mindset that it could always be better and we could always do more and we could always sell more.”

Jack Shainman Gallery

Jack Shainman has garnered a reputation as a prescient advocate of artists whose works galleries and museums initially overlooked. He was struck early on by the intricate bottle-cap sculptures of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui(one hangs in the Met in its African hall), the depictions of everyday African-American life by painter Kerry James Marshall, subject of a recent retrospective at the Met Breuer, the photography of Malian artist Malick Sidibé, and other talents including Carrie Mae WeemsHayv Kahraman,and Leslie Wayne. Senior director Tamsen Greene says that one thing unites the artists, in Shainman’s eyes: They’re all producing “extraordinary and innovative work that doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Helping their artists realize their goals for the short, medium and long term can in some cases means turning down opportunities in favor of achieving long-range objectives, says Shainman. The critically acclaimed Marshall retrospective was one gratifying example, he says, representing the culmination of a intention he and Marshall set when they first began working together two decades ago.
“It’s always important to keep in mind the big picture, even when you’re getting approached with day-to-day inquiries, and constantly assess how everything has the potential to move that bigger picture forward,” he says. “Sometimes saying ‘no’ is the most responsible response.”
That approach extends also to placing artworks. After museums, the gallery prioritizes collectors who will be “excellent stewards” for the art. That means not “flipping” work at auction, but cherishing it and loaning it out for institutional shows when asked. The 25-person strong gallery also tries to ensure its artists get coverage in “the right types of critical press,” as Greene puts it, such as industry journals and catalogues.  
The gallery’s expansion, too, has been more focused on cultivating a dedicated audience for its artists rather than explicitly going after new commercial markets.
One “watershed moment” Greene cites in the gallery’s growth was the 2014 opening of The School, a 30,000-square foot space in Kinderhook, New York, near where Shainman keeps a farm. The School puts on only two shows a year, and the dimensions of the space allow for larger works, including, says Greene, “one of the biggest photographs we’d ever produced,” a 160-inch by 276-inch work by Richard Mosse. As a destination, rather than one node on a Chelsea circuit, it also gives people “the mindspace to spend a lot longer up there,” which Greene says is more rewarding for the gallery and its artists.

David Zwirner Gallery

Throw a dart at a calendar and chances are you’ll hit a day when one of David Zwirner’s artists has a major museum show on somewhere in the world. The 24-year-old gallery represents major names such as Yayoi Kusama and Luc Tuymans, some of whom have been with Zwirner for decades. The gallery’s nearly five dozen artists run the gamut from the biggest names in minimalism, like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, to figurative painters such as Marlene Dumas and Neo Rauch, to young artists like Oscar Murillo and Jordan Wolfson.
Partner Julia Joern says the gallery’s 150-person staff means it can offer its artists a huge array of services, such as archival help, research assistance, photography and publishing, and institutional (or museum) relations. Zwirner has two spaces in New York and one in London, with a fourth to open in Hong Kong in early 2018. But it wasn’t always like that.
For example, when Joern joined in 2008, she created an in-house photography and imaging department, which allowed flexibility as to where and when the gallery could organize shoots for upcoming shows, press coverage, artists’ books, and other purposes.
Similarly, a three-year-old in-house publishing arm is not necessarily a huge contributor to the gallery’s bottom line, but its existence is justified by allowing the gallery to produce books in the way it feels best serves its artists. Joern has commissioned art historians like Richard Shiff and Robert Storr to write essays and books for their artists, and most recently had The New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Hilton Als write the catalogue for the Alice Neel show he curated, “Uptown.”
The high-touch, multifaceted approach stemmed in part from the 2001 loss of Austrian sculptor Franz West to Gagosian, says Joern. That experience forced Zwirner to think seriously about how to grow his business to be able to better serve his artists.
“Of course we need to get to the point where we can justify [these investments] financially and operationally,” says Joern. “Everything goes hand-in-hand when you’re growing a business.”
Now, the breadth of the workforce means there are multiple types of expertise the gallery can call on. Some employees are gifted at managing young artists, while others have art history backgrounds or longstanding relationships with museums.
“Some of the staff that’s been with the gallery 10 years, 15 years, 20 years,” says Joern. “With that comes just incredible institutional knowledge about the artists, the museums, the business, and all of those intersections.”
With all this expertise at its fingertips, the gallery can position itself as one of the premier homes for the world’s most recognized artists, artists who also tend to command the market’s highest prices. A 2013 New Yorker article quoted Zwirner saying an estimate of annual revenue in the $225 million range was “low.”

—Anna Louie Sussman

a Dinner Party for 5,000 Years of Art

On the Met’s Roof, Adrián Villar Rojas Hosts a Dinner Party for 5,000 Years of Art

  • Adrián Villar Rojas, The Roof Garden Commission: Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance, Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photo by Jörg Baumann.
This summer, on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some 5,000 years of cultural history is scattered, en plein air, across long banquet tables.
Fragments of classical Greek and Roman sculptures occupy the same space as Medieval swords, African altar figures, Egyptian icons, half-eaten fruit, and toppled wine glasses. In one corner, two young people wearing large masks like backwards baseball caps make out, and a woman naps under the hollow curve of a sculptural shard, using a vase as a pillow. Elsewhere, someone wearing sneakers holds the Head of Tutankhamun high in the air like war booty—or a triumphant party trick.
“I feel like I’ve arrived at a party I invited myself to,” I overhear a woman say as she surveys the scene. “It’s disorienting. And wonderful.” I agree.
We’re standing on top of the Met the day “The Theater of Disappearance,” a project by Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas, opens to the public. The sprawling installation aggregates 3D-printed replicas of fruit, silverware, banquet tables, contemporary humans, and some 100 works from the Met’s permanent collection.
  • Adrián Villar Rojas, The Roof Garden Commission: Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance, Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photo by Jörg Baumann.
It covers the museum’s roof, which this afternoon is bathed in 70-degree sun and populated by Rojas’s sculptural installation and a crowd of visitors. Some came for the art, others for the rosé and the view (it overlooks a green expanse of Central Park). But even the latter set find their curiosity piqued by Rojas’s work.
They’ve all just made the long trek to the Met’s roof. There’s no special entrance that leads museumgoers straight to the top of the vast building. So visitors must—at the very least—pass a statue of Egyptian Pharaoh Amenemhat II in the museum’s entryway, and through halls containing a trove of Byzantine and Medieval art, before arriving at the elevator.
Even if you beeline, it’s hard not to register at least some of the treasures on your path: amulets forged by Vikings, jewelry worn by emperors, stained-glass windows that decorated 13th-century Parisian churches.
So once you arrive at Rojas’s installation—the banquet tables topped with copies of sundry objects from the museum’s collection and figures of all shapes and sizes—some of its details might look familiar. I immediately recognize one vessel: a funny little sculpture of a bull, with a big rear, tiny tail, spout for a mouth, and handle affixed to its back. It mounts a half-eaten apple and sits next to a fallen goblet and an intricately decorated shield.
I can’t remember where, in the massive labyrinth of galleries at the Met, I’d seen the animal-cum-decanter. And I certainly can’t recall when, or where in the world, it was made. But the longer I walk around the installation, taking in its array of objects and artworks piled on top of and embedded into each other, the less it seems to matter.
  • Adrián Villar Rojas, The Roof Garden Commission: Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance, Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photo by Jörg Baumann.
  • Adrián Villar Rojas, The Roof Garden Commission: Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance, Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photo by Jörg Baumann.
I watch one small child fixate on a sculpture of a young man sitting at the edge of one of Rojas’s tables. He asks his dad why the subject is holding the chipped head of a hippopotamus; why a pair of disembodied hands wrap around his eyes like goggles; and why he’s only wearing one sock. The parent doesn’t have answers. “I guess we just have to guess,” he replies.
In another corner of the roof, a group of teens wonders why figurines perch on the shoulders of a hoodie-clad man. And why that pretty head, that looks like it might belong to a “god” or “an angel,” is emerging from his backpack. Try as they might, they can’t find a label explaining the sculpture’s story.
These are just two of the characters in Rojas’s anachronistic installation. But unlike the museum’s highly researched cache, which is arranged neatly by date, culture, and location, Rojas has eschewed organizational methodology altogether.
In “The Theater of Disappearance,” objects from all eras, and humans of all stripes, melt into each other in the blur of a wild party—a pleasure that people have shared throughout time, perhaps even for as long as they’ve made art.
  • Adrián Villar Rojas, The Roof Garden Commission: Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance, Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City. Photo by Jörg Baumann.
So why scramble the tidy timeline of cultural output that the Met has so carefully assembled over the years? A couple hours spent on the roof, surrounded by Rojas’s installation, offers an emphatic answer. Here, in a world without labels explaining an object’s provenance or a person’s origins, biases are thwarted. The artistic traditions of East and West, North, and South, objects made across centuries, even millennia, all jostle together on an equal footing.
And while biases are never completely eradicated, I was reminded—while staring at a sleeping figure that simultaneously clutches a sword, mask, and sarcophagus—that there is no hierarchy when it comes to art.
It’s all an integral expression of human creativity and experience, no matter the era, location, or culture in which it was made.

—Alexxa Gotthardt

to Inspire Next Generation of Eco-Warriors

National Geographic Photographer Opens SoHo Gallery to Inspire Next Generation of Eco-Warriors

  • Paul Nicklen, Ice Waterfall. Courtesy of Paul Nicklen Gallery.
When a storm struck during a 2015 expedition to Norway, photographer Paul Nicklen and his companions holed up in their boat to escape the hurricane-force winds. As the sun began to set, however, he emerged from the hold. “It was the most beautiful moment,” Nicklen says, recalling how the fading light illuminated a string of waterfalls thundering down the side of the Nordaustlandet ice cap.
The scene may have been breathtaking—but for Nicklen it was yet another reminder of our rapidly warming planet. Unprecedented 60-degree temperatures in Svalbard (located just over 500 miles from the North Pole) had melted huge sections of ice, sending fresh water streaming into the ocean. The sheer volume of runoff was changing the salinity of the ocean, with disastrous results for the wildlife.
And the disappearing ice could also be deadly; earlier that day, Nicklen’s group had gone searching for “big fat beautiful polar bears.” Instead, they found a pack starved to death—even its two three-year-old cubs.
  • Paul Nicklen, The Long Summer. Courtesy of Paul Nicklen Gallery.
As an assignment photographer for National Geographic, Nicklen travels to the far reaches of the planet to capture anything from polar ecosystems to salmon farming. It’s during these trips that he has come face to face with the undeniable effects of climate change—a perspective he will share with New Yorkers at his new SoHo gallery when it opens its doors this Saturday.
Nicklen himself was raised far from the big city, in a 200-person Inuit community on Baffin Island in southern Canada. As a child, he had no radio and no television, instead spending his time outside playing in the snow and ice. In college, he majored in biology and went on to study species such as polar bears and Canadian lynxes.
But he eventually abandoned a career in hard science. “I just loved the animals, and it drove me nuts that I was turning the beauty of nature into data sheets,” Nicklen explains. “I thought, I want to photograph these species.” So he did—first as a successful “pretty picture photographer,” then as a photojournalist whose images told stories in the pages of National Geographic.
  • Paul Nicklen, Penguin Split. Courtesy of Paul Nicklen Gallery.
  • Paul Nicklen, Tusked Titans. Courtesy of Paul Nicklen Gallery.
Then he met Cristina Mittermeier, founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers. She had rounded up a group of high-profile nature and wildlife photographers—“one-man bands,” as Nicklen describes them—and encouraged them to consider the ways in which their work might further the fight to protect the planet.
“She said to all of us, ‘You guys are conservation photographers,’’’ Nicklen recalls. “We kind of laughed at her, like, what’s a conservation photographer? We didn’t even know what it was.” Mittermeier, a photographer herself, had actually coined the title—“When you looked up the term 15 years ago, it was how to preserve archival images in a museum,” Nicklen notes.
Together, Nicklen and Mittermeier went on to found SeaLegacy, a nonprofit collective of photographers and filmmakers that aims to inspire conservation of the world’s oceans. Paul Nicklen Gallery will donate 10 percent of all profits to SeaLegacy—more, Nicklen says, for the inaugural show of his photographs.
  • Paul Nicklen, Gathering of Unicorns. Courtesy of Paul Nicklen Gallery.
Each work will be accompanied by a background text (“much like my Instagram,” Nicklen says) that explains the environmental issues at play. There will also be videos on view in the gallery outlining SeaLegacy’s mission. At some point, he hopes to incorporate virtual reality to make visitors’ experiences with these ecosystems that much more immersive. The gallery attendants, he notes, are there as much to inform as to sell.
“Instead of just talking snake oil about the art, we want them to talk about the message,” Nicklen says. “We want people to leave here educated, we want people to leave here caring.”
Although Nicklen’s work will be the first on display, he’s excited to open the space up to fellow photographers for later shows. And while each exhibition will deal with environmental concerns in some way, they won’t be limited to global warming. Nicklen mentions the ivory trade industry and shark-finning as potential themes. “I want to put up some stuff by people who are really going to scare the shit out of all of us,” he says, “I don’t want this to be a pretty picture gallery.”
But Nicklen does understand the power of a beautiful image to galvanize people to act. “It’s like turning on the television on Saturday morning and seeing Alex Trebek with all these starving kids in Africa. It’s too much. You haven’t even woken up yet, you got your coffee, you get beaten over the head with something, you change channels. So you have to lure people in,” he says.
  • Paul Nicklen, Face to Face. Courtesy of Paul Nicklen Gallery.
His photograph of Nordaustlandet’s waterfalls is a prime example of this approach. “You see climate change in effect right there,” he says. “It’s beautiful but it’s gut-wrenching.” This combination has attracted numerous buyers, as well as the media—it was the lead image in a National Geographic issue dedicated to climate change, as well as the cover of Nature Conservancy magazine.
Al Gore also uses the image in his lectures on climate change. “It’s an image that really allows you to have a microphone and discuss the biggest issue of our time,” Nicklen says.
Appropriately, the gallery opens its doors on Earth Day. Although some 24,000 people are expected to attend New York’s March for Science that day, Nicklen emphasizes the gallery’s potential to inform and push people to act every day of the year.
“Once I take a great image, it’s time for that picture to go to work,” he explains. “The gallery is another place that, while I’m sleeping or while I’m on my next assignment, these images are still working. They’re still telling stories while I’m already on to the next project.”

—Abigail Cain