InKicking and Screaming,Noah Baumbach’s 1995 classic of indie ennui, a character jokes to his friend that he has so little to do, he’s started writing “go to bed” and “wake up” in his day planner. The joke, of course, is that going to bed and waking up aren’t really things you have to plan on doing. Waking up and getting out of bed isn’t something you have to choose to do.
Or is it? In his new book,Surfing with Sartre,Aaron James (author ofAssholes: A Theory) makes the case that one does have to choose to get out of bed every morning. This we must do in spite of Blaise Pascal’s seemingly sound excuse for staying under the covers, his observation that “the natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.”Not only do we have to choose whether or not we get out of bed, it’s possible that wemustget out of bed. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “If God does not exist, everything is permissible,” and Jean-Paul Sartre expanded upon that to say that without God, there is nothing to rely on, and that we’ve been abandoned, but James thinks they’re on the wrong track. He uses “the light of surfer reason” to answer back to Pascal, Dostoevsky, and Sartre. It is “not permissible to lie in bed when the waves are pumping.” And for what reason? “Just for its own sake. Because it’s super fun. And because being attuned to a wave is sublime. And beautiful. And so a very good thing to do with one’s limited time in life.”
ThroughoutSurfing with Sartre,the philosophy professor and dedicated surfer James pits the deductions of philosophers against the lessons he’s learned surfing. The norms and mores of the surf subculture illuminate certain theories about economics and capitalism, and the conclusions of existentialism are challenged by the lifestyle of surfers. Even if you’d rather spend the morning readingBeing and Nothingnessthan bobbing up and down in freezing water waiting in line for a sick wave, James hopes to convince you that there might be more things in sea and swells than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The speaker is Stella, a curator, and the atrium is in the fictitious Central Museum of Art in Manhattan. While the CeMArt is clearly modeled on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, this opening will resonate with anyone who’s ever stepped into a museum – whether the MOMA, the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Prado, or the Getty. You walk through the doors into another world, one (if you get there early enough) of silence and stillness, but also alive with the voices and mysteries of the past.
Perhaps this is why so many writers use museums as settings for their books. Museums contain myriad stories in their vast, climate-controlled, guard-protected galleries and halls. Some visitors trample through barely looking at the displays, their minds and stomachs fixed on the lunch they will reward themselves with after this dose of ‘culture.’ Others spend hours in front of a favorite drawing or statue, transfixed and transformed by their nearness to the past. Museums also warehouse the stories of the art and artifacts themselves: paintings that have witnessed wars, vessels that have changed hands countless times through the centuries. And finally, museums hold the stories of the men and women who, like Stella, work behind the scenes, for whom invaluable pieces of art and antiquity are backdrop to the present-tense drama of their daily lives.
Most of us probably first glimpsed the many lives of the museum inFrom the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, EL Konigsberg’s delightful children’s novel about a sister and brother who run away from home to the Met, and wind up solving a mystery about a possible Michelangelo. The spooky pleasure the children take in wandering the empty halls once the visitors leave and the guards lock the doors for the night is irresistible – who wouldn’t want to know what it feels like to be alone with all that art, all that history, and a full night to explore?
In fact, many people do know exactly what that feels like, though they are too busy working to do much exploring. In his oral historyMuseum, also set at the Met, Danny Danziger creates a portrait of what goes on behind the scenes at a major cosmopolitan museum. Danziger interviewed more than fifty staff members and key figures of the Met – everyone from the cleaners, guards, and servers to the trustees, curators, and the director himself – at the time, the imperious Philippe de Montebello. Montebello’s predecessor, Thomas Hoving, wrote a similar behind-the-scenes look at the Met, but only from one perspective: his. InMaking the Mummies Dance,he describes the challenges and triumphs of his tenure."Museums contain myriad stories in their vast, climate-controlled, guard-protected galleries and halls."TWEET THIS QUOTE
One of the challenges of a museum director, of course, is keeping everyone, and everything, safe. This includes the monumental task of displaying priceless treasures in such a way that light, heat, and the exhalations of a million viewers don’t damage it beyond repair, while also keeping those viewers themselves safe. In Donna Tart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novelThe Goldfinch, a terrorist attack on the Met kills several visitors and leaves a valuable painting vulnerable to snatching, which the book’s narrator does, setting the story in motion. Unlike most books about museums, in which the galleries are hallowed, near-sacred spaces of comfort and edification, inThe Goldfinchthe museum becomes a chamber of horrors, a temporary prison for the hero, the wonders of its art obscured by the grisly, bloody, limb-strewn aftermath of the terrorists’ bombs.
For some writers, the idea of a museum is as appealing as the physical space. In Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’sThe Museum of Innocence, the main character creates a traveling museum of objects that belonged to his beloved before finally, after they are separated for good, turning her house into a museum dedicated to their doomed love. While writing the book, Pamuk made plans for a real Museum of Innocence in Istanbul containing objects and artifacts from the period of the novel. Though completion of the museum was delayed until after the book’s publication, it opened to the public in 2012, four years after the novel came out. Fully incorporating the theme of museum as inspiration for a novel (and vice versa), the novelThe Museum of Innocencecontains a ticket which can be exchanged for free admission to the actual museum.
What all these books prove is that the job of the writer and the job of the museum-goer are not so different. Both require a willingness to look deeply, patiently, and carefully. And, as many of the writers of these books reveal, what we see on the surface is only a fraction of the story.
How These Small Galleries Are Surviving Despite Wave of Closures
BY MARGARET CARRIGAN
JUL 21ST, 2017 12:14 PM
The position of small to mid-sized galleries in the Western world’s major art centers grows ever more precarious in art hubs like New York City and London, as rising rents and a relentless schedule of expensive art fairs make it hard for smaller operations to compete with global mega-galleries such as Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, and White Cube.
The art press has documented nearly 10 significant closures reported just since May, including Wilkinson, Acme, and most recently Off Vendome.
But a willful contingent of gallerists continues to thrive despite the middle-market squeeze. Often, the key to their success is an actual set of keys. Well-timed real estate decisions or tough choices to move off the beaten path have helped some stay afloat when so many others have fallen prey to skyrocketing rent.
In any location, the “how” of making ends meet comes increasingly through alternative means, which include renting out studio spaces to supplement costs, pulling in revenue beyond art sales, skipping expensive art fairs in favor of longer exhibition periods, or limiting artist rosters.
Lower Manhattan has seen a lot of ebb and flow on the small and mid-sized gallery front, with spaces such as On Stellar Rays, CRG Gallery, and Kansas all shuttering in the last few months. Yet Jorg Grimm of Amsterdam’s GRIMM Gallery, who just opened a location on Bowery in June, sees the shifting sands as an opportunity for non-New York galleries to break into the scene.
“The time felt right because there have been closures,” he said. “We had been looking for a space for about a year and actually found cheaper rents now than when we started the search.”
According to Grimm, setting up a New York outpost raises the profiles of his artists both back home and abroad. Grimm said about 80 percent of the artists on his roster didn’t have any representation in the U.S.; some had never been represented stateside, but others like Nick van Woert used to show with Yvon Lambert, whose New York location closed down six years ago, and had yet to show with another New York gallery.
“There’s all this talk about the physical gallery space being less relevant these days, but I really disagree,” he said. “I thought it was worth a shot.”
David Hoyland of London’s Seventeen also took a shot at a location on Bowery, down the block from GRIMM’s current space, but closed in February after just a few months due to strained investor relations. Although his toe-dip in the waters of the East River was brief, Hoyland has successfully kept Seventeen afloat for over a decade.
He had launched it in 2005, when London was rife with short-term project spaces that would stay open only a year or two. “I didn’t think it would last, to be honest,” he said. “I thought it’d be something to do for 18 months. I didn’t have a business plan, or even a good idea except to show emerging artists. It was kind of accidental and it’s just worked out.”
But Hoyland is as shrewd as is he is lucky for sustaining Seventeen for as long as he has. When he moved three years ago to Dalston, fleeing rising rents in now-trendy Shoreditch, he negotiated a long-term lease to ensure his rent wouldn’t get hiked up as the area develops further. Meanwhile, Dalston rents have soared in that short time.
“We worked really hard to get a good deal that would make this whole endeavor viable,” he said, adding that the gallery is in a building with no redevelopment break clause, meaning that if it sold, he has the right to remain through the end of his current lease. “But, that being said, it is in a shitty area in the middle of nowhere where collectors don’t want to come. It’s certainly been a tradeoff.”
Hoyland admitted he’s not too optimistic about the strained young gallery scene in London as he witnesses more small galleries and project places close up shop. Yet PLAZAPLAZA has remained in Elephant and Castle since 2011 thanks to four studios it lets to practicing artists. Started by artist Jesse Wine, the space doesn’t have a set roster of artists who show regularly but instead showcases work by younger artists fresh out of degree programs who often don’t have gallery representation. This allows them to put on exhibitions when convenient, rather than tethering themselves to the typical taxing cycle of four- to five-week exhibitions. This cuts down marketing costs for openings, promotion, and receptions. It also saves artists from producing additional work under strict deadlines that may or may not sell.
Since 2015, the space has been helmed by artist Glen Pudvine, who used to rent one of the studios behind the small 10-by-13-foot street-facing exhibition space. “Without the studios and the practicing artists in them, PLAZAPLAZA wouldn’t be possible financially,” he said. It adds intangible value, too, in the interchange between working artists and the gallery’s exhibiting artists. “Being a young artist can sometimes make you feel quite secluded. This kind of space opens up a dialogue and helps you network.”
The rental income from the studios covers the majority of the rent for the building, which Pudvine leases; the remainder of the cost of operations he supplements himself from his own earnings as an artist and studio assistant.
Inspired by London’s more malleable project space scene, Jane Harmon and Fabiola Alondra opened Fortnight Institute just over a year ago in Manhattan’s East Village. Like PLAZAPLAZA, they don’t officially represent artists and frequently develop shows around emerging artists, many of whom are located outside of New York.
They’ve also structured the gallery’s unusual hours around their work schedules so they could keep their respective full-time jobs, providing them with a financial cushion that allows them the flexibility to show lesser-known artists. “There’s a lot of unpredictability when an artist hasn’t shown in New York before. The fact that we both have income from other sources helps us survive,” Harmon said, especially since compared to London, New York is more commercially driven and it can be harder to be experimental. The duo is still figuring out their business model as they go. In addition to exhibiting work like a traditional gallery, they also produce and sell artist books and ephemera, although Harmon said their publishing arm isn’t a major revenue stream.
“Our main source of income right now is actually artwork sales,” said Harmon. “I guess that actually makes us more like a traditional gallery than we intended to be!”
A few blocks away at Turn Gallery, Annika Peterson, who opened the space in 2015 on East 1st Street, said there’s a perception that only the big boys are booming on the gallery scene. “But around me, in my little pocket in the East Village, I’m sort of seeing people doing their own thing and doing it well,” she said, citing Fortnight and another neighbor, Karma, which doubles as a bookseller.
Peterson embraces what she described as a more relaxed approach to contemporary art dealing in her neighborhood.
“My walls aren’t perfect, I don’t have a polished concrete floor. That’s not an aesthetic I can afford right now,” she said. To keep her bottom line low, she relies on word of mouth and invests heavily in cultivating her Instagram audience, where she has roughly 28,000 enthusiastic followers, and keeps her roster and space to a size she can manage by herself so she isn’t saddled with staffing costs. Additionally, Peterson puts on longer shows than many galleries—six to eight weeks, generally—which she believes gives her artists added exposure, in lieu of doing expensive art fairs.
“I wanted to establish the brick-and-mortar incarnation of the gallery and invest more time in my artists before I started fronting big costs, like fairs and space renovations,” she said, explaining that she was more interested in slow growth over time in an era when small galleries are expected to expand quickly to compete in the marketplace.
“If you’re only looking for me in fair booths, or if you’re looking at my crooked floors, then I have bigger problems! I’ve already lost you. You should be looking at the work on my walls.”