The following is an excerpt from an article written by Jessica Lynne that appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Visual Arts Journal.
Gallerists play a significant role in the art world. They are important to artists seeking to find a representative who will advocate for their work. Collectors turn to gallerists to begin or enhance their private collections and museums depend on positive institutional relationships as large-scale exhibitions are designed. While it is true that no two galleries are the same—each operating with distinct missions and supporting unique groups of artists—in today’s contemporary art landscape, their collective importance is increasing as much as it is evolving. To explore this further, I recently talked with six gallerists, taking a closer look at their motivations, responsibilities and current concerns.
Nicholas Bakita (MFA 2012 Fine Arts) is the director and co-founder of the Philip Bloom Gallery, which opened its inaugural exhibition in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in June of this year and supports emerging contemporary artists from around the world. Asya Geisberg (MFA 1999 Fine Arts) and Mike Weiss (MFA 1995 Fine Arts) run their eponymous galleries in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood; Geisberg opened hers in 2010 and currently represents 14 artists, including fellow SVA alumni Trish Tillman (MFA 2009 Fine Arts) and Julie Schenkelberg (MFA 2011 Fine Arts), while Weiss, who opened his in 2003, maintains a roster of 11 international artists. Mariane Ibrahim is the director of the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle, which was founded in 2012 and is dedicated to selecting established as well as emerging contemporary artists. Michelle Papillion‘s Papillion Gallery, in Los Angeles, opened in 2010 and currently represents six artists, with a focus on up-and-coming talent, and Christian Siekmeier (MFA 2004 Photography, Video and Related Media) operates his Exile Gallery, opened in 2008, from locations in both Berlin and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A condensed, edited version of our conversation follows.
Why did you become a gallerist?
Michelle Papillion: I wanted to have a space and platform to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. I wanted to have a space to work with and support artists that I believed in.
Asya Geisberg: By the time I found my space, I had been a freelance curator and arts writer and worked in galleries and a museum, but mostly I had been a working artist. I love writing and trying to crystallize what exactly is the crux of any artist’s practice. I had also started collecting—slowly—and I thought that I could provide a bridge between the sometimes inchoate articulation of a genuinely interesting artist and the inquisitive collector who may be skeptical or uninformed or may just not have access to that which distinguishes one artist’s value from another.
Mike Weiss: I actually started my career at an art magazine called Smock. I organized photo shoots and interviews, I brought in money and talked to advertisers . . . basically I was the mover and shaker of the operation. During this time, I was also curating shows and working with online e-commerce art sites. What I was missing in all these ventures was the opportunity to promote the work of particular artists long term. I always had to move on to the next thing. So, I decided I wanted to be able to decide for myself which battles to fight and for whom, and moving into a career as a gallerist gave me that opportunity.
Could you describe a typical workday?
Nicholas Bakita: I’m not sure if there is one for me. I try and get to the gallery 10 to 15 minutes before it opens to do any prep for the day. I spend most of the day catching up on the tasks that I didn’t get to the day before. Mainly I’m answering emails, following up with clients, giving gallery tours and always looking for new artists and building our programming.
Christian Siekmeier: It is really hard to describe a typical day. Recently, many tasks have revolved around communication. In particular, I spend an increasing amount of time satisfying social-media demands. Regardless of what I think about social media, I have to participate in these communication channels that become very important to our audience. I just created an Instagram account for the gallery, for instance. My work as a gallerist is not so different from my work as an artist, and if you are an artist it is equally difficult to define a 9-to-5 workday. Much of the day is spent thinking and planning and working to realize projects with artists in whom I believe. And there is lots of emailing!
Mariane Ibrahim: In my world there is no such thing as a typical day. Being a gallerist is an extremely manual, intellectual and creative job. . . . You have to prepare information for collectors and institutions. You have to be creative in how you promote the work and then there is the assemblage—putting everything together in the right place. And I am always looking forward, negotiating current exhibitions and shows while reflecting on what has passed. There is little room for “typical.”
How do you decide which artists to support and represent?
Weiss: It’s an organic process. I go to many shows in Chelsea, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Wherever new art is showing, I’m usually there. I’m constantly doing studio visits, sometimes after seeing a group show or meeting an artist at a social event. Basically, if I’m excited about an artist’s work, I like to see it through with them, even if it doesn’t work out right away.
Ibrahim: Every choice that I have made has been emotional. As an African woman, there is probably a part of me that is looking for a portrait or image from Africa that I haven’t been exposed to. Even more, coming from Somalia—a country that really has a strong negative image worldwide due to its internal conflicts—before I became a gallerist, there was a part of me looking for a kind of African art renaissance. So the artists that speak to me are the artists that are working with issues of identity, cultural appropriation, religion and the complexities of representation from the continent.
What are the roles of galleries and art dealers within the contemporary art ecosystem, particularly in a highly digital age?
Bakita: I think the personal connection is still relevant, even with the websites and social-media outlets that promote art, artists and galleries. You need to build trust with your collectors and there is no better way to do that than in person.
Geisberg: I’ve always loved being at the intersection of mounting shows, curation and outreach to collectors. Artists still want to have exhibitions, so there will always be pressure to have physical venues, and a need for gallerists to facilitate press, sales, attention, peer community, and so forth. It’s not the same as the anti-bricks-and-mortar argument for selling shoes. I am lucky to be in a metropolis where there is enough of an audience to justify the enterprise, as I think that’s the biggest challenge—to expand the definition of a collector, to allow people to get in touch with the extraordinary and unique pleasure of acquiring something because of their individual interaction with it, to follow their interests, and to build a long-term experience of interacting with art in their homes. A collector is someone who discovers the passion of cultivating their own taste and interests, and of living with art. And that could be anyone.
My idea of art changed as soon as I started living with it. It was a huge conceptual leap, with great dividends, and that experience is hard to translate to a populace that is now accustomed to easy, frequent, free and short-lived digital interaction. I remember seeing a group of Angelina Gualdoni’s paintings in the back room of a gallery, and recognizing instantly the talent and vision behind the series. I didn’t consider myself a collector at that point but when I encountered them again at a fair I felt compelled to buy one. Living with the painting for over 12 years, I’ve found different ways of seeing it. The passage of time adds meaning and nuance to the work. Dedicated collectors help to “create” the art, in a way. It’s a strange dual authorship.
For the full article and more photos, visit the Visual Arts Journal.