Gallery Guides Six gallerists on their role in the art world
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. They are important to collectors, who turn to gallerists to begin or enhance their private collections, and museums, which may rely on galleries to lend their art for exhibitions. While it is true that no two galleries are the same—each operating with distinct missions and each 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 MFA Fine Arts alumni Julie Schenkelberg (2011) and Trish Tillman (2009), 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 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 African continent.
How important is location? Why did you decide to open your gallery where you did?
Siekmeier: Exile is not based in a particular location. It has been located in Berlin because Berlin offers, for now, the best opportunities for artists, but that is changing dramatically, maybe even more rapidly than in other world capitals. Space has become more expensive. Artists’ studios are disappearing.
In a way, location is relatively irrelevant, and what we expect of a gallery can shift. Exile has already moved around a few times, and it has been in many transitional spaces, but it is still a professionally operating gallery. In a review, Exile was once referred to as a “nomadic” space and I thought that was quite appropriate. As we become more and more of an online, globalized world (with all the postcolonial exceptions, of course), the location of a space as a place of being for a gallery is in a sense less important. At the same time, it is important to not disregard the local. A gallery still should offer a lasting place of exchange
Papillion: If I had started my gallery in New York, I don’t think I’d be doing what I am doing. Los Angeles is more affordable. Here, I can work without compromising ideas. Being on the West Coast feels like a new frontier. There is room to mold something different.
Geisberg: When I lived in Boston I remember traveling to New York for one day to catch a show I had read a review of in The Village Voice or The New York Times. It’s amazing to now have a gallery in the city people travel to for the purpose of seeing new art, and to exhibit international artists that aren’t otherwise represented in the U.S.
Has the creation of online spaces of transaction and sale—Artsy, Paddle 8, Artspace—affected your business? Do you have relationships with these entities?
Weiss: The business of art, because of technological advances, is moving so fast that you constantly have to keep yourself updated and relevant in how you conduct your business. Because so many collectors over the past five years have begun buying works over email, without first seeing the works in person, it’s opened up a lot more opportunities.
But there’s no substitute for actually seeing the work and for us to make a face-to-face connection with a collector. We aim to build collections. Collectors who buy work because they love it (and not because it goes well with their couch) are much more likely to hold onto the work. A lot of times collectors talk to us about how they’ve filled up their walls, to which I usually say, “Now you’re free”—they can buy for themselves and not for their walls. One of the responsibilities I feel as a gallerist is to educate collectors not only about who the artist is but where the work comes from—historically, culturally, politically, etcetera—so they can make an informed decision. We want to work with all different kinds of buyers, from consultants to first-time collectors to experienced ones, but we want everybody to want to be involved and to have access to our artists’ works. That being said, all the online entities bring these other people into the fold, and all of that is good for art.
Siekmeier: I have relationships with these entities but, for me at least, these platforms have not made a difference. It’s more work, really. Because before someone commits to buying a piece of art, most people still want to see it in person and have an interaction with the gallerist. So in this way, these platforms simply become another channel to feed.
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. 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.
What are some of the most pressing issues facing your gallery today?
Papillion: As the gallery grows, there is increased pressure to find the right staff to support its evolution. One of my friends owns a film production company, and recently we were discussing the similar paths we’re on, with small businesses growing faster than we’d expected, and how to find the right people when you grow. We realized we are both interested in hiring what she called the “fan-ployee”: someone who has not only the skill set to do the job correctly, but also an enthusiasm and passion for your company that makes them excited and eager to be a part of it and its growth.
Siekmeier: The insanity of the Berlin real-estate market is a concern of mine. Space is really a very pressing issue. There is also the sense—and I am not the only one saying this—that Berlin collectors do not support the Berlin art world. I have collectors who I see every year at fairs. They shake my hand. We talk as if we are neighbors and they have bought pieces from artists at the fairs that I also show in my gallery. But these collectors won’t actually set foot in my gallery. These collectors buy and show their art here and there but in the end, their focus is truly on real estate. It shows, I think, a lack of commitment to really engage with artists and galleries in the city.
Do you feel a certain social responsibility as a gallerist, or is your primary interest in commerce?
Weiss: I think it’s always important to understand the balance in the reasons to put on an exhibition—for art’s sake as well as for social, political and cultural ends. At the same time, we have certain responsibilities to support the artist’s livelihood, as well as our own, so financial considerations have to be made as well. Our overhead of running a ground-floor gallery on 24th Street is like managing a small town.
Still, I’ve found that, most of time, when you make decisions based on the merit of the art, without your eye on the dollar, it works best. You just have to trust your instincts and trust that your clientele is up for the challenge. You must sell to survive, but you have to be relevant. This is what makes this job so exhilarating. You have to be a risk-taker at heart, or you’ll never last in this business.
Ibrahim: I am seeking to strike a balance. I am hoping to support artists really grappling with the complexities of African identities and to provide space for such work that might not be shown in other contexts. I also understand what the responsibilities are from a market perspective. However, I am not interested in sacrificing the former for the latter.
Bakita: I don’t feel a social responsibility as much as I do about showing work that is interesting and captivating. It’s important for me to believe in the artist, their work and my own personal aesthetic to stand out in the art world.
What has been the biggest lesson you have learned between the time you first opened your doors and now?
Papillion: I think the most important lesson I have learned is that it is always important to be prepared and never doubt myself. This job requires me to move in confidence in order to advocate for the art in which I believe.
Geisberg: I came to this with the assumption that artists would be the easiest part of the equation. It may sound naive, but at the beginning I probably started with a too-personal level of expectation about that. I assumed, since I had been a practicing artist and knew many artists, that I wouldn’t have any surprises when building artist relationships, but I was daunted by the number of different attitudes and ways of thinking that other artists had. Otherwise, the endless lack of understanding about galleries, artists and art commerce from the general public, no matter how “cultured” or well-educated, continues to astound me. ∞