5 questions (and then some) with Carla Camacho for Yale University Radio

I recently sat down with Carla Camacho, partner at Lehman Maupin,  to discuss her path through the art market, as well as some hot topics like art flipping and art fairs. 

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Interview with Carla Camacho

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Carla Camacho is a Partner at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, where she has worked for nine years of her now almost twenty-year gallery career. Prior to making Partner, Camacho acted as director of sales at the gallery for seven years. Since her arrival, she has helped guide the team through the gallery’s expansion to the Lower East Side in 2007 and in Hong Kong in 2013. She began her career at the landmark Leo Castelli Graphics, a gallery devoted to prints and photographs, before moving on to work for New York-based dealers, Cheim & Read. A required visual arts class during her undergraduate degree at Marymount Manhattan College sparked her initial interest in contemporary art. Carla Camacho graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, with a Masters degree in art history and a focus in conservation.

>> AF:  This is Angela Fraleigh for The Art World Demystified.  Today we're talking with Carla Camacho about her role as partner and director of sales at Lehmann Maupin Gallery.  Thank you for being with us today.

>> CC:  Thank you, Angie.  It's my pleasure.

>> AF:  I guess what I'd like to do is begin with your beginnings.  So what was it that first interested you in working in the arts?  How did you first become interested in this field?

>> CC:  For me it started in undergraduate school.  I went to school here in the city, Marymount Manhattan College.  And I had really no previous exposure to contemporary art.  But as part of a requirement, I took a visual arts class, and we went around to the galleries.  And I was just really blown away by what I saw, in particular installation art I remember.  And one of the ‑‑ the artists that I really remembered that struck me was xxx Ahmet Mesajay who had a show at the xxx Caposium Gallery, and I just thought that this was a world that I wanted to be a part of.  So I started interning.  And I interned at Leo Costelli Graphics, and at White Columns.  And from there I started working in galleries.  I worked at Cheim and Read, Paul Morris Gallery, and ultimately was here at Lehmann Maupin Gallery.

>> AF:  Wow, great.  And so how many years between that time ‑‑ or like working in all those galleries, if you don't mind me asking?

>>  CC:  Well, I started as an intern in 1996. So you do the math.

>> AF:  Great.

>> CC:  Aging myself here.

>> AF:  And so where did you say you went to undergrad?

>> CC:  Marymount Manhattan College.

>> AF:  Okay.  And was your art major in art? art history?

>> CC:  So I switched.  It was International Relations to begin with, and then I switched to Art History.  And then I took a year‑and‑a‑half off before I went to grad school at Pratt and got a Master of Science in Art History there.

>> AF:  Okay.  And what was your focus in art history?

>> CC:  Well, at that point I really focused on the contemporary art, and I wrote my thesis on Ed Ruscha.

>> AF:  Oh, interesting.  So what was it about his work that drew you?

>> CC:  I was really interested in his artist books.

>> AF:  Okay.

>> CC:  And, you know, for me the thing that I've always found most interesting in art are, you know, work that is beyond the canvas and beyond, you know, a sculpture that goes on the table, because that's what I grew up thinking what art was.  So I was, really early on, fascinated by work that just went beyond those borders.

>> AF:  Um‑hmm.  Have you spent any time in LA?

>> CC:  I have.  I have ‑‑ I love Los Angeles.  And if I wasn't tied to New York, I would love to live there.

>> AF:  Yeah.  Where did you grow up? 

>> CC:  I grew up on Long Island.  So I've always been a New Yorker.

>> AF:  Um‑hmm.  And, let's see, so you began working at Lehmann Maupin when?

>> CC:  In 2006.

>> AF:  What was your role when you first started working here?

>> CC:  So my role was a sales associate.  And at that time the gallery was a much smaller operation.  We had one location on West 26th Street.  And the team was definitely growing.  The gallery was growing.  So I came in as a sales associate.  And from there the sales teams ‑‑ the sales team started to grow.  After a couple of years I became a director, and then a partner in 2013.  Now the sales team is eleven people.

>> AF:  Oh, my goodness.  So I guess I am wondering if you can kind of break down all that you do in your multiple roles now, as both director of sales and a partner in the gallery.

In terms of sales, what's a normal day look like for you?  I guess we can start there.

>> CC:  It's hard to say that any day is normal.  There are a lot of plans that I make in the beginning of the day in terms of people that I'm going to call, collectors, or artists.  And then a lot just kind of happens, especially because we are a public space, and people come in throughout the day.  So, you know, I might have a meeting with a collector that was planned, or somebody might just show up and, you know.  So there are always things that are planned, like a viewing that you have a week or two in advance knowing that somebody is going to come in to look at a particular work, or somebody who will just drop in and ask to see something.  So there's a lot of, you know, thinking on your toes and improvising.

>> AF:  Right.  Is there a lot of outreach in your part of the work?  I mean are you going out and finding people who might be a good match for your particular artists? How does that happen?  Or being so established, are people mainly kind of just coming to you?

>> CC:  Well, there's a lot of both that happens.  The gallery is now 19 years old.  So as you can imagine, we have a huge database of collectors that we are constantly reaching out to thinking about who would be the right match for a particular artwork.  And then we are constantly meeting new people, mainly at art fairs.  So that Rolodex is constantly growing.  So there's that ‑‑ there's definitely the day where somebody calls us and is very specific in what they're looking for.  But on our end, we're always trying to do a better job in placing work with collectors that we know whether they might have expressed interest, you know, last week, a month ago, or two years ago, and having that information stored so that we know the right people to [inaudible].

>> AF:  Right.  Right.  And I imagine there's waiting lists for a number of your artists' work, and so kind of figuring out where that work would best be suited is always an issue as well, right?

>> CC:  It is.  I mean it's a great problem to have.  And, you know, we always want to do a good job for the artist and make sure that the work is going to the right place.  And that ‑‑ that ‑‑ the definition of what the right place is is constantly changing as well.  There are more and more museums, more and more collectors who are affiliated with the museums.  And even just, you know, the typical person who maybe doesn't have an affiliation, but is really acquiring an interesting collection.

>> AF:  As you know, there's a lot of conversation around the collector who isn't necessarily attached intellectually or emotionally or psychologically to the work but is using it just as an investment or kind of expanding a portfolio of financial investments, and how damaging that might be for artists in the long run.  And I wonder how ‑‑ how galleries kind of maneuver or navigate those waters?

>> CC:  Well, it can be tricky.  And the part that can be tricky about it is that there are even within that realm of let's say buying for investment, there are people who are maybe buying for short term investment, and that's really what's been very dangerous in the art market these days.  But ultimately we have to accept that art has become somewhat of a commodity.  And if, you know, somebody is buying and they hold it for several years and then they eventually sell it in the right way, I really can't condone that type of behavior, because it is part of what the art world is today.  And it's so big, and so global, that that is really something that is more difficult to control, and not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion.  But what is really dangerous are the people who are buying works and then flipping them kind of the next day.

>> AF:  Right.  Yeah.

>> CC:  That is ‑‑ it's really difficult to navigate.  I think most galleries, ours included, try to keep lists of these people who are kind of known to do things like that.  And I often share them with colleagues from other galleries, you know, just be careful about so‑and‑so.

>> AF:  Oh, that's great.

>> CC:  Yes, well, because a lot of ‑‑ it's tricky.  Some of these people seem like they could be great collectors, and then you find out later that they're not.  Even ‑‑ even actually people who are museum trustees are engaging in this type of behavior.  So not even that kind of affiliation means what it used to.

>> AF:  Oh, wow. So, that's a really great strategy.  And one way to protect artists is kind of sharing that information.  Are there any other ways that you've already ‑‑ that the gallery has in place that ‑‑ to help kind of ‑‑ like if something does come up for auction, does the gallery have a strategy in place for how they monitor or help collectors ‑‑ I guess you probably point them towards particular ‑‑ 

>> CC:  We do.  We do.  We are watching the auctions very closely.  And we do a lot of outreach to our collectors, because not all collectors watch the auctions.  So sometimes it's a great opportunity for someone who maybe was looking for an artist's work that we don't have, and so we always try to alert them to those opportunities.

>> AF:  That's great.  That's wonderful.  You mentioned art fairs a little while ago.  And I think a lot of artists have a love/hate relationship with the idea of art fairs.  And I know a lot of galleries do too, because it's really changed the landscape entirely for ‑‑ obviously there are some real benefits.  You can see a lot of art in one place.  But it almost takes ‑‑ it's almost like the equivalent of the ‑‑ you know, lost album syndrome in music, where you can kind of just handpick sables.  It's similar in ‑‑ with art where you don't see the exhibition necessarily anymore, you just see individual pieces at these art fairs.

What's your relationship with art galleries, and what are your feelings on ‑‑ I'm sorry, on art fairs?

>> CC:  Well, I agree.  It is a love/hate relationship.  I tend to love them more.  And I think on the gallery side, you know, it's unfortunate but true that viewership of exhibitions has gone down.  And the reality is that you see a lot of collectors and a lot of people that you know that you don't get to see on a regular basis at an art fair.  So for me that's always a great, you know, reason to be there.  And, you know, not just the business side of it, but just really connecting with a lot of people that you don't see, and showing them the new art from your artists is always a great thing, you know, for me.

The downside, and I think something that we really need to work on I think as a community is getting people to galleries more.  And you're right, it's ‑‑ it's ‑‑ a gallery, you know, to see a solo show of an artist is where you really see the context of that artist's work.  And galleries are still working as hard as ever to make good gallery shows.  And the artists obviously are making the work for these shows.  So, you know, I really wish that there was something that we could do to change that.  But I'm hearing more and more from collectors that they just don't go around to see shows as much.

>> AF:  Right.

>> CC:  So that's really what's changed.  But I think that in a way it's kind of not just about the art world.  It's really about our society in general.  Even, you know, if you can relate it to shopping and how much, you know, shopping is done online now.  And, you know, people don't go to stores and just find things.  It's really just about art ‑‑ consumer habits now.

>> AF:  Yeah, right.  So in some ways the brick and mortar isn't necessarily as ‑‑ well, vital, I guess, a player in that.

But ‑‑ but your gallery is expanding into several different versions of its brick and mortar.  Could you talk a little bit about that?

>> CC:  Sure.  So we have three spaces, two in New York, one here in Chelsea and one on the Lower East Side.  And in 2013 we opened a space in Hong Kong.  And for us it's really about the artist, because the artists are really at the core of everything that we do at the gallery.  And the artists are still making shows, still making works that deserve to have the proper space to be exhibited.  And each of our spaces has something unique about it.  Our Chelsea space is a very typical white box space, and our Lower East Side gallery has a much warmer feeling and a double height exhibition space with skylights.  And that offers a different challenge to artists that they really enjoy working with.  And then our Hong Kong space is really about bringing our program to Asia. 

>> AF:  And so with this many spaces now to exhibit in, are you adding a number of artists to your roster?  How are you filling those spaces?

>> CC:  Great question.  Yes, we are adding artists to our roster.  In the last year we've added a couple of artists that we're, you know, very excited about.  Some have had exhibitions already and some have not.  Last year we showed Kader Attia, who is a French Algerian artist.  And this year we'll have a show with Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, who is a Belgian artist.  And we just added Nicholas Hlobo, who is a South African artist.  And he'll have his first show next year.

>> AF:  Great.  How do these artists get on your radar?  Where do you find them?

>> CC:  Really, just by seeing art in ‑‑ all around the world.  We're constantly traveling.  The owners of the gallery, David Maupin and Rochelle Lehmann, are constantly going to biennials, and visiting studios, you know, really ears to the ground, getting referrals and recommendations of interesting artists, often from other artists.  And, you know, it's really, you know, when you're on these trips and seeing as much as you can where you identify someone who you really feel like has a connection to the program.

>> AF:  Um‑hmm.  So these are already established artists.  It's rare that you would take in someone who is an emerging artist; is that correct?

>> CC:  Generally, yes.  But we do look at emerging artists as well.  And sometimes that ‑‑ that happens very, very easily, where, you know, you see someone who is young and doing something that we feel like it's ‑‑ is really interesting and fresh.

>> AF:  Um‑hmm.  What's coming up this summer, exhibition‑wise?

>> CC:  Well, our next shows are Tony Oursler in our Lower East Side gallery, and Mary Corse in the Chelsea gallery.  And Tony is an artist that we've had a long relationship with.  And his multimedia work is constantly evolving and changing with ‑‑ with media itself.

>> AF:  Um‑hmm.

>> CC:  And Mary Corse is an artist based in Southern California dealing with light and space.  And she's an older generation artist that we have come to love and was highlighted in the Pacific Standard Exhibitions, and we feel like she's having a really great moment.

>> AF:  Great.  Just a couple more questions.  I know that Lower East Side space, what ‑‑ what's its history?  It was something else.  It has like a real beautiful detail ‑‑

>> CC:  Yeah.  Well, previously it was a glass factory.

>> AF:  Oh, okay.

>> CC:  So there are even these old kind of tracks that run along the ceiling that used to transport large panes of glass out the door.  And it really then was kind of an empty space for a while.  And I think there were some pop‑up exhibitions that happened there.  Like I think FAIL! had an exhibition there.  And then we took it over in 2007.

>> AF:  Oh, wow, okay.  [Inaudible].

>> CC:  Um‑hmm.

>> AF:  Can you talk a little bit about the vision or mission of Lehmann Maupin?  You know, like what are some of the underlying values that kind of drive the program?

>> CC:  Um‑hmm.  So Lehmann Maupin I think is really attracted to artists who are using a universal language to discuss topics like gender, politics, identity, religion, class.  And a lot of our artists come from all over the world, really every ‑‑ I think every region of the world is represented in the gallery.  But what we find very interesting about these artists is that they are making work that is really universal, that doesn't necessarily tie them to being South African, or Brazilian, but bringing a language together that really everybody can ‑‑ can identify with.

>> AF:  Um‑hmm.  And I know that we're meandering here a little bit through a labyrinth of questions here, but what are some of the best ways you've seen artists promoting themselves?  So I know that you're finding artists through all of your travels and through, you know, these art fairs and biennials, et cetera, but, you know, we're speaking to an audience of makers for the most part.  What do you think are some successful models for artists to follow?

>> CC:  Well, it's hard to identify a single model that works for everyone, but what I find that ‑‑ that I ‑‑ that I connect with in terms of looking at new art is really artists who have a community, artists who are part of some kind of a community that really support each other and, you know, in some way by word of mouth you get a studio visit, because you're ‑‑ you're artist friend had a studio visit and then recommends you also to see this artist.  So a lot of times I go on studio visits like that where people say, oh, you should look at this artist, or you should look at that artist.  And it's really about this network of connections.  And I think that that's kind of crucial, particularly in today's world where there is so much competition.  And I think that, you know, starting at a place like Yale, where you have this community of your fellow students, and then once you graduate from there kind of keeping some kind of a network together, I think is really important.

>> AF:  That's great.  I mean, it's the old cliché, but it's absolutely true, [inaudible].  Not only does it further your career, but just in terms of making the work better and ‑‑

>> CC:  Getting feedback.  I would just imagine it would be really hard to have that kind of lonely artist making work somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  Or not even that they are in the middle of nowhere, but with no connection I think that you really need to ‑‑ to work hard at keeping those connections.

>> AF:  Yeah, absolutely.  I wonder if you could offer any advice as to how those artists might make connections with curators or gallerists in a way that seems less ‑‑ I don't know, that seems in keeping with the professional approach for you?

>> CC:  Um‑hmm.

>> AF:  I mean other than the word of mouth through that community, is there anything that you could recommend for our listeners?

>> CC:  Well, that is a little bit more difficult for me to answer, because I ‑‑ you know, I'm not a curator, so I don't know what methods curators use to go on studio visits.  But I ‑‑ I find that, you know, just asking for studio visits, you get.  It's like if you don't ask, you don't get.  So even if you don't have a connection, you know, I'm sure there are places even like, you know, the typical nonprofits, like a White Columns, where, you know, you make submissions, and you get them to come to your studio, or things like that.  I hope that helps.  But, like I said, I don't have a lot of expertise in the area.

>> AF:  No, I agree.  And I think a lot of artists have actually gotten their start at White Columns.  So it's a perfect example of a nonprofit that helps forward the work of young artists.

Well, thank you so much, Caral Camacho, for talking with me today.  I really appreciate it.

>> CC:  My pleasure.  Thank you.