5 questions (and then some) with Helen Molesworth

Wow, I loved sitting down with this woman. What a gift to have 20 minutes in conversation with someone changing the landscape of art history. Take a listen or read below and let me know what you think. 

Helen Molesworth is the Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. From 2010-2014 she was the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston, where she assembled one person exhibitions of artists Steve Locke, Catherine Opie, Josiah McElheny, and Amy Sillman, and group exhibitions such as Dance/Draw and This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.

As head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museum, she presented an exhibition of photographs by Moyra Davey and ACT UP NY: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis 1987-1993. From 2002 to 2007 she was the Chief Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts where she organized the first US retrospectives of Louise Lawler and Luc Tuymans, as well as Part Object Part Sculpture, which examined the influence of Marcel Duchamp’s erotic objects. While Curator of Contemporary Art at The Baltimore Museum of Art from 2000-2002, she arranged Work Ethic, which traced the problem of artistic labor in post-1960s art.

She is the author of numerous catalogue essays and her writing has appeared in publications such as Artforum, Art Journal, Documents, and October. The recipient of the 2011 Bard Center for Curatorial Studies Award for Curatorial Excellence, she is currently at work on an exhibition on Black Mountain College and a monographic survey of the work of Kerry James Marshall.


   Helen Molesworth, interviewed by Angela Fraleigh


>> BC:  You're listening to Yale radio, WYBC.  This is Brainard Carey with The Art World Demystified.

>> AF:  My name is Angela Fraleigh.  We're talking today with Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  Thank you so much for being with us today. 

>> HM:  Thank you for having me.

>> AF :  So I like to start these interviews by asking how you found yourself in this field.  You know, what drew you to it in the first place and how did you get where you are?

>> HM:  I ask myself that often as well.  I think like many people who find themselves working in art and culture and ideas, you know, I had ‑‑ I was very lucky.  I grew up in New York City.  I grew up with parents who took me to museums and to cultural events.

I grew up, in other words, with a sense that the public cultural institutions in a city belonged to me.  I don't know how our public school teachers were able to convey that idea to us, but somehow they did.  And I remain actually quite grateful to them in that regard.

I always liked museums.  Even as a kid I liked being in them.  As an adolescent, I often cut school and went to the museum instead.  I read a book I think that a lot of people read of my generation as children of the ‑‑ and I never remember the name, which is an odd Freudian kind of moment ‑‑ called the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Something‑something.  But it's a children's novel or young adult fiction about two kids who decide to run away from their parents and hide in the Metropolitan and spend the night in the museum, evading the guards and doing things that you're not allowed to do, you know, like sleeping in the bed in the period rooms and stuff. 

And that, in some odd way, I mean obviously I didn't know any of this at the time that all those childhood and young adult experiences were happening for me.  But certainly in retrospect I came to see the museum ‑‑ one rule that the museum has is that it is a kind of place where people and ideas hide out from the culture.  You know, it's a bit of a blind, where you can both see the outside world and engage with contemporary ideas and culture, but you're also a little protected from some of the stuff out there that's hard.  And there's a lot out there that's hard, as we know.

Then, of course, I went to school and read a lot of theory and a lot of history about the museum and art and artists that led me to have very different feelings about the museum.  I saw the museum as a place that needed to be challenged, that needed to be open, that was too elitist, too esoteric, too bound up in the past.  So I have the ‑‑ you know, then I developed an adult's relationship to the institution of the museum.  And I think now in middle age, I'm 49, I try to ‑‑ I'm aware that I have these two contradictory impulses in me about the museum.  It's a mausoleum that needs to be ‑‑ just like if I can light a match, let it go, and I feel desperately protective of them as institutions and spaces for the things that they make possible.

>> AF :  That actually leads right into a question that I was going to ask you.  Because I think curatorial practice in a number of ways is a political gesture.  How do you balance that desire to want to expose or reveal dormant narratives that exist without marginalizing further on the one hand some of these narratives that have been left out of history?

>> HM:  Right.

>> AF :  How do you do that?

>> HM:  It's a really interesting question, because I just finished a week ago reinstalling about 10,000, 12,000 square feet of gallery space dedicated to MOCA's permanent collection.  And one of the things I did I think is very typical of people of my generation; you know, tried to use it as an opportunity to show the result of the last twenty to thirty years of scholarship, in which the canon has been opened up, in which art narratives about what happens to post World War II art has, in fact, change demonstrably from the way it was taught to me, which was very much triumph of the New York school, and New York steals the art world. 

AbEx is the beginning.  Now many of us see AbEx as a closure, as actually more connected to Europe and European ideas than to contemporary American ideas, that the bar for contemporary keeps getting moved up, you know.  We moved it to Warhol.  I think the generation underneath me has moved it to 1989, which is a really interesting way of thinking about it. 

But one of the ‑‑ we have ‑‑ MOCA has extraordinary holdings in Rauschenberg, Kline, Rothko.  One could easily do rooms here, a staggering depth of these big, famous, white male names.  But I don't work like that, right?  So my political gestures are like how many women can I get the room, how many people of color can I get the room, how many people who aren't American can I get in the room, how many works on paper, how many nontraditional ‑‑ can I hang Helen Levitt photographs next to a Jackson Pollack?  How can I make all of those little gestures? 

And one of our older trustees said, why aren't you leading with your strength?  Why didn't you put out all the great stuff?  Why didn't you do that?  And I realize that it's true.  We say it isn't true.  We say what we're doing is adding, and we're creating multiple perspectives.  But, in fact, when you get right down to it, if you're going to break open the canon, some of the old favorites aren't going to make it back in right away.

There's only so much room.  And so five or seven Rauschenbergs did get displaced so an Emerson Wolfer and a Ruth Asawa could go on the wall.  And that's real, and that's true, and that's hard for a lot of folks, you know, me included.  Nobody loves a room of Rauschenberg more than me. 

But if you want to tell new and different stories, then those old stories do ‑‑ they've got to shrink a little bit.  It's not perpetual growth.  So changing the canon has effects.  They're real.

>> AF :  How has the response been?  Do you find a public who is really willing to engage with these new ‑‑

>> HM:  I have no idea; it opened a week ago.  Yeah.  It could be a massive failure.  I have no idea.  And there's another half of it coming in a month.  So I really don't know.  I'm very much in process thinking about it for myself.

I mean, yeah, I really can't answer that.

>> AF :  Right, okay.  We'll find out.  I'll call you in a couple months.

So one of the questions I'm most curious about, I had a conversation with Connie Butler yesterday, and Susanne Vielmetter, and the question is who has the power in the art world, and how can we shift things so that it can be a more comprehensive experience where we get to hear all these voices without losing rigor.  And they both suggested that diversifying the collecting patterns of the institutions and also just educating collectors or diversifying collectors in general.

>> HM:  Right.

>> AF :  And that makes sense, right?  Where the money is makes a big difference.  Do you see any other ways to kind of puncture holes in the system?  Clearly you are engaged in a very powerful way.

>> HM:  Yeah.  I mean, I think, yes, you have to ‑‑ I mean I think the ballast of the shift in museums is the collection.  And when I first entered, I went through the academy, thought I was going to be an academic, started teaching and discovered that I did not enjoy the classroom as a site.  I liked museums.

And when I got my first sort of big full‑time museum job, my first big curatorial job, I was amazed by what I realized were two canons.  There was a museum canon, and there was an academic canon.  So in the academic canon, you talk about Vito Aconci, and Chris Burden, and Mierle Ukeles till the cows came home.  I got into the museum, none of that material was in the collection. 

What we talked about in the [inaudible] since, you know, now, you know, 15 years ago, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, you know.  And I remember thinking when I first got my museum job, God, I can't even imagine who would write a dissertation on Brice Marden.  Who would do that, right?

That's not where ‑‑ they might be nice, they might be even interesting to use Judd's form of aesthetic criteria.  But they couldn't sustain 300 pages of scholarly analysis.  So what ‑‑ so I just became really aware that the only way to change the museum narrative is to change the collection.  And I just started slow and steady.  You just have to buy different kinds of things for the collection.  Then perhaps the trustees and collectors around you are buying.  Because that's how the story gets really rich and complicated.

You mentioned Connie Butler.  I sent Connie an e‑mail last week saying so many of the things that you bought over the years when you were at MOCA make the galleries downstairs so much more interesting, right?  Because she bought Alina Szapocznikow.  She bought Tanaka.  She bought Lee Lozano.  And so there they are.  And they can get up now.  You know, we can put Senga Nengudi on the wall.  We can put Valie Export up on the wall.  But that's a new ‑‑ that's only really within the last 15 years that people ‑‑ that a group of curators have been consistently just like chipping away at what gets put in those collections.

>> AF :  Now, do you run up ‑‑ because it has to be approved by the board.  Who chooses who is on the board?  I know that's kind of maybe a silly question, but how does that get decided?

>> HM:  Well, board members nominate who is the board.  Directors and chief development officers are always looking for interesting people who have the means and the psychological and intellectual capacity to serve on a board.  Serving on a board is a lot of work.  So it's not just money.  I mean you really have to have people who are civically minded, interested in the public sphere, interested in not‑for‑profit management.  It's a whole complicated thing.  But, yeah, and then you educate your board, and your board educates you.

One of the cool things about ‑‑ I've learned so much in the last 15 years from board members.  They work in the for‑profit sector in very powerful and effective ways.  There was much to learn from them.

>> AF :  In terms of business and how ‑‑

>> HM:  Yeah, in terms of business, in terms about how do you have an idea and implement that idea.  If you think structurally, if someone has built a business up from scratch, that person probably has really interesting capacity to think about systems and analysis and structure.  And there might be things to be learned from those structural things into a museum and vice versa.  There are values that the museum is invested in and promotes that board members can learn from.

So I actually see it as a kind of interesting two‑way street sometimes.

>> AF :  So you began your curatorial work when, in the '80s, ' 90s?

>> HM:  God, no.  I would say ‑‑ I mean there's two ways of answering that question.  You know, as a very young person, I went to the Whitney ISP program in curatorial studies.  So I organized my first museum show at the age of 22 in 1989.  But then I ‑‑ I mean I bumped around in graduate school in the New York art world throughout the '90s.

>> AF :  Can you describe that time a little bit for you?  Like who were you hanging around with?  What was it like?

>> HM:  It was great.  I was hanging around with ‑‑ well, my Whitney ISP life turned into making Documents, which is a small magazine that I made with a group of friends, Chris Hoover, who was distributing independent film and video, Margaret Sundell, who is now I think at Creative Time in The Drawing Center, Miwon Kwon, who is at UCLA, and Jim Markovitz, who became a lawyer, left the art world.  And I was really good friends with Mark Dion, and Jason Simon, and Moyra Davey at that point in my life.  I was going to ACT UP demonstrations.  I was going to Colin de Land and Pat Hearn's openings.  You know, that was ‑‑

>> AF :  Were you writing about art?  Were you ever kind of doing criticism, playing that role?

>> HM:  I started writing criticism when I was in ‑‑ well, I mean I was writing criticism in Documents, but I started writing criticism for a commercial publication.  I started writing criticism for Frieze in the mid '90s.  And I wrote reviews of exhibitions and articles on artists.  And that I did when I was in graduate school, because I really needed ‑‑ I needed a different outlet for thinking and writing than my academic outlet. 

I always have had a very diverse practice, I suppose.  I'm not sure that's a word I really like anymore.  But I've always approached my work in a diverse way.  So at the height of my academic training I was writing for an art magazine, because I could write it quickly and there was a deadline, there was a word count, and the whole impetus around what it could do and what kind of access it had was very different than the very solitary labor of writing a dissertation.

>> AF :  What do you think of contemporary criticism today?  That's a broad question.

>> HM:  It is a broad question.  I think that there are some interesting ideas out there.  And I'm very aware that I'm at a point in my own life where there is a generation, you know, of people in their late 20s and early 30s who think very differently than I do.  And I'm incredibly interested in how they approach material, even though I don't often agree.  Because one gets formed, and then it's hard to stay actually ‑‑ I'm open to their ideas, although they don't persuade me that often.  And I fear that that is in fact the definition of old age.

My biggest sadness around contemporary criticism is that very few people know how to write well anymore.  And I mean ‑‑ I don't even mean the people who write jargon, I just mean grammatically correct sentences that cohere into paragraphs that are formed in the service of an idea.

The world has changed.  And a certain quality of writing has been lost.  And it makes me sad.

>> AF :  And through that thinking or ‑‑

>> HM:  Well, I do ‑‑

>> AF :  ‑‑ the rigor of the thought process?

>> HM:  Yes, I do think that ‑‑ yes, I do think that.  Although I am ‑‑ I try not to say that too much, because there is a moment I have of ambivalence around that, that it may be that the form of argumentation that I was taught, and I mean the form of argumentation I was taught from elementary school, where you made an outline, that outline was linear, you diagrammed sentences, there were topic sentences, there was who, what, where, when and why.  That was a report.  You know, that was ‑‑ there was real structure. 

And of course a lot of people aren't taught like that anymore.  People don't ‑‑ like there are new modes of teaching.  And there is this Internet and computer.  And very few people edit pen on paper anymore.  You edit in that horrible Track Changes program, which I use now, but I loathe to this day, because I actually think it ‑‑ it erases and manipulates and it is not as clear who is saying what on page.

And I think ‑‑

>> AF :  It waters things down in a way, you mean?

>> HM:  I don't know if it waters things down, but it resists a certain kind of linearity.  And I don't think linear thought needs to be hierarchical, needs to be limiting.  You can make an argument about nonlinearity using linear thinking.

>> AF :  Do you ‑‑ just to switch tracks a little bit, do you still do studio visits now?

>> HM:  Oh, yeah, sure, of course.

>> AF :  And I imagine you've been in the studios of a lot of LA artists?

>> HM:  I try to.

>> AF :  And you are from New York?

>> HM:  I am.

>> AF :  I guess I'm just curious what you're seeing as some of the more interesting emerging veins of thought happening in those spaces, or what you're most compelled by right now.

>> HM:  Well, it's hard to speak in generalizations about Los Angeles, because it's a city of ten million people.  And it is a city that's geographically really interesting, because it's a city of pockets.

Most people here have much bigger studios than they have in New York.  And because they have bigger studios, their studio life is actually really different, whether they're a very highly productive gallery artist making a ton of work with a lot of people in the studio, or it's someone who is combining a live/work space in a very kind of California inside/outside, live/work lifestyle studio.

>> AF :  Sounds dreamy.

>> HM:  Almost every studio visit you do here, the artist has like a bowl of nuts, a thing of coffee.  There's a hospitality around the studio visit here that I see as very domestic.  It's very generous.  There's a big premium on a certain kind ‑‑ having a certain kind of conversation in the studio.  People are more isolated here, just due to the nature of the way this city functions. You drive from studio to studio.  So the visit is a visit, and it's really beautiful and can often lead to like just fantastically expansive conversations.

>> AF :  But in terms of conceptual ‑‑

>> HM:  The art sale business.  

>> AF :  Yeah.

>> HM:  And you know what, when I'm in New York I'm all business too.  And in New York, I'm a New Yorker.  I'm like, this is great, like what have you got, let me see it, that's interesting, okay, you know, do you have a car service.  I've got [inaudible].  It's really different.

>> AF :  And what about the veins of thought, the conceptual motivations happening currently that you're most intrigued by?

>> HM:  Well, I'm super interested in all these painters who are trying to figure out like screen culture and the relationship between screen culture and this other six hundred year old technology of oil painting.  That is happening on both coasts, so I think that's happening in a lot of places.

I mean I'm interested in what Manny Farber would call termite art.  I'm interested in people who are willing to go down a rabbit hole, a kind of idiosyncratic rabbit hole of their own making.  That's what interests me.

>> AF :  Who are some of the artists that you think of when you say termite art? 

>> HM:  Moyra Davey.  Moyra Davey is a termite artist.  Who are some of the others?  Sadie Benning is a termite artist for me.  I just did a great ‑‑ I just had a really nice studio visit with Nicole Eisenman.  I don't know if she's a termite artist.  I think she's more like a ‑‑ I guess a brilliant satirist.  Lari Pittman is a termite artist.  Lari Pittman is a fantastic termite artist.  He'd make those paintings no matter who came, no matter where they showed.  Like it's his work to do, you know?  Yeah.

>> AF :  Yeah.  Wonderful.  Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that we haven't covered?

>> HM:  No.  No, this is great.

>> AF :  Thank you so much for being with us.

>> HM:  Thank you.

>> AF :  I really appreciate it.  It was wonderful.

>> HM:  It's flattering that you would like to listen to me talk.

>> BC :  You're listening to Yale Radio, WYBC.  This is Brainard Carey with The Art World Demystified. 

5 questions (and then some) with Susanne Vielmetter

I've been having such an incredible time sitting down with some of my favorite people in the arts for Yale University Radio.  I learned so much from this interview with Susanne Vielmetter-- ideas on how to shift gender and race disparity in the field, about the art market, about the stresses of gallery life and, the number one factor that she believes is the key to an artists success.  There are so many quotable moments. Click on the link or browse the transcribed text below. Some of my favorite quotes are towards the bottom and in bold.

Big thanks to Susanne for taking the time to chat with me and to Brainard Carey for the opportunity to host the program.

Susanne Vielmetter was born in Cologne, Germany and moved to Los Angeles in 1990. She founded her gallery, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, in 2000 to show artists of diverse backgrounds with a focus on idea-based work. From the beginning, the gallery’s program aimed to represent an equal number of male and female artists.

Over the years, the gallery relocated to progressively larger spaces, arriving in its current space at 6006 Washington Boulevard in Culver City in 2010. The gallery featured the first west coast solo exhibitions of artists such as Edgar Arceneaux, Rodney McMillian, Mark Bradford, Jutta Koether, Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sillman, Ruben Ochoa, and Sadie Benning

This coming year, the gallery will present solo exhibition by William Pope L. and by Mary Kelly. Artists of the gallery are regularly included in national and international Biennials, such as Charles Gaines and Wangechi Mutu in the 2015 Venice Biennale, My Barbarian, Karl Haendel, Shana Lutker and Dave McKenzie in the 2014 Whitney Biennial; and Amy Sillman. Nicole Eisenman and Sadie Benning in the 2013 Carnegie International.

The gallery has been instrumental in developing the careers of Nicole Eisenman, Charles Gaines, Wangechi Mutu, Karl Haendel, Rodney McMillian, Monique Van Genderen and Andrea Bowers to their current level of international importance.


Interviewed by Angela Fraleigh

>> AF:  I’m here today talking with Susanne Vielmetter, gallerist and owner of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Thank you for being with us today.

>>  SV:  Thank you for having me.

>> AF:  So I guess I wanted to just start by asking you a little bit about your personal path, how you came to the art world.  Did you want to be an artist as a kid?  Were your parents involved in the arts?  How did you get interested in this work? 

>> SV:  I have always been interested in art pretty much as long as I can remember, from, you know, doodling on paper when I was very little.  There were two interests in my life actually.  One was art, visual art, and the other one was language.  So—and it took me a long time to find a profession where I could—where I could express the love for 2 both.

So when I went to college I studied art and German language and literature, but I didn’t have—I didn’t have a profession in mind where those two things could kind of be possibly useful.  So kind of directing my interest towards the gallery world or gallery work, that only happened kind of more by accident.  When we came to Los Angeles, my husband and I, I was trying to figure out what to do and where to go, and I did an internship, and it was in a contemporary art gallery.  And I knew within a week, wow.

>> AF:  Oh, really?  What gallery was that, do you mind me asking?

>>  SV:  It was a very local gallery in Los Angeles.  It was called New Space.  And I ended up working there for seven years.

>> AF:  So I imagine you changed from intern to something else.

>> SV:  Yes, the director.

>> AF:  All the way up to director?

>>  SV:  Yes.

>> AF:  In seven years.

>> SV:  Yeah.  Well, sooner, you know.  I was only an intern for I think three months.

>> AF:  Okay.  And they realized you were valuable to them in many other ways? 

>> SV:  Yeah.  Yeah.

>> AF:  So what was it about that job that you just knew that this is maybe a path for you?

>> SV:  Well, the amazing thing about it was that I was surrounded by art all day long.  Then I had a chance to talk to the artists and kind of learn about the—how the art works came about.  But then the more important—or the more important requirement was to translate this visual event into words, you know, to kind of mediate the visual experience to the curator or to the collector or to the critic.  And, you know, in the beginning that was very simple, you answered questions, and then more and more I found that—I truly found that I kind of found my calling, that I was helpful in, you know, sometimes there is a viewer comes in the gallery and there might be resistance.  Or there might be non-understanding.  Or there might be, well, you know, I don’t know this, I have never seen something like this, and therefore I do not want to know more. Or this is intimidating, or this I don’t like, or it offends me.  And so I saw that—I found it very satisfying that you could start a conversation in a context like this, and you could actually open doors that maybe before the conversation were closed.

>> AF:  It’s interesting because you talked about languages from the very beginning.  And you in this context you served almost like a translator to a certain extent. You’re educating.

>>  SV:  Exactly.

>> AF:  Yeah, interesting.

>> SV:  And that’s our—not that I would say that everything that’s happening in an artwork can be translated and remains a visual event, but sometimes language can help at least providing that first anxiety—you know, taking away that first anxiety, or whatever barriers there might be to ease into this kind of enjoying this visual experience.

Sometimes it’s just providing background information.

And very often what I learned over the years, as I was dealing more, you know, with the viewer and that experience of taking in this visual information, it became more and more important to me what the social context was around the making of the work, around the maker of the work, or how it was being perceived at different times in different contexts.  There’s a whole social, very complex social reality around what happens when a viewer perceives a work of art, and that became more and more interesting to me over the years.

>> AF:  I want to circle back around to how you went from working at a gallery to owning your own gallery.  But I do want to kind of expand on this idea a little bit more about sometimes it’s just fleshing out that background narrative or the kind of contextual narrative for the artist—what that work is coming out of, and you’re explaining that for a viewer.  Do you think that that’s one of their most intriguing aspects—what they come to the work wondering about the most, or that’s something you feel is part of your vision and for your program? 

>> SV:  Well, I feel like I’m working for my artist.  So the first objective is to make—to make this interaction between the viewer and the artwork as easy or as rich an experience as possible.  So what I do I see strictly as a service that I provide to my artists.  And in a conversation, I try to feel what is most helpful, what information is most helpful.

Some viewers might not want to know what the artist meant by doing this.  Or they might not want to know who the artist even is.  Some other people might find this incredibly interesting.  And, you know, there’s a—you know, a person might come to

the gallery and they are looking for this uplifting painting that they want to hang in their living room and they want to look every day at.  And that’s a different—that requires a different conversation than let’s say if a curator comes in and wants to exam the political meaning of a certain artist’s work within a certain community or at a certain moment in time.  So these people require different conversations.  And so I feel like my role is to provide them with whatever information it is that they need.

>> AF:  Right.

>> SV:  So, for instance, if a collector wants to—looks for a red painting over like their couch, they might not be interested in, you know, knowing the entire context, political context, of this particular piece.

>> AF:  Right.  Right.  And how do you determine what—because oftentimes I imagine people don’t even know why they want something or what they want.  So how do you—I imagine there’s a series of probing questions or, you know—or maybe even just intuition that is part of this whole dance that happens between, gallerist and collector.

>> SV:  Yeah.

>> AF:  Or curator or—

>> SV:  The more you have these conversations, the more experience you get with it, and the more you’ll find out where people—what angle they are coming from.  I feel, you know, it’s a—listening skills are good skills to have in that context.  So it’s good to listen and find out where somebody is coming from.  But then of course you have it in your power to also shape the conversation or maybe point out certain things.  In general I am trying to be as respectful as I can towards whatever motive somebody has.  Sometimes people want to have the painting that matches their couch.  I never look down on that.  You know, that’s a valid, I feel, aesthetic concern.  Sometimes a collector might want to have that one signature masterwork, often artists that they already have collected in depth, and they want to find that particular important piece.

It’s—you know, people come from very different angles.  And I try not to judge them as to, you know, sometimes there is a tendency to value one over the other.  And I don’t do that.  I don’t want the gallery to be an intimidating or judgmental experience.

>> AF:  Well, that leads me to another question.  How do you bring people in?  How do you attract people in a way that maybe filters out into different audiences?  Or how do you find people to come and support these artists?

>> SV:  I found over the years the really— the fundamentally important strategy or strategies is to be—to provide them with an experience that they like, to make that experience of coming to the gallery a great one, not just, oh, yeah, we went to this gallery and that was kind of nice; to make it truly great.

>> AF:  Um-hmm.

>> SV:  And, well, you do that first, I feel, the most important thing is that you’re respectful, but then that you also give an opportunity to learn something that they might find incredibly interesting.  Or they look at this painting, then they know a few things about how this painting came about, or what this painting means in a certain context.  And all of a sudden that kind of nice experience turns into, wow, this is so amazing, or this is so interesting to know, or—and that affects people emotionally.  And, you know, I feel looking at art is partially also a nonverbal emotional experience.

>> AF:  What role are art fairs playing for you now?  I know that it’s changed the landscape for a lot of galleries, and it becomes—well, I don’t need to tell you.

>> SV:  Yeah.

>> AF:  What’s your view on that?  What are the benefits and what are the challenges for you from your point of view?

>> SV:  Yeah, the art fairs are—well, I opened a gallery in 2000, and they were important then. But they have become even more important since.  When I opened the gallery, I always thought that they were incredibly important.  And I know that at the time I—there were galleries that had different opinions about them, and they didn’t like them, and they didn’t want to do them.  And I can say in retrospect that the galleries who didn’t do them have ceased to have an international presence.

I feel like the art fairs fulfill a very important function to make galleries visible internationally.  And as with any business—unless you sell a product that you can survive off by selling it to a very local community, you know, a baker or—you probably don’t have that problem.  But if you’re reaching for an international audience, which as an important gallery you have to, then you have to do art fairs.

And an art fair is this very concentrated opportunity for the collectors, but also more and more for the curators and for the critics to travel to one place and do basically the concentrated super information overkill, you know, in three or four days.  You can speak to all the divas.  You can see a very good representation of a wide range of artists that you might be interested in.  And you have all of this happening in a very short amount of time in one place.

Particularly for the curators, I feel the curators don’t have much time and usually they don’t have the biggest travel budgets either.  So for a curator to travel to several cities, international cities, to meet with galleries and artists and to see current work, it would require a lot of time and a lot of money.

If they go to an art fair, they can see a lot of information all right there.  And so for us, it’s almost like going to an art fair.  It’s not only for the sales, it’s also to connect with the curators.  If I do a fair in New York, I know that a very good range of very important New York curators will come and see me.  And it might take years for them to see them here at the gallery, because we are in Los Angeles.

>> AF:  Right. As of this recording, the latest Art News, the issue of Art News, is dedicated to strictly female artists. And you have a roster of a lot of very strong female painters and artists.  I guess I wanted to know from your point of view, what’s been your experience in terms of gender as both a gallerist and for your artists?  Do you see disparities and, if so, where and how?  Let’s just talk about that a little bit.

>> SV:  Um-hmm.  It’s a very important issue, and it has been extremely important to me from the moment I opened the gallery. And it’s—sadly, the art world—one always thinks that the art world is this very progressive, evolved place.  And it’s absolutely not.  It’s shocking to me that female galleries—the biggest problem is in the fact that female artists are not represented equally, in equal numbers, as their male counterparts in the galleries.  And that I think is at the very core of the problem.  Most galleries—and the sad part is the larger a gallery very often gets, the more the percentage of female artists that they represent shrinks.

Most galleries have a huge disparity between the female and male artists in their program.  And I think the average—the artist Micol Hebron did the Gallery Tally project.  I think the average is now around percent of female versus male artists that are being represented by galleries.

What that means is—what people I think don’t understand enough is that this has a direct influence and consequence to the art that we see later on in museums.  I mean the representation of female artists in museums is not equal.  I mean it’s far from equal.

And with the current situation of underrepresentation in the market, I’m afraid that this will translate into years and years to come in the museums.  Galleries and museums are connected.  And what I think is very important to understand is that in the United States I feel the government or the society doesn’t have written in their tax code that culture is—culture is being supported by the taxpayer.  The cultural production in this country is I would say to 90 percent supported through the market.  That’s why what galleries do is extremely important.  It is much more important than what galleries do in Europe, because in Europe an artist can exist and can have a studio practice and—supported by government grants.  That’s not the case here.  If an artist wants to be successful, and if they want to support a full-time studio practice, they need to be active in the market.  And galleries are the gate to the market.  So once they show in galleries and once the work enters the market, it is then being perceived by museums.

And so the galleries and the museums in the market, they’re all connected with each other.  So if female galleries [sic] aren’t represented equally in the galleries, they will most likely not be represented equally in the museums.  And I have this conversation a lot.  I have it particularly with my collectors.  And it doesn’t always put me in the easiest position, as you can imagine.

Very often what I hear back from collectors is, well, we are only interested in the quality of the work.  We don’t care whether it’s being made by a man or by a woman artist.  Very often when you address the issue of male versus female artists in the galleries program, the next thing you hear is the quality argument.  And that in itself is of course a huge problem, because inadvertently—inadvertently the sub-message that’s being delivered here is that somehow female artists aren’t as good as the male artists.  And that is something that’s almost impossible—I find it very difficult to root out.  Then, you know, you get:  Why should we care about these issues; shouldn’t we just look at the work?  And this is something that I mentioned earlier.  The longer I have been involved in the art world, the less it’s possible for me to just look at the work.  It’s an old-fashioned and outdated way of looking at aesthetic things.  A work doesn’t just exist in a bubble.

>> AF:  Right.

>> SV:  There’s always a social context around it.  I’m not judgmental.  You know, if somebody wants to ignore the social context and simply enjoy the work, I’m fine with that; that’s cool.  It’s just that doesn’t reflect reality.  And I strongly encourage collectors that come to this gallery to actually pay attention to the social context.  And if you do that, then you—cannot ignore that the art that you see in the museum, that our kids see, that everybody sees at the museum, is the expression of a tiny subgroup of our culture.  Why—I think the question has to stop being—I get a lot of questions in that regard.

Well, you know, you show this, you know, politically diverse program, or racially diverse, or female artists, and I—you know, I don’t mind talking about it.  But I think where we need to graduate to is that the question is actually being posed, why would you show 80 percent works by white male artists?  Or why you would show—why is 90 percent of your stable from one cultural subgroup?  Is there any personal—you know, why do you do that?

That again leads to the even deeper lying question.  There is of course a reason for that.  And the reason is that 90 -- I would say 90 percent of all collectors who can afford to collect art are from a subgroup.  It’s not a diverse group.  The collector community is not a diverse group.  And the percentage of independently wealthy female collectors, or even better, female collectors that are professionally so successful that they have enough disposable income to become a really serious collector, that percentage is still minute.

>> AF:  Okay.  So in your opinion is that where a huge shift could take place?

>> SV:  Yes

>> AF:  If the collector base expanded to include a more diverse group of people?

>> SV:  Yes.  That’s actually the only way I think it can happen.

If—you need—of course, you know, you need a diverse group amongst the critics, amongst the galleries, very important amongst the selection committees for art fairs.  I cannot tell you how many screaming fits I’ve had about that.  Curators, museum directors, we have already I think most museum—the percentage of female museum curators I think is pretty enormous.  The percentage of female museum directors is not so enormous.  Things are changing in that realm.  Until the collector base is truly 50/50 percent male/female, I 17 think we’re going to have to wait for a while for that to happen.  And so, you know, very often that leads to all kinds of problematic questions that, you know, I don’t want to imply that the cultural background or the gender of a collector naturally means that that collector then, you know—you know.

>> AF:  Right, yeah.

>> SV:  But as human beings, we have this tendency that we relate emotionally fastest and best—if we don’t reflect about it actively, we relate to what we know or where we come from.  So my approach on this is there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s a pleasurable relating to.  This is the basis of my business.  You know, I don’t want to judge about it or, you know, I don’t have a problem with it.  But sometimes I try to explain to a collector, once you raise this kind of emotional relating business that’s going on when you look at this work, once you raise that to a conscious level, you can start reflecting about it, and you can actually start wondering why am I relating to this, but not to this?  And once you’re ready to do that, then you can maybe sometimes also influence this relating, this emotional relating to a visual something that you see.

And I think that’s where people can make more like political decisions, or more kind of thought-through decisions when they collect.

>> AF:  I guess that brings me to the question of pricing work too, that seems like that could be some tricky territory, and what you think creates value in an artwork.  I mean, how do you go about assigning value to something that you might have a value here, the market has had a different one?  Or, you know, the art world has been described—or the art market I should say has been described as the wild west in a lot of ways.  It’s unregulated, the government is not involved, there’s no regulation in terms of equanimity, et cetera, et cetera.  So how do you as a business person in this wild west field, how to you determine that value?

>> SV:  I think what people need to understand about value is other than probably the value of food if you’re on an island and you’re starving, there is no objective—objectiveness to value.  Value is something that we make up.

>> AF:  Right.

>> SV:  As an agreement in a social situation.  There is no inherent value in gold.

>> AF:  Right.

>> SV:  Nor in money, nor in any artwork. It’s usually something that a group—you would hope experts—agree on in a kind of mutual discussion and in the market.

So if you—and the tricky thing about selling art is you have a set of market rules that the art world doesn’t invent, and I think that are just inherent in the market.  And I think it’s naive to think that you could easily change them.  They cannot be changed.  So, for instance, a very simple market rule is if something is very sparse and a lot of people want it, the price goes up.  I have this basic market 101 discussion with all my artists at some point, because sometimes artists are of the opinion if it doesn’t sell, maybe we need to raise the price.  But that would go against this rule that if nobody wants it, then that’s not a good idea to then raise the prices, in most market scenarios.  You raise the prices when the demand goes up, not the other way around. 

>> AF:  Is that then independent of things like having a museum exhibition, or this award, or that fellowship?  Do see those things as separate or do you see them factoring in as well?

>> SV:  Yeah.  No, of course, all of these things factor in.  So what—when you start building the career for an artist, you first want to—you know, you put the show out there, and you see what the response is.  And then you want to increase the prices as the demand increases.  And every time a museum comes in, or you get a good review, or the artist gets a museum show, all of these things will of course accelerate this process and the prices go up.

Very often the way things work now is there is excitement about a lot of artists that are fresh out of school, and the work is still very inexpensive.  There’s a lot of collectors out there who look at it from an investment point of view.  And I think that’s completely legitimate.

And very often things can then happen very fast.  The prices go up very fast, until the next young hot artist comes along. So what I feel artists—is helpful for artists to understand is it hardly ever happens that an artist’s career or the price structure of their work goes up in this very smooth and steady curve, up and up and up.  Most—for most careers, you have maybe a somewhat steep beginning, then it levels out a bit.  Then it goes maybe up.  Maybe, you know, you get another show, you get a great review, it goes up. It may level out.  Maybe you will have a dip for a while.  Then it might go up.  So it’s this kind of curvy thing.  And hopefully in the long run, you would think that this curvy thing has an upward momentum.  But that’s not always happening.

What is changing in comparison to the ‘80s, in the ‘80s all of this was going very slow.  Or even before the ‘80s, all of this was happening relatively slow.  Now because the information is exchanged so fast, people can see an image on Twitter and make the decision to buy it in a fraction of a second.  All of this kind of waviness is like a frantic Twitter, very often.

So in the bigger picture, I think the biggest problem, to tie into your previous question, is that the works by female artists are usually in a lower— on a lower price level than the works by male artists in the biggest picture.

>> AF:  And you’re going back to that saying because there’s less demand?

>> SV:  There’s less demand, and then there’s more often the perception that somehow they’re not as good, or that the career—or that the investment is kind of not as worthy.

And I have to say, you know, sometimes the—particularly artists from the older generation, sometimes they—they have this deep distrust of the whole system, of the market.  They don’t like to kind of see themselves in a position where they want to kind of work with the market.  Sometimes they have a kind of deep resentment against it.  Very often they’ve had years and years where nothing sold, so they’ve come to completely distrust the market.  So of course my goal is to—you know, I want—I want my female artists to be as expensive as, you know, the male artists.  And that’s what I’m pushing for.  And it’s more challenging.

On the other hand, I also feel it’s probably the most under-recognized market yet.  I think there’s a huge potential there.

>> AF:  Opportunity.

>> SV:  And there are people out there who see this and agree with me.

>> AF:  How do you—how do you improve the career for your artists?  How do you best support them?  So obviously you believe in them entirely.

>> SV:  Yes.

>> AF:  And you’re supporting them and wanting them to make the best work they can make, and you’re also trying to get their work, I assume, into museum exhibitions, into the right collections, not just to any collector.

>> SV:  Um-hmm.

>> AF:  What’s your strategy for improving the career arc of these really strong, powerful female artists?  Or all of your artists?  I shouldn’t just single them out.

>> SV:  Yeah.  Well, I have about 50/50 between male and female artists.  I think if I wanted to say like one strategy, then it’s probably the strategy of flexibility and figuring out—because the career is a dynamic thing.  As I pointed out, it’s this kind of wavy, curvy thing.  What would like to do is in the long run provide a financially stable situation for them so that they can focus on their work, and so that the work is really the center of their focus, and they don’t have to constantly worry about the sales and will I be able to pay my studio rent and all of those things; and then beyond that, of course, when they get older, to have wealth, to build wealth.  And that could mean very different things for different artists at different times.  Sometimes when the career hits a plateau, selling to anybody might be the right strategy, because you just need to get sales going.  Sometimes selling might be not the strategy at all.  If we have the feeling that the market has overheated, and there’s too much work out there, maybe now is the time to actually go back and not schedule any shows, go back in the studio and really look and think about what strategic move to do next.

In the bigger picture, you know, we are always interested in having the dialogue with the museums and with the critics.  Sales are important to keep the whole thing going.  But if I can choose, you know, I’m always on the side of the museums and the critics, if it’s possible for the artist to have a sustainable career. Collectors, you know, there are some very, very powerful and very knowledgeable collectors.  And so of course it’s important to place artists with those collections.  But I’m of the opinion like in—the gallery is a business.  What I want my artists to understand is that running their studio is also a business.  And I know, and this is a fact, it would be interesting to do a study about that, to see how the most successful artists today run their gallery. I’d say almost all of them know how to run a small business, especially when you get to the point that you have some sort of production.  You need to have—you need to know how to manage people, you need to be organized, you need to have—know where your money is.  You have to have good basic business skills.  So that’s an important part.

The other important part is to look at everything that happens in your career as an opportunity.  A sold-out show obviously is an opportunity.  Now you have cash.  You can invest into your practice.  You can maybe get a bigger studio, get more help, increase your production.

A show where nothing sells can also be an opportunity.  It just depends on how you look at it.

It can be that opportunity to actually put that body of work aside and wait until that amazing museum show comes along where you can show it and you don’t have to worry, oh, my god, do I have to call twenty collectors and worry about getting my work back.

Or it maybe your retirement insurance.  It may be that body of work that once, you know, you do have the retrospective that is then available, and instead of selling it now for ten thousand dollars each painting, you can sell it then for a million for each painting.

Or a show where you received a harsh review, it might be this opportunity to kind of—for introspection, for reevaluation of what you’re doing.

Usually when artists are very successful, there’s a lot of pressure to continue exactly what you’re doing to get there.  There’s a lot pressure to produce your brand.

I feel with—and this is the advice that I give to all of my artists that I’m showing.  I don’t think anything of brands.  I think a career can only make it in the long run if you are constantly questioning your practice and if you’re open to change and to reinventing yourself and to keep your practice meaningful and interesting.  So if you have a slow point in your career, that’s the time where you actually can take risks and do experiments, and maybe do something that nobody likes but it’s not that big of a deal.  If you do that when you are at the top of your game and you have a waiting list of 200 collectors who all want the same thing, try taking a risk then and deal with the fall-out of that.  If you then decide, oh, I’m going to do something completely different.  I used to be a painter, now I do ceramics.  And all of a sudden you don’t sell anything.  You go from there to 27 there.  It can have the most devastating emotional effects.  So not that I am, you know, dispensing advice all that much.  I mean I talk to my artists if they want.  If they have questions, and they come to me, then I try to have these conversations where we, you know, we look at the career as this dynamic thing and to find strategy how to deal with each situation and see the best in it and kind of use that as an opportunity.

>> AF:  I think you kind of answered it, but that was going to be my next question.  Your most successful artists, what are they doing besides making amazing work?  What are they doing that’s really helping be a business partner to you in some respects, beyond managing their own studio or their own people, the people that are helping them out in the studio?

>> SV:  Yeah.

>> AF:  What are they doing?  Does it have to do with social kind of networking?

>> SV:  Yes.  Yes.  I would say the most crucial, absolutely essential thing is they put their work at the center of their being.  The most successful artists are the ones that are fully invested in their work.  The work is not a means to kind of be popular in the art world or to make money or to feel good about yourself.  The work is the center of your life.  And that’s the most important thing.  And I think that’s—that’s for me the one distinguishing element between somebody who is really—is going to go places with what they do and somebody who might not.

Beyond that, it is good to have social skills and to be out there and networking.  It’s great if you know how to run your best business.  It will have an effect on the degree of your success.  Will it make you a good artist?  No.  And I think an artist who is relevant for our time, it’s wonderful if they have these skills, but it does not—it doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of what they’re having to say.

>> AF:  Or whether they rise to the top?

>> SV:  Whether they rise to the top, it could very much have something to do with it.  Well, that’s me, you know.  I don’t think that all artists who rise to the top are the best artists.

>> AF:  Right.  Of course.

>> SV:  But in—you know, the artists that are the most known and the most successful in this— in this art—in this thing that we call art world, I would say in order to make it to the very top, yeah, you should have good small business skills and you should have—you should be able to build a social network.  It’s very, very helpful.

>> AF:  Yeah.  I wanted to ask you one more question, and then ask you if you have any things that you want to talk about.  But I guess I wanted to briefly talk about the economic downturn in 2008 and how—I don’t really have a sense of the LA, the west coast, gallery situation.  I know that a number of really wonderful galleries in New York had to close up shop as a result.

>> SV:  Yeah.

>> AF:  And even today, hearing some of the costs associated with running a gallery, I spoke with one gallerist who has to sell two hundred thousand dollars worth of art every month just to kind of stay

afloat, which maybe that isn’t phenomenal outrageous numbers to someone who’s been in business, but to me that seems like a lot of pressure.  And I guess I’m curious, how did you survive that kind of bubble burst?  Some people say we’re in a new bubble, and that one is going to burst too.  So what are some strategies, and or how did you kind of maneuver 30 through that?

>> SV:  I can very much relate to that.  I have to sell about $300,000 a month to make it.  And that’s pre my salary. I have almost ten people now full-time.  You know, I pay benefits to them.  And I have, you know, thirty artists, so it becomes a big ship, so to speak.  And for me the only way—I’m not—I don’t have any backing or any other resources that I could fall back on if this doesn’t work.  So, yeah, it’s—yeah, if it goes well, it’s the best thing in your life.  If it doesn’t go well, it turns into—I don’t know if somebody from outside of the business can understand what you go through if it doesn’t go well.  Because it’s not just—I wish it was just me.

>> AF:  Right.

>> SV:  It’s basically this—it’s this, you know, you’re responsible for your employees, you’re responsible for those artists.  And then, you know, they have families.  There’s whole lives that are attached to it.  And so if you have the feeling that you can’t make your monthly sales quota, it’s—I think only probably other gallerists can understand, you know.  But it’s—it’s a lot of stress.

>> AF:  Yeah.

>> SV:  It’s emotional, and it’s—it’s very, very stressful.  So in 2008 -- I have always been—erred on the conservative side, especially since I started the gallery without backers.  I built it from very, very modest, very small beginnings.  So in the beginning I couldn’t afford an employee, so I did everything, you know.  I’m pretty good with a hammer.  I answered the phone and the e-mails.  I went to the copy store every morning to make my copies because I couldn’t afford a copier.  And then the good thing about that is just that you grow it kind of organically, you know.  So it has—my business has a pretty solid foundation.  But, I mean, if I didn’t sell for probably—if I didn’t have sales for six months, that would be it.  So it is kind of a balancing act.  And in 2008, the recession hit LA later than it did in New York.  I remember, we were all—I was like in excellent spirits.  I was like, oh, yeah, that’s all going to happen in New York, and New York galleries with their outsized spaces, kind serves them right.  I was not that worried.  And then it hit LA in the fall of 2008.

And what I did is in early 2009, at the time I was in a space that was about a quarter of the size of this one, and I had six more years on that lease, locked in, with another option, so there was no need for me to do anything, especially no need to expand.  But in early 2009, opportunities, real estate opportunities, were coming up.  So I—you know, I had a little bit of savings.  So I thought if I ever want to have the space that I really want, that I always wanted, and would have—in 2008 I wouldn’t have had a bloody chance to get a lease like this.  So in early 2009 I signed the lease for this space.  And I like crazily expanded.  And the thing is when you don’t have to do anything, you know, you become a good negotiator, because, you know, I could—every sane person told me, you should not expand, you should keep what you have, be a reasonable girl, and stay where you are.  But then I looked at the space.  This was a—

>> AF:  And you just knew you had to do this?

>> SV:  I thought once the economy recovers, it will be impossible for me to compete with the next tier of galleries.  I looked around and, boy, it was like how am I going to even be visible in the shadow of this?

You know, so, yeah, so that’s what I did.  But it comes at a price.  You know, I don’t think I had a really good night’s sleep for a year after I did that.  But then, you know, it always in the end—

>> AF:  With greater risks come greater rewards.

>> SV:  Yes.  I can say in retrospect it was the absolute right thing to do.  It worked out.  Of course, if I had failed I would say in retrospect it was the absolute wrong thing to do.  But it worked out in this case.

>> AF:  Well, thank you so much.  It’s been so wonderful speaking with you.

>> SV:  All right.  You’re welcome.

>> BC:  You’re listening to Yale radio, WYBC.

This is Brainard Carey for The Art World Demystified

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