CURATING THE GALLERY
moderated by Alessio Ascari
ALESSIO ASCARI: Increasingly, curators are looking back to under-recognized artists from the past — a tendency well exemplified by your work with the gallery, which you described as driven by an attempt to “undermine consensus.” Can you explain the curatorial vision behind the gallery’s choices?
ALGUS GREENSPON (Mitchell Algus): When I was in school, I spent a lot of time in the art library going through old art magazines. There was work there that I found intriguing, the center of then-current concerns and well-collected. When I started with the gallery, I tracked down many of these artists. At the time — this was the early 1990s — it simply took a look in the New York phone book. I am looking for work that is not widely known and speaks to current concerns. My shows are also always highly visual, about looking as both a sensual and intellectual activity.
AA: Your gallery is named after a work by Marcel Duchamp and is a clear statement of belonging to its (and your own) home city. How programmatic was the choice of acting as a catalyzer of the local art scene and a promoter of French art to an international audience?
AIR DE PARIS (Florence Bonnefous): Actually Air de Paris opened in Nice, by the Mediterranean sea, in 1990. It was only in 1994 that we moved to Paris. We never thought so much about catalyzing a local art scene, it just happened. I met Edouard Merino, my Air de Paris partner, when we were students at L’École du Magasin, the well-known art center in Grenoble, and the first show in Nice (“Les Ateliers du Paradise”) was a collective project by Pierre Joseph, Philippe Parreno and Philippe Perrin, all three young artists previously based in Grenoble.
AA: From its defining architecture, your gallery is distinguished by bold curatorial choices, including the exhibition “Cady Noland/Santiago Sierra” back in 2011, and the rediscovery of pioneers such as Franz Erhard Walther and Chris Martin. Can you elaborate on the gallery’s project-driven approach?
KOW (Alexander Koch and Nikolaus Oberhuber): KOW was founded on our desire to lobby for socially oriented art. Our artists and we take part in a cultural process that aims for emancipatory progress, and this implies collaboration on different levels of production, editing and distribution. We embrace the fact that we have a practice as cultural producers, and a part of this practice is curating. Curating in a gallery has methodological limits though. For this reason, we started to work as mediators of the New Patrons program, initiating projects in Germany and in Africa that situate cultural production within specific social environments.
AA: From 2008 to 2013, your gallery took over a unique space in Turin’s city center, Casa Scaccabarozzi by architect Alessandro Antonelli, an astonishing seven-storey 19th century building that, at its narrowest point, measures just 54 centimeters. Would you define your role as curatorial, working in close dialogue with artists towards the realization of such site-specific projects?
GALLERIA FRANCO NOERO (Franco Noero): I think of myself less as a curator than a gallerist, but I’ve always worked in close dialogue with my represented artists, realizing projects specifically for the different spaces that the gallery has occupied through time. In a way, it seemed to me that the art consumed the space — it became impossible to imagine another show where Simon Starling had hung a car on the wall, or where Henrik Håkansson worked with fog and flowers. Casa Scaccabarozzi, though, also known as “Fetta di Polenta,” was more resilient to this kind of consumption. It really established a dialogue with the art.
AA: Being based out of Frankfurt, your gallery is distinguished by a strong connection to the Städelschule, the local contemporary fine arts academy, in a way that recalls Konrad Fischer Galerie and the Düsseldorf Academy in the 1960s. Can you elaborate on how this relationship has influenced the gallery’s curatorial choices?
NEUE ALTE BRÜCKE (Mark Dickenson): A large motivation for opening a space in Frankfurt was the Städelschule. The majority of artists who have shown at NAB have been students or recent graduates from the school. Nicolas Ceccaldi, Yngve Holen and Julien Nguyen were all students when they had their first shows.
AA: In London’s Mayfair, your gallery stands out as a highly experimental entity focused on emerging positions. How would you define your approach to programming?
PROJECT NATIVE INFORMANT (Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja): When we invite an artist or a collective, we never give a précis. We never assume a certain proposition, nor would we ask for one. Often what comes about is far more interesting, but then of course there is the risk of failure. We are reminded here of the late Stuart Hall, who coined the phrase “Marxism without guarantees” in regards to think about Marxist problems in a way that accounted for the multiple platforms of change and the potentiality for disappointment, one that is non-reductionist, one that does not rely on theories of economic determination. All we can do is try.
AA: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is currently hosting an exhibition that celebrates the figure of Ileana Sonnabend, the legendary gallerist who discovered and championed many of the most significant artists of her time. Do you see scouting new talents as a decisive element of your work — looking out for the new and the spirit of the times?
KOW: Yes and no. The spirit of the times is an ambivalent thing; you can run after it or try to change it. Scouting new talents for the creation of new commodities is not what drives us, even though we know it is part of a game that we do also play. What we are more concerned with are the social and political transformations we go though, and we look at unseen positions since they help us to understand what is going on and what alternatives we have. This is how we discovered Michael E. Smith, for instance.
PNI: We structure ourselves inherently in the present in its fleeting, fragmentary, often paradoxical and nonsensical condition. We are interested in networks — be they identity-based or more abstract — and how a commercial art gallery can develop collectivity. We are not interested in providing a survey of a specific trend but rather the multiplicity of praxis. We resist the idea of the “new” not as everything has been done before (for the future lasts forever) but rather in the desire to consistently seek the new in “fear of missing out.” We much prefer trend forecasting as a means of anticipating what falls out of pattern, what is illogical and potentially misunderstood. Ileana Sonnabend is a particularly useful example as we find resonance with her comment that she sought out work she at first “did not understand and difficult to classify on the basis of things already known.” Curiosity, research and dialogue feed us.
NAB: I like the idea that a gallery can be open enough to incorporate and perform changing attitudes, especially those directed against its own programming. I’ve never fully understood why art galleries adopt so many protocols from above. From the top down, most attempt to emulate blue-chip hierarchies and procedures with poorer quality interior fittings. This sort of illusion seems to me to be a stifling environment for art. I prefer a more malleable entity, where the space tends to obfuscate its role: it only has to affect the aesthetics of being a gallery when need be, such as at art fairs.
ADP: We are not looking out for the new; we simply meet it sometimes, perhaps more than others precisely because we are not looking for it.
AA: In recent years, we have witnessed a remarkable shift in the roles of the gallerist and the institutional curator, which have grown interchangeable, hybrid and fluid. Two prominent examples are Jeffrey Deitch being appointed as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles, and Paul Schimmel leaving his position as curator at the same museum to become partner and curator at Hauser & Wirth. As a gallerist, what do you think of this phenomenon and how do you imagine the future of your profession?
PNI: The division between the gallerist and the museum curator has, in the short history of both professions, been negligible. Some of the best art historians and critics were also dealers, figures like Renaissance specialists Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen, Sidney Janis, a promoter of Abstract Expressionism, and of course, Alfred Stieglitz and 291 / The Intimate Gallery in New York, one of the primary champions of Francis Picabia. Only more recently have the lines been drawn, increasingly to the detriment of both. Boundaries are like arguments, as they are context-specific, prone to violence and, over time, malleable and forgotten.
AG: I think museums are a tough place to act quickly and independently and have an entrenched culture that does thoroughly elegant, if often predictable, shows. I curated a show for Matthew Marks Gallery in 2007, “Project for a Revolution in New York,” that allowed me to examine European work from the 1960s that incorporated both Pop and Surrealism and was little seen in New York. This was an exhibition no museum would have ever approached, let alone thought of, but which can now be done in a gallery with resources.
KOW: When our practice goes beyond KOW’s walls — in curating, writing, project development, etc. — this is less taboo today, but some boundaries still need to be dissolved. It is good to overcome fixed role models, but the privatization of public goods, the dominance of private capital and the corresponding loss of autonomy are a problem. It really depends on personal integrity and competence. As a private enterprise we have more autonomy with regards to content and methodology than many institutions, but to some extent we are regulated by the market, since this is where we make our living.
AA: Of course, a substantial difference continues to mark the boundary between these roles; although encapsulating ever more non-commercial practices and experimental projects, gallery programs are inevitably influenced by the logic of the market. In your particular case, how do you manage the delicate balance of quality and profitability in the making of your exhibitions?
GFN: I’ve always been confident that when you focus on quality and the poetics of the art you show, you reach the best results, also in financial terms, although perhaps not immediately.
ADP: We have been lucky to get the support of a few people who could help our business financially in its beginnings. Over time, the works of some gallery artists could sell better and at higher prices, which helped to compensate the cost of the shows that do not sell. It is still like this today. I guess I’ve also had good luck in that none of our artists have left for a bigger gallery.
NAB: In this business the relationship between quality and profitability is tenuous at best. One of the realities of being located in a peripheral art center means that you have less local clients, simply because you have a very small audience. This relative anonymity within your own environment leads to a few things, with the most important being a reliance on digital documentation and distribution, where you also realize how much control you have over your identity within these mechanisms.
KOW: The exhibitions we do are independent from economic strategies. Their aim is to manifest an artist’s position, or a topic that we are concerned with, in the best way we can. For us, sales result from the credibility that we gain through these manifestations. The profitability of a position that we defend has a different temporality than a show: it is a general decision about whether or not we believe that we might make money with something that we do according to a long-term perspective, and this is only one criterion for our choices. Exhibitions need to be independent from financial evaluation. An exhibition is successful when it makes the point that needs to be made. Money is what might follow when you have made that point.