I met artist/art gallery owner Leah Oates through curator Robert Curcio who suggested that I interview her. The following interview took place over the course of 14 months! But … we got it done. Leah is busy with both her work www.leahoates.com and her new gallery, www.stationindependent.com on New York City’s Lower East Side. I start this off with a cool quote from Leah …
“…Okay, so you have enough money to open a big, glossy gallery, but do you have any taste, an eye, and are you taking a risk? I respect galleries that take risks and that show excellent work and I believe that that leads to sales down the line…”
MICHAEL: Hello Leah, you recently opened a new art gallery on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. Tell me all about it. What’s it called and what do you hope to achieve?
LEAH: The gallery is called, “Station Independent Projects” and is at 164 Suffolk Street. Honestly, when I first opened in LES last September, I was not sure that being in the area would translate into sales, press etc. My aim was just to get people to the gallery and get the word out. I heard doomsday predictions that it was very possible that there would not be a single sale in the first year of business which is far from true. In one year of business, the gallery and its artists have had press in Blouin Art Info, Art Forum, Women's Wear Daily and over 100 edited listings and editor’s choice picks on various blogs, online art magazines etc. Michael Stipe from REM collected a work and I've made numerous sales. Recently, the gallery had a visit from a high profile photography collector who will be showing one of the gallery artists to curators at the Whitney. The hype is real about the L.E.S. and the first year of business has been beyond my expectations for a first year of business.
MICHAEL: I've also heard that artists don't often make the best business people. What do you think?
LEAH: I think that’s a misconception, but I do think that there is a reason for it. Galleries serve an important role which is to sell work for artists so they can concentrate on their work. Some artists have a business sense and some just want to focus on their work. Also, merely being business
savvy does not mean you know anything about art or selling it. The art business is not like other businesses as it’s about selling limited edition luxury goods. It seems closest to the fashion couture business to me.
There are many examples of galleries in NYC founded by artists - i.e. Artists Space, Pierogi, Momenta Gallery, Nurture Art and CANADA Gallery are just a few examples.
Damien Hirst launched his career and the careers of other recent London art graduates by organizing a show in an industrial area of London, getting sponsorship and look how his career has gone and how well many of those artists did!
If more artists took an interest in the business side of things, they would have more oversight of their own careers. When artists talk about money and business, it’s considered off-color, but galleries, auction houses and collectors talk about money and business in reference to art, so why can’t artist do so?
I think it’s falsely assumed that if artists talk about business, they are more interested in that than their art, but people in other fields can talk about their careers and can also be interested in many other things. I've wondered why the art world can be so rigid about taking an interest in things beyond one's art as most people have more than one interest. In other fields, if a person is interested in more than one thing, they’re considered dynamic and entrepreneurial.
I also do think that art has become too much about sales. When conceiving who I wanted to show in the gallery, the main focus was on if the work was good … not on sales. Galleries should not be hocking product and I wish more would focus on setting the trends and otherwise take what they’re doing seriously. Okay, so you have enough money to open a big, glossy gallery, but do you have any taste, an eye, and are you taking a risk? I respect galleries that take risks and that show excellent work and I believe that that leads to sales down the line. Without critical attention, sales will trail off over time and the business will not succeed and another gallery will open eventually and will do just that.
MICHAEL: What have you learned about selling art in the past year?
LEAH: Selling art is a fine art in itself - no pun intended - and one cannot always predict what people will buy. What I would collect could be different from what someone else might collect. It’s a very personal thing and most of my sales have been to people I know or the artist knows.
My biggest sale though has been a walk in who came to see one work twice and then stopped in a third time to see the same work and the show was done, so he bought it that day. He now comes back to see all the shows. Also, send jpegs to all your collectors if there is an artist or show coming up that may interest them, but never do the hard sell.
Galleries need to focus on sales, but also on press and on curators. Due to solo shows at Station Independent Projects, my artists have had reviews in Art Forum, a feature in Photo District News, a mention in Women's Wear Daily, a public art project and a museum show and the gallery has been open for only about a year.
MICHAEL: Fantastic! Do you think that your experience this past year would have been different had you opened a gallery in Los Angeles, Chicago or Dallas? In other words, do you think it's crucial to be an art dealer based in New York as opposed to anywhere else?
LEAH: I really can only comment on what I know. I received my M.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but that was thirteen years ago, so the scene may have changed. I had a close friend who ran a gallery in the River North gallery districts where Rhona Hoffman and Donald Young were located and she used to lament that the big Chicago collectors went to NYC to make purchases, though she did have David Schwimmer as a regular client. I have not run a gallery in Chicago, LA or Dallas, so personally, from my own experience, I do not know.
I think NYC still has the status of a world art capital that other places do not. LA certainly has an excellent art scene that’s maybe comparable to NYC, but different and more spread out. I have a good friend who is a performance artist who lives in LA, but who is originally from NY State and he told me that the community is small in LA and in NYC it’s much more varied and larger. He feels it’s important to perform in NYC as many of the major collectors, curators and critics are in NYC, so in that sense, yes, it’s still important to be in New York.
MICHAEL: Do you feel better about the economy now compared to a couple of years ago? I always ask gallerists this question because if people are buying art, obviously that's a good sign for the overall economy, No?
LEAH: Again, I only know what my experience was this first year of business as I made more sales than expected. The economy has gotten better, but with little compromise in Washington, who knows how things will go? So it’s still an open-ended question. I think that people who have money to collect art are minimally affected by fluctuations in the economy. I had read that auction house and luxury good sales had gone up at the time that the U.S. economy was at its worse. People who are wealthy will buy art either way, so while it can affect galleries and other businesses, those folks will still take an interest in buying art because it’s a good investment that has less monetary risk than other investments. It also makes one happy and there is an element of patronage for the gallery and artists too. How many investments can do that?
MICHAEL: I'd love to chat about your art now, but first, do you even have time now for your own artistic work? How do you balance these things?
LEAH: I will always do my work. If I did not, I would not be a happy camper as they say. I often get asked this question and the only thing I can think is if one has the desire to make work, they will despite any perceived obstacles. A famous writer (I think it’s Toni Morrison) wrote her first book on her train commute back and forth from work and she was also a single mom too. Her advice was to carve time where you have it and just do it and if you have the will, the work will always get done. I've always thought back to this as excellent advice for myself and any creative person.
I also am a lot more flexible than I used to be and the birth of my son Max nine years ago taught me to be flexible. As important as my art is to me,
my family comes first, so some weeks I have more time to dedicate to my work and some weeks less, but I feel grateful to be where I am and all the various parts of my life balance pretty well. I'm thankful and count my blessings.
I also think much more long term for making art now. I used to plan week to week or month to month and now it’s what I can accomplish in several years and this has really helped in my studio practice. When I was in my 20's, I would work so intensely that I would wear myself out and get colds etc. I don't believe in the suffering artist myth anymore or that one has to give one’s whole life to art. One would miss out on so much living that can make one grow and in turn make potentially better art.
MICHAEL: Totally. Finally Leah, what is the point of all of this? Shouldn't we be discussing a way to get the world out of this economy slump or a way to end homelessness or how we can get food and water to starving people in Somalia? What's the point of art? Why should people care about art? Do we need art to live?
LEAH: Art makes me happy to be alive and can illuminate what it means to be human. I have specific art works, books, songs, etc., that have made me so happy or allowed me to cry out of happiness because they are so beautiful or brilliant and showed me something I had perhaps forgotten or overlooked. All the arts just make life better.
I spoke to my son's class a few years back when were coming to talk about their careers to the students and a kid asked me, “What's the point of art?” What I said is that art, design and visual culture touches our lives in so many ways, from the chair you’re sitting on to the clothes you wear to the poster you see in the subway. It just adds so much to life and without it, life would be duller. Visual art and applied arts are everywhere.
There are many things more pressing than art for sure, such as poverty and lack of resources around the world. I care about these issues very much and I'm quite political. There’s the issue of art being more for the wealthy too and there are class issues for sure, but visual culture effects everyone despite class and people have been drawing and making objects since there have been human beings, so it’s a basic drive and needs to continue to be to express oneself.
MICHAEL: Leah, this has been a lovely chat. Thank you.
LEAH: I really liked your questions! It was a pleasure. Many, many thanks. I send my best.