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Where the Artists Are Present — and in Charge

“RESISTANCE IS FUTILE when you rely on rich people,” the artist Rachel Nelson tells me, smiling but not exactly joking. Before opening Secret Project Robot on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Nelson and her partner, Erik Zajaceskowski, spent the last two decades cultivating a distinctly outsider status in the art world. They became serial starters, opening up new spaces to show art that could never quite be described as galleries. In the late 1990s, Zajaceskowski founded an underground D.I.Y. party venue called Mighty Robot. The live shows helped establish the Williamsburg alt scene of the early aughts (bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had some of their first New York performances at Mighty Robot). Nelson and Zajaceskowski consider parties an art form in and of themselves, but also a way to show art. “Originally, we threw parties to encourage people to stay and look at the work,” Zajaceskowski tells me.

The exterior of Secret Project Robot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.Credit…Emiliano Granado
The door to the gallery on Wythe Avenue, which used to be a house.Credit…Emiliano Granado

In 2020, during the pandemic, they began renovating the small house that would become Secret Project Robot. (Explaining the name, Nelson says, “It’s that old communist thing; the secret is we are the robots.”) Nelson learned plumbing by watching YouTube. On a rainy summer day when I pop in, I almost walk straight past it. The unimposing storefront has been converted from a garage and still bears the hallmarks of one; Nelson was out by the side entrance chatting with neighbors as their children played. As she shows me inside, Nelson points out the white painted walls and smattering of branded mugs bearing the gallery’s name. They are doing their best, she says with a laugh, to be a real gallery. “We’re slightly reformed rebels,” she adds, noting the rising rents across the city. “Our first 15 years, we were balking the system but, to be an artist, you can’t reject the art world.” When I’m there, Secret Project Robot is exhibiting pottery by Moklé Studio, the Brooklyn-based team of the ceramic artists Mokshini Godamunne and Moses Starr. Like the clay surrounding us, Nelson is also in the process of being molded into something new. “It’s hard to be a gallerist,” she says. “My impulse if someone says they like something is to say, ‘I really like it, too’, not ‘Let me give you their card.’”

Work by Eric Copeland at Secret Project Robot.Credit…Emiliano Granado
Secret Project Robot mugs designed by Erik Zajaceskowski.Credit…Emiliano Granado

Nelson’s comment reminded me of an anecdote that the artist and critic Irving Sandler shared with the writer Julie Martin. The Tanager was part of a cluster of artist-run spaces, cooperatively managed, that sprung up in the East Village in the 1950s and early ’60s. After a woman came in and bought a painting, Sandler says, he asked her name and where she would like the painting to be delivered. “She said, ‘I’m Mrs. Mellon,’” he recalls, “and so help me God, I said, ‘How do you spell that?’” Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, of the famous industrialist family, asked him to send the painting to the Museum of Modern Art. After that, Sandler tells Martin, “I knew that I would never be a dealer.”

The author Noel Clad and the artist Willem de Kooning (right) talk on the stoop of Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street in the East Village in 1959. Credit… Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection

In his 1954 essay “Tenth Street: A Geography of Modern Art,” the critic Harold Rosenberg attempts to paint for readers a picture of the new downtown art scene that had taken over the neighborhood’s storefronts. “Apart from the two pawnshops facing each other on the Third Avenue western corners, everything on 10th Street is one of a kind: a liquor store with a large ‘wino’ clientele; up another flight, a hotel workers’ employment agency; in a basement, a poolroom,” he writes, comparing it to other “rotting streets” in other major American cities: “Tenth Street is differentiated only by its encampment of artists.” The location was selected for convenience, close to where artists, at the time anyway, could afford to live (and thus quickly run over and sit in the gallery’s front of house if needed).

When the Tanager first opened in 1952 (in an old barbershop), the goal was not to become a commercial gallery. “The idea was to show what was going on,” the founding member Lois Dodd told Martin. Artist-run galleries were first and foremost geared toward visibility. The uptown galleries were showing mostly European art and little that was contemporary. In turn, the Tanager mounted exhibits featuring artists of the burgeoning New York School, including Willem de Kooning and Alex Katz. Tanager encouraged the artists it exhibited to keep prices affordable so that the work, and the new ideas they represented, could circulate. Artist-run galleries were rigorous spaces devoted to pushing the boundaries of the cultural establishment. At the artist-run Hansa Gallery, members were required to exhibit their own art, “to guarantee that the group membership shall be of active and productive artists and not of ‘riders’ whose principal motive for joining the group might be social,” as their bylaws state. Several other artist-run galleries soon sprung up in the area; and in 1957, the New York Times art critic Dore Ashton began including downtown galleries on her beat.

Onyedika Chuke, the founder and director of Storage gallery in TriBeCa.Credit…Emiliano Granado

For these early artist-run galleries, the goal was ultimately to create an uptown market for downtown art. They were envisaged as interim fixes, stopgaps to introduce young and untested artists to major art buyers for as long as they could afford to keep doing so. By the 1960s, artist-run galleries became more experimental, interrogating the idea of not only the gallery but of the exhibition itself. They sought to foster experiences that could not be replicated, let alone sold. The critic Louis Menand notes that in her loft at 112 Chambers Street, Yoko Ono threw some of the contents of her fridge at a wall-mounted sheet of paper, then set it on fire, as a performance.

A painting by Jeff Way in the back room at Storage gallery. Credit…Emiliano Granado

Many artist-run galleries of this era have since shuttered, chased out by high rents and the low morale that can come with them. However, the early 1970s saw the establishment of two major galleries that exist to this day: A.I.R. Gallery (founded in 1972 by 20 women) and Amos Eno Gallery (founded in 1974). They established cooperative spaces in SoHo, a part of the city then known for cheap rents and abandoned buildings. A.I.R. was named for the artist-in-residence placards that artists hung over their doorways in lofts that had only been zoned for manufacturing, so the fire department would know to rescue them if someone, say, set something on fire during a performance. José-Ricardo Presman, one of the founding members of Amos Eno, which eventually moved, in the general arc of New York bohemia, to Bushwick, Brooklyn, says he sometimes downplays the word “collective” when describing the gallery to people he meets in his day job. (“I’m in the jewelry business,” he tells me.) They tend to respond, he says, with some variation of, “What are you, a communist?”

Work by Adam Lupton, leaning against the wall at Storage. Credit…Emiliano Granado

That kind of radicalism is harder to come by these days, especially in a real estate market like New York City’s. Today, there are scant abandoned warehouses in SoHo or even Bushwick to occupy, and artist-run spaces are under threat of being squeezed out of the very scenes they helped shape. I spoke to a group of artists who run galleries, either themselves or collectively, about their determination to persist amid such circumstances, to continue defining, on their own terms, who and what deserves to be seen. Still, many told me that while they are in tension with the market, they cannot ignore it. Like so many of us, artists or not, they are figuring out how to sell without selling out.

Motohiro Takeda’s “Prescient” (2022), hanging near a painting by Lupton (left) at Storage. Credit…Emiliano Granado

THE LIMITS OF what commercial spaces were willing to take on was something that inspired the Nigerian-born artist Onyedika Chuke to also become a dealer. He is now the proprietor of Storage gallery in TriBeCa. Chuke started his career as a sculptor, he tells me, but found he kept running into the same problem. “I wasn’t making racially narrative sculpture.” Chuke, who arrived in the United States at 9, says, “I didn’t know I was Black until I came here.” He founded Storage in 2020 in the basement of a Chinatown restaurant. Though Storage is a commercial gallery, Chuke is attracted to art that is difficult to sell, for instance large sculptures by emerging artists or work that represents a shift in an established artist’s career. The first Storage show contained new works by Emory Douglas, the former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, and paintings by Rick Lowe, better known for working with artists and nonprofit organizations to rehab dilapidated shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward. Chuke aspires to give artists the kind of creative freedom he lacked when he was up and coming. This is something bigger commercial galleries tend to shy away from, preferring that artists stick to their brand. “People want ketchup to always be red,” as he explains.

This is not to say that Chuke doesn’t understand the importance of money. In fact, he gets it better than most in the art world, having grown up poor. He sold 10 of Lowe’s paintings from that first exhibition in two months, and he is proud that his gallery has been profitable recently. (Next up will be a show of paintings by the Japanese-born painter Michiko Itatani.) Chuke, who graduated from Cooper Union, does not have the money of many of his gallery-owning peers, but “know-how and desire are resources, too,” he says. In 2022, he moved Storage into a light-filled loft in TriBeCa. When I arrive, the air-conditioner is out, so we go to the back corner where large industrial fans cool us off. Behind him is a small kitchen. “I wanted it to feel like a 1960s art studio,” he tells me. Chuke has had a hand in every part of making this space, but not necessarily by choice. He could not get a bank loan, a familiar scenario for Black entrepreneurs. He did the entire renovation himself, and many of his neighbors thought he was the janitor because he was always covered in dust. “I think janitors are interesting,” he says, “because they know where everything is.” Chuke often sees the advantages that can come with disadvantages, including his own. Many of the people who operate commercial galleries, he says, “could take more risks, but they weren’t raised to.”

The co-directors of Ortega y Gasset Projects. Top row, from left: Nickola Pottinger, Clare Britt, Leeza Meksin, Adam Liam Rose, Eric Hibit and Sabrina Haertig Gonazalez. Bottom row, from left: Lauren Whearty and Zahar Vaks. Credit…Emiliano Granado

In fact, some regard artist-run galleries as risky themselves, their proprietors too creative to be practical. “It’s trash,” Chuke tells me of this belief. That reaction is shared by Eric Hibit, a co-director of Ortega y Gasset Projects, an artist-run gallery in Gowanus; “as if we were in a constant fugue state of emotional turmoil,” he says with a sigh, rolling his eyes. Ortega y Gasset Projects started in 2013 in Bushwick and is now collectively run as a nonprofit by eight artists of diverse backgrounds. Indeed, inclusion is something they all stress to me as central to how they understand their mission as an artist-run gallery; curation, they explain, gives them a chance to bring more voices into the art world. When I’m there in June, work by Angélica Maria Millán Lozano, a female artist from Colombia, and Aika Akhmetova, a nonbinary artist from Kazakhstan, are being exhibited. The gallery operates on a 60-40 artist-gallery split, but some artists who sell nothing are given an honorarium, which allows, explains the co-director Leeza Meksin, Ortega y Gasset to take risks, to show “installations, site-specific work” and — something all the artists nod at — “artists who do not already have a market.” That the curators, as artists, get it is fundamental, they feel, to establishing trust. The co-director Zahar Vaks recalls one night he stayed up until 3 a.m. helping an artist with an installation. “Artist to artist,” he remembers saying, “this video is going to get up there.”

The back room at Ortega y Gasset Projects.Credit…Emiliano Granado
An installation shot from a group show there last August called “Tightly Knit, Loose Fit.”Credit…Emiliano Granado

Artists might trust other artists, but one of the gallerists I speak to says they still feel like artist-run galleries are not taken seriously by dealers. “Rich people believe other rich people about price,” this person tells me. Alex Paik, one of the founders of Tiger Strikes Asteroid, an artist-run gallery with locations in five cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Greenville, S.C., echoes this thought. “Value in the art market is all smoke and mirrors,” he tells me by phone, “It’s all speculation. Picasso sells for hundreds of millions of dollars and I don’t think it’s 100,000 times better than the work I’m making. It’s hard for the art world to change because the Picassos and Koonses of the world have to stay important because a lot of peoples’ wealth depends on them staying important.”

A pennant at Ortega y Gasset Projects.Credit…Emiliano Granado
Paintings by the gallery’s co-director Eric Hibit, in a studio behind the main gallery.Credit…Emiliano Granado

Some artist-run galleries have taken any potential anxiety about seeming like a real gallery and thrown it out the window, like O’Flaherty’s in the East Village. The gallery received a lot of press attention after a 2022 group show where they accepted every submission. Someone submitted nothing and the gallery put it on a small pedestal. The two artist-owners are Jamian Juliano-Villani and Billy Grant. They are thoughtful and a little chaotic, asking me my shoe size the night before I’m scheduled to meet them. They give me a tour of their basement and as we make our way toward a walk-in fridge, I suddenly become overwhelmed with fear that “We Locked a New York Times Writer in Our Fridge” is about to be their next work of provocation. I instinctively say, “I’m not going in there!” and they laugh. A lot of people like to think their work or the work they show takes risks, but O’Flaherty’s risk taking jumps off the walls. They are not afraid to offend, and indeed, offensiveness is actually the subject of some of their shows, like “Getting Chippy With It” (2021). That exhibition juxtaposed Allen Jones’s series of seminude women being used as tables and chairs alongside so-called exotic snacks like Eurocrem, pemmican, the Whole Shebang Chips, Thai Miang Kham Lays and limited-edition Jones Soda from 1999. “We like to orbit an idea with another idea to find a middle point,” Grant says.

“Everything” by Josh Smith, on view at the O’Flaherty’s exhibition “The Café.”Credit…Emiliano Granado
A work by Merlin Carpenter at O’Flaherty’s.Credit…Emiliano Granado

O’Flaherty’s disregard for corporate-style reputation management adds a different dimension to what it means to work outside of strictly commercial spaces. Yet everyone I speak to agrees that there is something ironic about artists, and artist-gallerists, being so enticed by risk when they, more than anyone, have so much to lose. As Paik tells me, even as many artists have lost the possibility of steady income through academia as adjunct-instructor gigs become the norm, they and the artist-run gallerists they work with are committed to pushing the limits of what should be exhibited. In other words, they are refusing to be told that there is no value to that which they value the most.

A sculpture by Brandon Ndife at O’Flaherty’s.Credit…Emiliano Granado
The exterior of O’Flaherty’s on Avenue A.Credit…Emiliano Granado

Back in Williamsburg, Nelson points out the wooden blocks her four-year-old son, Raul-Moon, plays with in their upstairs studio. The blocks are painted somewhat erratically. “Did he paint them himself?” I ask. We have just been talking about money and the art world, so Nelson sighs and says yes. “You’re like, ‘Don’t become an artist,” she says with a laugh, “but also, ‘Let’s go make some art.’”

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