The Great Deitch Hope
When Jeffrey Deitch announced in January 2010 that he would leave New York City to take the reins of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the art world was thrown into a panic. Not only was the city losing a man with insatiable energy and a talent for spotting the next big art star, he was also the one, many said, who blurred the lines of art, pop culture and nightlife. The one who had managed to make the art world fun again.
But no good king would leave himself without an heir, so before setting off for his new perch in sunny Southern California, Deitch all but anointed Kathy Grayson, an eight-year veteran of his gallery, as his successor when he helped her and Meghan Coleman, another longtime employee, secure a space to launch their own gallery a month after his closed for good.
"Jeffrey announcing the gallery closure was a huge and unhappy surprise," Grayson says. "We both liked working there and were flourishing in our own way. Jeffrey spoke to me about coming to work at the museum, but I hate L.A., and all my artist networks are here. And they all really wanted me to open a space. When I told him I thought that was the best path, he was super supportive and pledged his help in any way he could."
Cheekily named The Hole, the duo's gallery exploded onto the scene at the end of June 2010 at 104 Greene Street—filling the hole left by their mentor's departure and the closing of his galleries at Wooster and Grand streets. They were determined to foster the same kind of creative energy and open-mindedness they'd learned under his tutelage.
"I want to make the art world a more community based, more sincere place. I want to change the model of, like, going to a grad school thesis show, picking an artist, doing 10 solo shows a year," Grayson explains. "It doesn't have to be boring. It can be better. You can make it work, by doing things differently."
The first exhibit, Not Quite Open for Business, was a group show installed by Taylor McKimens that sold unfinished works by over 20 artists from the gallery owners' circle of friends. As they explained in the press release, "The show is not about process-based art or deliberately 'unfinished' artworks, it is about getting caught with your pants down and your lipstick smudged and your armpits sweaty because you didn't have time to take a shower before YOUR FIRST GALLERY SHOW." The idea seemed a kooky way to deflect the pressure of following on the heels of Deitch by simply creating a place where cool people would want to hang out.
"When [Deitch] left, he did give Meghan and Kathy everything in terms of the facilities, equipment and his Rolodex, which is priceless," says Joe Grillo, a member of the art collective Dearraindrop, who collaborated with Kenny Scharf on The Hole's Hot Glue Hullabaloo exhibit in October 2010. "That's a nice thing to acquire from someone who was your former boss. I'm sure most galleries in New York would kill for that."
Eight months later, the frantic pace is catching up with them. After five successful shows and numerous parties, fashion events and side-projects, Coleman is bidding goodbye to the art world ("She doesn't find it fun anymore," Grayson explains) and Grayson is frantically looking for a permanent home for the gallery. She may have been given the keys to the kingdom, but she's still figuring out which doors they may open.
Grayson might seem like an unlikely inheritor of Deitch's largesse, but she is also a part of its legacy. While Deitch, who is 58 years old this year, was a patriarch to many, it was these women in their twenties who kept him close to the youthful artists on the scene. Grayson and Coleman worked with Deitch on NEST, the infamous Dan Colen/Dash Snow "hamster nest" installation, the raucous Art Parades and various naked stagings of women (Grayson is a member of the performance art troupe The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and has been naked on stage herself).
"So much of what the gallery was known for often included things I had personally brought to the table," Grayson explains. "So I wasn't nervous for people to think I was part of the legacy. I can't recreate Deitch, but I can keep some of the spirit alive."
Plus, it doesn't hurt that there's a certain mirroring in the mythology. Deitch began as a receptionist in the gallery of the inimitable Leo Castelli before going off to Harvard Business School to get his MBA, followed by his time managing Citibank's first art investment advisory department. At 22, Grayson found herself with a job as the receptionist at Deitch Projects fresh from studying art history and theory at Dartmouth. She quickly was raised to a director and was instrumental in attracting many of the younger, fashionable artists whose work would be forever linked to the space. Deitch and Grayson even co-edited a book together, titled Live Through This, which collected essays by many of the artists presented at the space and captured a heady moment of art euphoria.
The magic of Deitch Projects was the ability to envision fantastical exhibits, oftentimes with art that wasn't even for sale, and financing them without seeming to pander to anyone. It captured the freewheeling, circus atmosphere of early art fairs and kept it going. Rather than a stuffy gallery, it was a place young people could feel sexy, fashionable and subversive—rather than bored— when attending an art opening.
Take for example the 2006 Garden Party, an "erotic garden" that featured a large grassy hill that spectators were invited to roll down. It combined the silly, the dangerous and the wonderful in a way that few expected was possible in today's New York. That's why a line formed with people—everyone from glittered ambisexuals to Uptown tarts—waiting for hours in freezing weather to get through the front door. It was a rarity: an exclusive party with no invitation.
That was followed by an exhibit of Michel Gondry's creepy and creative props and costumes from his movie The Science of Sleep and an even more intense installation two years later of the video store from his film Be Kind Rewind. These exhibits appealed to a crowd hungry for unusual experiences, and they inspired more and more Deitch fans who might not typically frequent galleries. But they didn't have to sell.
Deitch Projects was started in 1996, and the way the business seems to have worked is that Deitch made most of his income in the secondary art market, selling blue chip artists to people with deep pockets, so he could then sink money into the events, unknown artists and unsellable art installations in the Soho galleries.
"Jeffrey changed the art world," Grayson says. "Jeffrey changed the way galleries ran. He didn't start a gallery, he started this whole project room where he financed a crazy thing, and if it didn't sell, he bought it. And then the artists insisted he become a gallery because they wanted to work with him. We have a big following of people that can't afford $10,000 paintings, and so we thought we'd try a new thing in our business, which is making affordable art."
But that's where it gets difficult. It meant that Grayson had to relearn how to do the very think she was picked by Deitch to do. "I was just a curator at Deitch," Grayson explains. "The part where you actually have to sell the art was new to me… I wish I were more of an art dealer myself, but I was just a curator mainly at Deitch. You know, Jeffrey gave me this enormous opportunity to really develop my arts community and curatorial sensibility and my writing skills. But not my client list, necessarily."
So far, everything has been going well, according to Grayson. "Everyone will tell you it's going great," Grayson says. "They may not all mean it. But we can tell you it's been going great and really mean it. You know, we've launched a business in six months and are breaking even."
Part of the reason for that is the low overhead. The gallery has a relationship with Tony Goldman, an artistically inclined developer and a friend and collaborator of Deitch's, who has given them a shot by hosting them in the Greene Street space for virtually no cost for the past eight months. "I said, 'Take it until the end of the year, do your own thing,'" Goldman says, explaining his business arrangement with the women, whom he barely knew before loaning them the gallery space. "My purpose was to give space to help fill the vacuum I thought would come with Jeffrey's loss." In fact, he gave them a two-month extension, until the end of February.
Goldman also maintains the Bowery Wall, the site of high-profile commissioned murals ever since Deitch worked to recreate a famous Keith Haring in 2008. Grayson worked with Goldman on the Kenny Scharf mural that sprawled across the wall and then collaborated with him on the Wynwood Walls Expansion in Miami this past December.
It probably speaks to the comfort level of this generation of artistically inclined trailblazers that Grayson doesn't have qualms about collaborating with a developer—even an enlightened one. The Hole has also enjoyed some corporate sponsorship for shows, such as the POSTERMAT show, which received "generous support" from Levis.
Then again, it's not as if Grayson is playing it safe. She has been keeping a potentially scandalous photo blog, "Art From Behind," for some time, which details everything from her search for a new gallery space to bubble baths, meals and her fun times hanging out with art pals Rosson Crow and Terence Koh. If art is a lifestyle, Grayson is certainly living it.
On a January afternoon a few weeks ago, Coleman and Grayson are sitting at a joint desk, frantically answering emails, fielding phone calls and getting prepared for a dinner with an artist as we chat. Grayson gets a phone call in the middle of our conversation. "That's my boyfriend, worried he doesn't have anything nice to wear to our artists' dinner tonight," she tells me, laughing at having one more fire to put out.
Looking around, it's amazing how easily they've been able to transform the space they were given. Unlike the huge warehouse space Deitch had at 18 Wooster, The Hole is a long hall with white drywall. At the end, there's a connection to a coffee shop where employees of the building next door sit and munch on truffled chicken salad sandwiches and delicious-looking pastries. Coleman, the production genius of the two, has taken the space from a Day-Glo wonderland when Kenny Scharf's works were installed, to a village punk poster shop from the 1980s. The two tell me about their plans to set up the space as a seedy comedy show, calling the exhibit The Art Of The Joke.
But this past weekend, the last show in the space, Art Machine closed. A vending machine presented by ALIFE, it featured T-shirts, mini paintings and sculptures by artists and musicians, along with some even stranger artist products (Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black cologne or $50 hairs from JD Samson's moustache!).
Grayson remains optimistic, however, as she searches for the next place to unfurl her dream (At press time, she was deciding between two gallery spots near the Bowery.) She thinks the art market is recovering. "Things are positive, especially when you're talking about under $100,000 stuff," she says. "You know, people are still buying emerging art. It may be a different group of people, but it's a really broad market. You know, there are 30-year-olds buying work from us because they're connected with graffiti or street art and so they get into it that way. Then there are museums and foundations around the world that buy from us. The market is broad. It's not crappy; it's solid."
And, no matter what, she remains committed to staying in downtown Manhattan. As she explains, "Downtown is where everyone comes to meet each other. I've always felt like that was the center of everything… I looked at four new spaces today and am looking at four tomorrow." Grayson adds, "We're getting less scrappy, and want a new, big space."
By Erica Sackin via NY Press