Art Interview with the dealer Gavin Brown

“Are you crazy?!” an art dealer would tell his artist when he proposes for his next show to dug a 38-foot-by-30-foot crater, eight feet deep, into the foundation of the gallery. Gavin Brown didn’t and gave Urs Fischer permission to realize his idea. In the 25 years history of Gavin Brown Enterprise the British dealer has defied the conventions around a gallery.
Thierry Somers met with Brown and discussed with him if the current gallery model is still alive, the industrialization of the art market, why Art Basel is the art fair for him, the distinctive presentations of his art fair booths, and how he pulled it off to dug the crater into his gallery with the permission of his landlord. Well, kind of.

The first booth I’m curious to visit at art fairs is the booth of Gavin Brown Enterprise. In line with the exhibitions at the gallery, you never know what to expect. The gallery comes up with unconventional, eye-catching and memorable presentations to showcase the works of their artists.

A striking example was the booth presentation at Art Basel in 2015. Martin Creed, the British artist who had his first solo show at the gallery in 2000, covered the entire floor of the booth with welcome mats, Persian rugs, yoga and prayer mats. Unlike the sometimes sterile, impersonal environments that some galleries create at art fairs I felt welcome to browse this fanciful booth. Creed created a holistic environment and with the mats the gallery could make the space at the fair their own.

Brown is one of the most imaginative, open minded and entrepreneurial dealers in the art world who is not afraid to take risks. From the opening of his first gallery in New York in 1994, he considers a gallery a site for forward thinking, experimentation, nonconformity and building a community.

Before having a gallery space of his own, Brown organised a number of guerilla exhibitions. In 1993, he rented a room for two weeks at the Chelsea Hotel in New York to present a collection of drawings by the artist Elizabeth Peyton. Viewers had to ask for the room key from the front desk of the hotel to see the show.

He has relocated his gallery in New York a number of times from SoHo, to the meatpacking district to the West Village and left the southern part of Manhattan to move to a former brewery in Harlem in 2015. Brown has organised a number of adventurous, wacky and radical shows for an eclectic mix of artists including Rikrit Tiravanija, Alex Katz, Chris Ofili, Kerstin Brätsch, Urs Fischer, Rob Pruitt, Martin Creed, Laura Owens and Ed Atkins.

Rikrit Tiravanija, the artist who serves dinner as art, created a socially engaged installation for Frieze New York in 2012. At the booth Brown cooked sausages with Mark Ruffalo at the VIP opening. The smell of cooked sausages and a famous actor preparing them created again lot of buzz at the fair. Brown distinctive booth presentations is the first topic of our conversation.

200%: What are the selection criteria of the works you are going to present at your booth?
Gavin Brown: First of all it depends on which works you have at your disposal. Then, inevitably, you’re thinking about whether you are going to make a decent profit on it. That is more likely with some works than others. It’s a balance. You got to bring something which is going to pay your rent but you also have to bring something which gives a little spark to your booth.

200%: For the 2018 edition of Art Basel, the spark was brought by two eye-catching works by Jannis Kounellis consisting of coats hanging on meat hooks on a big wall and ‘Good Man’ a video by Ed Atkins of a man closely staring into a bundle of candles.
GB: Yes, we were trying to create an engaging environment in which the work can exchange meaning with each other. Our booth has a big wall facing the escalators coming down. The wall provides an opportunity for some confrontation if you like. With the work by Jannis we brought something which is perhaps more confrontational than we have done before. That’s how the thinking around the booth started. We also had a video work by Ed Atkins and there is some rhyming between his work and Jannis’s work. We decorated some of the walls with wallpaper designed by Thomas Bayrle. It was a way of escaping the tyranny of all these white walls you see at fairs. It somehow softens the environment and makes the artwork and the viewer more at ease which each other.

200%: Do you make a model of the booth beforehand?
GB: We used to do physical models, but now we do it all in SketchUp [a 3D modelling software].

200%: It gives you a pretty good idea this work needs to hang here and this works needs to hang there?
GB: It’s good enough. You don’t really know what you’re doing until you get there.

200%: With your booth are you also trying to offer some form of entertainment?
GB: I suppose one could see it that way. I think the art market industrializes and becomes part of the entertainment complex. Fairs have become spectacles.

200%: What is your position on art fairs moving more towards the entertainment sphere?
GB: I don’t have a moral position on it. I think it’s just partly where we are. It’s a tool to be used. I don’t see art as entertainment though.

200%: Is Art Basel the fair of the year for you?
GB: Financially speaking absolutely. The fair is also attractive in combination with Unlimited. I think it’s possible to see some great art there. Art Basel is very solidly a trade fair. There is a certain tradition to art fairs. I think to critique or undermine that tradition is hypocritical and a little delusional.

200%: Is Art Basel also the fair of the year in terms of meeting collectors?
GB: Everybody comes here. We live in strange times. It doesn’t feel entirely stable at the moment but it still feels very buoyant. We have a reality TV President and the stock market is going through the roof. I don’t know what it all means.

200%: Has the DNA of the collector changed the last five years?
GB: The last twenty years definitely.

200%: Are you having different conversations with collectors?
GB: I don’t know whether I am having any conversations with collectors about the work. That doesn’t happen at art fair so much. Every year we meet new people and that is always great and we follow up on that. We try to create a relationship with them. This arena is a social market as much as anything else. From there we’re trying to develop opportunities.

200%: When you started with the gallery you have stuck to the goal you set for yourself long ago: to experiment with what a gallery might be and could do. Could you explain how you came up with that specific goal?
GB: It is a very illusive idea. I don’t think about it every day. When I wake up in the morning I’m not thinking that is what I’m going to do today. The thought that comes to my mind when I wake up in the morning: “how I’m going to sell some art to keep the doors open?”. There was no manifesto when I started. I saw an opportunity, there were some artists I represented, I found a space and that was it. Once you get going, you know there are certain things you would like to do and certain things you don’t want to do. You like to do them in particular way and not do them in other ways. Gradually that forms itself into a point of view.

200%: As you have a background as an artist yourself, does this enable you to have a better understanding with your artists?
GB: Yes and no. I don’t know whether that is a complete advantage. Some artists have no desire for their dealer to think like an artist. They just want someone to present their work. I do want their ideas to be as fully realised as they can be and when they are, it’s very satisfying. I think that also translates to a sense of commitment in the work, in the exhibition and that has a resonance for the viewer. They will feel that the work was achieved to the fullest.

200%: I read somewhere that you consider a gallery as a way to begin a culture. Could you elaborate what you mean by that?
GB: A culture is a way of producing a social circle and making friends. I think that artists are very potent elements in society. A gallery has the potential to be effective, but I don’t think it is using that potential. One can use that potential to create a social dynamic around it. I would like a gallery to be a dynamic force and not a passive element.

200%: Did you install a the kitchen in the gallery space to create a feeling of community?
GB: No, I like to be a good neighbour. I’m not so sure in the idea of a forced community. If a gallery is a social space then an essential component to the social space is food and something to drink. I think there are certain conventions around a gallery and I just want to try and relook at what a gallery could be.

200%: Recently many galleries had to close their businesses and people in the art world whisper in the art world that the gallery model is dead. What is your opinion on that?
GB: I think the model that emerged say 40, 50 years ago has morphed. It’s organically changed so slowly that perhaps we haven’t recognised that the original body has died. As to what it is changing into and how it’s changing I don’t know. Artists and people who work around art have to figure out something else. I have no idea what the solution to that is.

200%: Isn’t how you run your gallery a potential model for the future?
GB: No, I think I’m more connected to the previous dead model. I have to find a way to shed my skin and start again.

200%: Was moving your gallery to Harlem a way to shed your skin?
GB: I think it was unconsciously. I have since discovered that is the case. At the time it was a way of continuing.

200%: At your gallery in Greenwich Street, you exhibited a radical work ‘You’ by Urs Fischer. You took considerable risks to realize this work. When you green lighted the idea, did you think OMG what have I done?
GB: Not really. I thought that more when I opened the space in Harlem. Urs’s exhibition was just a practical problem to solve; how the hell do we get permission from the landlord?

200%: How did you get his permission?
GB: I asked permission to change the slab and I got his signature on a form which enabled me to do the other thing.

200%: How did he find out you were actually digging a crater into the foundation of the gallery?
GB: The landlord was a meat distributor and he worked on the other end of the building. His guys were moving meat with forklift trucks from freezers to trucks. We were digging a gigantic hole with massive jackhammers and trucks pulling away filled with dirt. The guys of the landlord were peaking in what we were doing and they told their boss to come and see what’s going on. I was upstairs in my office and Urs came up to me and said “you got to come downstairs because the landlord is completely freaking out”. The landlord is a little Italian American guy and he starts screaming at me, “what the f*** are you doing?!” At that point there was a massive hole and we basically had done the work. It was just a matter of closing up the wall and then the landlord had not known what we were doing but he managed to find out just before that. I just acted stupid and I said “my guys told me I had to change the slab.” The landlord was red in the face and spitting. Somehow I managed to calm him down and he just walked off. The next day we closed up the wall and we were alright.

200%: Wasn’t there a risk that the building could collapse?
GB: We went to engineers and we knew how far we could go. We were not too close to the foundations. Those are not limits one passes.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Opening picture: Gavin Brown on the left, works by Rikrit Tiravanija, Jannis Kounellis, Ed Atkins, booth at Art Basel 2018, Kerstin Brätsch, Alex Katz and installation shot of ‘You’ by Urs Fisher.

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