How to Start a Gallery in Your Apartment
As commercial real estate balloons in cities like New York and London, and art galleries professionalize, limiting the freedoms artists are given within their spaces, artists, art professionals, and collectors have begun to make use of living space—be it an entire apartment, a guest bedroom, or even a walk-in closet—to put on the shows they want to see.
Apartment galleries offer viable alternatives to see art outside of commercially focused, white cube gallery spaces, and to witness a more intimate, inclusive side of the art world. And while these galleries are nothing new—Leo Castelli famously turned the living room of his 77th street apartment into a gallery in 1957—with time, they’ve become less novel and more widespread. So what does it take to open an apartment gallery today?
This fall, Ariela Gittlen and Scott Indrisek opened a gallery, dubbed Teen Party, rather suddenly out of their Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, apartment. This was a first for the couple, who work as a graphic designer and art writer, and editor-in-chief of an art magazine, respectively. Within the span of some six weeks they confirmed two artists for the inaugural show—the esteemed Peter Halley and young painter Tracy Thomason—secured a liquor sponsor, cleared out the spare bedroom-turned-home office, installed the show, and put on an opening that saw around a hundred people filter in and out of their 600-square-foot apartment. “We were both exhausted at the end of the night, and we said to each other, ‘This could not have gone better, everything worked exactly like it was supposed to,’” Gittlen recalls. Weeks later, unexpectedly, they’d sell two of Thomason’s works. Despite how it sounds, this is not an easy venture.
Given that there’s no handbook, we spoke to the owners of five apartment galleries in five cities: New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Milan, and Mexico City. Below, we share their insights and inspirations, and the things you absolutely must know before launching an exhibition program out of your living room.
If sales are your main motivation, this may not be for you.
While one might expect that a strong motive behind an apartment gallery is to save on the cost of renting out a space, they’re often inspired by a passion for community or opportunities to experiment, rather than making money. “It’s so liberating not to worry about hustling to make rent and it gives us the freedom to consider projects and events that we couldn’t afford if we were renting a storefront,” says Gittlen. Even so, Gittlen and Indrisek were pleasantly surprised when a collector from Colorado got in touch, having found Thomason’s paintings online. “It was not part of the expectation,” says Indrisek.
Jay Ezra Nayssan, a full-time real estate developer who runs Del Vaz Projects out of the guest bedroom of his apartment in Los Angeles, notes that while he does regularly sell work and welcomes serious collectors, “It’s not a viable commercial practice; it’s not formal gallery.” Nayssan shows impressive young artists like Jessi Reaves and Max Hooper Schneider, though he doesn’t represent the artists and, in his words, “the programming is quite incidental rather than planned.” Additionally, he spares no expense in the resources he puts into each show, from photographers who take installation shots to the tea he serves during appointments.
Others are also quick to emphasize that their spaces are not galleries in the traditional sense. “We are a hybrid nonprofit,” says Chris Sharp, who runs Lulu in Mexico City with artist Martin Soto Climent. “We do not actually represent any artists.” Meanwhile Max Schreier, a former gallery director who now runs Aunt Linda in Berlin with his wife, Anita Iannacchione, considers his venture a project space. “We were really focused on the familial sense of it, what it means to have a gallery in your apartment,” Schreier explains. “At least in Berlin, it’s not so much a financial decision,” he adds, noting that the cost of renting a gallery space would be the same as what they pay for the extra room in the apartment. “It’s more the actual idea of inviting people into our home.” (Full disclosure: Schreier works at Artsy).
Schreier adds that they’ve even developed a sales model that they believe is impartial, given that they aren’t providing the kind of support a traditional gallery would. “The way that we function is that 100% of the money goes to the artists, and we ask for an artwork in exchange.”
Set up a sustainable balance between the gallery and your life.
For those like Schreier and Iannacchione, who set up Aunt Linda in an extra room in their Schöneberg apartment, it’s important to ensure that running exhibitions will not interrupt their day jobs (Iannacchione is the publications manager at Studio Elmgreen & Dragset) and their personal time and space. “With the first show, we tried to make it very ‘gallery-like,’ and that was very invasive to our lifestyle,” says Schreier. Over time, the two became more cognisant of the fact that Aunt Linda is located in their home, and have since developed a model to open the space by appointment, on days when they’re not working.
Similarly, for Teen Party, Indrisek and Gittlen were pressed to find a way to run the gallery that would not interfere with their full-time jobs or their personal space (Indrisek joked that with the 100-person opening they’d gone from zero to 60, as the couple hadn’t even hosted a dinner party yet). Aside from the opening, they had a few invite-only events on weekends to invite small groups into the show. “[We’ve been] trying to find a balance between getting the word out and maintaining a more intimate experience,” Gittlen notes. “We want Teen Party to feel accessible, but because it’s our home we’re wary of listing our address online.” Theirs is a common concern, and has led many other spaces to choose by-appointment-only models.
For Nayssan, finding a balance between the gallery and his life means working incrementally on exhibitions over long periods of time. He focuses on one show per year, which lasts for three months—a great deal longer than the shows comparable spaces put on. “Everything is super slowed down,” he explains, noting his preference to take the necessary time to put on exhibitions in a thoughtful way. A forthcoming show, of the artist Derya Akay, comes after three years of discussions with the artist.
Skip the white cube—embrace unique features of the apartment.
Given the near ubiquity of clean, white, art spaces, those looking to start an apartment gallery should strive to play up the characteristics that make it feel like a home. “Do not efface, but rather embrace and play with the peculiarities of your apartment,” Sharp advises. “They can be great assets.”
Sharp and Climent’s original Lulu space was just 100 square feet (though Lulu has since expanded to a storefront in the same building). “Some might see this as a handicap, but we—and I believe most of the artists with whom we work—see it is a rewarding challenge,” Sharp notes. He adds that the space has largely helped to define Lulu’s program, which is in many ways responding to ideas of intimacy. “How do you make a significant show in such a small space? It has this haiku-like quality, which in turn engenders a very personal and intimate experience.”
That sense of intimacy also inspired architect Patrizia Tenti, owner of Erastudio Apartment Gallery in Milan, who embraces the idiosyncrasies of her space at a level all her own. In 2010, she spent six months restoring her five-room apartment in the Brera district, including removing wallpaper to expose the original, raw concrete, to “look for the story of the people who lived in this apartment before.” Now, the space is a thrilling contrast to the exhibitions of Radical Design and Memphis Group pioneers she puts on. “Every room feels different thanks to the lighting and the intimacy you find in an apartment gallery,” she says. “I never expected that our guests could be so emotionally involved.”
Treat gallery-goers like you would a guest to your home.
It can be daunting for people to venture into an unfamiliar apartment building to see an exhibition, and even moreso when it’s mounted in someone’s living quarters. Sharp admits that getting locals to visit Lulu has been a challenge. “I think people are a little less inclined to come, or perhaps they feel less welcome, if they are entering your personal space,” he explains.
To counter this, Nayssan says that he makes a point to make visitors feel comfortable from the moment they enter Del Vaz Projects. “When visitors come in, we have tea, we eat food together, we chat, sit on the furniture, then we look at the work in the guest bedroom,” he explains. “I think any of us who goes to a gallery or museum, we have a curiosity, an eagerness to go and discover, and this is a natural environment for that. Once they see that I’m welcoming them into the space, they have no choice but to relax.”
Teen Party has similarly prioritized the ability to give friends and strangers alike a place to congregate. “I think it’s easy when you’re embarking on a project like this to consider the fact that it’s an apartment to be kind of a negative—it’s not a white cube, it’s not the thing that we’ve become accustomed to,” Gittlen says, “but to be able to invite people in your home, where they can hang out and have a beer, it makes it into a really welcoming experience.” Indrisek adds that guests may spend more time in a space like Teen Party than they perhaps would at a traditional gallery. “Most people here want to hang out, rather than when you go to a storefront gallery, you kind of take a walk around and then there isn’t really anything left to do.”
“The concept of time is so different,” says Schreier, who has noticed a similar pace in Berlin. “In a regular Chelsea gallery, or here in a Schöneberg gallery, you spend 10 minutes to see a show; if it’s a video, maybe you’ll see the duration of the video, maybe not. But it feels a little weird to have someone come to your house and leave 10 minutes later, so we have this nice opportunity to really just chat with people.” He estimates that 70% of their appointments last over an hour. “We’ve met people who found the shows on Instagram, who then came by and we just start talking to them, and have coffee with a stranger, which is pretty cool,” he says. “I would say they are more focused on the work than the conversations I had when I ran a gallery.”
At Aunt Linda, openings take the form of a dinner party of 18 carefully chosen guests, who come together to eat a home-cooked meal and enjoy the show. Schreier explains that this approach shifts the emphasis from the maximum number of attendees at an opening to the quality of the show itself. “It is so nice for the openings to be closed in that way, especially because we’re only working with artists who have no representation, and often have not had solo shows before, so the expectation of people just showing up to openings is quite low I would say. It takes that particular pressure off and puts the focus on the artists.”
Name it well.
Though a gallery’s name is always important to its brand, given the opportunity for a nontraditional experience in an apartment gallery, the name can set the tone of a space. Schreier and Iannacchione chose Aunt Linda, as a reflection of the statement and purpose of their project. “The idea is that everyone has an Aunt Linda, the proverbial Aunt Linda who is like kind of your cool, not so cool, aunt, whose house you really liked going to,” says Schreier. “My best friend has an Aunt Linda and he always says that Anita reminds him of his Aunt Linda. And I can’t tell you how many people have come into the house and said ‘Hey, I have an Aunt Linda!”
While they stand by it, Gittlen and Indrisek admit they hadn’t fully considered the ramifications of the name they chose. For one, “You can’t exactly hang a large sign outside of a building that says ‘Teen Party,’” Indrisek says. The name was also problematic as they reached out for alcohol sponsors for the opening. As Indrisek recalls, “As I’m typing it, I’m thinking okay, I’m asking, ‘Would your liquor company please sponsor our Teen Party?’—it sounds like a sting operation,” he says with a laugh. They did, ultimately, secure a liquor sponsor, Singani 63, which is a brand owned by the film director Steven Soderbergh, who Indrisek interviewed years ago.
“I don’t think I would change the name if we could,” says Gittlen. “One of the reasons I liked it originally was that it sounded so decisively uncool. It sounds like an event that would be held in a church basement, after prom, where there’s no alcohol.” By choosing the name Teen Party, they also consciously took a jab at the art world’s obsession with young artists. “The art world is so preoccupied with novelty and ‘30 under 30,’ ‘the best young artists,’ and we kind of wanted to poke fun at that a little bit and then we also wanted to show older artists, to make it even more ironic,” Gittlen adds.
If the stakes are low, let artists experiment.
Given the low overhead of some of these spaces, owners have the great advantage of encouraging artists to create work outside of what they are known for, to push their practice into new directions. Nayssan notes that given the opportunity to experiment at Del Vaz Projects, he’ll often see artists work with new techniques or develop work that inspires a future series. “They don’t have the pressure of their collector or their gallery, to make commercial sales,” he says. “it’s still a play-zone, an experimental zone.”
Gittlen and Indrisek created their space while keeping some of the models they admired in mind—like Ellie Rines’s 56 Henry, and her previous space 55 Gansevoort, where she shows established artists in tiny spaces. “She’s very adept at working with very established artists who might have an interest in doing a project room-type show in a less conventional space,” says Indrisek. “It’s interesting to see another side of someone’s work that you know very well, or that you’ve seen in Chelsea galleries, and to see what they would do in a small storefront or a home office—that seems to be something people are still interested in.” They similarly credit In Limbo, an artist-run apartment gallery in Williamsburg and Cherry | Lucic, a curatorial project in Portland, Oregon, housed in a semi-dilapidated garage.
Schreier notes that open-mindedness is crucial to running a space like his own. “Artists are going to come into your space and they’re gonna want to do some things, and you’ve got to decide where do you want to draw the line, or if you even care.” Case-in-point, at Aunt Linda’s most recent show Julia Colavita and Michael Rocco Ruglio-Misurell wanted to bring 100 kilos of sand into the space. (Disclosure: Colavita also works for Artsy.) Schreier and Iannacchione talked it over and agreed to let the artists proceed, though they planned to put a tarp down first. In the end, though, the artists opted not to lug the sand up six flights of stairs.
For many, giving these opportunities to artists is the greatest part. “It’s exciting, I think to not have an institutional or commercial affiliation, because in some ways they get a lot more freedom,” Gittlen says. For their second show, opening January 17, they’ll give the space to Marc Hundley, who had imagined putting on a show in his own apartment years ago. “We have the freedom where we’re able to give artists free reign to kind of do whatever they want, regardless of whether it seems commercially viable.”