The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Starting and Sustaining an Artist-Run Gallery
Artist-run galleries have long been key players in the contemporary art ecosystem. They offer an essential counterpoint to the commercial sector, where experimentation sometimes takes a backseat to producing sellable work. A feature of every city with a significant community of artists, they come in every shape and size.
Whether housed in conventional white cube warehouse spaces or quirky nooks full of character, they provide artists who may not have gallery representation with essential venues to show their work, while also giving members the chance to flex their curatorial muscles and expand their networks. Some are resolutely anti-commercial and only last a season; others move, adapt, and transform into viable commercial galleries over the course of years. Some are wife-and-husband passion projects; others engage dozens of members living thousands of miles apart. There’s no dominant model or sure formula for a successful artist-run gallery—or even an agreed-upon measure of what success looks like—but they do tend to follow a few structures and patterns, from how they’re organized to how they pay the bills and handle sales.
Couples who curate
Artists launch their own galleries for all kinds of reasons, whether it’s the desire to show the work of underappreciated colleagues, to maintain art school connections, or simply because a programmable sliver of real estate fell in their laps. Such was the case for Brooklyn artists Ruby Sky Stiler and Daniel Gordon, whose studio landlord, an art collector himself, offered them the former coal room of an adjacent building—a “scrappy but cool space,” in their words—for no extra rent.
“We fixed it up and started programming,” Stiler and Gordon explained over email. From the outset, their strategy was simple: “For each show we invite one artist to do what they please.”
Eleven shows and nearly two years later, their gallery, Downstairs Projects, has offered a range of artists at very different stages in their careers opportunities to take over their architecturally unusual stairwell space.
“Because Jason and I both have our own art careers and day jobs, the pace of exhibitions really took a toll on us.”
“We’re super intuitive with the artists we invite, and it’s a big range,” Stiler and Gordon said. “We try to juxtapose established artists who might want to try something out of their ordinary, with those that are emerging.”
That intuitive curatorial approach has resulted in site-specific interventions by more well-known artists—such as the botanically inclined sculptor Virginia Poundstone, who covered one of the space’s double-height walls in images of flowers, and the irreverent Swiss artist Olaf Breuning, who curated his own miniature, table-top retrospective—as well as more conventional exhibitions by younger artists including Nicky Marino and Marley Freeman. Still, for Stiler and Gordon, balancing the needs of their respective studio practices, the gallery, their marriage, and raising their child doesn’t come easy.
“We haven’t resolved that yet, but we get so much creative energy and stimulation from the proximity to the other artists and their work, maybe we don’t need to,” they said. “It still does cost money, and takes time. We cover these costs out of our studios—but our space is really low key, and our expenses are not crazy.”
The economic cost and creative toll of running a gallery were the primary factors that led Species, another space run by an artist couple, to go on hiatus last year. Artists Erin Jane Nelson and Jason Benson founded the space in 2016 as a way to foster dialogue and community after moving to Atlanta, while most of their peers were gravitating to New York and Los Angeles.
Installation view of work by Cheryl Donegan and Owen Piper at Downstairs Projects, 2018. Courtesy of Downstairs Projects.
“Our biggest hurdle was finding a space and determining how the structure and tempo of the gallery would interact with our studio practices,” Nelson said. “Because Jason and I both have our own art careers and day jobs, the pace of exhibitions really took a toll on us.”
Nelson and Benson programmed at a taxing clip when they launched Species in February 2016—they organized six exhibitions in their first six months, one of which was a pop-up at New York gallery Bodega—but eventually scaled things back to a more sustainable pace. From the get-go, they also benefited from a subsidized space at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. However, being in Atlanta added other expenses to their operations—namely, shipping work from the hubs where most of their artist friends lived. The couple shared the day-to-day duties involved in running the space, with Benson handling tasks like deinstallation and shipping, while Nelson maintained the gallery’s website, photographed their shows, and handled press and sales.
Since closing their space in June 2017, Nelson and Benson have participated in one art fair and had a pop-up at Atlanta Contemporary. They haven’t ruled out another run of regular programming, but they’re in no rush to commit that kind of time, energy, and money to running a gallery again, either.
“It was very sad for us to shutter the original space, but we’re interested in the unusual life cycles of artist-run galleries, and the model of coming and going as sustainable,” Nelson said. “Permanence isn’t the goal, but we consider a lot of possibilities, including reopening a brick and mortar when it feels appropriate.”
The collective good
The members of the Heavenly Dogs art collective. Courtesy of Heavenly Dogs.
One of the surest ways to offset the many demands of an artist-run space is to have more partners (in the gallery, not the marriage). Many of the artist-run galleries that stick around for five or more years benefit from a larger, rotating membership system and more formal structures. One of the most successful in this regard is Tiger Strikes Asteroid (TSA), which launched in 2009 in Philadelphia and now counts four locations with a total membership of 44 artists.
“The initial impetus for starting the gallery in Philadelphia was to try to connect Philadelphia artists with artists from outside of the city and vice versa,” said Alex Paik, TSA’s director and one of its original co-founders. “We felt that, at that time, there were few options for showing work in Philadelphia, and that oftentimes, it seemed like a pretty insular, closed group of artists that kept getting shows.”
Even before it became a cross-country operation with additional spaces in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, TSA went through the same growing pains that most artist-run galleries face. Paik said that an earlier stint as an exhibitions coordinator at a university gallery had given him a sense of the work involved in putting on exhibitions, but each month brought new challenges. And each time, a document he’d created outlining the steps for organizing a show got a little longer. “We still have some version of that document at each location and it keeps evolving over time,” Paik recalled.
Beyond logistics, another major hurdle for artist-run spaces is the potentially divisive issue of personal taste.
Installation view of “Sashay With and Without History” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Chicago, 2017. Courtesy of Tiger Strikes Asteroid.
“In the beginning, we tried to vote on everything, but we found that curating by committee created really bland, watered-down results,” Paik said. “We quickly abandoned that and decided to let each member have complete control over their exhibition slots. That made the shows much more focused and interesting, and that model became like the DNA of how TSA has grown and expanded.”
While TSA has thrived and expanded in cities with concentrations of interested artists, another successful artist-run space, Ortega y Gasset Projects (OyG), took a different approach, programming one gallery space in Brooklyn with input from members all over the country.
“My idea was to connect artists throughout the U.S. via a collaboratively-led brick and mortar gallery in Brooklyn, so it made sense to me at the time to be the only [New York] director,” Leeza Meksin, a founding director of OyG, said of the gallery’s early days. “However, what I didn’t anticipate was how much time and energy it would take to be the point person for each and every show we did that year.”
Now, five of the gallery’s nine directors are based in New York City, while the others are in Chicago, Philadelphia, Upstate New York, and Portland, Oregon. This allows the space to tap into a wide range of art communities while ensuring there are plenty of hands available to do the heavy lifting at OyG’s space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. As for dealing with the wide geographic distribution of members, co-director Catherine Haggarty explained that OyG relies on Slack channels, emails, and bi-weekly conference calls. For day-to-day and week-to-week duties, OyG and many similar spaces split into committees and subcommittees, each of which handles a specific task, such as press outreach, fundraising, or gallery exchanges.
Location, location, location
Along with administrative duties, gallery members also tend to split the costs of running their spaces, from rent and utility bills to supplies and communications. Both OyG and TSA cover the majority of their expenses through membership dues, which is the most common model for artist-run spaces; in TSA’s case, these are scaled differently, depending on each city’s real estate market.
Entrance of Heavenly Dogs’ storefront. Courtesy of Heavenly Dogs.
The Heavenly Dogs art collective, which runs the KO Studio Gallery in the Detroit-area municipality of Hamtramck, follows a similar model, with membership dues—which include rent for the studio spaces behind the exhibition space—covering about 90% of the gallery’s operations, according to member Dino “D.J.” Valdez. Before settling into its storefront space in Hamtramck, the collective had to contend with the city’s skyrocketing cultural capital and concomitant rent hikes, particularly in the downtown areas that have bounced back most quickly from the city’s bankruptcy.
“With prices rising in the Detroit and metro Detroit areas, some upwards to $30 per square foot, it was difficult to find a place that was big enough to house all of us with easy accessibility,” Valdez said.
Another artist-run space that has had to contend with a drastic shift in real estate is New Orleans gallery The Front, which opened in November 2008 on the edge of the Bywater, now one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods. Though the gallery is housed in a building owned by an artist couple, and the members’ dues help cover mortgage payments, rising property taxes will eventually force a change, said Jonathan Traviesa, one of the gallery’s founding members.
“At some point we’re going to have to think about what the future holds,” Traviesa said. “That may mean moving further out, or into a smaller, more conventional space.”
Three years ago, The Front changed its status from an LLC to a nonprofit, in part so that it could apply for grants to supplement the dues paid by its 19 members. However, as an artist-run space whose main activity is to organize exhibitions, it has only had limited success in earning support from major foundations.
Installation view of Katya Tepper, “Wall Bowl Constellations” at Species, 2017. Courtesy of Species.
“Being a nonprofit has been helpful for getting some small grants, but we don’t really have the breadth of programs—education, special events, and so on—to get the really big foundation grants,” Traviesa said, which could allow members to work on The Front full-time and do more ambitious programming.
Most artist-run galleries rely to some extent on affordable space for their survival. As a result, they have to contend with rapidly shifting real estate situations—Ortega y Gasset, for instance, became nomadic for the better part of a year when its first landlord decided he didn’t want galleries in his sprawling manufacturing building in Queens. But every so often, an artist-run space makes enough money from sales that cheap rent becomes less crucial.
“We initially split the rent evenly among the members, and it was a pretty small amount, I think around $750 per month total,” said Max Warsh, one of the founding members of Regina Rex, which closed its gallery space in March after a seven-year run that began in Queens and finished on the Lower East Side. “We implemented a dues system that covered rent and a little more so we could buy basic things like paint and supplies. By the time we moved to Manhattan, there were enough sales to cover the rent.”
How do you deal?
Artist-run galleries have a broad range of approaches to sales, and for every space that finds success and a significant source of income, like Regina Rex—which became a regular at the New Art Dealers Alliance art fairs starting in 2011—there are others like Downstairs Projects, where Stiler and Gordon refer all sales inquiries directly to the artists. Most spaces land somewhere in between. Species, for instance, handled sales when they came up and, like Regina Rex, tended to split proceeds 50/50 with artists—except when offering a discount seemed judicious.
“Occasionally, when we’ve sold to other artists or emerging curators, we have donated our half to make the price accessible,” Nelson said.
Many spaces skew toward giving artists the lion’s share of sales revenue. For some, this is a way of acknowledging that most artist-run spaces simply can’t do the amount of advocacy that a commercial gallery does on behalf of their artists.
“The real world will not be kind, and we don’t want to build an unrealistic expectation for artists with growing careers.”
“Since we don’t represent artists and don’t really stress the sales, we don’t really have a collector base,” Paik said of TSA, which gives artists 70% of sales, keeping 30%. He estimates that the sales revenue covers between 10% and 15% of the gallery’s annual budget.
Others also favor artists in their sales breakdown, but generally deemphasize sales in favor of experimentation.
“[T]here is a certain loss of willingness to take risks when money enters the equation,” said OyG member Meksin. When sales do occur at OyG, she added, the artist gets 60%, the gallery gets 35%, and the curator gets 5%.
At KO Studio Gallery, the Heavenly Dogs collective takes a similar cut of sales, partly to account for the student loans that many young artists fresh out of art school are struggling to repay. However, the collective is also mindful of not giving artists too big a cut as a way of preparing them for the realities of commercial galleries.
“The real world will not be kind, and we don’t want to build an unrealistic expectation for artists with growing careers,” Valdez said.
Installation view of work by Jonathan Butt and Mernet Larson at Regina Rex, 2011. Courtesy of Regina Rex.
Between members’ dues, grants, unpredictable sales, fluctuating real estate situations, and other unpredictable factors, many artist-run spaces get creative with alternate sources of income. At OyG, for instance, a “silent membership” system lets people support the gallery without taking on the responsibilities of full-fledged directors.
“In exchange for their annual support, they are eligible to choose an artwork of a director,” explained OyG co-director Eleanna Anagnos. “This is a great way to support the gallery and community without having to come to meetings or donate labor.” OyG and many other spaces have held fundraising events or benefit auctions, even those that found more commercial success, like Regina Rex.
Ultimately, however, the longevity of any artist-run space has more to do with the energy and adaptability of its members than its ability to raise money or make sales.
“I took part in a symposium about artist-run spaces in Denver that was called ‘Building the Ship as it Sails,’” Paik from TSA recalled. “I think that’s a perfect description of what we’ve been doing.”
Header image: Exterior view of The Front, New Orleans. Courtesy of The Front.