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How Salon 94’s Hybrid Model Thrived despite the Pandemic

Portrait of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn artwork by Huma Bhabha and Alexander Calder in The Stone Room at 3 E. 89th Street. Photo by Laurie Simmons. Courtesy Salon 94, New York.

Portrait of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn artwork by Huma Bhabha and Alexander Calder in The Stone Room at 3 E. 89th Street. Photo by Laurie Simmons. Courtesy Salon 94, New York.

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One way or another, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn has always found herself surrounded by art. The daughter of contemporary art dealer Ronald K. Greenberg, her childhood home in St. Louis was filled with works by post-war masters such as and . In 2003, when she founded her gallery, Salon 94, she chose to operate it out of the East 94th Street townhouse that she and her husband, Nicolas Rohatyn, call home. And unhappy with the utilitarian aesthetic of her gallery’s booth furniture at Frieze one year, she chose—quite controversially at the time—to commission designers to make the tables and chairs that she and her staff would use, ensuring that all elements of the gallery’s presentation would be as curated as the art itself. So when it was announced in the summer of 2019 that she had purchased a significant landmarked building located at 3 East 89th Street to serve as Salon 94’s new headquarters, it came as no surprise to those who know her best that the powerhouse dealer would place such a high priority on contextualizing the environment to show art.
Portrait of Ronald K. Greenberg with Andy Warhol in front of Jackie portrait. Courtesy of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn.

Portrait of Ronald K. Greenberg with Andy Warhol in front of Jackie portrait. Courtesy of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn.

A 14,000-square-foot, six-story townhouse located steps off Fifth Avenue and Central Park and across from the Guggenheim Museum, the building was originally commissioned in 1914 by Archer Milton Huntington to serve as a library, exhibition hall, entertainment space, and studio for his wife, . At a time when few female artists found success—be it critical or commercial—Hyatt Huntington managed to build a following with her life-size sculptures of animals (which, to this day, can still be found scattered throughout the city), and for Joan of Arc, the first public monument created by a woman to be erected in New York City. So, in a way, it’s fitting that Salon 94, a gallery with a well-earned reputation for promoting and elevating women’s artistic voices, as well as its sister gallery, Salon 94 Design, will now be housed in a building that once served as the studio for one of the country’s pioneering female artists.
And yet, with galleries in New York largely shuttered for the past year due to the pandemic, the decision to spend $22.3 million to purchase the building, not to mention a further $7 million on renovations, hasn’t come without second thoughts. “Of course there are times when I wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘What am I doing?’” shared Greenberg Rohatyn in response to our question about whether she worries about the overhead. “Of course I doubt myself. But at the end of the day, I’m also a believer. I’m in this for the long haul.”
On a particularly frigid mid-February morning, wearing a mask that had the words “Speak truth to power” written across the front, Greenberg Rohatyn took us on a tour of the bustling construction zone. In the midst of an intensive, intricate renovation overseen by Rafael Viñoly, the space was a beehive of activity. It was an environment in which the indefatigable gallerist seemed innately comfortable as she greeted each construction worker by name and demonstrated an intimate familiarity with even the most minute design details for what would soon become her gallery’s new home.
Exterior of Salon 94’s new 14,000 square-foot gallery at 3 East 89th Street. Courtesy of Salon 94, New York.

Exterior of Salon 94’s new 14,000 square-foot gallery at 3 East 89th Street. Courtesy of Salon 94, New York.

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Ultimately, the new building is but one facet of this new era for Greenberg Rohatyn. Buzz has been building in certain collecting circles of late about her new advisory firm, Dayan Rohatyn, which she launched with her good friend and former Luxembourg & Dayan co-owner, Amalia Dayan. And going forward, the gallery intends to add a number of exciting young artists to its roster; beginning with Shawanda Corbett, the 32-year-old, Turner Prize bursary–winning visual and performance artist who was born without legs and with only one arm. Tackling issues of otherness by building a world constructed through ceramics, visual art, dance, and film, the gallery is tentatively slated to premiere a wordless, dance-based, eight-act film by the artist in January 2022.
Sitting down with The Canvas in the basement of her gallery’s new home, Greenberg Rohatyn discussed all this and more as she shared what first inspired her to forge a career in the art world; how and why design became such an integral part of Salon 94’s program; how she steered the gallery through a turbulent past year; why she felt it was time for the business to grow—both in its physical footprint and in its ambitions; and what it means to be a hybrid gallery in an increasingly pressurized art world.

The Canvas: Thanks again for taking time out of your day to show me around the new space, Jeanne. Before we talk about the building, COVID, and the gallery’s plans for the forthcoming year, I wanted to talk a bit about your childhood. Of course, you grew up around the art world; your father founded St. Louis’s Greenberg Gallery in 1973 and then Greenberg Van Doren in New York City. Do you recall a specific moment when you realized that you, too, wanted a career in the art world, or was it almost treated as more of a fait accompli?
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn: There actually was a very precise moment. When I was 13, my father took me with him to Art Basel in Basel. We were visiting his great friend, Ernst Beyeler, and Ernst had a Bathers painting from 1900 hanging in his office that I fell madly in love with. It turned me on in so many different ways, both intellectually and emotionally. It depicts a group of abstracted women who were so masculine, and at the time, I appreciated but perhaps did not understand the gender-bending nature of the painting.
I turned to Ernst and said, “How much is this? I want to buy it.” He replied, “It’s not for sale, but you will probably need to be an art dealer if you’re ever going to afford it.” At that moment, it became very clear that I would have a career in the art world.

The Canvas: That’s so interesting. I’ve read a lot of your past interviews in preparation for our conversation today, and I don’t think I’ve heard that story told anywhere before.
J.G.R.: Well, no one ever asked me before. So, following that, my father took me to see ’s Isenheim Altarpiece. And seeing how much my father—a Jewish man who came to appreciate art relatively late in his life—was affected by this work, I too became quite moved by it. That shared experience between the two of us became a bonding moment in our relationship.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I realized that I wanted to leave St. Louis. It wasn’t my destiny to take over my father’s gallery. But it was very clear to me that I wanted to be in New York. So everything from that moment on became about getting to New York.

The Canvas: From the very beginning, Salon 94’s program included female artists and artists of color. In many ways, the art world is still only just now beginning to catch up to something you intuitively sensed early in your career. I doubt you originally set out thinking, “I’m going to go around representing female artists solely because of their gender.” But walk me through how you initially approached putting together your program. What draws you to specific artists?
J.G.R.: I think it’s important to keep in mind that when I first started Salon 94, I didn’t view myself as being in competition with other galleries. I was someone who didn’t grow up in New York, was always involved in the advisory side of the art world in one capacity or another, and I was simply setting out to showcase alternative voices who moved me in some way.
I grew up in a home surrounded by artists who would eventually become known for forming a central pillar of the art historical canon, but who weren’t yet part of that canon during their lifetimes. Don Judd was not yet “Donald Judd” when he would visit our house as a kid. And throughout my father’s career, I watched him wrestle with balancing that unwavering belief in his artists and their not-yet-accepted stature in art history. That, in turn, became an aspect of being a dealer that I was—and still am—incredibly drawn to.
So, when I started the gallery, it really was about focusing on artists who didn’t yet fit into the art historical canon in one way or another. I was drawn to artists whose voices and whose work made me uncomfortable. Remember, my comfort zone is sitting in a white room with a Donald Judd box. So, for me, challenging that comfort level has always been something I’m interested in, and as a professional and connoisseur, if I don’t challenge it, then who will?

The Canvas: And is that still how you approach the gallery’s program today?
J.G.R.: I’m in a different position than I was 20 years ago. I have a much greater ability now to platform an artist and contextualize their work within and alongside the historical canon, or to take an older artist and help them reemerge and imagine new ideas that previously felt out of reach, than I did when I first started. What interests me today might be taking a seasoned yet under-regarded artist and making them look fresh, or taking a young artist and making them look totally iconic and classical.

The Canvas: You’re also known for your intense interest in design. In fact, many of the people I spoke with before our conversation today credited you with helping to usher in design’s acceptance as a serious collecting category in the blue-chip art world. When you first decided to officially launch Salon 94 Design, I imagine that still required a certain leap of faith that your clients would follow you into this area. If you don’t mind, walk me through how the design gallery came into existence.
J.G.R.: It actually began over time in two simultaneous but different ways. First, when Frieze started in London, I was sitting on the fair’s selection committee, and the question of booth furniture was raised in one of the meetings. Most people on the committee felt that the furniture was meant to go unnoticed as it didn’t elevate the art in any way. But to me, this merely accentuated the fact that art fairs are ephemeral sales tools. So, from that year on, I decided to commission designers to make my booth furniture, and then it became a whole discussion on the committee about whether furniture “for sale” was permissible or not.
At the same time, I slowly began to fill my own home with design pieces. And as I brought some of these pieces into my personal space, we began experimenting and doing shows with a few of them. That’s how and initially became part of the program.
This conversation around art versus design eventually came to a head when we took on as an artist. When we first started working together, Betty said to me, “Jeanne, I want to be shown as an artist, not as a craftsperson.” And I said to her, “Betty, I promise you, I will show you as an artist, but I’m also interested in you as a maker of craft who has elevated craft to a higher medium.” I genuinely believe that there is a sense of ceremony to Betty’s work that elevates it beyond craft to art. So I wanted to have that dialogue at the gallery, but it was a constant back-and-forth.
At one point, I remember doing a photo shoot with her pots and I put some flowers in them. I sent her the pictures afterward and she was both delighted and horrified at the same time.
In the end, we were able to build a strategy around making sure that she existed within the traditional art canon, while also highlighting her work through the lens of craft. And over time, these parallel interests ballooned, and became more and more focused on breaking down traditional hierarchies. So we created these two parallel galleries that sometimes bend and move together and sometimes diverge. For instance, Donald Judd had two very distinct practices: his furniture practice and his art practice. They were fabricated in separate buildings and he thought about them in completely different ways. Certain artists require that very strict differentiation and others are more fluid. I like that Salon 94 and Salon 94 Design can help promote and foster that fluidity.

The Canvas: So, clearly, you harbor these deep parallel interests in both art and design and have made both of them central elements to how the gallery operates. I have a quote from a past interview here where you said, “I prefer to come at the art world from as many angles as I can. Repetition isn’t interesting to me.” What does repetition in the art world mean to you? Do you think you’ll ever get bored of running a traditional gallery?
J.G.R.: It’s not that I don’t like repetition. I truly love the ongoing relationships with the artists I work with, and the trust that we build over the years together. I talk to once a week, and our topics of conversation—prices, her practice, and the issue of gun control in this country—are often similar to those we might’ve had 10 years ago.

The Canvas: So, what I’m hearing is that you still enjoy that day-to-day management of the gallery…
J.G.R.: Oh, absolutely. I love that. When I said that repetition isn’t interesting to me, what I meant was that I’m very rigorous about pushing myself to dream of new exhibitions, alongside artists to create new bodies of work, and to keep experimenting.

The Canvas: I think it’s fair to say that over the years, that approach has served the gallery well. You’re known to have some very famous clients. From your perspective, what draws people who are at the top of their individual fields—be it in music or sports, for instance—to work with you?
J.G.R.: I believe that building a collection is about building a visual expression of oneself, one’s history, and one’s interests—both challenging who we are, and using the art to help tell our history. So I try to put myself into my clients’ stories and help them build a collection that’s reflective of their lived experiences. I approach it with my knowledge base and a connoisseur’s eye, but I don’t dictate my own personal tastes. I do, however, try to get a into every collection I have a hand in.
And then, on a practical level, I’m super straightforward. I say this is underpriced, this is overpriced, this is an A-plus work, this is a B-plus work, this is attainable at this price, or this isn’t attainable. I’m very practical about how to build a collection and I don’t like to waste a client’s time. These are people who are incredibly busy, so I share information as quickly and efficiently as possible. Some people say that my emails and texts are like haikus. I think my clients appreciate that.

The Canvas: I want to bring the conversation around to this past year and how the gallery has operated throughout the pandemic. On a purely practical level, what has the past year been like for the gallery’s business?
J.G.R.: COVID had several different stages. The first stage was triage and just figuring out how to keep the business going, how to keep our staff working, and how to handle communicating via a computer for which we were not at all set up. Everyone went on either a three- or four-day-a-week plan, and then we slowly brought the staff back over time. I spent a good month redoing my mortgage for this building. It was hard. You can’t gloss over that.
Now, at the same time, because I’m scrappy, I dug in and focused on the secondary-market side of my business. I thought about works that might be available then that otherwise weren’t available before, and we were able to make some important acquisitions on behalf of our clients. We were selective in terms of what we went after, but really devoted our full resources once we did decide to go after a work. For one particular painting, the staff created a 78-page dossier contextualizing the tremendous importance of that single work of art in order to get the deal done. That way of doing business was very different from how we had traditionally operated in the past when a client and I could speak together in front of a work.
And then in our design business, we came at things from the inverse angle. had been working for quite some time on an idea for an editioned chair, and in March we had hosted a party for Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas Lee, who had just opened their collection at the Met. It was the last party I remember before the lockdown. I knew Ann loved Max’s work, so I asked him if he could perhaps make 50 chairs for the 50-person dinner. Ultimately, Max was still refining the design and planning, and we couldn’t make it happen in time. But because of everything going on with COVID, we instead envisioned their release online. Max, lean and mean, hand-cut and poly-sprayed the chairs in three days. Meanwhile, we quickly built a website, releasing the editions at a much lower price point than his unique poly chairs. The project and site is called “Max Lamb: 60 Chairs” and it sold out within 24 hours.

The Canvas: From a broader—and perhaps more interesting—perspective, do you think that this lockdown period will eventually prove to have been a particularly fertile time for art-making, and an important moment in art history?
J.G.R.: No matter what, I think we will look back on this time and see the lasting effect, alongside the mass communal courage of the Black Lives Matter movement. This has contributed to shining a light on artists who have worked in the shadows of others for far too long. Likewise, Instagram has allowed for artists to be much more visible than ever before.
I hope that activist art is going to be taken more seriously going forward. In fact, we’re spending a lot of time at the gallery thinking about this question as we’re about to open our new space with , who, in her own way, was very much an activist artist. That part of her career has been whitewashed over the years. But one of her “Nanas,” Peril Jaune, from 1968, which translates to “yellow peril,” explored and interrogated the racism against the Asian community during the Vietnam War. So there’s a very serious thread of art activism that can be found within her work.
’s show at the Jewish Museum, “We Fight to Build a Free World,” is another good example. It began with Claudia [Gould] asking him to do a show about anti-Semitism, but it morphed over three years into an exhibition that tackles immigration, racism, and bigotry from a number of different angles. So I think there’s going to be a reevaluation of activist art and artists who have been engaged in this line of work because it’s an integral element to their overall practices as artists.

The Canvas: Let’s talk about this new gallery space for a bit. In an interview you gave last September, you said, “This moment is proving the fragility and fatigue of our more orthodox gallery system—the art fairs, biennials, five-week shows, etc. We are taking advantage of this moment to explore Salon 94 as a hybrid—which is in its DNA.” I assume that this new space is a central component to the gallery’s hybrid model going forward. But walk me through what a hybrid gallery model means to you.
J.G.R.: I think of the gallery as a hybrid in a number of ways. We select and show artists prioritizing alternative voices. We’re a hybrid in that we show furniture alongside art. We’re a hybrid gallery in that we don’t always show art in a white-cube space.
At the same time, I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m interested in a lot of different aspects of the business. A gallery functions in many different ways, and our responsibilities to artists include more than just hanging art on the walls and selling paintings to individual collectors. We are responsible for talking to our artists about money, career longevity, and estate planning. There’s a whole advisory level to the business that I’m really interested in as well. So I think that all plays a part in the gallery’s hybrid identity.
I’m someone who likes different aspects of the art world, and I’m ready, prepared, and capable of pursuing several of them at once. I’ve literally been trained to do this since I was 13 years old. This, yoga, hiking, and being a mom is all I do.

The Canvas: That sounds like a lot to me…
J.G.R.: Maybe, but I’ve spent a lot of time during COVID creating different teams and putting a system in place so that everything is organized. For example, going forward, we’ll now have Salon 94, Salon 94 Design, and Salon 94+, which will be our nonprofit space that will exist to help artists when they want to pursue a performative project, a poetry project, a publishing initiative that’s of a nonprofit nature, or anything related to their activism. It’ll be a space within our gallery where we’ll be able to concentrate on those types of initiatives, and it will have a dedicated team who can focus on that work full-time.

The Canvas: It’s interesting to me, though, because for so long, the gallery was so successful operating out of its former space, the upper floors of which you and your family use as a home. This is such a big, ambitious project. What motivated you to look for a new space in the first place?
J.G.R.: It was time for us to grow. Our artists are growing, and they required me to grow with them. If I didn’t grow, then our artists would have been quite right to leave. And just in terms of my own rhythm as an adult, with my children now grown and heading off to college, it was just the right time in my life to make this kind of a shift.

The Canvas: Do you actively feel a sense of pressure that if you don’t grow the gallery’s business—in any number of ways—that you’ll lose ground to the mega-galleries?
J.G.R.: Absolutely, yes. But the way I look at it is as follows: Regardless of how many square feet we have, there is a place for Salon 94 in this active art world that can be equally as powerful as a mega-gallery. The physical footprint might be smaller, but the intellectual and programming footprint might be equal. Ultimately, though, great artists require beautiful spaces to show their work. That’s just the bottom line, so of course I felt the industry pressure.
We had been looking for a building for over a year, and couldn’t find one that best fit who I am. I love going to David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Pace; at the same time, I love going to smaller galleries like JTT and visiting our friends on the Bowery. Each gallery fosters a unique experience for viewing art, and offering a different experience in that mix is important to me. This building is allowing me to achieve that vision and bring that fantasy to life.

The Canvas: At the time it was announced, it was reported that this space cost $22.3 million to buy. Based on the extent of these amazing renovations going on around us today, I imagine that the final price will come out to significantly more. Especially after a year in which galleries’ physical spaces were pretty much shut down, does the overhead ever keep you up at night?
J.G.R.: Of course. Being a practical person and not having financial partners, I do think about overhead. But I also grew up in the art world and have seen the faucet turn off twice before, and have witnessed the damage that can be done by reacting too quickly in an over-dramatic fashion. So I think that’s perhaps given me a sense of steadiness throughout this past year.
Take what happened in the late 1980s, for instance. I was with my father in New York, and he had just made a deal to buy a painting from Larry Rubin for $300,000. They shook hands, and the next day, the market crashed. And I remember saying to my father, “So, what are you going to do now?” And he replied, “I’m going to go ahead and pay him, of course. My handshake is my word.” The impact of that moment, the fear I could see in my father’s eyes, and talking through those financial decisions with him at the time have had a long-lasting effect on me.
So of course there are times when I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “What am I doing?” Of course I doubt myself. But at the end of the day, I’m also a believer. I’m in this for the long haul, and while the overhead this month might be a lot, we’ll make up the difference over time.

The Canvas: Thank you so much for sharing that refreshingly honest and thoughtful answer. So with this new space, you’re essentially doubling down on New York. Have you actively considered opening up spaces in other cities? I mean, L.A. would certainly seem to make sense to me when I think about the gallery’s program.
J.G.R.: Perhaps L.A. would make sense if I had the right partner, but I also love collaborating with my colleagues who are based in the city. I love the dialogue we’re able to spark between our artists. So while I love to visit and fly into and out of L.A., it doesn’t make sense for me at this time. I’ve also had conversations with another dealer about collaborating in Paris, because who wouldn’t want to spend a month in Paris every year?
So, in a way, my thinking about opening spaces in other cities comes down to where I would want to spend time. I remember David Hammons once saying that to me when I had invited him to do a show in Berlin. He said, “Well, Jeanne, I’ve never been to Berlin, and I only accept shows now when they take place in a city I want to visit.” One of the great perks of the art world is that it allows us to immerse ourselves in cities that we otherwise would not necessarily get to see.
For example, I was so curious to see Shanghai, and I finally went for an art fair. Our director, Maxime, set it up, and we had an incredible woman working for us on the ground who shepherded me around. Yao is still working with us today.

The Canvas: But you wouldn’t consider opening up a permanent space in Asia at some point?
J.G.R.: It’s not in my immediate future, but Asia is on our minds.
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Thumbnail image: Niki de Saint Phalle, installation view of “Joy Revolution,” 2021, at Salon 94, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.