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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

Musée Talks to Gallerist Perry Rubenstein

What do you feel are the main challenges for you, being a gallerist from New York? How does the business differ?

The business differs dramatically. New York is the center for a critical mass of collectors that will become aware of you, if you have a program. However, they already have the habit of congregating on Saturdays. Seeing gallery exhibitions is very much a part of the fabric and the culture of the city. An emerging gallery has a built-in audience that has muscle memory, habits, and desires to collect art and see it as well. In Los Angeles, everything is a destination. Place is probably never more defined than in this city. I say that because there is space, interludes, passages, traffic, and the opportunity to be alone in your garden or your car. It’s a more contemplative way of thinking about things; you choose to come to a gallery by destination. When you are at the gallery you will invariably spend 45 minutes because to go to another one requires the next stop with some time and distance in between. We see tremendous quality, far less quantity. The truth, and maybe the dirty little secret of the art gallery business today given the number of fairs and the nature in which business is transacted, is that the New York galleries aren’t really seeing as many people either. Given the premium to be in London or New York, it is a little bit distressing, but very much a reality for gallery owners to recognize as well as artists. The one thing about Los Angeles, which is undeniable, is that it’s a media center. It is a major city in every way. It doesn’t look like a city that anyone is accustomed to, it is alluring, enticing, sensual, beautiful, and there are many ways to live here. Europeans are enthralled with it, New Yorkers enjoy it when they’re here, but when you’re living here you realize that people simply do not congregate the same way. They choose the person with whom they want to be, they choose the place where they would like to have dinner, and they choose the specific gallery they’re going to and the time they will be there. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they will see the same people at the same time. There is a very sophisticated audience here who knows how to look at art. They will look at art in this gallery and then may see the same artist represented at an art fair, and maybe what you saw in Los Angeles triggers an action at Frieze in London. This starts the conversation, which you continue to take into the world as you travel through what is now a very rapidly shifting global landscape and marketplace. I have found, prior to leaving New York, that younger collectors are accustomed to getting information digitally. They’re not loyal to the gallery or their own geography.

You were speaking about the difference with how people buy here in Los Angeles…

They buy by themselves. They can’t buy based on what the other person is doing, because they can’t actually see what the person is doing, and they don’t necessarily want to. If you’re living in Bel Air or Malibu and visit an exhibition here or at one of my colleague’s galleries, invariably you go home and make a decision based on the information you have gathered yourself. You may have one or two other collectors with whom you are friends that you want to bounce the idea off of. In a city like New York, you have twenty people who could be talking about the same artist, good, bad, and you’re making your decisions accordingly.

When I realized that you can have a great program and represent great artists in one of the greatest if not the greatest artistic communities, creative communities if you consider architecture, design, and entertainment, I wanted us to be here, in California. Your collectors are going to buy it regardless of if they live in East Hampton or Bel Air. Then, having a great gallery designed for the artist to exhibit their work is a portal, it is not just bricks and mortar, it’s a portal, it’s an opportunity for people globally to see the work. It is just as likely that the work will be sold to a European collection as a Californian collection.

So, have people received you well here?

Yes. Well you know, I’ll tell you a funny story. For my fiftieth I had a party and everybody from Mary Boone, Gagosian, to David Zwirner were there. David Zwirner said to me, “It’s a testament to you, Perry, that you have so many friends in the art world. I’ve been in this business my whole life and I can’t say that I do.” Eight months later, I opened a gallery and they all disappeared. (Laughs). When I said goodbye to all my colleagues in New York to move to L.A. they all became my friends again and are thrilled to see me when I am in town. I think I’ve been received well, the galleries are happy that there is a growing recognition of the city as an art center. I am not here to threaten anybody; I think there is plenty of room for more great galleries. I also think that I am different from many kinds of iterations of galleries that have tried and been here in the past. I’m a principle, I have decamped from New York, I have settled here. This is not a satellite gallery, and this is not an attempt to make a franchise or expand a program. This is planting a flag, and saying ‘this is the major city at its time.’ Very much the way I felt about New York at the time I moved there in 1982. I’ve said this before, I’ve said that LA is to New York what New York was to Paris in 1950. It’s an open city, it’s at its moment. Its a place where artists can think, they can create.

When I went to one of the fairs, they had a panel with someone from Yale and someone from MoMA talking about East vs. West. They said they felt the West coast was much more about process and experimentation and the East Coast was much more about a narrative and not as progressive in a sense, that they’d been doing this for awhile. Do you think it’s because of the space?

Absolutely, I think landscape informs everything, I don’t think it’s an accident that technology, entertainment, and design, are all centered here. I do think that New York in particular requires that you process, that you edit a cacophony of information, of sound, of visuals that come at you, so even in ten blocks in New York you will gather more information than you will in LA in the same amount of time and space. I think there is more time for thought and contemplation, I am very intrigued by it though, I’m not making any qualitative judgment at all. But I am suggesting that there is a different quality to the nature of creativity here. There has to be. When you go to a studio in New York you are locked in four walls, it’s where you are forced to work. When you walk out, you see what your competitors are doing, you can tell whether you’re satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. When you walk out of here and take your children to school, then you drive to work, drive to your next appointment, you are actually alone. You can listen to a book, you can listen to music, you can be silent. You can’t be in silence in New York, all you have to do is roll your windows up in LA for silence.

I do think that there is a reason why there are artists that are emerging out of here that are homegrown so to speak, educated here and staying here. I also think that the reason for staying here is that you no longer as an artist have to live directly next to your patronage. So you have major artists now who are living in LA who have major representation that want to live in LA. They can have a big studio, and they can be where they want to be. They don’t have to be like the generation of Eric Fischel and David Salle. They had to go to New York back then. The whole art market was in New York City. You had to live in New York and be successful or you would be voted off the island. So that whole generation left California Art schools and moved East. That’s not how it is today. That’s why you have Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelly, and Catherine Opie as the foundations.

The market’s everywhere. So a Los Angeles gallery, and all galleries need to participate in art fairs in order to get their artists’ voices and work in the world. They can not sit on their proverbial asses and wait any longer because artists are working hard to make work and the way it’s going to be successful is if it is projected including through social media.

Do you think that it’s easier in LA for an artist to get a gallery? Or is it the same?

Probably the same, my guess is that those who have been here for forever have adjusted their expectations.  Galleries are still business at the end of the day, you’re not going to allow your program to be corrupted by something that isn’t fully realized. There is always a fine line between experimentation and a well-executed concept.

I was surprised to see you at the Photo Fair because I never saw you as fully representing photography. Do you see yourself going further with representing photographers?

You know Paris Photo LA, is Paris Photo. It’s one of the greatest art fairs in the world, it’s in the Grand Palais, and it’s organized incredibly well. There have been many starts to art fairs here, and in general they have done a good job. I wanted to show support to the community and to participate as a contribution to it, with minimal expectations because when something is new no one knows how and if it will work. I don’t want the gallery, per se, to be identified and associated with photography albeit I love photography, and it is a big part of our program and it may continue to be a part of our program. It is certainly a principal medium and tool for many artists, conceptual and otherwise. Georg Herold, who by any definition would have to be considered a German intellectual, believes that fashion photography is one of the most inventive forms of the entire 20th century. He believes that it’s something that everyone looks at, he saw that picture of Bunny Yeager in a fashion magazine and it inspired a whole decade of practice. Only an artist of that stature would acknowledge that direct association with it. He is completely comfortable with that recognition because there isn’t anyone who isn’t looking at billboards and fashion photography that isn’t in some way impacted by it. I know that the directors of Paris Photo don’t really want moving pictures that make noise, but I think they are very much interested in a broad definition of photography, we all are. The iPhone is actually capable of taking amazing images, so now we need to ask ‘what is the transcendence of that image based on its subject matter?’ The institutions have to adjust to this, because they aren’t making the rules necessarily. You have to have a broad definition of photography. It justifies our experience and it validates our experience. I am proud to have shown Helmut Newton’s exhibition when it opened. Part of my program is celebrating the relevance of this city for these artists and people.

So, how is it Perry that your partnership, your partner in life, is also in the art business? How does that work for both of you?

It’s very complementary. I think it would be different if we were both art dealers, but that could also be fruitful. I think we both work on the exact same track but on parallel lines; she is an extraordinary woman, and an extraordinary publicist. She has an un-parallel roster of clients in the art world. The function of being a publicist is so dramatically different from my job that it’s not like we are stepping on each other’s toes. There is no conflict and there never has been. It’s always been a plus, plus.

So at the end of the day what would you like your gallery to be known for other than quality?

Great exhibitions, significant contribution to the city itself, a forum for great exhibitions, and the potential for the development of great ideas and great artists.

Would you ever consider patronage, you know like supporting a young artist?

Yes, absolutely. Yes, I mean clearly that’s what I meant by the latter statement. As I did for many years with Rothenberg, there’s nothing more enriching (other than having children) than cultivating, nurturing, and developing a whole audience for an artist. It’s really a fascinating experience, and I mean to develop it on a critical, curatorial level, in turn allowing the work into museum collections. It’s what a gallerist should do, or at least what I think a gallerist should do. When you take a young artist like Zoe Crosher, and you get her in the MoMA for an exhibition, it’s an incredibly enriching experience. For me it became more seductive than a single large sale.

Learn More About the Perry Rubenstein Gallery HERE

Interview by Andrea Blanch

Photo Courtesy of Amanda Demme 

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