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Increasingly a firm favourite destination with London’s cutting edge gallerists, Zavier Ellis scopes New York’s other art fairs.

Text: Zavier Ellis | Images: Courtesy: Charlie smith London

Helen Toomer  Director  PULSE

ZAVIER ELLIS: Congratulations on your new role as Director of PULSE Contemporary Art Fair. You follow in the footsteps of Cornell DeWitt and Helen Allen, who both did fantastic jobs. Can you tell me what the ethos of PULSE is, and how you plan to develop what they established?

HELEN TOOMER: I certainly have some big shoes to fill, but I am excited to take the reins and breathe new life into PULSE. This upcoming edition in New York presents an opportunity to re-establish PULSE’s foundation of quality and discovery, characteristics that were established nearly 10 years ago. Watch out for further developments for PULSE Miami as we will be celebrating our 10th year there!

You have been operating in the art industry for many years now. What first engaged you?

It sounds cheesy, but it all leads back to Francis Bacon's Three Studies of The Base of a Crucifixion, which I saw at Tate Britain when I was 15. It changed my life. I visited it again this past October and it still captivated me. The feeling I get when I discover a piece like that, is what ultimately drives me.

As an English woman living and working in America, how do the sensibilities of London and New York compare and contrast?

I was transferred to New York in 2007 to work on PULSE – so it's coming back full circle! There are so many contrasts between the cities and so many clichés, most of which are true! I love New York, it makes you try harder and anything seems possible. It embraces you and then slaps you right in the face! I do love London, but New York is my home now.

You have worked for other fairs and also ran your own gallery for some time. How do these experiences feed into your role as PULSE Director?

They help me greatly as I'm able to understand the art fair experience from all angles – as an organiser, promoter and exhibitor. I empathise with the challenges the galleries face and am rooted in the art community here. I am confident I will be able to lead PULSE into a new and revitalised direction.

And finally, post-recession how would you summarise the state of the art market right now, and what do you foresee in the near future?

This is an interesting time for all of us. The term ‘fair fatigue’ has been thrown about a lot, especially after Armory week. The market can feel over-saturated and there seems to be a need to focus, purify and clarify. I can't predict the future, however I think it's a great time for us to invest in our art community. My job is to provide a platform for that community and support and invite others to become involved, in the hopes that discoveries and long lasting connections will be made.




ZAVIER ELLIS: Hi Matthew. You’re an Englishman based in New York. What took you to New York in the first place and what were you doing in the UK before you left?

MATTHEW HIGGS: I left the UK in 2001 to work in the Bay Area as the curator at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco and Oakland. Ralph Rugoff was the director (he's now at the Hayward). We had a great time there and worked with some really interesting artists (including large new commissions with Jeremy Deller, Mike Nelson and Mike Kelley, among many others.) I was working at London's ICA prior to that as an Associate Director of exhibitions and still teaching at both the Royal College and Goldsmiths. I moved to New York in 2004 to become the director of White Columns, New York's oldest alternative art space which was founded in Soho in 1970 by a group of artists including Gordon Matta-Clark.

White Columns is an acclaimed institution. As a gallerist who also curates I’ve always been impressed and intrigued by your programming. Can you tell me a bit about the ethos of White Columns?

We do a lot of shows and projects at White Columns as well as working on projects outside of the gallery. We also run a record label (The Sound of White Columns) and publish a 'zine ('The W.C.'), among other things. We are interested in supporting all kinds of artistic production, not just emerging artists, but also more senior artists, as well as what I would call 'vernacular' art, i.e. art that doesn't necessarily or easily fall into any particular orthodoxy. We show a lot of what might be called 'outsider' art, alongside other forms of contemporary art. We aren't interested in establishing distinctions between these different approaches – we just present it all simultaneously. We have collaborated closely with Oakland's Creative Growth Art Center since 2005 – Creative Growth is a community of more than 100 mentally and developmentally disabled artists who work together in a studio space in down town Oakland, CA. Creative Growth will be 40 years old in 2014 and I will organise an anniversary show in their space this summer.

I have noticed that you are not afraid to discover and promote obscure artists and have had some phenomenal success in introducing some of these to a wider audience. Is this an important aspect of your activities, and can you mention some examples?

It’s a part of our activities. It’s clear that some kinds of art, for one reason or another, somehow slip through the net. A lot of the most interesting curatorial work of the past 20 years has been invested in the reconsideration of earlier practices. (Documenta X was very influential in this regard with what they called 'Retro-perspectives', i.e. focused reappraisals of earlier bodies of work.) Two of our current shows are artists who we feel should know better: the 61-year-old British painter Clive Hodgson, and the 84-year-old ceramicist Magdalena Suarez Frimkess. In both cases, their shows at White Columns are their USA debuts.

The focus on New York this week is, of course, due to the Armory Show and its satellite events. You are creative advisor to the Independent Art Fair. What does this role involve and what is the positioning of the Independent in relation to other fairs?

The Independent evolved out of a frustration with the 'trade show' aesthetics typical to most fairs. The goal was to create a smaller, more compact experience for both the participants (artists and dealers) as well as the audience. The Independent takes place in the former galleries of the DIA Foundation – among the most iconic spaces for art anywhere. Consequently, the Independent is a kind of hybrid, somewhere between a fair and an exhibition. The architects who design the spaces for art are an integral part of the project and have helped shape its identity. Part of my interest/involvement is to ensure that both not-for-profits and more maverick dealers are represented (e.g. Spaces such as Kerry Schuss, Galerie Susanne Zander from Cologne, Creative Growth, or Feature Inc.)

Finally, you are also a practising artist. As you know, I also make work as well as running the gallery and curating. How do you think these practices inform each other, and how do they conflict with each other?

I've always liked artists who do other things. Dan Graham is a great example, but there are dozens of others. The artist-writer, the artist-musician, the artist-curator, etc. We have shown a lot of artists at White Columns who have other lives (e.g. Kim Gordon, Billy Childish etc.). From a personal perspective, I was always interested in trying to sustain a practice that embraced curating and writing, alongside art making, although, that said, I don't make much work and rarely show it.




ZAVIER ELLIS: Heike, you have just been exhibiting Florian Heinke at Volta New York. How did the show go for you?

HEIKE STRELOW: Actually, it was a really good decision to present Florian Heinke at Volta New York. We got the chance to place Florian´s Black Pop paintings in different major collections in New York and Los Angeles. For a young painter such as him, this is a great success. Furthermore, we were able to arrange some really fruitful meetings with international curators.

And in a time where there are many art fairs to choose to exhibit in with arguably less competition for entry than there used to be, what made you choose Volta, and how do you think it compares to other fairs?

Especially for galleries presenting emerging artists at an art fair, the Volta show concept, concentrating on solo presentations, worked out as very valuable. The gallery can show different aspects of the artist’s work presented it in its entirety. This enables collectors and curators to discover a new position. At a typical art fair, with mixed booths with different artists, you just see what you know anyway. Younger positions only have a chance to be seen if they are spectacular at first sight.

Another advantage is that the Volta Show New York is the sister fair of the Armory Show. Their joint advertising brings Volta a great deal of attention from major and international curators. As a European gallerist, it only makes sense to show abroad if you have the chance to meet collectors and curators who have a focus on the international art market. Therefore, it is really helpful that, after seven years experience in New York and 10 years in Basel, the Volta Show has achieved a big international network from which the exhibiting galleries can benefit.

Can you tell me a bit about your history as a gallerist?

The gallery developed from my work as a freelance curator. Between 1997 and 2007, I worked for different museums and art institutions with a strong focus on public art projects. In 2007, I opened my gallery space in Frankfurt. Originally I concentrated on particular positions, redefining the meaning of nature and landscape. We still present artists who are discussing these issues in their work. But this is not limited to natural and geographic areas, it includes cultural, medial or physical landscapes.

Today our thematic focus is to display artistic positions examining existential questions and constructions. These are positions, which concentrate on migration, cross- and trans-cultural matters or territorial questions, as well as personal or social identities. On the other hand, we present artists who discuss their works within the art-immanent discourse of the 20th and 21st century and raise philosophical questions about the role and function of art today.

All represented artists are following, formally as well as thematically, an innovative and – even more importantly for us – sustainable approach. A lot of our artists are forcing the viewer to question their own point of view.

And, as a German gallerist based in Frankfurt, can you tell me about the differences between Berlin, Frankfurt and Cologne, and what the advantages are of each city for gallerist and artist?

They are three German cities with different advantages for the gallerists and artists. Probably, at first sight, especially from abroad, Berlin seems the best place for artists and galleries. Internationally well known galleries do have their headquarters in Berlin and many artists from all over the world discovered Berlin as the place to be following German reunification. Berlin is still an exciting place, but a pretty hard one as well. There is not THE gallery, THE performance space, THE trend in art.  The Berlin art scene seems to reinvent itself week by week. For artists, it is a vibrant place. But only the galleries working internationally can survive Berlin, in comparison with Cologne, hasn’t succeeded in establishing a collector´s culture. In the Rhineland, there are a lot of established collector families whose children are born with the desire to collect art and to support artists and galleries. 

Frankfurt is another story. On the one hand, Frankfurt’s galleries are only a short distance from the Rhineland and the collectors based there.

On the other hand, Frankfurt has its own stories and art is supported by its citizens. The new Contemporary Städel is one of these stories. The new building for contemporary art underneath the old part of the Städel was made possible by hundreds and thousands of Frankfurt’s citizens. The willingness to donate was so high that, in the end, half of the costs were borne by the citizens. So there is really strong support for art and culture within the city.

The Frankfurt art scene is also supported by the internationality of the metropolitan region with its focus on finance. This means not only that there is money in the city, but, with the internationally orientated bankers, there’s an ever growing interest in contemporary art.

We also have the Städel School, one of Germany’s most international art schools, with students from all over the world – and combined with the neighbouring Offenbach School for Art and Design, with its focus on New Media and Design, we have a vibrant young art scene in the area.

As a younger gallery, you have a good chance in both Frankfurt and in Cologne to establish yourself – probably more easily than in Berlin, which has over 300 galleries. But, of course, in all three cases, the gallery has to look to the international market as early as possible to work successfully and sustainably for its artists.

And, finally, do you have any advice for artists who would like to gain exposure internationally, specifically in Germany?

This is not an easy question to answer. It depends on each specific case. But the keyword seems to be networking, in partnership with a gallery.



PULSE 8-11 May 2014   The Metropolitan Pavilion
125 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011



Galerie Heike Strelow Schwedlerstraße 1-5 D- 60314 Frankfurt am Main



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