Art-house hits

There’s a growing trend for canny gallerists to set up shop in their own homes, offering an informal, intimate setting for experiencing – and buying – art. Mark Ellwood reports.

October 19 2010
Mark Ellwood

On a chilly evening in Manhattan, gallerist Sarah Gavlak’s apartment is bursting with the well dressed and well heeled. The smell of bruschetta wafts from the kitchen, while a chisel-jawed bartender doles out generous glasses of chilled white wine; a vase full of breadsticks staves off hunger pangs until food is served. It seems like any chic supper party at a midtown pied-à-terre. But this is no ordinary dinner – rather, it’s the launch of Gavlak’s newest venture, a gallery inside her home, rather like an Avon party for the arterati.

Paintings hang on every wall of Gavlak’s roomy one-bedroom apartment; the focus tonight is the half-dozen camp, modern reimaginings of 1960s catalogue models by artist Christopher Milne, each priced around $6,500. Gavlak has cooked up this dinner as Milne’s official opening, and the guests’ interests – and cheque books – should be piqued by the end of the evening. It’s the first show at this new dual-purpose space, yet the gallerist’s gamble pays off; as the last few guests drift away, four of the six canvases are already sold. The piles of empty wine bottles in the kitchen prove that the party was a good time as well as good business. And collectors assessing Gavlak’s venture certainly approve. “Sarah could probably do a gallery on Mars and it would look great,” jokes erstwhile Warhol superstar “Baby” Jane Holzer, a client since 2006, “but I kinda like this because it’s cosy. And in the end, the pictures are going to go in your home, so in a way it’s the perfect venue.”

Though Gavlak will soon be needed back at her main space (a jewellery-box-like contemporary gallery on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, where she showcases blue-chip artists such as photographer-artist Marilyn Minter), until then she will use her New York apartment as a standard showing space, albeit one with a kitchen and a boudoir full of Lucite furniture. Gavlak’s inspiration to make her Manhattan flat multitask in this way came while reminiscing about her first days in the art world, in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Living in Silverlake, in a funky house once inhabited by artist Jorge Pardo, she used the place to showcase friends’ work. “I’d do a little cocktail party and invite people, and it just came together organically. Back then, we were kids and it was much more laid-back,” Gavlak recalls.

She still draws on those early connections. A New York show reunited her with Venice Biennale-endorsed Pae White, whose works once adorned her Silverlake home – and she decided to revive her original idea, albeit more formally, in her convenient bolthole on 57th Street.

Her past experience meant it wasn’t a nerve-racking process; all Gavlak had to do was stow away any excess books and trinkets to create a “clean” background. “I didn’t have to change anything about my apartment; my intention was already to keep it very minimal. But you will see me sometimes running around, trying to throw things into closets and the dishes into the dishwasher,” she admits. The only challenge is her bedroom. Naturally gregarious, with a champagne-bubble laugh, she doesn’t hesitate to usher buyers into her boudoir. “When I say there’s great art in there, some people look quickly – I know they’re not really looking – but others come and sit right down on my bed.”

Certainly, there were commercial considerations involved in opening this space – she will no longer have to rent a hanging room at a storage facility when New York-based collectors want to review her artists’ work, for example – but, above all, the home-gallery was an aesthetic choice. “When it comes to good art, it doesn’t matter where it’s shown. But to be honest, a gallery is such an antiseptic environment. I love the privacy of this, how it’s so discreet and quiet and off the beaten path.”

Gavlak also believes it’s a “female-centric way of conducting business”, a throwback to the salons where wealthy women would invite artists and writers into their intimate spaces to talk and work. “Madame de Pompadour would have Voltaire sit in her dressing room and discuss his plays. I have my Lucite vanity for that, though I’m hardly living at Versailles,” she laughs.

Marla Hamburg Kennedy is another Manhattan gallerina with an impressive domestic showing space. Openings at her penthouse apartment-cum-gallery in Midtown, a few blocks south of Gavlak’s, are rambunctious social affairs, tables groaning with Middle Eastern treats, a yellow Labrador weaving hopefully through the throng in search of crumbs, and a crowd that includes skinny-jean-clad hipsters, glam girls in Grecian dresses and curator-types wearing geometric jewellery. The rooftop terrace has breathtaking views across the city, but if it rains, there’s ample space indoors for mingling and viewing. Yet there are no labels on the artwork that covers almost every wall and the only reminder that the evening has a commercial purpose is the tiny sign hanging next to the staircase, reading, almost apologetically: “Hamburg Kennedy Photography”.

The namesake gallerist is a charming host, an auburn-haired whirlwind who talks as if she’s worried she’ll run out of air at any moment. Synonymous with high-end photography in New York, she has several decades of experience in the art world, running commercial galleries and also museums, such as the MoMA offshoot PS1. Unlike Gavlak’s grand plan, Hamburg Kennedy’s home-showing space emerged as if by chance.

“This is a more intimate setting to meet clients, and it started casually – they would come every day, see my own collection, have lunch or drinks, and we’d discuss the art market or bring out books,” she explains. As clients began cherry-picking photos from her walls, Hamburg Kennedy moved her entire operation, including almost a dozen staff members, into her apartment; the walls now combine her own private collection and new for-sale works, although she’s flexible and will allow clients to buy almost any piece. “This is basically a private salon, where people come and go. And in New York, you can’t often combine living and working spaces like this.”

It’s an intentionally immersive experience for a client, one that underscores how personal the gallerist-collector relationship should be. “My collection reflects the aesthetic and the price point that I really believe is right now, and it’s a starting point for what they want to collect,” she adds, citing blue-chip pieces by German photographers Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff as examples. “The domestic setting is extremely intimate and lends itself to developing a strong bond with your clients. You can’t really get that as much in a [traditional] gallery space. Most of my clients become family friends, which brings with it a level of trust and loyalty that is essential in being able to place art.”

Her biggest challenge has been working with children and animals around. Hamburg Kennedy’s stepson, who thrived amid the art-world chaos as a young child, absorbing it all quite naturally, is now a teenager and understandably sensitive. “We can’t have nudes – Thomas Ruff has a lot of explicit ones, and my stepson feels uncomfortable with them,” she notes. “And I run an extremely informal set-up, the opposite of a velvet-rope approach, with three cats and two dogs running round. I encourage people to bring animals, kids, whatever they want, when they visit. But as a consequence I have to employ a full-time housekeeper who’s constantly having to clean and tidy. It’s hard work when you live in a zoo.”

Of course, the gallery-home model isn’t just an American phenomenon. Caroline Wiseman was a pioneer of the idea when she opened her space in a Georgian terraced house in London more than 20 years ago. Initially for Wiseman, it was a lifestyle choice – she agrees with Gavlak that it is a female-friendly set-up. “I had young triplets and wanted a business that allowed me to be close to them while they were small. A nanny could be with the boys upstairs, I could be downstairs with my clients and pop up every hour or so to see them,” she explains. “It’s a wonderful compromise.”

It was a savvy decision: her business and family both thrived so much that Wiseman moved to a bigger home expressly to have more display space, including a garden for sculptures. “We didn’t change the interior of the house to make it look like a gallery,” she explains. “I wanted to show that modern art can look very good in a period home. Some of our walls are white, some blue and some are pink.” Indeed, the traditional but clean-lined interiors are a clever foil for the modern and contemporary work in which she specialises – Picasso, Matisse, David Hockney and Barbara Hepworth.

Like Hamburg Kennedy, Wiseman sees the informality as a business-building advantage. “I felt I could have a closer relationship with my clients – they could come over in the evenings, not just nine to five, have a glass of wine and look round at a time that suited them. I could just get to know them better.” She’s even started a loyalty-like scheme, the Modern Art Collectors Club, which offers perks such as a five per cent discount and invitations to openings and parties, and has created a clubby, insiderish clique as only a domestic gallery could.

And knowing collectors well is handy when the home doubles as a base for three rowdy boys – as when Rumpole creator, the late John Mortimer, once stopped by and caught Wiseman off-guard. “The boys were just back from [boarding] school, and their dirty clobber was everywhere. The second before he walked into the drawing room, I had to shove it into a cupboard so he wouldn’t see.” But her trio of sons has also proved an ice breaker. “People are fascinated by triplets – you only have to have a photograph of them on the piano and it’s a wonderful way to break down barriers.”

Although the family-friendly environment was important to Wiseman, the economic advantage to showing at home was just as vital. No street-facing shopfront means no large rents – but on the downside, it also means there’s little casual traffic. Wiseman makes sure she has a strong presence at art fairs to market her business, and knows that word of mouth is her most reliable source of publicity. And, she says, “Our overheads are low, as we don’t have high-street premises, so we could always be good value – but now even more so, particularly with the recession.”

Gavlak, Hamburg Kennedy and Wiseman are all well-known art-world figures, with brand-name clients and major collectors as patrons. But the economy of a dual-purpose space is also appealing to emerging curators and artists, who can co-opt tiny slots in home galleries or shows at L’Est and First Floor Projects in London, Bibliothekswohnung in Berlin and Parlour in New York. Yet Wiseman and her peers demonstrate that cost-cutting isn’t the only reason for the recent rise in home galleries. The challenge of staging a potential masterpiece or experimental innovation at one of these intimate “cottage” venues has an allure.

“You don’t necessarily have to do full shows – you can do something more playful,” says Elizabeth Neilson, director of north London contemporary site the Zabludowicz Collection at 176, and a passionate advocate for home galleries: “It’s a great way to have a relaxed encounter with an artwork.”

Beth Rudin DeWoody, whose Upper East Side apartment groans with blue-chip pieces, and who regularly snaps up work through Gavlak’s operation, agrees: “With art, it’s so much about how it’s hung, how you place it with your furnishings. A home gallery is less sterile. It’s rather like some of the art fairs that start in hotel rooms – the original Armory [art fair] was at the Gramercy Park Hotel and you’d go into the hotel room to see the art lying on the bed.”

A home gallery has the same attraction as the tours of collectors’ homes that have become staples of art fairs’ VIP programmes from New York to London – with the added benefit that work is not just to be admired, but can be acquired too. “Since 2002, when the Miami collectors started opening their homes during Art Basel Miami Beach, that really set a precedent. That’s where my interest came from,” says Neilson.

And, of course, there’s also a dash of prurience about soaking up art while checking out someone else’s personal effects. “People are voyeuristic, so I think showing art in the home is a fantastic thing – you feel privileged,” Neilson admits.

“I think most folk love to nose around other people’s homes,” agrees Rudin DeWoody. “You never know where you’re going to find the next treasure – sometimes the best stuff is under the bed.”

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