This month, Kathryn Markel Fine Arts will be celebrating our 40th year in business. We sat down with Kathy to look back over her career and share her thoughts about the art world today.
How did you get involved with the art world?
I was an art history major at Northwestern, and fell in love with art history and wanted to work at an art gallery in the art world, as do many young women and men today. This was 1968. When I graduated, I got a job in Chicago working for a tacky art gallery, and that taught me everything I needed to know about LeRoy Neiman and Boulanger and terrible things like that. I worked there for a few years and realized it was not really the art world, it was the commercial art world. So I began looking for other options, and I looked in the paper and saw a job ad for Landfall Press, which was a graphic lithography shop in Chicago, and I worked as a traveling salesman for them for 4 years. I traveled around the United States and Europe selling Sol LeWitt and Philip Pearlstein, who are very different but I managed to do it. I’d get in my car and drive around the United States and here I am, 5’1 and schlepping 60 pounds of art, and everyone would say, “What’s a little girl like you doing with that big portfolio?” But it was fun. I learned a whole lot about the art business because I met people from all over the world who were doing it well.
When did you start your own gallery? What was your original vision for it, and how did that change over the years?
I decided to move to New York to start my own art gallery in 1975. I rented an apartment on 79th between Park and Madison, which was just darling, and I opened a private gallery. I called everybody I knew and told them I would be selling prints from Landfall Press, since that was my background and what I knew best. The print market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was just starting to be commodified, and it grew quickly. This was when Wall Street was starting to get a lot of money and collect, so it was a function of both Wall Street and Japan, which was also buying a whole lot of art. They all wanted name people, and that was the print market. It was the first time that prints had gotten to be things that you bought and sold on spec, and I just hated that. So I got out of the print market and started working with original works on paper. I had a small space, but I could fit a lot of paper into it.
Eventually, that expanded to include paintings, because I needed to sell more expensive things in order to pay rent. I had a gallery on 57th Street. I was one of maybe three people in New York who would actually look at artists’ work if they came in. People would come to New York and they knew we were the only people who looked at art. I used Mondays to look at artists’ work and I’d come to my gallery and I’d have a line of artists sitting on the floor waiting for me. I really wanted to deal with regular people, though, with artists themselves, so that was my favorite thing. That’s always what I’ve been about is dealing with live, functioning artists as opposed to famous artists. It was a small gallery, but I’ve always preferred keeping it as a small gallery.
In the late ‘80s, I left my gallery on 57th st and was a private dealer with a partner, Macie Sears, and we worked out of her apartment on 92nd Street. We had already built up a clientele so we could work with them and we did pretty well, I have to say, so we moved to SoHo. Macie and I broke up, I think, in ‘99. We were partners for 6 or 7 years, and now she’s partnered with Gaines Peyton and run Sears Peyton Gallery. She kept our old space in SoHo and I moved into a new space down the wayl at 560 Broadway. I then moved to Chelsea in 2001. September 2001. It was a week or two after September 11th. Everyone thought that no one would buy art ever again, because why would they? Obviously it would be stupid to buy art again because everyone was so depressed and upset. But eventually it turned around and I’ve just been working it ever since.
I look back on 40 years and think “How many openings have I had? How much white wine have I had? How much white wine have I served? How many drunk people have come in and out just for the wine?” But it’s been fun. It’s always been fun to work with artists. They’re always surprising you. That’s why I only want to deal with live artists, because dead artists don’t surprise you anymore. It’s always fun to have artists surprise you with how they grow and change in a way that is, in retrospect, inevitable. As a dealer I could never be able to predict which direction they’re going to go in next, but after I see it I think “Of course!”
How has the art world in New York changed over the past 40 years?
It’s just gotten bigger and fancier and bigger and fancier! I mean, it was pretty fancy in the ‘80s when Wall Street and Japan were all hot and bothered about art. That’s when the focus really started being on brand names, because an international market only wants brand names. It was really about dealing with speculative issues, which have to have a buzz from a specific group of collectors. So I always say if you want to make money in the art world with speculative issues, what you have to do is hire a detective to follow some of the big collectors around because they are self-fulfilling prophecies. They’ll buy something and then by definition it would get the buzz and, once it was part of the buzz, it would become a speculative issue on the international market. So it’s a lot more about commodification and appealing to that global scale.
When I came up in the ‘70s, there was no art market. The artists who were working, such as Sol LeWitt and conceptual artists like that, they were working against the grain. They thought they were making things that no one would ever want to buy. But the art market has since become this take-over squid that it is and incorporates everything into it. I’ve always found that very distasteful.
What have been some of the biggest challenges for you?
My basic challenge is selling beautiful art in a world that doesn’t respect it. That’s been the case ever since back when I was only working with works on paper. Paper gets no respect. There are not any famous artists that just work on paper. Any artist that gets any clout can’t just work on paper. They also have to work on canvas, or in sculpture, or in installation. So I’ve never felt like the art world per se and the conversation is particularly interested in what I’m doing, mostly because the things I show are beautiful, which is kind of a no-no. It’s certainly not political, and it’s not necessarily even conceptually-oriented. I’ve always had a problem with visual arts that have an agenda, or need a backstory, or where you need to get a Ph.D in semiotics to understand it. I find it very elitist. I’ve always thought that art should be for everybody. That’s my agenda in the kind of work that I sell.
What are some other barriers you think for why the art world is perceived as being so inaccessible?
You know, this is what I think, the people that are involved with the art world want to believe that they are doing something important and are changing the world. These days there are a lot of artists who are very engaged in social justice. They want to make it very serious and political and conceptual, so that image is created from the inside. I think it’s very difficult for the visual arts to be the tool to use to do that, though, not when there are other mediums like film. Frankly, I think there are a lot of artists out there that want to make a difference in the world but would rather paint than teach, or would rather paint than be social workers, or go out and work in the projects. They make work about the projects but they don’t work in the projects. I think the art is more of a distraction than it is a help.
Sometimes it helps to be distracted though!
And that’s great! But if you really want to be effective think about how you can be the most effective, and I don’t think art is necessarily the best way to go about doing that.
What are you really passionate about in the art world today?
I see a lot of individual artists whose work I love. I also think it’s great that a lot of dealers are mining the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially for older women artists, a lot of whom are finally getting their due, which they always originally deserved.
Since you’ve seen and talked with so many clients over so many years, what’s your process like with helping them find a piece of art that they really love, and how can you tell what they might connect with?
Well I have a distinct sensibility, obviously, and people either like it or they don’t. If people come in and they like one or two things they’re going to like more if you work on it. If they come in or look at the website and hate it, then they’re not going to like anything. There are a lot of people that I don’t have anything for; they want more famous things, or they have an investment agenda which I don’t fulfill, or they want figurative work, or edgier work, or surreal work. You know, the kind of thing that I don’t do. You just have to find the people who are a good fit for what you’re selling. When I’m showing with them I say, “Tell me you don’t like it, and that helps as much as when you tell me you do.” It’s always a process, but then when they love it you can always tell. It’s a whole change. You can tell it’s going to be really great for them.
What have you liked most about having your own gallery?
Well, it was really nice when I had little kids to be so flexible. I always say when you have little kids your best time is in the morning, so I could open the gallery at 11 and have those mornings with them. Then your worst time is in the evening, what I call Arsenic Hour, when everybody’s cranky and you have food fights and everything. You can avoid Arsenic Hour because you can go to an art opening and you wouldn’t get home until 7. So, I always loved that. But, other than that, I’ve always liked the independence.
What other dealers and galleries have you admired throughout your career?
Leo Castelli was the big dealer I admired when I was starting out. I also liked Marian Goodman, and Barbara Gladstone, who I used to work with back in the days of prints. Now I love DC Moore, Zieher Smith, Anton Kern, Lori Bookstein, and Betty Cunningham. I like the bigger names too, like Pace and Zwirner, but everybody’s been through the mill in order to get there. You’ve seen their work in other periods already. I like seeing something new.
You’re also involved with Glassroots, which seems kind of like an extension of the mission of making art more accessible, just in a different way. How did you get started with them, and what drew you to the organization?
I got involved because friends of mine were involved. The number one thing I love about it is the idea that, with glass, there is a lot of creative appeal with it and yet it has so much range in terms of the kinds of skills it teaches. It doesn’t just teach creative problem solving. It’s science and motor skills and persistence. It’s either good or it’s bad, and if you want it to be good it takes a lot of skill and work and trying over and over and over again to get there. It’s appealing and compelling, but it has a broad base of learning skills associated with it. That’s what I like.