Like many of New York’s noteworthy gallerists—think Leo Castelli, or Larry Gagosian—Gavin Brown is a transplant to the city. Brown, who has shown such artists as Piotr Uklański, Urs Fischer, Elizabeth Peyton, and Peter Doig, moved to New York from the U.K. in the late 1980s, and ran a gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (and a bar, Passerby, next door), on West 15th Street for six years before relocating it to the West Village, on Leroy Street, in 2003. In 2010, when Brown’s landlord, Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meats, moved to new headquarters in New Jersey, Brown expanded into the building next door, doubling his exhibition space and making his gallery a full city block in length. In 2013 he opened a space in Downtown Los Angeles, 356 Mission, in partnership with one of his artists, the painter Laura Owens. In 2014 he opened a modestly sized branch on the Lower East Side, and last year he began doing exhibitions in Rome, in the deconsecrated 8th-century church Sant’Andrea de Scaphis.
Two years ago, word got out that Brown’s West Village HQ would go to a developer, and he’d be forced to move. For his final exhibition in the space, last June, Brown re-created Greek Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis’s famous 1969 installation of live horses, Untitled (12 Horses), alongside a barbecue pit from a longtime Brown artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, who also removed the gallery’s windows and doors so that one could visit at any time. For four days, the gallery was open 24 hours; at night, there were screenings of Sturtevant’s Warhol Empire State (1972). After visiting the exhibition, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote, “Brown is part of a great generation of dealers who opened galleries in the 1990s, people whose purpose was to somehow to make money while making worlds possible where they, and the kind of art that they thought helped people, slide into … other destinations.” On Artforum.com, Linda Yablonsky called Brown “perhaps the most imaginative artist-dealer in town,” and noted that his gallery “has given us a number of memorable shows, wonderful art, and dinners on that rooftop that no other gallery could match.”
Not long after the West Village space’s swan song came the news that Gavin Brown’s Enterprise would move to Harlem, where Brown has lived for the past five years. The new space would be a former brewery at 439 West 127th Street, a 19th-century building that, Brown told the the New York Times, reminded him of “an urban secular cathedral.” It would have three floors of exhibition space, and would open in September with an exhibition of British artist Ed Atkins.
As often happens with complex renovation projects, Brown’s took longer than expected. In the meantime, several other galleries announced their openings in Harlem, including Elizabeth Dee, Broadway 1602, and Eli Ping Frances Perkins.
Tomorrow, Brown, whose space is the largest of them, opens the doors to his gallery at last, with the Atkins show. He is opening with the renovations not yet complete. On the eve of his New York reopening, I emailed with Brown about his first encounter with the space, which had been empty for around 50 years; the challenges that the building presented; what Atkins is showing and how the installation of this work will respond to the space’s particular qualities; whether he thinks the New York art landscape is becoming more like London, with clusters of galleries throughout the city instead of centralized in one neighborhood; what he makes of the art world’s recent focus on Harlem; and how Gavin Brown’s Enterprise might be different in its new location. During the time in which Brown has been planning his move and starting renovations, there has been a lot of talk about what galleries are for, and what defines the relationship between a dealer and an artist. A Hollywood agent started representing artists. A book was published that described most galleries as inefficient businesses. I asked Brown about his thinking about what the role of the art gallery is today—and in particular what his own gallery is for. The following is an edited transcript of his remarks:
About two or three years ago I was given a tour by the landlord of the ‘complex’ of buildings. And he took me into this tower. It was very impressive. It was like [nothing] I had seen before. The kind of space that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did. An imaginary space.
When I saw it I was still in the mindset that I would be moving to a space downtown. I was stuck in an assumption that my life with a gallery would continue somewhere downtown. So while I was stunned by the space I didn’t make the imaginative leap to see myself there. It was ‘merely’ one of the most soulful and spectacular spaces I had ever seen. … It is sometimes hard to see outside of the tram lines of life one is habituated to.
But it soon became clear that there was nothing that wasn’t either already being developed or was stupid money. And in turning my head back uptown I came to realize that downtown—to use a generalized term—was filled with zombies. If the downtown of the collective imagination had been created by the artist, then in some ways downtown is now the artist’s corpse, being fed on by a population that has only the vaguest unconscious memory of that origin story. Uptown represented space to think and imagine. A margin, which I now appreciate as a vital quality. Margin of what? A center of gravitational insanity? Insane gravity? Suddenly this space revealed itself to me as an answer. After 50 years of being empty—it had been waiting for me. And I’ve never looked back.
[Ed Atkins will show] three works. Hisser, Ribbons, and Safe Conduct—in that order from ground floor to second floor to third (top) floor. The progression of the works goes hand in hand with the ascension up through the space.
New York is its own animal, unlike any other. Chelsea, the Upper East Side, and the Lower East Side will probably be the predominant ‘art neighborhoods’ for some time. Manhattan really isn’t that big so it is still relatively manageable if there are some galleries at more of a distance. But I do hope there is more of a cracking of these conglomerations. Perhaps art might change and become more complex and meaningful outside of the echo chamber of these groupings.
This focus that is on Harlem feels a little strange to me. The subject is entirely based on real estate. It doesn’t touch on life or art. To talk about Harlem as a new, undiscovered art destination ignores the fact that, unlike SoHo in the ’60s or Chelsea in the early ’90s, this neighborhood has been a home, a community to generations. It also ignores that it has been a cultural epicenter for almost a century. But in New York a ‘new’ must always be found.
One component that does represent both continuity and change [at my gallery] is the kitchen which will be in the so-called exhibition space rather than hidden in separate area. I hope there will be a continuity with who we were. I’m proud of what I was part of downtown and I want to keep it going. Doing amazing things with amazing artists in this incredible place. I also want to be as open to change and evolution as I possibly can be. It feels like a break from the past. But I cannot possibly describe what those changes might be. Which feels like a free and exciting framework to act from.
It has been a strange year. I’ve been at home mostly and so have observed from a distance the continued expansion of this industry. And I didn’t really feel part of it. Obviously. The word ‘gallery’ is no longer elastic enough to describe all the versions and species that we currently regard as galleries. There are vastly different models, vastly different scales of economy, different ideologies which all produce different ideas of what art even is. What art is for. What galleries are for. But my instinct is that the entire endeavor—across the board—and however it manifests itself is more vital and needed than ever. But perhaps needed only for and by the people involved in each individual situation. Is it my imagination or aren’t there hundreds and hundreds of smaller young galleries opening all over the world? It feels to me that if you are a thinking person in your 20s or 30s staring across the 21st century and all the goodies it has in store for us, it is an instinctual necessary reaction to gather with others of your group, your village, your friends, and try to work out what it all means. And you can’t seem to do that anymore in music, politics.
Galleries are perhaps finally fulfilling their potential. They are open spaces that just need to be filled. Unlike anything else in our society. I’m not talking about the large galleries that are trying to meet the future with scale and muscle and volume, even though they are doing some important things. I am talking about galleries who must know that there is no money in this in the long run, this is not a career choice, but a way to begin culture, in one’s time. To me, it feels like art is about to be unleashed—because we need it to be. And galleries, whatever their form, are necessary for that. I sound stupidly naive now. But I sense this in my peripheral vision. Or maybe I’m just hoping for it.