Memoir

True Confessions of a Justified Art Dealer, Part Seven: Go East, No Longer Young Man

Joel Mesler, Untitled, 2016. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Joel Mesler, Untitled (I am happy, successful, and fulfilled), 2016, pigment on linen.

COURTESY THE ARTIST

Our memoirist returns after a year-and-a-half break. You can read his previous entries here.

I spent a good 25 years using drugs and alcohol to get by. It’s the same old story: A neurotic born into a dysfunctional family, arrested development around 14 years of age, a series of fruitless attempts to find a place to fit in, the art world, first in L.A., and then in New York. Not only did I fit in among these addicts and egomaniacs, I excelled.

New York was a great place to do business. The city was full of people looking to make money. As a single man, I was able to close deals at three in the morning, high on various amphetamines. If I didn’t make it to bed until after the sun came up, it didn’t really matter. I wouldn’t have to go into the gallery till after noon. When you run your own gallery it doesn’t matter what time you make the money, just as long as it gets made.

As my twin girls started to form into people, something stopped working. The booze and drugs began to feel less like a job perk and more like medicine. Once I got sober, when my three children had gone to bed, I would be left with several hours every night in which I didn’t know how to spend my time. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. So I started putting pen to paper, recalling in drawings the day’s events, as well as recurring themes of loneliness, anxiety, responsibility, and failure. Soon I felt confident enough to move from paper to linen. Unfortunately, this budding confidence in my art career, which I had long thought dead, was matched by a growing anxiety about my art-dealing career, which, like everyone else’s, is tied to the peculiar effects of the market.

The art market has always moved in cycles but this time around it seemed different. There was talk of a bubble, and the market for mid-tier galleries like mine began to suffer, most often because of skyrocketing rent. Because of my growing parental responsibilities, I for the first time couldn’t sleep in the gallery. I needed bedrooms, and lots of them. So, what does a mid-tier gallerist like me do?

You could say my dilemma has been 20 years in the making. Ever since galleries like that of Pat Hearn and Colin de Land began to colonize the area two decades ago, Chelsea has been the center of the art world. Collectors went to a neighborhood they’d never had cause to visit in order to seek out the avant-garde. Dealers, priced out of lofts in a gentrified SoHo—the previous center of the art world—came into the neighborhood slowly at first, and then in droves. And now Chelsea, too, has gentrified—it’s home to condos and plenty of retail to satisfy the needs of residents.

Gallerists who had not purchased their spaces before the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Google began moving to the neighborhood were forced either to leave or overcharge for the works they sell. This was fine when the art market was healthy—as recently as a year ago—but as soon as things slowed a bit, it became obvious that these prices were foolish, and we got the market correction many had seen coming.

Where do we go from here? The Lower East Side, which has been my home for the past 10 years and is now the site of many emerging galleries, has started to feel the real estate pinch. Jewish paraphernalia shops have given way to juice bars; Chinese kitchen supply outlets have become galleries.

As I write this, my gallerist colleagues are looking west (to Tribeca), north (to Harlem), and south (to deep Brooklyn and Queens). I’ve chosen to head east. In today’s New York art business, December, July, and August are dead. No foot traffic, no conversations, collectors don’t even consider buying. They’re too busy going on vacation, and many go to the Hamptons. My new gallery is at 87 Newtown Lane in East Hampton, next to Harper’s Books. I will continue to do shows and keep hours year-round, but in my off months (when all the unfortunates back in the city will be on), I’ll be able to devote my energies toward my newly flowering painting career, and to being a dad. I’m excited for the move, and as Jackson Pollock would say, “The light is great out here.”

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