New Yorkers have been looking for an alternative to seeing art in Chelsea for some time now, without any helpful and viable alternatives. West Soho is the only neighborhood of galleries with the architectural equipment that gallery-goers seems to get really excited about. There’s the ebullient, newly-expanded Gavin Brown; the do-anything, say-anything ethos of Michele Maccarone. New galleries are on the way. A few blocks south on Vandam is a truly quiet stretch, and the building with the long bike ramp leading up to it, that’s Harris Lieberman, the marital fruit of Jessie Washburne-Harris and Michael Lieberman. In the last five years, these pioneers of the neighborhood have put on smart shows by young conceptual and mixed media artists, and opened up the space to guest artist-curators. Here they discuss their collaboration in conjunction:
When did you meet? What role does your relationship have in the gallery?
We met in 1999, when we were both working at Gagosian Gallery. We opened Harris Lieberman in September 2005. The gallery is an extension of our family. Working together means that our gallery and home lives are fairly seamless, which is a special thing. We also finish each other’s sentences.
What’s the first show you put on?
Our first exhibition was a solo show by Ohad Meromi. For the most part the gallery was empty. It was lined with bleachers and in the back room there was a single-channel video installation. Maybe it was a little perverse to open a gallery without much in it, but we loved the social platform that the show created. It immediately set the ambition for the gallery. We are still really proud of that exhibition.
Why did you move into the West Soho neighborhood?
We were nonplussed by the typical Chelsea sprint, where you run in, look at a show for two minutes, check it off your list and run on to another. We got amazing feedback from artists about the neighborhood before we opened. They loved the idea that while people may come less often, when they do come it is a memorable experience. It helped that at the time, rents were half of what they were elsewhere in the city, so we were able to take on a fairly ambitious space.
It is one of the last industrialfeeling places in Manhattan but is situated within a few blocks of the West
Village, Soho and Tribeca. On our quiet three-block-long street we know most of our neighbors and in the immediate vicinity there is a wonderful mix of creative enterprises that have moved in over the last five years. A few galleries have come around, as has the Guggenheim, Rick Owens, WNPR and The Weinstein Brothers.
What do you look for in a studio visit?
We look for artists that are willing to push themselves in their work and who are not afraid of risking failure. We look for a mix of intelligence, curiosity, aesthetic sensibility and long-term ambition that will lead to a long-term relationship with the gallery. Personality is very important. We really need to have a personal connection with the artists that we are working with. Michael has been working with two of our artists for more than eight years, since he was at Lombard-Freid.
As you’ve said, you met at Gagosian. Betwee the two of you, you’ve also worked at Petzel and Lombard-Freid. How did these varying experiences prepare you for your gallery?
You can learn a lot working for another gallerist, but there is much more you have to learn on your own. Gagosian was an amazing place to start out in 1999. We were surrounded by incredible works of art. Working for someone like Larry, who strives to be the best at everything, was important to our development. It was a much smaller operation when we started there (maybe 20 people) so we got to do a little bit of everything.
Working with Friedrich’s allowed Jessie to work with a range of younger galleries and artists, the sorts of relationships you have to navigate with your own start-up. Petzel was also somewhat of a model for the scope of our gallery, an international, diverse program in which each artist has his/her own place. Lombard-Freid was really Michael’s first opportunity to help shape a gallery program and develop his own relationships with artists, curators and collectors.
Running your own gallery and working for someone else are two completely different experiences. There is a different kind of pressure and responsibility (both creatively and financially) when your name is on the door. We now have way more appreciation for our former bosses (and their occasional tantrums). Of course, the advantage is that you are not beholden to anyone else and you can fully realize your own vision, which is wonderful and daunting. The best part of what we do is putting together our program and collaborating with our artists.
What’s the biggest production you’ve ever put on? Or rather, what’s the project that you’ve thought was the most important?
The birth of our son, Benjamin, in 2007.
What do you do after work?
Owning your own gallery means that you are never not doing something related to the gallery, so most nights are spent with artists, collectors or at openings. If we had to imagine a perfect day, it would start with a yoga class, then maybe an exhibition at the Met, followed by lunch at Café Sabarsky, the afternoon in Prospect Park with Benjamin, dinner at Franny’s in Brooklyn and a performance or a movie at BAM.
HARRIS LIEBERMAN IS LOCATED AT 89 VANDAM STREET.
PHOTO BY JOHN ARTHUR PEETZ