Recently, Art Omi, which is situated on 300 acres in Ghent, New York, a two-hour drive from New York City in the picturesque Hudson Valley, acquired additional land, and it is planning to expands its sites for exhibitions and educational projects. Bill Maynes has previously served as Director of The Fields Sculpture Park (Art Omi does exhibitions in outdoor areas called the Fields), but upon his appointment as Director Emeritus, the institution tapped for the position someone most people in the art world associate with the commercial side of the business, someone who has been absent from the art world for several years: the onetime wunderkind gallerist Zach Feuer.
In January, 2017, Feuer, who is 39, and who opened his first gallery when he was all of 19 years old and went on to launch the careers of talents like painter Dana Schutz, announced that he and business partner Joel Mesler were closing their Lower East Side gallery Feuer/Mesler. Two years earlier, the two dealers had merged their businesses—Feuer his 13-year-old eponymous gallery, and Mesler his five-year-old Untitled. Feuer started to step away from the business in 2016; by the time Feuer/Mesler closed up shop, Feuer, once a fixture of international art fairs, had moved upstate to Hudson, New York, and transferred his ownership stake in the gallery to his longtime director, Lauren Marinaro. After Mesler moved on, Marinaro opened her own eponymous gallery in the former Feuer/Mesler space.
Mesler went on to open his Rental Gallery in East Hampton, out on Long Island, and has had several exhibitions of his own paintings elsewhere, most recently at Simon Lee gallery in London. Feuer effectively disappeared from the art world.
Now he’s dipping a toe back in. As he steps into his new position at Art Omi, Feuer spoke to ARTnews by phone from Hudson about changing his priorities, becoming a force in Hudson politics, and what he would say to someone opening a gallery today.
ARTnews: Let’s backtrack: in the late 1990s you had finished art school and opened a gallery in your Boston apartment. You were, what, 20 years old?
Zach Feuer: I actually started when I was 19 with my gallery in Boston with my art student friend. We got lots of press, and this guy who owned a gallery asked me to come work for him over the summer, it was a regional gallery in Cape Cod. Then I worked for him for a while, maybe two summers, and I was pretty good at sales. And then he just decided to send me to New York to open up a gallery. He didn’t pay me very much, but he gave me like 2 percent of the gallery. And then every year I worked for him, I was supposed to get another 2 percent. I got up to like 6 percent in the gallery and I was doing all the work, so I bought him out and just sort of worked with all the artists to figure out how to take over. Around that time was the beginning of Dana Schutz’s trajectory. She got very famous, and that sort of brought the gallery a big profile. So I just kept growing and growing the gallery. I founded NADA in those days with three other people, and we turned that into an art fair also, eventually, but it was founded with a different idealism. Then I opened up a gallery in L.A. for a few years with another partner in 2005, then I kept growing it and growing it.
AN: In 2015 you merged with Joel Mesler, and moved to the Lower East Side?
ZF: Yes. Before then, my interest in the commercial art world started shifting, and my priorities started to change a little bit. At that point, I had already invested in a bunch of other emerging galleries. So, I invested in three emerging galleries who I thought were doing interesting things—I thought I would partner with Joel also—and I was looking for different ways to continue in the art world with things that I was interested in at the time.
AN: Which was?
ZF: I was interested in being able to support young artists without being forced to either grow in an unsustainable way, or encouraging artists to stay with a gallery that was no longer appropriately scaled for them. So at that point, I was trying to figure things out, and there were a lot of different experiments going on there for about three or four years. By that time, I’d also moved to Hudson, New York, and that just sort of changed my life priorities as well.
AN: How so?
ZF: I guess it actually happened before [I moved to Hudson], when I had my first child. When you’re in your 20s, and you’re ambitious and you want to do everything, the thing you’re in feels like the most important thing in the world. So I would say, from 20 to about 30, I thought the art world was the most important thing in the world and I thought I was one of the most important people in it. Suddenly, there was this huge wake-up call as I developed more of a life outside of the art world. I hate to even use “the art world” as the expression there . . . but I was suddenly radically humbled by how unimportant everything is once you step outside of things for a minute. That really changed how I operated.
AN: What exactly have you been up to for the past year? We have two guesses, which is helping kids fix bikes and collecting mushrooms.
ZF: Yeah, I do that a lot! I’m also really involved with local politics. So yeah, I work two days a week teaching bike repair to students with special needs. We set up a community bike shop where we fix up bikes. People donate, and we give them away. That’s been a really interesting job, I actually haven’t been an employee for about 15 years, but this is really an amazing place. So I do that, and I’m going to continue to do that for two days a week. And then the local politics.
AN: What’s your involvement in local politics? Are you running for office?
ZF: No no. I’m just working with the county and the town party, we have a really contested congressional race coming up, but we also have a lot of local races for assembly and for state senate. So I’ve been working a lot with his strategy and developing candidates. And just working. It’s just labor.
AN: What will you be doing at Art Omi?
ZF: I’m going to be working with Ruth Adams, who is the executive director, and Nicole Hayes, who is the curator. We’re going to be developing the park more, we’re developing the building that’s going to open in 2022, which is going to double the exhibition space and create more education space. We’ve also bought a lot more land, so there’s a bunch of expansions that are happening there, which is part of why this job is exciting for me. I get to be involved in the next iteration of this institution—the new land, the new building—and I’m just going to keep programming.
AN: What drew you to Art Omi?
ZF: My family and I have been using that institution since we moved here. I live 15 minutes away, and it’s where we go. I bring my kids there all the time, we cross-country ski there, we hike there, my kids go to camp there, we eat there. It’s just a really major asset for our community. So I’ve been talking with both Ruth and the curator and sort of just figuring out strategy stuff with them and advising very loosely, and then when the position opened up, they asked me if I would do it. I didn’t think I was going to get involved in art again, but this was a place I really care about, so it was easy for me to get involved.
AN: During the time you ran a gallery—2000 to 2017—the market went through several cycles, from the dot-com bust of the early 2000s to the boom of the mid-2000s to the bust of 2008’s global financial crisis, and back to a boom again, in the midst of which smaller and medium-sized galleries began to struggle. Why’d you end up giving up the gallery?
ZF: Boom and bust doesn’t really make a difference once you’ve been through it once. At the point we closed Feuer/Mesler, I was involved with like seven spaces. My energy shifted. It’s a funny thing to say, but when you’re in your 20s, it’s kind of like an accumulation phase of your life. I was no longer wanting things, I didn’t want to accumulate things, I didn’t want to be a bigger gallery, I didn’t want to have more market-share, I didn’t want to have more influence. It wasn’t interesting to me. I didn’t want more anymore. A year before Feuer/Mesler closed, I transferred my ownership to the director there, Lauren Marinaro. So for the last year of that gallery, I wasn’t really so involved. I was involved in that I had relationships with the artists socially, and cared about their well-being, but I wasn’t there.
AN: Do you miss anything about the gallery? Or about New York?
ZF: I miss having close relationships with my artists and my clients. There were a lot of people I really enjoyed working with and still keep in touch with, and some people I enjoyed working with who I don’t keep in touch with. There’s a lot of people there who I really cared about, and I think there’s a lot of people out there doing important things. It was just hard for me to treat the art world with the importance that it needed to be successful within it.
AN: So what’s your view on the art business now, and the market specifically? For instance, all of this talk of smaller galleries being endangered and the perils of art fairs?
ZF: I think people can complain about the way it is endlessly, but people are always going to buy art and make art and sell art. If you’re sitting there complaining about the structure, you just haven’t figured out how to do it yet. So no, I don’t really have huge sympathy for saying, “Oh, it’s so hard to be a smaller art dealer,” or “Oh, it’s such a struggle to have my sales go down.” It just takes more innovation. People are going to make it work. There’re hard years and easy years, but it’s not the hardest job in the world.
AN: So what would you say to someone opening a gallery today?
ZF: Keep your budget low and try not to be an asshole. The same advice as always. Don’t spend money and don’t be a jerk.