While the art world was in lockdown, dealer Friedrich Petzel was thinking big. In a few years’ time, he will move his New York gallery to a new building a few blocks north of his current location on 18th Street. He’ll more than double his current square footage, adding over 22,000 square feet, and add room a bookstore (unlike the relatively small one at 18th Street) and a rooftop sculpture garden. He’ll also have three floors at a location that formerly served as the home of SIR recording studios. Right now, many Chelsea galleries are relocating to Tribeca. But Petzel is sticking with the neighborhood.
Petzel has been in business in New York for almost 30 years, first in SoHo, then in Chelsea. He has a second space uptown, on 64th Street, and he runs a Berlin gallery, Capitain Petzel, in collaboration with dealer Gisela Capitain. Last week, Petzel spoke with ARTnews about his upcoming move. In the following interview, he discusses the importance of flexible space, his vision for his gallery, and his post-pandemic doubling-down on showing real art in the real world.
ARTnews: When did you start thinking about expanding? When did you realize you needed to move up to a to a bigger space?
Friedrich Petzel: We started talking about this expansion two or three years ago. I’d become known as a painting gallery, a lot of painters show with me. But I had a vision to open it up to various different fields and as we added artists to the to the program, like Samson Young, a younger artist whose work has performative elements and musical elements. I thought: We need different types of exhibition spaces that allow for two or three different types of viewing experiences. In the end, we weren’t able to do that on 18th street.
Secondly, there is my bookstore. Everybody at the gallery makes fun of me for it, but I really would like to have my bookstore back. The bookstore on 18th Street was always an afterthought. It was a loading dock that was retrofitted. At the end of the day, this is a service. It’s important for the public to have a bookstore. It’s important to have a different experience of what my artists are able to do, via books and other publications. And what’s around? There’s 192 Books. And Hauser & Wirth’s bookstore—they aren’t going to show my artists! So I’ll do it myself.
Thirdly, we have quite a few collectors interested in outdoor sculpture. I didn’t get the permits to exhibit on my 18th Street rooftop. On 25th Street, we are not going to plunk down 20 sculptures on the rooftop, but we’ll do four or five well-conceived [ones], and then I can bring my collectors up.
How do you think galleries like yours are changing?
Galleries these days are becoming like institutions, with things like outdoor sculpture gardens. In the old days, galleries didn’t do that. We show performances. We have bookstores, we publish. We have a lecture series, which we want to do more thoroughly in the new space.
You chose to double down on Chelsea at a time when lots of galleries have migrated from there to Tribeca. What made you want to stay? Does it all really come down to the kind of space and amount of space you can get, and maybe location is secondary?
Yes, it’s all about finding the space. As long as the conditions provided for my artists to do the best they can, I didn’t care what New York neighborhood the space was in. There was nothing on the market that compared to this. If I were a younger gallery, I would probably be a little less concerned and more experimental but at a certain level. But who cares about neighborhoods? It’s about art.
Fifteen years is a relatively long lease for Chelsea, I’d think.
I’d wanted to buy a building, or have a lease of 20 years or longer. We ended up at 15. I needed a long-term commitment because we plan shows two or three years in advance.
What was it like, thinking about this expansion during all of the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic?
At the end of the day, the pandemic can’t stop me, and it can’t stop my artists from doing what they do best. In some respects, the pandemic made us really restructure the gallery. We didn’t fire people, we hired more people to restructure the way we operate with a new finance department and marketing department. The pandemic gave me more time to think about how to move forward. When you are running from one fair to another, and then to a museum opening, you don’t have time to really think. This time allowed me to step back and think about what I’m going to do for the next 15, 20 years.
It’s an interesting time to expand because it seems to me it’s happening at the same time that some people are saying, “We can do some stuff in the virtual space and maybe we don’t need to have these big spaces.” It seems like you’re making a bold move in favor of having a lot of space.
For 15–18 months now, we’ve been working virtually, and it works, to some extent. It’s definitely something that has kept us rolling. But I also learned from those 18 months that I’m a showman. I like to exhibit artworks in the real world. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this type of expansion if my gallery were elsewhere than New York. I think New York is still the place to exhibit art for most of the international audience, whether they’re from L.A., but also Asia or Europe. People come to New York twice or three times a year, maybe a little bit less often than they used to in the past, but the auctions and all this kind of stuff. So think about it. I mean, do I need that type of space in the outskirts of Paris? Probably not. But in New York, you want to show up in the real world.
For my gallery, we don’t need to have a global empire of 14 or 15 spaces. We want to have three good galleries, great artists, and a certain sense of substance.