Ivy Brown: An Independent Gallerist in a Time of Convention
Jonathan Goodman: Tell us about your background.
Ivy Brown: Born in Queens, New York, and lived there until I was three. We then moved out to Long Island where my mother, who was the force behind introducing me to the arts, enrolled me into puppetry class, which I loved. When I was 12 years old my family moved to London, where I went to secondary school and that is where I began sculpting. There is something primordial about clay which I was very attracted to. After secondary school, I did my first year of college before returning to the States to go to the School of Visual Arts.
Living in London in the Seventies had a tremendous effect on me; it was a very political time, which I had not been exposed to in the U.S. I went from being carpooled to being independent, going to school on the tube, moving about by myself. When you are autonomous at that age, you are very affected by your surroundings.
The IRA was very active in the Seventies; there were bomb scares in stores, my school, and in the tube. I was in Harrods, a department store after school one afternoon being taught backgammon from these two older English gentlemen when a line of people went trotting past me. What I did not realize at the time was that those people trotting past me were running for their lives from a possible explosion. A gentleman turned to me and said: “You’ve got to go, Love. It's a bomb scare.”
I admit I was a bit amused on seeing the way the English run. Once we left the store and made our way around the corner, the sports department blew up. It became clear that the incident was not made for television. This was life. Being in the England at that time had a profound effect on me. It was a very turbulent time. The IRA and the onset of punk rock deeply affected my esthetic and my understanding of art and politics and how they can affect each other. I worked at an independent record store on Brompton Road, which exposed me to a large variety of music, as an American kid these experiences sunk into the essence of my being.
I moved into the Meatpacking District in 1985. The area was gritty and still an active meatpacking district, and the gallery did not come into being until 2001. At the time, I was in the commercial art and fashion industry as a representative for photographers, fashion, and set stylists and hair and make-up artists. I never intended to be a gallery owner, but as happens so often in life, changes took place randomly.
JG: What is the gallery scene like now in your neighborhood?
IB: There used to be a lot of pop-up art spaces in the area and a few independent galleries. We still have a few smaller galleries, but most of them have left as the neighborhood changed. Rents have gone up, the sex clubs and meatpackers have moved out, and the smaller galleries were priced out of the neighborhood. I feel responsible about staying true to our mission to support the artists we work, as well as the community we have surrounded ourselves with. We have become stewards of history.
JG: What kind of activities in the gallery do you concentrate on, in addition to showing good art?
IB: We have a roster of artists we work with, but we also do exhibitions and events with artists who are not on our roster. If an artist is on our roster, we want to be able to offer them their own show. We believe in them and their work and want to be a place where they cannot just exhibit their art but are able to stretch their creative muscle. Since the space is not the usual white box and has its own personality, I often curate the shows with the artists. For group shows I curate and often call in the help of a creative genius or two whose eyes I admire.
We have a series of group shows coming up, which will exhibit what I have wanted to explore for years--I feel the time is right to explore them. I like doing both solo shows where an artist can experiment and stretch their visual voice. At the same time, I like doing group shows where I can find a point of view, taken from work done in various mediums, to express a perspective or thought or question. Can’t say I prefer one over the other--they are so different.
JG: How do you decide on showing an artist?
IB: The way I decide to show an artist is subjective; I need to be inspired not just by their work but also by their execution. The work tends to be unusual yet timeless. It’s important that I not only like the artist’s work but that I like the artist: it’s an intense relationship, and I want to be motivated by the person, as well as the work they produce. My tastes vary, like my take on life. I am attracted to several types of writing, music, food. and art. One flavor or vision would bore me. I like variety, and I like it to make me think.
JG: Do you emphasize artists from New York, or do you prefer showing international artists?
IB: We work with artists from different parts of the world, so it’s about 50/50. It’s important to me to have a diverse group of artists from as many parts and perspectives as possible. Finding a medley of talent whose work I am attracted to and moved by can be a challenge. Thankfully, we live in a city that attracts people from all over, and that is a great advantage.
JG: How active are you as a coordinator and organizer of the arts in your neighborhood?
IB: I co-chair a group of women art dealers who have independent galleries, so I am exposed to and working with quite a few smaller gallery owners. I recently joined the board of our local BID (Better Improvement District) to be more involved with the neighborhood and what happens here and have been active in community matters with CB2, our local community board. White Column is in our neighborhood, and I love their programming and esthetic. Sadly, many of the other smaller galleries have had to leave due to the high rents. We are happy to have the Whitney as our neighbor, and we are close to Chelsea, where the majority of galleries are located. There are many in that area whose programming I admire, but they are not in our immediate neighborhood.
JG: Your programming is quite original. What are some of your more unusual events?
IB: Recent performances have included artist Jorge Clar, who has graced us with his presentations several times. He is a performance and spoken word artist and the Dance Company Jennifer Mueller has performed here several times. These have been some of my favorites, but we continue to have a variety of events during the life of an exhibition and like to offer as many different types of experiences that come our way. This coming fall, we will have a sound bath that goes with the essence of an exhibition called “Tribe” by Ivy Náte.
Indeed, we have had opera singers, musicians, performers, classical and rock music, readings, poetry. We like to present live performances and strive to create an environment that welcomes creatives in general. We used to host a salon here every Tuesday night when we served dinner; we did this for several years.
When I got married, two of the artists made my wedding dress by deconstructing my mother’s wedding dress. Each Tuesday they held a salon and taught people to hand weave with raffia and mohair. People I had never met before would come every week and work on my dress. With all the work done on it, it has become a piece of art. I have always wanted to donate it somewhere to be appreciated as to what a community can do.
JG: How easy--or hard--has it been for your shows to be noticed by the press?
IB: Getting press as a smaller independent gallery is a challenge. We are not showing big names. The work we show is as high in quality as that of a bigger-name artist or gallery, but press tends to go with known names. Of course, we want our artists to have as much exposure as possible; we want the world to know how talented they are and what they have to offer. But it can be an uphill battle to get them as much press as we feel they are due. Sadly, art can be like a gossip page, and it’s not the work that gets the attention.
JG: How has the New York art world changed?
IB: The number of artists in New York City has increased incredibly over the years. I have had the honor to serve the art world, but what has not always followed is the level of artistic excellence and execution of craft. There’s a lot to be seen but not always a lot of substance. It can be overwhelming to keep up, but, at the same time, there is a lot of amazing work being created. Since we are in New York City, we are exposed to things exponentially. There is more of everything here, good and bad. I am always looking for the needle in the haystack.
JG: How does it feel to live with your shows on a daily basis?
IB: To be able to live with the art we show is a gift. I get to live with the exhibitions and see the work from a different perspective each day--and during the different times of day. It absorbs me, and I digest the work and get to know the work intimately. In the morning I come out to the gallery and see how everyone’s night was. Thus, the works become part of me.
JG: Do you see contemporary art as being over intellectualized--that is, too abstract in its motivation?
IB: Yes, I have observed an element of over intellectualization in the contemporary art world, and though I try to not be judgmental, I have a visceral reaction to work that has an element of self-importance to it. Won’t give exact examples, as that feels like a slippery slope, but when you work with artists who have been toiling at their craft, and then you come upon work in which the title is the most thoughtful part of the art, it can be very challenging. I am not sure how social media has played into it all, but there is a good amount of work that gets a lot of attention and sells for a very sizeable amount that gives me pause.
JG: Can you name two or three current favorite artists and why you admire them? The artists can come from anywhere.
IB: Studio Drift from the Netherlands is a husband-and-wife team who are incredibly creative and whom I find inspiring. They create work that has an element of disbelief to it--you wonder how the heck they did that. They take elements from nature in a modern context and reimagine it in a contemporary format.
Nick Cave is one of my hero’s. Everything he does makes me think and puts a smile on my face. Some of his work is dealing with hard issues, but there is often an element of whimsy to it, and the quality of the workmanship is outstanding.
Henrique Oliveira is important to me. His work looks like it's an unreal fairy tale. Its wood-based, roots and trees growing through a room, coming out of a wall, taking over a space. It reminds me that nature will persist and hopefully overcome all that we are doing to it.