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Interview with dealer Sean Kelly: Marina Abramovic, art fairs, and expanding off the beaten path

The British-born dealer may be a reluctant power-player, but his new, larger space reflects his place in the pecking order

The New York dealer Sean Kelly is expanding—though he is loath to describe it as such. He plans to open a 22,000 sq. ft space in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, which will triple the gallery’s existing footprint (and rival Gagosian in terms of sheer size). In addition, the gallery has recently taken on six new artists, including the media darlings Kehinde Wiley and Terence Koh.

After 30 years in the business, Kelly has established a reputation for running an artist-led, curatorial-minded and entrepreneurial ideal of an art gallery. Trained as a curator and museum director in Britain, he has methodically built a stable of first-rate international artists. “I started with nothing. I didn’t have any family money. I made a dollar, spent 99 cents and paid my artists,” he says.

The Art Newspaper caught up with him to ask about the recent expansions, his long relationship with the artist Marina Abramovic and whether there is room in Gotham for two competing art fairs.

The Art Newspaper: After 12 years in Chelsea, you’re moving to a new gallery that will be three times larger than your current space, and as big as anything available in Chelsea. That’s a big move.

Sean Kelly: It is, indeed. We knew we needed more space and we had been looking for about 18 months. We thought we could either stay in Chelsea and keep approximately the same amount of space for three or four times the rent, or spend the extra money on overheads and get greater space. We were looking and looking, and when it came up, we knew immediately it was right.

It’s only six blocks away from our current space and still in the core zone between 10th and 11th Avenues. The High Line [park], which is being extended, will come within two blocks of the new gallery, and the 7th Avenue subway extension, which opens in autumn next year, comes within a block. There are hotels in the area, along with restaurants. There’s the Baryshnikov Arts Center; the Brooklyn Academy of Music is opening an outpost. We just thought it was a no-brainer. Also, it’s really all about the space, which is simply spectacular. If the Clinton mantra was “it’s the economy, stupid”, for us it’s been equally simple—“it’s the space, stupid”.

Is this a power play?

No, we don’t think like that. I’m not trying to compete for market share or for franchises, or to open the largest number of galleries in the world. What we’re trying to do is the best job we can for our artists. For us, having a more flexible facility with more space means that we can give our artists more opportunity to make better exhibitions. That’s what we’re concerned about, truthfully.

Why have you chosen to open in Hell’s Kitchen? It’s slightly outside the mainstream.

Our modus operandi has always been to have spaces slightly off the beaten path. When everyone had to be on Broadway or West Broadway, we were on Mercer Street. When there were no galleries north of 24th Street, we went to 29th Street. We’ve always positioned ourselves as a destination gallery. I think if we’d moved to 23rd Street, people might have been appalled that we’d done the obvious. At least we’re consistent.

You’ve added six new artists to the gallery: Kehinde Wiley, Alec Soth, Terence Koh and Nathan Mabry, as well as the British artists Idris Kahn and Peter Liversidge. Did you conceive of the gallery and the programme expansion as one idea?

Absolutely. In thinking about a move, we realised we needed to think about the programme, the artist roster and the staffing of the gallery. In the past few years, we’ve severed a few relationships with a few artists, we’ve taken on six new artists and we’ve ramped up staff as well as the number of art fairs that we do. All of those elements are really working in concert with each other. We’ve gone from a place where it’s difficult to get all members of staff seated around a table to one where we’ll comfortably be able to seat 35 if we need to.

You were recently called “a heavyweight gallery known for showing international conceptual artists” by the art adviser Simon Watson. I think he meant non-decorative Europeans and Latin Americans. Are you consciously trying to recast the gallery in a less conceptual, more American vein by bringing on artists such as Wiley and Soth?

I think the honest answer to your question is that I’m not sure that I get American pop art. It’s not my tradition. The conceptual and post-conceptual tradition is my tradition, and I think I get that rather well. Put it this way: if there’s a fork in the road and it’s Picasso in one direction and Duchamp in the other, I’m definitely taking the Duchamp turn-off.

But Wiley’s work could be seen as very pop?

With Kehinde, there were a number of galleries that were willing to write very large cheques. Our position was different. We sat down with him and said: “You’re a very important artist in your generation, but the danger is that you will be viewed just as a painter. We understand that you’re a conceptual artist who’s making his propositions through painting.” With Kehinde, we understood that we were offering a fair exchange. Kehinde brings a wonderful pop sensibility to our programme, and we provide a strong conceptual framework. If you put those two things together then, boy, you’ve really got something.

Let’s talk about Marina Abramovic. Her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has cast her as “the grandmother of performance art”, as she puts it. How does a dealer manage the career of an artist like that?

Marina and I have worked together for 25 years now. It is the relationship of a career. I think the key is to have a belief in the artist. I knew right away that she was a great artist and never wavered, and she has never wavered in her support of the gallery throughout her success. Marina is a very loyal and kind person.

You’re restaging a piece of hers, Imponderabilia (where a nude man and woman make a doorway through which the public is forced to enter) at Art Basel this month. Why would you take such a blatantly non-commercial work to the mother of all art fairs?

Marina is going to have a very big moment in Basel this year. She’s got the opera with Bob [Robert] Wilson [The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, Theater Basel, 13-15 June], the film [Marina Abramovic: the Artist Is Present] and there are a lot of events scheduled. We wanted to focus on her. The work is not for sale. Marina has never sold her performances—they are not certificated.

You are on the committee for the Armory Show in New York in 2013. Having taken part in Frieze New York last month, do you think there is room for two art fairs in the city?

The reason I agreed to be on the Armory’s selection committee is because the fair organisers have always been very good to us. We do multiple millions of dollars of business there each year, and if we can do it, I don’t see why other people can’t. I wish that Frieze had been a little less aggressive about going after the Armory. I don’t think that’s necessary or productive. I would prefer it if people were not being told that, in effect, they have to make a choice.

Biography

1955 Born in Stockton-on-Tees, England

1978 Completes BA honours degree in studio arts, Cardiff College of Art

1981 Curator, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea

1984 Visual arts director, Bath International Arts Festival

1989 Takes a job in New York as the East Coast director of the LA Louver Gallery

1991 Opens a private gallery in SoHo; artists include Marina Abramovic and Joseph Kosuth

1995 The Sean Kelly Gallery opens to the public on 43 Mercer Street

2001 Moves to a 7,000 sq. ft space on 29th Street in Chelsea

October 2012 Scheduled to move into a 22,000 sq. ft gallery at 475 10th Avenue at 36th Street, designed by the architect Toshiko Mori

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sean Kelly expands his reach'