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How to walk away from the wild side

There is something refreshingly and unashamedly different about Michele Maccarone, the influential New York-based dealer who is preparing to open a 50,000 sq. ft space in Los Angeles this week

A former director of Luhring Augustine gallery, Michele Maccarone first made a name for herself in the early 2000s when she opened a punky project space on Canal Street in New York’s Lower East Side. Visitors to the opening show by Christoph Büchel in 2001 had to sign a waiver before crawling through a carved hole in the wall to enter various small rooms, some of which were only four feet high.

Other exhibitions included The New York Dirty Room (2005) by Mike Bouchet, in which the artist filled the ground-floor space with 75,000lbs of topsoil and compost. “Nobody would want this in their museum, never mind in their home, and that’s a healthy thing for art,” wrote the New York Times critic Holland Cotter.

The gallery currently represents almost two dozen artists, including Carol Bove, Nate Lowman, David Lamelas, Ann Craven and the estate of Sarah Charlesworth. “I don’t work for myself,” Maccarone says. “I work for a group of amazing artists.”

Nonetheless, she regards her early risk-taking years as a phase. “It was crazy and unsustainable. The whole thing kind of imploded,” she says. “It’s really irresponsible to do unsaleable and complicated shows over and over again because I’m now responsible for a large number of employees and artists. This is a family that I need to take care of.”

Maccarone moved from Canal Street to a more expensive, less crumbling space in the West Village in 2007. Overheads mounted, as did market pressures. She opted out of a project space in Los Angeles that had begun two years earlier with the dealer Christian Haye. “What Christian and I did was really fun, but it became a bit difficult. When I agreed to do the partnership, I was still on Canal Street with very low overheads, but in the midst of the partnership, I expanded. The gallery wasn’t sustaining itself and it was strangling me to continue.”

The pressure came to a head in 2007 at Art Basel Miami Beach, where Maccarone’s ambitious booth included a “gigantic installation” by Büchel, work by Paul McCarthy and a piece by Bove that required a contractor to pump concrete. “I was so overwhelmed. On opening day, I remember lying in bed eating chocolate-covered, peanut-butter-filled pretzels from CVS. I didn’t leave my room for the duration of the fair,” she says. “It was wildly unsuccessful.”

Maccarone then entered a “hunkering down” phase in which she became more “fiscally responsible”, she says. “I don’t think people know how much money it costs to do what we do. People think I am making money, but every penny pays for every square inch of what we do and our employees. It’s a serious thing and it’s expensive.”

By 2012, Maccarone had consolidated her business and expanded her space on Greenwich Street. “The gallery has become much less sloppy and more sophisticated. I really am trying to create a professional atmosphere around here,” she says. Her strategy now is to “pepper the programme with shows that you know are not going to make money. We do at least two shows a year that we know we’ll be able to sell.”

The current phase is one of invigoration, she says. “The art world right now is super-exciting. I think you can do anything you want. There are amazing opportunities to do things people aren’t really thinking about, because there’s this herd-like mentality. I feel like I’m now throwing off the shackles of being Michele Maccarone, to whom people go for young artists. We’re slowly starting to re-emerge.” She points to the gallery’s recent representation of the Charlesworth estate as an example. “She is someone who people weren’t necessarily thinking about, but in the short time we’ve worked with the estate, so many great things have happened, like the New Museum exhibition [in New York, until 20 September] and a new monograph we’re working on.”

Maccarone might also work on more one-off projects, such as the exhibition of works by Cecily Brown that she staged this summer. “I’m thinking about ways of doing more experimental things,” she says.

More business-minded, certainly, but Maccarone retains her bohemian charm. “I’ll never be a real professional. I’m the worst. My doctor can’t believe I’m an art dealer—he says I’m so casual,” she says, as she sits in an office chair with her knees hitched up to her chest.

The expansion to Los Angeles, which began as a small project but has grown, marks a new era for her. “It’s my Napoleon phase,” she says, laughing. “It didn’t end so well for him, though. I hope it goes better for me.”