Opinion

An Artist’s Farewell to a Self-Made New York Gallerist

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Monya Rowe Gallery on 34 Orchard Street (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There’s a lot of opinionated talk about the top-heavy art market, which resembles more a mushroom cloud than a market model. All puns intended. There are the complaints about speculators, including dealers, collectors, and the extinct connoisseur. Then there are the complaints about the artists: ruthless careerists who are all educated in similar institutions. Any critical backlash, however, accomplishes little change in the process — rather the attention seems to only increase the cache of the supposed art world whores and pimps.

But who are we to judge? Artists and dealers are awarded for playing into speculation, and who doesn’t want rewards? I know I do — I would never confess otherwise. But I want to make an argument here that quality of life, camaraderie, friendship, and lasting respect are still possible in this crazy world — and without playing into the myth of the starving, recluse, lonely, loser artist, broke and bitter at the margins.

I’m going to lay my own experience as a working artist on the table here for the record because I want to break the fog of complaints and bickering with a counter-story. More importantly, I want to thank my business partner of the past 10 years for her collaboration, independent spirit, and service to my and my peers’ work as she relocates her gallery this month to St. Augustine, Florida.

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Monya Rowe

In 2003, Monya Rowe opened her gallery in Williamsburg in what was basically a closet. She started the space not with a degree in curating or art history (I’m not dissing the traditional career track just pointing out a difference — Rowe learned plenty from folk with such invaluable degrees) but by selling her eggs to a fertility clinic and through experience in gallery settings. And she  opened the gallery with just 7,000 dollars. With confidence that can’t be traced or verified through academic or corporate lenses, she possesses those things people complain don’t exist any more: an eye, opinions, independent tastes, and a commitment to work she cares about. Not to mention a willingness to scrape by and never compromise the gallery’s identity to outside forces. When you visited Monya Rowe Gallery in its New York location (first in Williamsburg, then in Chelsea, and, finally, on 34 Orchard Street), you witnessed the collaboration between artists and independent dealers — not backers, consultants, or the forces that homogenize.

Rowe has perverse, often S&M-ish inklings that manifest in shows she’s put together, like Being Paul Schrader, a show inspired by Schrader’s oeuvre, with which she deeply identifies (think Cat People, Light Sleeper, and American Gigolo). Vintage Violence, which she co-organized with artist George Rush, consisted of works that deployed sex dungeon exercise equipment, fetish helmets, blood, torn paper, oozing surfaces, pleading eyes, suicide confessions, screaming cartoon figures, among other horrors and confessions. The works dealt in discomfort, bad behavior, ethical quandaries, embarrassing openness, power, and vulnerability during the height of what some label … Zombie formalism. Together Monya or I could be caught binge-watching VHS copies of Piero Paolo Pasolini, Virginie Despentes, Robert Bresson, Lizzie Borden, or John Boorman films whilst others gleefully rediscovered Hollis Frampton’s Lemon (a 7-minute video of the fruit). A lemon might have a million meanings, but so does a gigolo, a centaur, a nympho avenger, an abused teenaged girl, a middle class prostitute, or Lancelot’s sword.

At this moment when a Fox affiliate news channel censors the tits out of a $179 million Picasso or Christie’s brings in a billion in a weekend, it’s imperative that we recall where art germinates from — not its monstrous, posthumous projection. I strongly feel that it is important to remember that such relationships between artists and gallerists, or curators, matter and hold unpredictable futures that can’t be assessed monetarily. Perhaps (one can hope) there’s climate change in the art world going on; it is ripe for shifts, what with Cecily Brown and Eric Fischl leaving their gold chip galleries, both looking for less exposure rather than more.

Still, without backers, or two to 10 other people chipping in, it’s tricky to stay afloat in New York City and Rowe has a long history in her native Florida. For her artists and clients it’s an end of an era that is endemic of what’s going on in the city in general, from real estate to huge galleries with multiple locations showing the same roster of artists over and over again. It’s not the New York I moved to, that’s for sure.

But it’s worth noting Monya Rowe is one of the few galleries that sprung up in the early 2000s that still exists. Almost Rowe’s entire roster of artists will continue their relationships with her after her relocation. A few artists chose to migrate upwards and onward — moves I certainly condone and in fact I currently share with CRG Gallery. Note I say “share.” I didn’t leave Monya Rowe Gallery because I love being there, collaborating with a self-made woman who is fun to drink and dance with, who is rabidly honest, and whom I trust. So here’s a grateful farewell, and here’s to a welcome new, long-distance relationship; New York City will never be the same, but get ready, St. Augustine.

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