Interviews

A Rural Artist-Run Gallery in Upstate New York Works to Start a Scene

Julie Torres was a Brooklyn artist, but then one day she and her partner, artist Ellen Letcher, decided to leave it all and head upstate.

Artist-curator Julie Torres at LABspace (photo by Joan Grubin)

When artists run galleries, the traditional gallery model can get shaken up in compelling ways. Two formerly Brooklyn-based artist-curators, Julie Torres and her partner Ellen Letcher, have recently taken on the challenge of running LABspace, a tiny gallery in the Hudson River Valley founded by artist Susan Jennings in 2014. Though LABspace is set up as a for-profit business, it’s driven by aspirations beyond financial sustainability.

Located in the rural hamlet of Hillsdale, tucked into the back of a small complex of shops, this high-spirited DIY experiment seeks to build a vigorous creative community, a hub where artists gather for conversation and mutual support. Torres and Letcher approach managing the gallery more as an art project than a business venture, keeping the work on view as affordable as possible by offering modestly-sized works on paper and inviting exhibiting artists to participate in installing their own work.

The current show, Spatial Oddities, transforms the diminutive cave-like gallery into an outburst of whimsical, color-saturated objects and paintings, reveling in tactility and oddball materials. Despite the fact that the seven participating artists (Becca Van K, Carol McMahon, Christina Tenaglia, Claire Sherwood, Claudia Tienan, Diane Dwyer, Maddi LaVallee, and Susan Carr) collaboratively installed their work in LABspace’s intimate interior, a surprising order and rigor prevail.

Torres and Letcher’s leap-of-faith attitude has led to an encouraging volume of sales during their first several months. Undaunted by risk, they host collaborative exhibitions and events with such a tonic mix of conviviality and enthusiasm that sustainability just might come unbidden, keeping them in the game for some time to come. But success aside, this quirky model inspires with its endearing humanity, and its focus on artists’ needs for artistic and emotional support.

I sat down with Julie Torres for Hyperallergic to talk about the rewards and challenges of an artist-run gallery.

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Spatial Oddities at LABspace (installation view) (Photo credit: Claire Sherwood)

Hyperallergic: Julie, you’re an artist and a curator, running LABspace, building artistic community. Were there models — any people in particular — that inspired you?

Julie Torres: There were so many I met during my eight years in Brooklyn that I’m afraid of leaving people out — artists supporting other artists and building artistic communities. All of that was taught to me by organizers, artists, curators. One really formative experience I had in Brooklyn was meeting Jason Andrew, who ran Norte Maar out of his living room. The second I walked into his space, I thought, “This is something I could do. All I need is my home. I can do this!” The very first show I ever organized was fifty Bushwick artists in my living room for my birthday, in 2010.

Other models were Enrico Gomez and Rob De Oude, who ran Camel Art in Williamsburg. I just happened to stop in. They asked me if I was an artist. This never happens! Enrico pulled up my website on his phone and said, “I really like your work.” And in a month or two I was in a show there. It’s that inclusive, community spirit — “We’re all in this together, I’m an artist, you’re an artist, this is an artist-run space.” Their exhibition space was basically the entrance and hallway of their studio building. What a great model. That was a huge lesson in connecting and just doing it wherever you can do it.

In that period, I curated a show called Heroes about all the people around me who were championing other artists, curating shows for artists. It was a way of giving back to people who have been giving back for years.

Then when I moved to Hudson, I was helped by people working here in the same way.  Jeff Bailey, Kristen Dodge with September, Art Omi, and John Davis, of course. They’ve all been very welcoming and generous. When I walk into any of their spaces, they talk to me and I’ll spend time in there. That doesn’t happen in Chelsea.

H: Why did you chose to leave New York and relocate in the Hudson Valley?

JT: I was just really burned out by the city. The first time I came to Hudson, I fell in love with it immediately. I just thought, “What a beautiful place, and it’s an art center.”

H: So you’ve taken over LABspace from Susan Jennings, and now you have the freedom to realize your own vision. What are your aspirations for the space?

JT: I walked into an existing community that Susan Jennings (aka SJ) created. I couldn’t possibly exaggerate the value of that. That is a huge gift. SJ and I are very well-aligned in our thinking about how we like to put shows together. Like me, she also prefers to trust artists to bring the work, rather than go to the studio and pick out pieces, though I do that sometimes. For the current show, Spatial Oddities, I told the artists, “Pack your car full of work. Show up and we’ll install the show together.” It’s just a fun idea to get the artists more involved in the installation and curating process.

H: It seems like that’s about trust.

JT:  That’s right. SJ and I talk about that all the time. It’s all about trusting the artist to bring good work and good ideas. We both view exhibiting as a collaboration.

H: I love this quote of yours I found online about painting where you said, “I love to be fast, loose, open, and reckless.”

JT:  That’s embarrassing!

H: No, not at all!  It’s about relying on intuition and the trust that you were just talking about. The quote was referring to painting for 24 hours straight.

JT: [Artist] Geddes Levenson inspired me to do these 24-hour painting marathons with her. It expanded my idea of what art making is because you go into a trance-like state and I enjoyed it so much.

H: Does “fast and loose” apply to your curatorial style as well, or does curating require a different mind set?

JT: I actually think I have reached that state of mind with curating because it is a marathon. Everything happens in the final moment. No matter how you think you have everything figured out, you have to be ready to roll with so many punches and go with the flow.

H: Tell me about Ellen Letcher’s role as co-director of LABspace — it probably makes it much more doable to have a partner in the gallery.

JT: Definitely. Ellen ran a space before, and has all that expertise. I do the administrative work and the social media. Right now Ellen’s happy to maintain her role behind the scenes and have me be on the frontline with people.

H: Serving mimosas during gallery hours!

JT: I do serve mimosas sometimes. I want to be welcoming, to create an atmosphere where everyone can enjoy the art.

H: This current show is very playful and whimsical, though sophisticated.

JT:  I think that without realizing it, I do gravitate toward work with that welcoming quality.

H: Could you speak a bit about the financial side of running the gallery, how you think about sustainability over the long term?

JT: I dread this question. That’s a big, complicated question. The reality is I don’t have an answer. We are simply winging it. I’m attending the Artists Thrive Summit in Kentucky with Sharon Louden next week, and I hope to glean some useful insights there.

H: The extreme affordability of the work sold here is unusual. What’s your thinking about that strategy?

JT: One mission is in every show to have a range of pricing so there is always work affordable for artists. That idea came to me on a trip to Hudson. At John Davis Gallery, I saw Kathy Bradford’s work — marvelous, painted cardboard constructions. The miraculous part was the affordable prices. I never have a lot of money, but I had just gotten a bonus from work serendipitously, and I bought one.

It was the first time I, as an artist, ever purchased an artist’s work in a gallery — an established artist who is a hero to me. Later, Kathy said, “That’s very important to me, to have work that’s affordable for artists.” It was a beautiful lesson for me in generosity, in providing an opportunity for artists to be collectors. It supports everybody — the artist making the work, the artist collecting the work, the gallery selling the work. Everybody wins.

So, pricing artwork affordably at LABspace helps with sales. We’re also planning monthly flat file sales. This is simply a fun, exciting journey. I’m not sure an artist-run space is sustainable for more than two years, unless it becomes a collective like TSA, Transmitter, or Underdonk in Brooklyn. Maybe that’s something for us to consider down the road. LABspace might take more than just two of us to sustain. Or possibly we’ll let fellow trusted artists curate shows, as SJ sometimes did. Right now we are just having fun and resisting the urge to be spooked by any of it. We’re taking it day by day, and loving it.

Spatial Oddities is on view at LABspace (2642 NY Route 23, Hillsdale, New York) through Sunday, August 26, with a closing party from 3-6 pm.

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