Interviews

Margaret Liu Clinton on Closing Koenig & Clinton and Being a “Slow Gallerist”

“I think it is inevitable that the gallery system will go through a business restructuring, because otherwise small galleries are essentially incubating artists and employees for larger spaces that just brutally cherry-pick them,” Clinton tells Hyperallergic.

Left: Margaret Liu Clinton, 2019 (photo by Renee Bevan, New York); right: Leo Koenig, 2019 (photo by Ilka Grüneberg, Berlin) (courtesy of Margaret Liu Clinton)

Koenig & Clinton, the cherished contemporary art gallery in New York City known for its brainy exhibition program featuring the likes of Maria Hassabi, Anna Sew Hoy, Olivier Mosset, and Steven Baldi, announced its immediate closure last month. The gallery was founded in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in 2013, when Margaret Liu Clinton, then a partner at the longstanding Leo Koenig, Inc., joined forces with Koenig, her then husband. When they relocated to Bushwick in Brookyn in 2017, Koenig continued to focus largely on the secondary market (the resale of artworks) while Clinton spearheaded the primary program, working directly with artists to sell their work and mount exhibitions.

Koenig & Clinton graced Hyperallergic’s “Best of 2019” Brooklyn list with not one, but two mentions: I’m Blue (If I Was ▉▉▉▉▉ I Would Die), American Artist’s powerful conceptual critique of the reactionary countermovement Blue Lives Matter; and Relative Brightness, a collaborative show of Anoka Faruqee and David Driscoll’s delightfully dizzying “Circle” paintings. In a candid conversation with Hyperallergic, Clinton articulates the joys and the challenges of running a small gallery in the midst of a rapidly changing contemporary art market.

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Hyperallergic: There are so many complicated feelings around closing a chapter. What are your feelings about closing Koenig & Clinton?

Margaret Liu Clinton: I’m feeling overwhelmed and deeply humbled by the outpouring of support we’ve received. I’ve encountered so many incredible people throughout this period of running Koenig & Clinton, but sometimes we move so quickly that it doesn’t always register just how amazing some of them truly are. Galleries our size are often just trying to keep up with the pace of things. A lot of us, especially through Instagram, are competing for attention. And you just don’t know who you reach. On the one hand, we live in public, and on the other hand, we feel so isolated, a lot of us gallerists.

H: I’m curious about what led you and Leo to this moment, and to the decision of closing the gallery. 

MLC: Very practically, there were just certain financial conditions. I’m a primary market gallerist, and as much as I like objects, I will always fall on the side of a fascinating practice. This is how I was trained by the Whitney [Independent Study Program]: we value artists before we value objects. It’s not that objects aren’t important, but they are just a form of communication to me,  and I’m really interested in what the artist has to say. I think I’m not somebody who is calibrated for a really fast, digital marketplace. Personally I’m interested in slow food, sustainable practices … and I think I’m a slow gallerist. I’m not sure I regret that, but it’s hard to be slow and small at this point. I think it is inevitable that the gallery system will go through a business restructuring, because otherwise small galleries are essentially incubating artists and employees for larger spaces that just brutally cherry-pick them. And the fair system has got to stop subsidizing large galleries and asking small galleries to pay disproportionately more, in terms of their profit margin. It reminds me of the tax system in the US, where we have people working in the middle class who are paying way more than they should compared to people who are earning exponentially more and paying less.

Installation view of Steven Baldi, Life as Cannon Sees It at Koenig and Clinton, 2018 (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, courtesy the artist and Koenig and Clinton)

H: I understand that Koenig & Clinton operated in both the primary and secondary markets.

MLC: That’s the traditional model: many galleries have secondary market sales that help fund and launch younger artists in the primary market. When Leo and I started working together, the original idea was that I would come in and focus on primary, and he could be focusing more on secondary. And in the time of our partnership, those conversations could be happening in the same room: the person you were selling primary market work to, you were also selling secondary work to. But what has happened now, with the reckless financialization of the contemporary market, is that those conversations are no longer in the same room. The bifurcation of the art market was really reflected in my partnership with Leo. I think what’s not really publicly known about Koenig & Clinton is that at one point, I basically took over the gallery and ran it completely. And financed it completely, too. I had a lot of support from Leo in terms of collectors, but the gallery wasn’t necessarily funded by secondary sales. With the exception of very few projects that had big production costs, the rest was all primary market sales.

Installation view of Miljohn Ruperto, Isabel Rosario Cooper at Koenig and Clinton, 2014 (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, courtesy the artist and Koenig and Clinton)

H: Can you speak more to the “reckless financialization of the contemporary market”?

MLC: In the early 2000s, you had an unnatural amount of money because of financial deregulation in the 1990s, and we saw an overvaluing of contemporary art. There was so much capital flowing, artists and young gallerists weren’t stopping to think about whether it was normal. What you see after the recession is a new sobriety, investment in museum-quality works that are really sold by the auction houses. It’s an alternative financial vehicle, it’s part of a financial portfolio for collectors — not all, but many of them. So now we have a new perspective on what art is.  

When I started the commercial part of my career, collectors were meeting artists in person; they would go to their studios and develop a dialogue that grew organically with the galleries. There wasn’t a house in Aspen, a house in the Hamptons, an apartment in Paris, and another place in Palm Beach. It wasn’t a jet-set. Collectors have every right to do whatever they want with their money, but I think there is a way in which the artist is so left out from what is happening right now within the art market. And I think that’s a huge problem. I personally think artists should be paid when something is sold at auction; they should be earning a percentage of those sales. That object wouldn’t be there without them but they get nothing, it’s insulting.

Installation view of Nicole Miller, The Borrowers at Koenig and Clinton, 2015 (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, courtesy the artist and Koenig and Clinton)

H: And those are just the very few artists who develop a secondary market at all. It feels like the gap between the very top of the market and the lower and middle tiers gets wider every year, but of course, the art world just reflects what’s happening in our economy.

MLC: Right. I mean, I’m part of a middle class that has been hollowed out of the arts system in New York within the market. It’s the decline of the middle class that nobody talks about, but it’s a reflection of what’s happening on a much wider scale internationally in terms of capital flows. I’m blown away by how much it changed in a decade. I was raised by an incredible dealer Miguel Abreu and I was trained by Elizabeth Dee. I think that they both respect artists’ visions and the stakes of what their visions might be. That’s a very different thing from, How do I modify what I do so that it represents well in a square graphic or Instagram ad looks great in two dimensions? How many units can I sell? That’s not my job, and I don’t want it to be my job. 

Installation view of American Artist, I’m Blue at Koenig and Clinton, 2019 (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, courtesy the artist and Koenig and Clinton)

H: When I asked you initially why you decided to close, you cited financial conditions. Are there other factors? Do you think Instagram is bad for art?

MLC: A lot of my fascination in our roster was with technology and the way it impacts our lives. I’m a major fan of Walter Benjamin’s. My connection to Maria Hassabi’s work, for instance, has a lot to do with how I feel about technology; Anoka Faruqee and David Driscoll also. When I first met Anoka, she had just begun her “moiré” paintings. The moiré pattern is exactly what you don’t want in a digital image, it’s disruption. How powerful is it to go back to a very simple media and to create that which disrupts? I’ve seen Instagram do incredible things for artists. But sometimes it saddens me to sometimes see their work reduced to a screen. I’ve noticed more galleries are giving virtual tours so people don’t have to see something in person, so they don’t have to experience something, rather. My friend Anicka Yi, who is a fantastic artist and is Asian American like me, often points out the Western predilection for the visual ahead of all other senses. The way she and I grew up, we don’t think about apprehending things with just our eyes. And I think it’s important that people walk into galleries.

H: Were people walking into Koenig & Clinton?

You know, we actually had really strong foot traffic, but most of the people coming in were artists. And that’s really important, but it put me in a situation where I had to participate in fairs. That’s not always affordable, and a lot of the work I like isn’t going to translate to a fair.

H: Or to a PDF, which is how many galleries sell work before the fair even opens. 

MLC: Yeah. And the risk to any small-scale gallery, if you do a fair and you’re not selling out your booth, is huge. Don’t get me wrong, I believe fairs are necessary. I’m so impressed by organizations like NADA [New Art Dealers Alliance], because they really foster community amongst galleries. I love Untitled’s model of thinking of a fair as a platform for critical dialogue. I love that Frieze has Frieze Masters, which creates an opportunity for people who are there to see contemporary art to also realize that it has some really deep roots. Basel’s “Conversations” series is excellent. So there are ways in which fairs provide so much more, but they’re really so terrifying, so prohibitively expensive, and the risks are way too high. And at the gallery, there weren’t enough people coming through, in terms of critics, curators … I don’t take it personally, I think we’re all just working too much.

H: That’s part of the problem , I think, that there’s too much: too many fairs, too many auctions … We started this conversation with you talking about an artist’s “practice,” which I think is a really important word. It’s the idea of understanding a career, of sitting down and looking at work from the past 10 years, and that’s something we can’t necessarily do because we’re flooded. 

MLC: Agreed. Describing the role of galleries, Miguel Abreu once said to me: “There is too much in the world. Our job is to edit.” And this is an interesting perspective because he’s trained as a filmmaker, and I was trained as a designer and studied cultural criticism, so I think a lot about the fact that a gallery is not a neutral space. It is completely a production. His words will never leave me: our job is to select and to present. And I think that’s what gets lost when we’re looking at this cinematic scroll of Instagram, when you’re moving within seconds between so many different types of contexts.  

Installation view of A.L. Steiner, 30 Days of Mo:)rning at Koenig and Clinton, 2016 (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, courtesy the artist and Koenig and Clinton)

H: In line with that, what’s next for you? How will you take these experiences into the future? And if you can speak on behalf of Leo, we’d love to know what he’ll be up to as well. 

MLC: Leo is going to re-open Leo Koenig Inc. in New York. He’ll focus on secondary market and artist’s projects but won’t be representing artists. I think it’s really exciting, and I look forward to seeing how that’s going to take shape. I want to remain involved with artists as a friend, ally, and advocate. I’m going to be consulting and studying. I use the word “consulting” because it won’t be just advising people on art, but helping friends with different businesses, because I’ve been through the ups and downs of being a small business owner. 

H:  It must be inspiring to focus on different projects after being so sure and so determined in one industry for so long.

MLC: I don’t know if I always felt so sure. I don’t think that we are in a very supportive industry. The generation of female gallerists before mine had to put up with so much, and they have done so much for us. But I think that many of them come from a highly competitive mindset, because those are the conditions that shaped them. I think we need to have a much more collaborative moment which I don’t always necessarily find with my colleagues, male or female. I have some incredibly good relationships with people that I value deeply, but on the whole there’s so much pressure to be highly successful all the time that no one wants to admit to any vulnerability. And vulnerability is how you connect to people. When are we going to realize that we’re in it together, that we’re in a much bigger set of culture wars?

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