Stories of artists moonlighting at museums and galleries grace the pages of art history books. When he first moved to New York City in the 1980s, Jeff Koons worked the membership desk at The Museum of Modern Art; decades earlier, Robert Ryman reportedly discovered the work of fellow expressionist Mark Rothko as a security guard at the museum, earning $80 a week. Contemporary artist Richard Tinkler is best known for his rigorously geometric drawings and paintings, but also for his kind smile as he greets visitors at Matthew Marks’s Chelsea gallery, where he has worked since 2005. In Homegrown, a new online exhibition presented by Hauser & Wirth, the artists among its staff get a share of the spotlight.
The initiative flaunts the artistic bravura of the gallery’s workers and their family members, many of whom maintain rigorous studio practices. As evinced by the quality of the works in Homegrown, the principal focus of some of these employees is creating art. Through July 18, viewing rooms of 12 artists will go live every other Saturday. That amounts to more than 60 international artists highlighted from cities as diverse and far-flung as Sarasota, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Bruton.
All proceeds from sales of the works, which range in price from $100 to $20,000, will go directly to the artists; an additional 10% of gross profits will benefit the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization as part of the gallery’s #artforbetter initiative.
The artworks in the first drop, listed publicly with prices on the gallery’s website, include wire sculptures by Stephany Pollard, wife of a showroom technician in London, and kiln-formed glass pieces by David Hendren, a freelance technician in Los Angeles. One particularly beguiling trio of works, a painting and two textiles on wood, were made by Mervi Kytösalmi-Buhl, the mother of Hauser & Wirth Zurich’s head of front desk.
Brooklyn-based artists Eliot Greenwald, a full-time technician for Hauser & Wirth in New York, and Margot Bird, his partner, are both participating in Homegrown. In Bird’s paintings, seemingly incongruent motifs — poodles and gold chains, kittens, and snakes — co-mingle humorously in cosmic worlds built of big, free brushstrokes and bottomless stretches of brilliant hues. “Poodle Jogging” (2018), for instance, features a bendy, lime-green alien holding a tricky yoga pose while balancing on a glamorously-coiffed pooch.
For the sale, Greenwald is showing a new body of work he calls the “Night Car Drawings”: phantasmagorical compositions inspired by physics principles and pseudoscientific phenomena, such as pareidolia. They follow the misadventures of two imaginary characters, Nightcar and Dweeby Dimlight, whose mythology the artist plans to continue in a book he is working on with his sister.
The artists in Homegrown are joining the impressive legacy of visual creators who also worked in the field, many of whom are now household names. However, the fact that only a minute fraction of artists can make a living from their practice is a harsh reality which we must be wary of romanticizing. “It was common not to expect to be able to live from your art,” recalled painter David Salle of 1970s New York.
Not much seems to have changed. Institutions across the country, facing revenue losses from forced closures due to the pandemic, continue to furlough and lay off workers, rendering art employment even more precarious.
So far, the gallery has been able to support its staff. In a recent online panel with Professor Joachim Pissarro and Hunter College Art History MA Student Organization’s Dana Notine, Hauser & Wirth partner and president Marc Payot stated the gallery has not laid off employees and will be able to keep its full staff through at least July.
Hauser’s online show is not the only such initiative. Phillips, the international auction house, organizes its annual New York Staff Show; artists are connected directly with interested collectors. Still, at a time of profound crisis in the arts, an exhibition that celebrates both artists and art workers feels particularly timely. It is an important reminder that those who make the experience of art possible for the public have their own unique vision to share with the world.