Some time ago I visited a friend who owns a gallery in Milan. Chatting about work, she confessed that organizing her latest exhibition had turned into a very personal and painful experience. Weeks before the opening, she invited the exhibiting artist to stay with her during the show’s preparation. The two ended up spending a lot of time together, during which they became very close. So close that my friend started to open up about a recent breakup that had left her deeply hurt.
Touched by her story, the artist decided to drop the exhibition’s original subject and focus instead on the gallerist’s relationship, going so far as to involve my friend’s ex-boyfriend in the production of a new body of work that would become the core of the show.
By then my friend had cut all ties with her ex in the hope that time and distance would help ease the pain. Caught between the artist’s wish and her own needs, she eventually decided to follow the former and be involved in the project. She picked up the phone and invited her ex to collaborate on the upcoming exhibition. He accepted.
As days passed by and the artist and ex began to work together, my friend realized that his presence had brought back heavy memories. She started to feel uncomfortable, to the point where she had to leave the gallery while he was around. She only returned once he had gone. The works were finished and successfully installed.
When I visited the exhibition, I couldn’t look at the works without considering the complexity behind their production and what it had meant to my friend. Standing next to one of those works, I asked her if she regretted the whole thing. “No,” she said coolly, “it’s a great show.”
As a gallerist myself, I recognized many of the dynamics at play behind that exhibition. One main question arose: How far are we gallerists willing to — or should — go in our relationships with the artists with whom we work?
Because of the nature of the job, gallerists can become incredibly close to artists. We act as their assistants, confidants, and friends, and yet we have to keep in mind constantly that our relationships have many constraints. How well we manage those ties determines how successful we are in making an artist happy (assuming there’s such a thing as a happy artist).
We don’t like to talk about it, but artists can be an unbearably difficult bunch. They have the power to turn our lives into misery on a whim: sales falling through; artworks consigned to the gallery and then pulled back; entire exhibitions postponed for months or canceled on the day of the opening. Not to mention our worst nightmare: an artist leaving to join another gallery.
But I must give artists the credit they deserve. Overpopulated by countless egos, the art world periodically forgets a very obvious point: Without artists we wouldn’t have anything to appreciate, write about, sell, transport, or curate. Away from the glamour surrounding the art world, artists are the ones who, alone in their studios, desperately try to make sense of what they see, think, and feel. I am sympathetic, and I am grateful to them for doing the dirty work. Their job requires them to dive into themselves, to bring to the surface what they find buried at the bottom: A lot of mud, and some hidden treasure. We gallerists, if we’re good, make sure that they re-emerge after every dive.
At the beginning of my career, in London, I remember hearing stories about Valerie Beston, the legendary gallery director who took care of Francis Bacon for decades. Beston first worked as a typist at Marlborough in the 1940s, before gradually taking charge of every aspect of Bacon’s life. She countersigned his cheques, paid off his Harrods bills, and made sure his rent was paid on time. She also happened to be at his side on the eve of his major retrospective in Paris in 1971, when they found George Dyer, Bacon’s lover, dead in the bathroom of his hotel room. Beston’s dedication to Bacon still inspires me today.
Over the years, my job has put me in all sorts of situations. But there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling I have played a part — however small — in facilitating the birth of an artwork. When I asked my friend if she had any regrets about letting an artist use her private life as the subject matter for a series of artworks, she said again: “It’s a great show.”