StandPipe Gallery was founded in New York City in 2010 by Alison Pierz and is co-directed by Alison and Michael J. Bowen. Located in a ground floor space in Chelsea, the Gallery is dedicated to promoting the work of emerging and mid-career artists based on the principles of creative vision, craft, and artistic beauty of abstract painting. By believing that exquisite art should be accessible and affordable, StandPipe Gallery is cultivating relationships with emerging and mid-range buyers as well as institutional collectors and art advisers.
We recently caught up with StandPipe Gallery’s founder and director, Alison Pierz, to hear about how she got started and what she had learned through the process. The format below is based on a question / answer sit down chat with Alison’s answers recreated from the notes I took during our talk.
Q: You started StandPipe Gallery less than a year ago - how did you get started?
A: Starting the Art Gallery was serendipitous though I did have a background in art so it wasn’t like I was walking off of the street without knowing what I was getting into. I studied Design at Pratt in New York City, studied “Museum Studies” at Harvard extension and also worked in Museums (Museum of Fine Art) Boston so I have been surrounded by Art and Artists a good portion of my life. In addition to my studies, I have done work in the retail and art fair sector so I had a good mix of “what is art” and “how do people go about selling art.” Lastly, I was a working artist for a period of my life and had several showings in galleries which helps me to this day as I have been on both sides of the art gallery business.
About a year ago I was working on print making in a basement space of the building where the StandPipe Gallery is found now. Through my relationship with the building tenants I found out on Halloween that the space on the ground floor with a front window was going to be opening up and that I could apply to get it. It was almost magical. For a number of years I had been thinking of opening an Art Gallery and here was my chance! The only wrinkle to the situation was that if I was going to do it the landlord gave me a three month window to try it out before it would go to someone else. As January is a slow time for Art Gallery Openings (much like the summer), I knew that I had to have my first show by December.
Given the great store front, the Chelsea location, and my love of art, I decided to take the plunge and go for it. We believe the solo show format is very important to our mission of presenting underrepresented talent so for the first exhibition I chose an underrepresented artist. Once our program had been established and we had our first show lined up, I then started calling everyone I knew. We made it through the first three months and have been growing and getting better ever since. We have sold art works almost every show since the first one and our database of clients and artists we work with and want to work with also continues to grow. We have worked around a 1 month format (4-6 weeks with a week in between) of solo-shows and are in the middle of doing our first group show. Our first group show has gotten great reviews and is currently listed as one TimeOut New York’s “Best of The Week” which means that we were selected as one of the 15 best things to see (in all of NYC!) this week. We will have our 1 year anniversary soon and I am excited to see what comes in the future!
Q: What have been 3 key decisions you have made that have led to your early success?
A: The first key decision was deciding on and sticking with a clear program from the very beginning. Our clear program was that we would be a for-profit art gallery specializing in abstract painting. We chose the for-profit route because we thought that by being a non-profit we would limit our autonomy and could maybe force us to bow to other people’s agendas. As for the art - we believe that the core of working in art is painting so we love and represented abstract paintings. Abstract paintings speak to us because when you are looking at a new painting you do not bring a preconceived notion of what you are looking at and do not have a prior history with the objects. When looking at a new abstract painting you are invited to create a new history and conversation together which allows you to grow.
The funny thing about “narrowing” yourself is that you find so much more variation and can really explore the art that is being made in a way that really advances the conversation. Although we have had one clear program since the beginning, our shows have covered solo show, group shows, conceptual shows, big canvases, small ones, as well as some semi-sculptural pieces. Not only that we have had artists from the US, Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and other places outside of the US as well as local NYC artists. Additionally, as we are open to submissions and like to show under-represented artists, it allows people to find us because they know what StandPipe Gallery stands for and likes to show.
The second key decision was deciding to work as a team with the artists. Though this sounds self-explanatory, both myself and the artists StandPipe Gallery works with have interacted with people on both sides of the business that do not take this view. One of the ways we work as a team with the artist is by providing a critical survey of the artist’s art for the show. This allows the gallery to have one clear and strong voice and provides the artist another way people can interact with the art.
Another way we work as a team is by fostering the age old symbiotic relationship between artist and dealer for the artists who appreciate that. Art making and art selling very often require different skill sets and we love to help where we can with what we know.
The third key decision was attending art fairs with the goal of meeting clients and selling art. I had previously worked with/for an art fair so it really helped to know the lay of the land before StandPipe Gallery started participating. Although art fairs (even local ones) can be very expensive, they really help to get your name out there as well as provide another distribution point for your artists. After all, art has to be seen to be appreciated. Though I understand why some artists deride the more commercial side of galleries and art fairs there has to be a give and take to keep art in the public’s eyes. Through merchandising we can help artists continue making more art which is what both the artist and StandPipe Gallery really want - more art in the world.
Q: How did/do you find artists to show?
A: For the first StandPipe Gallery show I called friends and artists I knew to recommend artists who would be interested. This led to a growing base of artists which I knew about and could go to see their studios. I have attended and continue to attend as many open studios as I possibly can whether it is at schools, universities, neighborhoods, or other places. A big take away I have found is that you have to really believe and like the artists whom you chose to work with as they also represent you and the gallery. Branding is an easy way to stand out in the field and definitely more so if you are both proud to work with each other. So it is a two-sided relationship and that is what we tell all of our artists when we start out - that we are a family and we will represent them like a family member. You represent your family and on some basis your family represents you. We do not put artists in super-strict contracts, we work with them based on a 1-year understanding that we have the right to sell the work they showed. If they want to show elsewhere or sell other work elsewhere we are supportive.
At a more granular level StandPipe Gallery is on an “anti-ugly” Mission. We believe that art can be edifying and approach levels of sublimity that obvious, immature, ugly, shock art cannot approach. We stay away from art that is boring and not engaging - we do not want “merely decorative” paintings, we want art. We look for and represent artists who have a maturity level that allows for sustainable work and enjoyment. Some of the work we see from some artists feels like it is a phase or trend on their way to maturity. We feel that mature work displays a level of virtuosity that should be expected from a professional. As one of our artists who teaches at SVA said recently - when you go to a classical music concert you expect virtuosity from the violinist, why would you expect anything less from yourself as an artist?
Q: How did/do you find clients?
A: At first we started out with our friends and family as well as the artist’s friends and family. This was wonderful because it allowed us to receive great and honest feedback right away from people who wanted us to succeed. Since then two things have really worked in our favor - location and innovative promoting. The location has been spectacular because there is a great deal of foot traffic on the street and as we are at street level with a big window to the street we have enjoyed lots of walk-in traffic. The innovative promoting has come from promoting as much as possible in the non-art press. The art press is already inundated with art galleries and artists promoting their work so it’s hard to stand out versus something like a write up that Details magazine did on StandPipe Gallery or being chosen as “Best of the week” by TimeOut New York. Another way we have approached promoting has been to work with art advisors and architects - we learn their tastes and they learn ours and we have worked together beautifully. Lastly, as mentioned before art fairs have been a wonderful and successful way to meet people who appreciate art and are pre-disposed to becoming clients. Of course, one cannot ignore the online side of the business. We have a Facebook account (like us!), website and flat files so we are slowly learning and using these very powerful tools.
Q: StandPipe Gallery is successful. Are there any frustrations in the background?
My biggest frustration in one sentence is “I want to sell more art.” Of course we can look at it like “I want to make more money” which is true, though the reason it is a frustration is that people seem to be loosing their appreciation for art. People appear to value fine art making less and less as years go by. Sure we hear of multi-million dollar auctions, but those are not the people who need more art in their lives. Art is not ephemeral, Art is object based - it is something to develop and have a relationship with from the moment you see it until the end of time. The anti-thesis of this of course is the MONA (Museum of Non-Visible Art - a conceptual art project organized by artist duo Praxis and by actor James Franco). The MONA is a museum “composed entirely of ideas”. This to me is about embracing and selling the concept that art is nothing more than an idea - that once you have had an idea that the “art” is over. To me this feels all wrong as I think in some senses it trivializes the virtuosity of art and makes it harder to convince people to invest in having art in their lives.
Q: What business challenges are you facing currently?
Thankfully we have not made or look like we are going to make any big mistakes. That said, one of the business challenges we are facing is getting more people on board with our mission both in terms of energy and money. While the gallery is paying for itself we would love for it to be providing enough capital to really grow. At the end of the day it is a still a business my co-director and I run whose success is based on the work Michael and I put into it. We had an amazing Gallery Assistant, Robin Scheines, who really helped us and more of people like her would be immensely useful.
Also useful would be business manager. We want artists to focus on making art, we want to focus on making the art gallery represent amazing artists, and we would like a business manager to deal with the nitty gritty of running a business (which doesn’t really have to do with running/curating the art gallery). This would be useful in brainstorming as well as giving us more time to represent our artists and concentrate on helping to showcase amazing art to the world. Learning how to be a commercial gallery is something that has been and continues to be an ongoing process. After all, the opening is just the party, the real work starts the morning after and, not only that, the art changes every month as you show new artists and your business grows.
Q: What is next for StandPipe Gallery?
What is next for StandPipe Gallery is that we will convince people to want to live with art. We will begin out Fall Season in September and already have shows pencilled in all the way to next April. Additionally, we are excited to be involved with the Governors’ Island Art Fair as well - http://standpipegallery.com/upcoming/governors-island-art-fair. We will be having a fantastic group show for our 1-year anniversary that I am really excited about as the current group show has been such a positive eye-opening experience.
StandPipe Gallery begins its Fall Season with Laura Sue Phillips:
StandPipe Gallery, a gallery of advanced painting at 150 W. 25th St, presents Flower Targets by Laura Sue Phillips. Phillips’s vibrant, iconic works share significant overtones with both the Pop and Minimalist traditions. Well established in the New York art scene, Phillips’s work has been the subject of numerous group and solo exhibitions. An opening reception for the show will be held on Thursday, September 8th, from 6-8PM. Refreshments will be served and the public is welcome. The show will run through Saturday, Oct. 8th. Gallery hours are Wednesday - Saturday, 12:00 – 6:00PM.
StandPipe Gallery is involved in the Governors’ Island Art Fair every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in September (http://standpipegallery.com/upcoming/governors-island-art-fair).