TLD Interview: Gallery Owner Lesley Heller

Lesley Heller in her gallery, Lesley Heller Workspace, at 54 Orchard Street. Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

For some time we’ve been intrigued by the shows at Lesley Heller Workspace on lower Orchard Street. So I was excited to sit down with owner Lesley Heller recently to learn more about her approach to curating shows and hear about the sorts of work that makes an impact on her.  Currently on view at Heller’s space are Tom Kotik and Head Case.

TLD: You moved your gallery to Orchard St. from the Upper East Side in 2010. What sparked the move?

Lesley Heller: I knew I wanted to move to a more dynamic neighborhood and I thought there were so many galleries in Chelsea. And the Lower East Side was just beginning to be a neighborhood of galleries. My gallery was on 92nd St. off Madison for two years, and 77th St. off Madison next to The Castelli for two years.

TLD: What’s your background and involvement in art?

LH: I studied international relations and business in college, then worked on Wall Street but didn’t find it fulfilling. I was also a modern dancer and danced in Paris full-time while studying French. I was searching for something that combined business and the arts, so when I returned from Paris, I decided to pursue a master’s degree at Columbia in arts administration. The idea was to manage a dance company but after I got my degree, someone told me about a job as an assistant at Pace Gallery. I interviewed for it and worked there for about two years in the early 90s. I learned a lot about the commercial art business there.

Then I found out about a job at a law firm that wanted to start a curatorial program and was looking for someone to run their gallery. At Dolgenos Newman & Cronin, which was at 96 Spring St. at the time, I curated six to eight shows per year for 10 years. It was my first gallery which I called The Work Space. There, I met a lot of the artists that I still work with. Since the law firm was in Soho, it wanted to be part of the art community.

Pieces from Tom Kotik's solo exhibition at Lesley Heller Workspace by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

TLD: Tell me about your stable of artists. How do you find them?

LH: I learn about emerging and mid-career artists from artists who I’ve worked with in the past. Artists I know and respect introduce me to other artists. I work with 20 artists now and curate two shows a year, the rest are guest curated. We mount new shows every six weeks.

I have a front gallery for solo shows and a second gallery for group shows. I like working with outside curators who expose me to new work—it’s stimulating. I like working with a constantly changing group of artists. I’m always learning and seeing new artists’ work—I do at least one studio visit per week. My philosophy is I never wanted to work with artists long-term—I  encourage artists to move up the food chain. I try to help them make contacts at other galleries for solo shows.

TLD: What styles/mediums really fascinate you? How would you describe what needs to happen for you internally in order for you to want to offer an artist a show at the gallery?

LH: If someone looked at the work in my gallery, they would say it was very eclectic. But my eye is attracted to a worked surface. I like to feel the artist’s hand in the work. So if I show a photographer’s work, the photos are usually created by hand—they’re building something and shooting it—and it’s usually film, not digital. If they do digital, they shoot and then do a pastel or oil stick on it and then re-shoot it. I don’t like cold, slick work. It does not turn me on.

Sometimes I have a visceral reaction to what I see. Other times I don’t know what bothered me or why didn’t I like the work. Often, for me, it turns out to be something I don’t understand and I can’t figure out what bothered me but it’s obviously sticking with me and maybe I will end up working with that artist. The bottom line is you have to trust your gut which took me years to figure out.

TLD: You had a great show of Loren Munk’s work—Location, Location, Location, Mapping the New York Art World—in September. Munk’s works mapped the history of contemporary art in New York. Is he typical of a mid-career artist that may have been overlooked?

LH: Yes, and he received a lot of acclaim for the show which I hope will put him back on the map. One of my artists told me about Loren, that I should go to his studio and see his work. I loved it. I was so excited by the work.

TLD: Where is the art market now? How would you characterize it?

LH: At the high end of the art market, the very safe, well-known artists are doing very well, better than mid-career and emerging artists. The economy is not so great and this is a luxury item. Younger and mid-career artists are riskier, there’s no guarantee.  For a while there was a lot of Wall St. money coming into the market, before the 2008 melt-down.

Pieces from "Headcase," a group exhibition at Lesley Heller Workspace. Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

TLD: What place do galleries have given that artists are now sharing, showing and selling online?

LH: It’s a changing place. There are dealers who believe they don’t need a gallery any more. Some feel they can sell everything through the internet. A lot of dealers are closing galleries and doing art fairs and internet sales only. I think there’s always going to be a place for galleries, especially for  emerging and mid-career artists. They have to show regularly before they hit the big time. Their careers have to be built. I really think people should look at art in person especially if they don’t know the artist, but it’s not always possible.

TLD: What’s your approach to running the gallery?

LH: My philosophy is it’s a friendly, welcoming place. A lot of galleries don’t have that philosophy. Art is difficult to understand and the more friendly and comfortable you make the experience, it helps people who want to learn about art get the chance to enter the art world. You don’t know who’s going to buy.

TLD: You were the organizing force behind the Lower East Side’s season opening gallery night in September. What motivated you to do that?

LH: It was Sept. 7th. Chelsea does it the first Thursday after Labor Day. I got together in July with as many of the dealers down here as I could and we met to talk about having an opening night. There were 40 galleries that participated and 30 of those contributed to an ad in The New York Times. The LES Business Improvement District paid for half of the ad. The more the galleries in the neighborhood work together, the more successful we’ll all be. I really believe in community-building. My hope is that the event helps drive home that this is an area for art. I think we’ll do it again next year.

Tom Kotik and Headcase are on view through November 27th. Lesley Heller Workspace is located at 54 Orchard Street. Gallery hours are Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m.

Tobi Elkin is a writer, editor and interviewer who lives on the Lower East Side and is a regular reader of The Lo-Down. Her diverse interests include arts and entertainment, film, food and cultural critique. She can be reached at tobi.elkin@gmail.com.