Neighborhood galleries will stay open late this Thursday for Third Thursdays, a monthly event from the LES Business Improvement District showcasing the Lower East Side’s flourishing arts scene. Galleries will be open until 9pm and the New Museum is offering free evening admission. The Lo-Down is pleased to be the local media sponsor of the event and is profiling a participating gallery each month.
We recently stopped in to chat with John and Kristine Woodward, co-owners of The Woodward Gallery, a nearly 6,000-sq.ft. space at 133 Eldridge St. near Delancey St. The gallery’s current exhibition “20 in 11” is a group show of artists from around the world who haven’t exhibited at Woodward. A few of the “20” include David Bender, Patrick Christie, Jay Constantine, Lisa French and Abby Goodman, Slavka Kolesar and Tetiana Zakharova. On view through July 23, the show cuts a wide swath featuring Flemish-influenced portrait paintings, modern figurative works and super realism, to intricate dot paintings and detailed paper sculpture.
John and Kristine Woodward, owners of the eponymous Woodward Gallery, were pioneers when they moved their gallery from Soho to the Lower East Side in December 2006. While the LES neighborhood was only a short hop away, it was worlds away from the hurly-burly of Soho and pretention of the Chelsea gallery scene which was just fine with them. Shortly after their move, nothing drove the cultural differences home more than an experience with their new next-door neighbor on Eldridge St. — a Buddhist temple.
“The woman from the temple insisted on blessing the gallery after we completed renovations,” John recalls; a gracious gesture that wouldn’t have happened in Soho or Chelsea. The Woodwards decided to paint their storefront gallery at 133 Eldridge a shiny fire engine red, matching the temple’s color. No longer pioneers—there are now 60 some galleries on the LES plus the New Museum—the couple are a fixture in the neighborhood, welcoming art lovers and the simply curious alike. Their Chinese Shar-Pei dogs—Lucy and Ethel—are a constant presence and the gallery’s official “greeting committee.”
Of the move from Soho, “John and I have always said we need to feel enthusiastic and positive about what we do,” says Kristine, comfortably seated in a black leather chair in the gallery’s lower-level which houses meeting and show space, as well as some storage. “When our neighbors became Gucci and Chanel, we found collectors would visit less often and their curators or their consultants or decorators would come in,” she relates. “It wasn’t about art anymore. We wanted to promote art and new artists.”
A chef + a nurse start collecting art
The couple began collecting and showing art from their apartment in 1992 after returning from an international art conference in Sweden. Both were already intensely interested in art and collecting and planned to set up a gallery even as they were enmeshed in non-art-related careers.
A sculptor, John had gone to School of Visual Arts and did a stint as a gallery assistant at Helen Drutt Gallery after graduating. He also worked briefly at Pie in the Sky, a long-gone restaurant at 3rd Ave., near 17th St., where he occasionally delivered sandwiches on croissants to Andy Warhol at The Factory. John lived on the LES for a short time at 161 Essex St. and became friendly with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Jasper Johns was a neighbor. Eventually, John became a chef at The Four Seasons, then a private chef for a family in Seal Harbor, Maine. Skylands, the estate where he worked, is now owned by domestic doyenne Martha Stewart. He now serves as the art curator for the Four Seasons Restaurant.
Kristine, a critical care nurse at Beth Israel Hospital, had no formal art training but cultivated her critical eye with aplomb. Returning from the art conference “felt like a calling to open a gallery,” John recollects. “As a lay person, I found myself enthusiastically encouraging people to buy what I liked,” Kristine notes. She became skilled at identifying compelling artists, spotting new talent, acquiring works of art and courting collectors.
The couple’s first gallery opened in 1994 at 419 Lafayette St. on the 5th floor—their first show was titled “Aesthetic Mystic,” a group exhibition of artists who had an interest in art and mysticism. The pair kept their jobs in order to help finance art purchases. Among their first customers were doctors at the hospital. Kristine quit her job in nursing in 1998, the same year the couple’s daughter was born.
The gallery eventually moved from Lafayette St. to 476 Broome St. But by the early- to mid-2000s, the Woodwards found Soho had lost its edge and they wanted to expand. “We wanted to be on the ground floor. We first went to Chelsea and gave it a shot but we didn’t ever really want Chelsea,” John recalls. “Our mission had always been to bring beautiful aesthetics to the public, without an attitude. We encourage people to ask questions,” Kristine says.
On artists and collecting
The Woodward Gallery currently has a dozen artists in its stable—they include Richard Hambleton, Knox Martin, Lady Pink, Matt Siren and Cristina Vergano. It owns and shows dozens more including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wilhelm de Kooning, Keith Haring, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.
In the early years, any profit the couple made was used to purchase more art. They decided they wouldn’t buy without mutually agreeing on a work and an artist, though Kristine now takes the lead in purchasing and visiting artists: “We have similar interests,” she says, adding “My only purchase without John was a Pollock painting that I made at an art fair. I bought it on the spot because I knew I wanted it for a specific client. I liked it and I knew I would be able to sell it.”
That gut instinct and a finely tuned aesthetic have served The Woodward Gallery well. “We are a team and we’ve always agreed on our purchases,” Kristine notes, receiving a nod from John. Specializing in contemporary fine art, the gallery owns nearly 10,000 pieces of art. The “20 in 11” show marks the first time in five years that the gallery put out a call for submissions—it receives thousands of unsolicited submissions each year. John chose the participating artists and curated the current show.
Internet sales are approaching 50%, according to the couple and are just as important as the gallery itself. “If you want to succeed as a gallery you better have a good website,” John says.
On the space, the LES vs. Chelsea
The couple did a gut renovation at 133 Eldridge, the site of a former Portuguese Jewish temple, a prop and a rug factory.
“We were the third gallery down here at the time we arrived. The New Museum had broken ground. But people thought we were crazy,” John says. “Space was our number one issue. We weren’t able to expand where we were and there was no property in Soho that was interesting or affordable.”
“The community aspect of the LES is going to help the art world to sustain itself here,” Kristine notes. “You have to fit into the nature of the neighborhood—it’s a community-based atmosphere which is different from Chelsea. That’s a good thing and there’s a collective base under the age of 30 that’s very powerful and can only get bigger,” John says, adding “It’s a a place where new ideas can get hatched.”
Next up: The Woodwards are excited about Knox Martin’s Whaling Wall Mural Project, a public art mural that will go up at 334 Grand Street by the end of the summer. The mural represents the artist’s interest in raising awareness about the practice of whale hunting and promoting world peace. To donate funds for the mural’s completion, click here.
For a list of local galleries participating in LES Third Thursdays, visit the Lower East Side BID’s here or pick up a guide in their visitors’ center located at 54 Orchard Street.
Tobi Elkin is a writer, editor and interviewer who lives in 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.