Viet Art Forum Interview

The important Vietnamese contemporary art blog Viet Art Forum, based in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), interviewed Randy Gladman via email in March 2009.  Viet Art Forum seeks to educate Vietnamese artists on how to promote their careers internationally.

PHỎNG VẤN: An Interview with Art Critic and Curator Randy Gladman, by Marc Djandji

As I mentioned before, one of my projects for VietArt Forum this year is to conduct interviews with local and international artists as well as other key players in the arts scene.  Randy Gladman is an art curator, critic and consultant based in Toronto, Canada.

1. How and why did you become a curator/critic?
I have always had an interest in visual art. I was always very creative when I was growing up and have had exhibitions of my own paintings. But I realized I understood art much better than I could make it myself. I did a Master’s degree in art history at New York University. I started working with contemporary artists at a company called Mixed Greens around that time and began writing about contemporary art for many magazines. I have been working as an advisor to artists and collectors as well as publishing articles and curating exhibitions ever since.

2. How did you learn your trade?
I learned my trade at MixedGreens.com back in the early 2000s when it was more of an artist management company than the art gallery it is today. I managed 6 artists, much the same way an agent/manager works with authors or actors. We curated many exhibitions in our space and around the United States and that taught me the skills of curating. I began doing independent projects in 2003. I learned to write about art by having opinions and expressing them in writing. Every thing I’ve ever written about art has been published, including my very first article which was about a dog in Brooklyn that made art.

3. In your view, what significance does Art have for Vietnam society?
Art is important for all societies, in particular those going through big changes or big problems.

4. Who is buying Vietnamese art these days? How would you describe collectors of Vietnamese art?
I live in Toronto, Canada now. There is not really a presence of Vietnamese art here at all, though there is a large Vietnamese community. Art from China is starting to have an impact here, though it is nowhere near as influential in Toronto yet as it is in New York City. As far as I know, there really are no influential collectors of Vietnamese art in Toronto.

5. How do you see the Vietnamese modern art scene today?
I wish I knew more about it. I visited Vietnam in 2006 and adored it. There was a lot of creative energy. But that energy has not really made itself known in Toronto yet. I did think that the art in Vietnam tended more towards “modern” than “contemporary”. There is a big difference. Vietnamese art will not have much of an impact on international awareness until strong Vietnamese contemporary artists emerge.

6. How do you draw attention to your projects?
I’ve been very fortunate. During my years in New York City (1999-2004) I met many fantastic artists. Some of them were already very well known while others have gone on to great success. I now work with many of those artists by bringing them to Toronto or writing about them in the Canadian press. Their names are big enough that they bring a lot of interest on their own. I piggyback on them! I think I benefit more than they do but don’t tell them that! Of course, I also find great artists all the time who are young and just getting their start. I tend not to do projects with
them but I do my best to help them advance their careers. I’m very active with helping in this way.

7. What kind of relationship exists between you and the artist?
I tend to become good friends with the artists I work with. The friendship often comes first though sometimes it is the other way around. That develops a deep trust which is necessary because they have to have faith that I can pull off what I promise to do. In this business, your “word” means a lot. In my art critic role, I often write about artists I don’t know. This is better when I intend to write negative things about their work. As a published critic, I need to be able to write what I think and sometimes I think work is weak. Obviously, I don’t curate artists into my shows unless I think they are brilliant.

8. Traditionally artists have been told to approach galleries with informational packets and portfolios, but of course the internet and sheer number of artists out there has changed things. How do you find most of the artists that you represent?
I’m a curator and a critic. It’s my job to find artists and I’m very good at it. I meet artists all over the place. The art industry is a very social game. Work making art is only 30% of your responsibilities as an artist. Most of the rest of an artist’s time should be spent looking at art and spending time in the art community. These things are essential, not optional. No one likes the “hard sell”. Gallerists and curators know how to find artists. They don’t really like being approached though they recognize that every once in a while, a previously invisible artist appears out of nowhere. They’d rather find artists themselves. That said, artists have to get their attention. Self promotion is needed. Intermediaries help. That’s where being friends with curators and art writers and other artists and the people who work in galleries comes in handy.

9. What standards do you follow to select an artist to work with?
That’s too difficult to answer. Art either speaks to me or it doesn’t. I’m all about the idea contained within the art. If the artist has good ideas and they come across in the work in a new and interesting way, then I want to work with that artist. Too many artists get distracted by the aesthetics of what they are making and don’t spend enough time thinking.

10. Is there some kind of philosophy behind your curatorial process? What kind of artists do you find yourself drawn to?
I believe that I understand art very well. But I recognize that the great majority of people do not. So many art exhibitions are catered to people who already know how to look at art. This often leaves the rest of the people feeling alienated. I try to produce exhibitions that do the opposite. My exhibitions are easy for everyone to approach and enjoy and learn from but at the same time they present art by very serious and intellectual artists whose concepts are appreciated by sophisticated viewers as well.

11. What is the biggest mistake you see emerging artists make when approaching you? Is there anything in particular that screams “don’t take me!”?
Getting a gallery to be interested in your work is a lot like dating. It is a courting process. Desperation and trying too hard is highly unattractive. Artists need to be smart, seductive, and a little bit aloof. Artists should develop their relationship with the gallerist first, before trying to push their work. They should make it clear that they appreciate what the gallerist is doing and follow the progress of the gallery. It is always better for the artist when the gallerist or curator asks to see their work rather than the artist asking if the gallerist or curator wants to see it. The art industry is as much about personality as it is about the art itself. A mistake artists often make is that they approach galleries before they understand what that gallery is trying to do. Every gallery has a style, a motive, a program. It is important for their to be the right fit.

12. On the flip side, what makes an artist attractive to a gallery?
Strong, thoughtful, relevant art is a prerequisite. But there are lots of other things. Is the artist committed to his (or her, of course) craft? Has he done a formal education in art? Does he have a graduate degree? Where has he shown? Has anyone written about that artist in published journals? What important collections have collected that artist? All these things contribute to an artist’s resume or CV. These all signal to the gallerist that other people see value in this artist’s work as well and encourage a desire to work together.

13. How many pieces should an artist have before looking at gallery representation? Framed? Unframed?
This is not relevant. The artist has to show a commitment to his craft. Numbers are meaningless. The quality of an artist and his work will shine through, regardless if the art is framed or not. Gallerists know how to see work unframed. An artist should not was time and money framing things except for exhibition and ideally the gallery manages that process, under the creative direction of the artist.

14. What are the responsibilities of a gallery to an artist?

Ideally, a good gallery provides many different kinds of support: encouragement, exhibitions, sales, relationships with important critics and curators so the work is noticed when it is exhibited. Great galleries sometimes provide logistical and financial support, when they believe there are good returns to be made.

15. What should an artist expect from a gallery, marketing and sales wise? And conversely, what does a gallery expect from an artist? Is there a period of time after which you decide to drop a non-selling artist?
A good gallery will show an artist’s work every 12-18 months in a solo exhibition. The gallery will also encourage other galleries around the world to show that artist’s work in the in between times, helping to gain international recognition for the artist. The gallery should contribute connections to press so exhibitions do not go unnoticed. But mostly, a good gallery should develop and manage sales for the artist. The gallery should expect a professional business relationship from the artist. Exhibitions should be planned in advance and delivered on time with little or no annoying or irresponsible behaviour from the artist.

16. Artist-Gallery contracts – good thing? Bad thing? Necessary thing?
Contracts are not generally used in the art world. This is a stupid fact of the art world that bothers me and leads to a lot of avoidable problems. Any smart artist should negotiate an agreement with their galleries. This does not need to be written by a lawyer. It can be as simple as a one page deal-memo outlining all the responsibilities expected of both parties. This kind of document may not hold up in court but if it is carefully thought out by both parties, it will hopefully provide a mutually understood
and beneficial agreement so that a law suit will never be required. I write my own agreements for my exhibitions; these are very difficult to write effectively and take a long time to negotiate but the effort is always worthwhile. I will not work with an artist or a gallery without an agreement in place first.

17. If an artist markets himself well, what’s the advantage to the artist of having gallery representation? In other words, what can galleries offer an artist for the commission they extract?
There are many artists today who have developed very successful careers without having a “primary” dealer. This is a great way to go for business-savvy artists. However, most artists are just that, artists. They are not business-minded people much of the time and they benefit greatly by having smart people manage the business side of their career. Artists should never underestimate the effort invested by a good dealer. There is a lot of risk in running a gallery. It can be argued that the gallery takes much bigger risks than the artist. Artists take this for granted at their own peril.

18. I see a lot of big name artists with multiple galleries representing them. How many galleries should an artist have, anyway?
Many successful artists may be shown by multiple galleries. The more successful the artist, the more galleries he tends to have showing his work internationally. Galleries tend to be territorial; a gallery may represent your work in New York City but another gallery in Los Angeles. Or one gallery may represent all of your work in New York City except for your prints which are represented by another gallery. There are no rules to this. Every situation is different and smart artists know how to manage these multiple relationships. Some artists, however, have what is called a “primary” dealer. This dealer manages the artist’s entire career and even when the artist shows at another gallery, tribute (percentage of sales) is paid to the primary dealer. This method is not as common as it used to be. Smart artists today function as their own primary dealer and manage territorial relationships with different galleries around the world.

19. Describe your perfect artist. How many pieces, what sort of style, what sort of behaviour they exhibit – what does this perfect artist do to make your life as a gallery owner easier?
The perfect artist understands his craft and can speak and write very intelligently/eloquently about his work. He (or she!) has been educated about art at a very high level (Master’s degrees from top tier universities go a very long way) and explores complex and relevant ideas in his work. He has a diverse range of work, ranging from inexpensive books and prints all the way to epic-scale museum-targeted works so that collectors at all levels of society can find a way to incorporate that artist’s work into their life. He should be totally and completely professional in his business dealings, organized and efficient. He should be prolific but only release high quality works into the public; great artists take chances with their work and fail sometimes but they edit the works that make it out into the public realm. He is personable and has a wide social circle made up of artists, curators, collectors, critics, musicians, actors, lawyers, doctors, accountants, real estate developers, rich men’s daughters, sluts, hipsters, losers, bartenders, circus clowns, travel agents, computer geeks, prostitutes, graphic designers, politicians, drug addicts, carpenters, mechanics, playboys, playboy bunnies, …

20. Every artist has a dream gallery they’d love to represent them one day. Do you have a dream artist that you would love to represent?
I have already worked with some of my favourite artists. I hope to work with Shepard Fairey and Banksy one day. As far as I’m concerned, they are two of the freshest and most influential artists in the world.

21. What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

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This interview was conducted by Marc Djandji via email and published on Viet Art Forum on March 29, 2009.