Frank and Helen Hyder, Projects Gallery. Photo by Phil Anderson (from www. artoronto.ca)
WALKING THE WALK: PART FOUR
PARTNERS IN ART: FRANK AND HELEN HYDER
James L. McElhinney © 2014
James McElhinney: So as you’ve grown and become more successful as a gallery, do you think that you’re as successful as you were when you began as a project space?
Frank Hyder: We’re more successful as a gallery.
JM: As a gallery or a project space?
Helen Hyder: Well, we’re both; we’re not one or the other. What we are at this particular moment is transitioning from our Philadelphia location to our Miami location, for a few reasons. One, Philadelphia is economically not as successful as Miami is. Miami is a booming, booming town. And we’re financially more successful in Miami. Plus, the weather is nicer.
FH: And, also, the nature of the architecture is different. People in Miami migrate to Miami because they’ve been successful in life or they’ve come from a country and they’re trying to escape a political structure or a financial structure or something else. They move into new contemporary, big glass high-rise type spaces and it lends itself to modern art in a way that in Philadelphia the homes are older, smaller character. People want a small piece to go over the sofa or the dining room table, as opposed to a dramatic big piece to offset a big view of the river or something.
JM: It’s a town that sits between the east coast and south coast of the United States, facing Latin America. One thinks about the south coast as New Orleans, Houston, right? Houston’s got a big economy of some sort, but not as big. Because it also positioned to face Latin America in ways that are unique from any other town on the south coast, it’s in a good place.
FH: And another thing, there’s a large Latin American population in many cities in the United States, New York, for example. But in Miami, thanks to Fidel Castro, the immigration wave that struck Miami of Cubans was the elite with the best education; and so, any boardroom you go into in Miami, you can likely speak English or Spanish and everyone will be able to understand you. It is a truly bilingual city, and anywhere you go you see people speaking Spanish or English. It’s not just bilingual; there are many other languages there as well. There’s a huge Russian community, a large French Canadian community. But it’s dynamics in the same way that New York has dynamics, and that’s the excitement. When we rode up here in the subway, you look around on that car and you realize that rich and poor experience that thing together.
JM: There are almost two hundred languages, including dialects spoken on this island of Manhattan.
FH: And Miami is much smaller, but it shares some of those things and because it’s a gathering spot where people come from those diverse places.
JM: So what do you think the challenges and opportunities are going to be in the next couple years in terms of how things are trending? As an artist and as a businessperson, everybody has to have sort of a plan as to what are you expecting to meet in terms of challenges and opportunities.
HH: You have to have a plan.
JM: Or you make it up as you go along?
HH: One of the things he says all the time, “Our calendar year starts January first.” Every January first we start from scratch. It doesn’t matter what we did. It’s what we have to do. And so that helps us evolve. It doesn’t mean we did this, so we’re going to do it again.
JM: So what are you doing this year?
HH: We’re moving to Miami.
FH: But something else that we’re doing this year is we’re trying this long cruise as a venue, and that’s something that if you had asked me about the five years ago I couldn’t have even imagined it.
HH: Now if we were just a vanity gallery—just working with him (Frank), we’d only take his work; but we’re not doing that. We’re taking other people’s work with us so we’ll give everybody a fair shot. They don’t know this yet; and I may not tell them, because if they don’t do well they won’t know. If they do well, they’ll get money.
FH: We had dinner with Denise Bibro last week, and we were talking and the point of the conversation was that the old paradigms are shifting. You need to redirect in order to capture the market. You want to be where you need to be, doing what you have to do and bring with you the 35 years of experience that you’ve gained, let that be your light. But if you think you can continue to do what you did in the past, I think very few galleries are going to be able to do that. I think that the forms are shifting and changing. People want to buy off the Internet, but they don’t want to buy if they haven’t seen it.
JM: They need to see the physical thing.
FH: And an art fair puts a piece in front of somebody.
HH: Right now there are so many art fairs, and more and more every year. Just even in Miami during Basel there now are twenty-seven, or thirty of them, something like that.
JM: So you’ve got pop-up galleries and pop-up art fairs.
HH: Everywhere. And that too will peak and then ebb and something else will take its place; and we don’t know what that will be. We have no clue.
FH: So, I think it’s not a business that you can understand. You can only “do” it. And as it happens, you modify and you reconfigure yourself because what you want to do is show quality. What you want to do is create a dialogue and that is part of what a gallery’s job is – to serve as the go-between between the artist’s studio and the collector.
JM: How important are critics to you now? How important is a good review or a bad review?
HH: Have you even read a review lately? Have you been reading a “review”?
JM: Well, the things I read are mostly online and they’re mostly blogs.
HH: But you read Art In America. You read reviews. Are they reviews? No, they’re regurgitations of the press releases.
JM: Well, we’ve known this for years.
HH: There are no reviews. There are no critics.
FH: The good news is the art blogosphere is out there and it’s very egalitarian and we’ve been favored by a lot of attention from art bloggers.
JM: I promoted your show three times on my Facebook page.
HH: We saw that. Thank you so much.
FH: And then you mention Facebook, but many galleries maintain Facebook pages, and they have members and people who come to the page and visit that page. So social media, all these different things, didn’t exist ten years ago. We are working in all of those venues. You need to. The more you adapt to what’s happening, the more possible it is that you’ll be around at the end of the month. When we first started doing fairs, there are so many galleries that don’t exist anymore. I had this conversation with a German dealer in Miami in February, and he said, “How long ago we started, ten years ago—and you’re still here.” We’re still here. Think back on how many people were here that are no longer here.
JM: I think that the handwriting is clearly on the wall. Another interview I had with a dealer, I asked him what’s changed and he said, “We’re going to fancy parties, the dinner parties cocktail parties, where hitherto there were curators, collectors, maybe a few critics, and all of a sudden we are seeing artists, and these artists are well-spoken. They’re nicely dressed. They can eat with manners that don’t make the rest of the dinner guests sick, and they can actually carry on a conversation that’s not only about themselves.” He said they’re actually making progress and also saying that at the end of the day dealers will show not only artists whose work the like but artists who they like personally. And people will buy not only work that they like, but they buy work by artists whom they like personally. And the critics, if they have any power or if they ever come back to power, will write favorably about the people they like.
HH: Well, that’s always been the case.
FH: And whether or not the work that is being presented allows them to promote their own agenda. Because the rich barons of industry who want to promote a point of view or an agenda, they’re no different than the barons of the literary world who wish to foster their point of view in the intellectual realm. So in the reality of what the Internet and the blogosphere allowed is for democratization, a restructuring that the Village Voice had. Again, the person with an iPad who goes out and looks at shows on the streets of new York, like Joanne Mattera does, can be as powerful a writer and as insightful a writer as an art critic for the New York Times. And in fact, in my opinion, Joanne Mattera, who does her annual Basel visit, which incorporates writing about every fair that she visits, in depth, exceeds every single art critic form in New York. Nobody can come close to Joanne’s coverage. Yes, she has a point of view, yes she fosters it, but at the same time she’s a woman who has an artist’s eye, she stands in the room and she looks around and she makes notations and comments on what she sees. And as a result, I, for one, and countless other people, look forward to reading what she writes because it’s one of the best reports out there. And that didn’t exist ten years ago.
JM: Let’s say another couple came to you. Let’s say in this case the guy’s a retired executive and his wife is someone who’s been a successful artist, and they, knowing what you guys have done, came to you and said, “We’re really inspired by what you’ve done. We’d like to see if we could make a go of it.” What advice would you give them?
HH: Don’t expect to make a lot of money. It’s not about the money. If you have a passion, go for your passion and it will lead you where you need to go, but don’t do it for the money.
FH: And put yourself in the path of your audience.
JM: But you would tell them to have a business plan, to have a war chest, to have something.
HH: You have to have a passion and you have to have an idea of what you’re trying to do.
FH: And you have to have a way of evaluating when you’re succeeding and when you’re not.
JM: Other than just looking at your bank book.
FH: An awful lot of what you do in the first couple years in a gallery is just building the base on which you stand for the next ten years.
HH: You have to expect not to make any money. Well, you can expect to not make money for a long time; but if you can’t survive without making money for three years, don’t do it.
JM: When I interviewed Richard Gray, he told me something like, “If you can’t afford to open a gallery, hang the shows, advertise them, hold the openings, pay for the staff, if you cant afford to run to gallery for five years…”, but the idea that you’re going to go in there and run it like a lemonade stand and it’s going to be paying the bills right away, that’s not going to happen, is it?
HH: No, unless you have a rich daddy
JM: Or a war chest.
FH: I think you can do it without a war chest, if you’re willing to really approach it in new ways, I think the other things that you can do–
JM: And work within the realm of possibility.
FH: Of course, it’d be realistic, know who you are and what you can do. And don’t suddenly wake up in the middle of the year and say oh my god I ran out of money. We’ve seen many people do that. I gave a talk at the Maryland Institute, to about 450 of their seniors and my advice was “Live below your means; do not be seduced by the trends and by popular ideas. Stay true to your goals; survive is what it’s all about. But live below your means, don’t go and spend what you have, spend less and see how much more you can do with it.” And I think that’s true for a gallery. Today you can get advertising in so many ways, just by sending out stuff. You know, we have contact with these bloggers. We have Lenny Campello down in Washington, DC. He’s publishing all the time. So we have an event and he puts us on his blog site. Joanne Matera puts us on her blog site.
HH: James McElhinney.
FH: Yeah like you did today. And that is a legion of people working on your behalf for free because they subscribe to some of the same values.
HH: But that also happens. Someone who sees your blog, who’s a blogger, puts it in his or her blog that gets passed around. And that’s how I have artists being shown all around the world. Going back to whether you’re brick and mortar or you’re just in the stratosphere of the Internet, I don’t think it matters whether I have a show on the wall or the show on the web. If people can see it…
JM: This is one of those things that I’ve personally been interested in, is sort of the idea of living in a post-studio world. Where you can create a studio practice that doesn’t require you to warehouse hundreds of large works of art.
HH: How would you do that? What would you do? You’d create a body of work and put it on the computer and then what?
JM: Books. I’ve been doing all my paintings in books. I haven’t shown much of it, I mean this is a first peek. But the thing is that they can all be scanned, they can all be scanned at a high resolution. They can all be displayed digitally. Then the books themselves can be sold like illuminated manuscripts. So it’s a different, it’s a completely left-field trajectory. I’m looking to put together exhibits through historical venues, through the book arts. It’s not the traditional studio-art-gallery-collector trajectory
FH: Something sentimental to me is that I believe that artists are actually born. There’s something in an artist that’s different—good, bad, or indifferent—it’s not a value judgment. Society puts value judgments on it, but I’m not. What I’m saying is that when an artist gets to execute their life as an artist in any way at all, whether it’s making creative decisions in some way or another, then they are fulfilling what their nature is. So I use this word “survival”, the idea is Artistic and Creative Survival. When I was a student, when you and I first met, I was a painter with a capital P. And today I tend to think of myself as a Creative Person. And that enables me to enter the business world as a gallerist, to be an artist who paints and sculpts and lays tiles on floors, who does installation projects, and who does projects with school children, who makes balloons that are 30 feet tall. I try to bring the wealth of my 35-40 years of experience, coupled with my education, and my visual experience to those projects.
JM: You’ve got to follow your passion; you’ve got to trust that. I was at an event the other night and someone asked me “Aren’t you a painter?”
And I said, “Well, I said, Yes and No. I’m a polymath: I’m a painter, I’m a writer, I’m an oral history specialist, I’m a person who gets paid for organizing programs, I’m a person who makes art, I’m a person who teaches art. I do a lot of different things.”
I guess on the days when I’m painting, I’m a painter, on the days when I’m writing, I’m a writer. But some days I’m not a painter and some days I’m not a writer, and I don’t’ worry about it! Because it’s all about what the tasks call you. Like when I came to New York from Colorado, and everybody asked me,
“What are you going to do?” and I said, “I’ll figure it out when I get there.” But I got here, and within six months I’d been offered work with writing and teaching here and there. You just have to get your legs under you, get your feet on the ground and work.
FH: Well, as Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, he’s like, in a funny way he’s like a preacher. I’ve seen him give lectures in front of a room full of architects or designers, and he gets everybody fired up in a way that’s amazing. There’s a lot of truth in what he’s saying, but it was always there. What he’s done is that he’s actually put value plus on it. In ancient Egypt they had the city of the artists, and they supported them because the making of the tombs were so important to the afterlife that they valued artists in a way that contemporary society doesn’t.
JM: Well, I think that this is whole other conversation; but this whole history I’ve pondered very hard because of the role I’ve played in higher education over the years. In my last year as a college professor I compiled a report on the future of studio education, and everything I predicted came true. This goes to show that anyone can see the future provided you don’t give a ding-dong what it is. You just look at things and make an educated assessment. We’re human beings; this is planet Earth. How different are things going to be when you put these things into play? So, I think that, yeah, there are people like motivational gurus like Tony Robbins or Richard Florida, that’s going back ten or fifteen years now. But that impulse was always there. I think what’s partly to blame were all these colleges and universities, the BFA-MFA culture, that was forcing people to choose a specific focus. Who the heck can make that kind of decision at age twenty-two? You want to become a musician, so you go to school for it, but no. You are not going to study music. You’re going to play the clarinet. You’re going to play the drums. You’re not going to be a musician because that would mean that you’re a generalist, or worse still, a dilettante. And I think that’s changed now. It’s partly the digital era, but don’t you think too that just the environment that art is meeting with clientele and meeting audiences, these art fairs, that that’s also a huge influence on artistic practice?
FH: Of course, and some of it’s positive, and some of it’s negative. The nice thing is there are a lot of venues that are non-profit. There are ten times as many venues for showing as there was when you or I started. There are lots more opportunities to create new venues, and all of that comes together to create a very interesting field of dialogue. The problem is how does each and every one of those people figure out a way to survive? Because it can’t just be on grants and it just can’t be on if you were lucky.
JM: You can’t believe what they teach you in school, because the art world they’re preparing students for in school doesn’t exist. It never did.
FH: It never did. And most of the people who teach in school end up teaching what they were taught by people who didn’t have any more insight into it than they do. Yet, it seems like the truth because it all rings true to each other; and you walk into the room and say, “It’s not really like that.” and you suddenly get everybody all out of shape. I got tired of that and I took to the field, and I don’t need to have a quality artist defined for me. I can do it myself. To go back to Gauguin, in the sense that Gauguin took to the field and Gauguin became an influential artist after his death to countless other artists, and it’s hard to pigeonhole him and say he belongs here or there. And I would argue that he was following and allowing wherever he was to affect him and creep into his work and become part of the dialogue.
JM: Same thing as Picasso. He was doing all sorts of different things.
FH: But Picasso saw Gauguin’s work as a very young man and he recognized its value immediately. Picasso spent much more time in Paris. He went to museums to get his influences. Whereas in the case of Gauguin, he got it as he traveled in the world. I’m not evaluating one against the other; I’m just saying that contemporary artists are the same.
JM: You said the venues—there are many more venues now than existed when we both got out of school almost forty years ago. I would also say there are also ninety percent fewer of the kind of venues that existed then.
FH: The numbers may or may not be the same. They may not be right, but the population is larger, and the arena is larger. Because now China is no longer a third-world country, but the second largest economy on the planet, you have countries like China that are rising economically, who are buying contemporary art.
JM: Do you think you’ll do an international art fair in Dubai sometime?
FH: Well, it’s always a possibility. Like, today, I have a gallery from London presenting my work in Hong Kong. As they’re showing me here in Soho, they’re showing me at the same time in Hong Kong. And last week it was in London. So, I want to be part of that dialogue. I want a seat at the table. I don’t want to run the show. I just want to be in the game. I feel invigorated by the opportunities that are in front of me, and the experience I have behind me prepares me to deal with the problems that I’ll face as I go forward.
JM: Helen, I guess it’s pointless to ask about retirement
HH: No, we would not retire anyway. I don’t know what I would do. That would be so boring.
JM: Well, I think that’s another thing that’s partly our generation, it’s not one that’s going to retire.
HH: No, in that generation, I think artists don’t retire.
JM: Nor do art dealers.
HH: No, some art dealers do retire. I just think it’s because I’m married to him. I just couldn’t imagine not doing something every day.
JM: I know; I’m just kidding. I’m just being facetious.
FH: Well, let me ask you a question. You’ve been doing conversations like this with some of the cream of the business, some of the absolute top artists, collectors, and dealers. How does that work?
JM: The difference between those conversation and the one we are having today is that those interviews were underwritten by specific foundations to serve specific agendas—the Elizabeth Murray Foundation, Widgeon Point, Castelli, Rauschenberg Foundation. These organizations were funding the oral history programs that were paying me to conduct the interviews. I have only done a few like this on speculation, pro-se.
FH: But my question is: did you learn anything new from what we talked about today?
JM: Yes, absolutely. None of the people I’ve talk to before, at least most of the people I’ve spoken to in the past were not people I with whom I had a prior acquaintance. I nobody with whom I had a long history like I have with you and Helen. So, that’s different, also the fact that you are a person who has a long history as a working, exhibiting studio artist, working with your wife—someone who worked in the business world and then got into the art world post-retirement and started a new career. That’s a very unique profile. I don’t know if there are many people like you. That’s why I asked the question about how you avoid being viewed as a vanity gallery, as shameless self-promoters.
FH: We went to an opening last Thursday. We stopped in ACA. She (Helen) is walking around ACA with an expert with thirty-five years of experience in the business, a New York City art dealer who operates a big gallery. The art dealer afterwards comes over and shared some of the comments with me and said, “You know, she made a lot of insightful observations that I hadn’t noticed in that work.” Now, there’s the amateur telling the expert to look again, and that’s part of the changing paradigm.
JM: But, this what I was saying earlier about artists doing more than one thing, following more than one path in their bodies of work. It might not be all the same craft-based activity, or the same image. One object relates to another in ways that might be wildly different. But by the same token the necessity of being a “painter”, or “specialist” is obsolete. We have entered the age of the new polymath. Nobody’s an amateur if they’ve got their wits about them and are behaving professionally.
HH: There’s another thing we didn’t touch base on. When you’re talking to all these galleries, there’s a question you might want to ask them—do they Work with artists, or do they Represent artists, and there’s a huge difference.
JM: Good point. And you work with artists?
HH: No. I represent artists. Working with means you give me work, I put it on a wall, we’ll sell it, you’ll get your check—that’s working with them, that’s a working relationship. I represent them. I take them on the road with me, I make catalogues for them, I put them in front as many people as I can. I talk to museums about them. If the museums are not buying work, you can donate it – maybe.
JM: Only if you have…
HH: Connections. So, that’s a key question that you may want to consider asking. I Represent artists, that’s what I do.
JM: So, the distinction between working with artists and representing artists is the level of interaction that you have. And you have a lot of interaction.
HH: Not just with them, but with their work, I mean taking it everywhere. And not just worrying about whether I’ll sell it or not—holding onto it, not letting it go at a low price, because I know that if I hold onto it, it’s in this collection the prices are going to go—we have arguments about this frequently, even with his own work. I argue with him about his prices.
HH: But it’s a good question to ask dealers.
JM: I appreciate that. That is a good question. I will add it to my cheat sheet. Thanks so much for your time. This has been great and I hope that others will find it illuminating.