WALKING THE WALK: PART TWO
FRANK AND HELEN HYDER TALKING WITH JAMES MCELHINNEY
James L. McElhinney © 2014
Helen Hyder: Real estate doesn’t keep just going up. You know how many times I’m working with a new artist and they give me their work and they tell me their prices—if they can tell me their prices, many of them have no clue, and I ask them,
“What are you basing your price on?”
A typical response might be, “Well…it took me a really long time to make it.”
My response is, “That’s your decision. You can’t base it on a by-hour rate.”
James McElhinney: Well this is one of the things about artistic quality that a lot of people have said, the age of industry, collective bargaining, and the whole idea of the hourly wage has made some kind of abstract equation between the value of something and the amount of time it takes to make it. So you could spend a lifetime making something completely worthless or you could make something magical in a minute. So it’s actually what you’re dealing is what you’re dealing.
Frank Hyder: And I have a warehouse filled with work that I’ve made over 35 years that is powerful, perfectly good, high quality work that didn’t make the market. I did sell lots of work during that time, but there is that storage.
JM: That’s what they call “research”.
FH: Right. And so, you can’t look at making a single work of art if you are a real artist because you have to think in terms of a seminal body of work or a complete life of work. When we started doing art fairs, there are galleries that do one or two fairs a year; but then there are galleries that do many fairs in a year
HH: 18, 20,24
FH: Yeah, we know dealers from Spain and Mexico and from other places, London, that do 18 fairs a year. What they do now, instead of looking at the numbers from a given fair and say, “Oh we’re losing money here.” What they do is put it all into one box for the whole year, and they dollar-cost average the whole year out, and they look at how the business is. Like I said earlier, we did a fair this year where we lost almost everything we invested. We’ve had other fairs where we did that as well, but we came from that fair really quite behind. But while we were there, we met an artist who we had never worked with before. We started a dialogue, and the next time we did a fair, two months later, we showed this artist. We sold enough of this artist’s work at the next fair to cover the complete loss. So when we look at that we say neither fair was a failure. They were both a success. Because sometimes you walk away from one fair with a new client or a new artist, or you walk away with a possible sale that doesn’t happen for two years
JM: Well you used the term a while back; you spoke about taking a loss leader. This is a basic concept that you offer a product at below value to get people to come to you, and a lot of dealers in this town do this too. They’ll actually get the artist’s inventory in the gallery and they’ll give a piece to a museum if the museum will take it, or they’ll give a piece to prominent collector–
HH: Well that’s building a resume, yeah sure.
JM: Building a resume but also marketing, because if you give a piece to a museum, they hang it on a wall, people see it. You give the piece to a top collector. They’re having cocktails. People see it. Nobody’s going to be rude enough to ask,
“How much did you pay for it?”
FH: We live in a new time; everything’s different. When you and I first started making paintings, you made a painting then you made a slide, you had to get it developed, you had to send it to somebody.
FH: So technology has changed. But also, other technologies have changed. For example, when we opened, it was one of my feelings that we had to have a state-of-the-art website. It had to be absolutely the tool. And we have a counter on our website that can show us where people that are visiting our website are coming from. So we’re sitting the gallery in Miami or Philadelphia, we can see on the website that we have somebody in Toronto, Canada looking at certain pages on the website and how long they’re doing that. When we’re about to go to a new site for a fair, we will have an increase of hits on the fair, and we’ll see what they’re looking at and that can aid us in picking out the work to bring to the fair so we’re prepared for what’s going to happen. These technologies, not every gallery takes advantage of these, but the ones that are succeeding and surviving are employing every one of these strategies that you can find. At the same time, it’s not necessarily about making money, because there are a lot of galleries making lots more money all around us. Our strategy is that we’re surviving and we’re showing the things we care about. That matters, too. Just making money is not what it’s about. The commodity issue—that’s something that, after 35-40 years in the business, gets a little tiresome.
JM: If success has a dollar value, as they say in Hollywood: there’ll always be a smarter agent, there’ll always be a bigger part, and there’ll always be a prettier girl. And you have so many people in the world who have so much money, it’s gotta be also about doing what you want to do.
FH: And there are new forms, too. For example, we did a fair and this man came up and talked to me at length and it turns out he’s the CEO of a cruise line who has a particular interest in art. He has several ships, and on these ships he has a number of works by Picasso, Miro, Mendive, Wilfredo Lam. The collection is immense, and it’s spread across luxury cruise lines. As he said to me,
“The top two percent of the nation are riding on my ships. I’m going to give them a visual diet that is equivalent to their status and their economics.”
So he approached me about making some paintings in my mixed media that would be weatherproof, and we started with a small block of commissioned paintings. I just finished my 32nd commissioned painting for this line. He also built two ships that incorporated a 1,000 square foot art studio on the ship, and he puts together artists residencies. So he puts an artist on the ship for a month or for two weeks, and he gives them a working room and supplies. He allows people to come into the space and see art. He just took what they do with the cooking classes and all these different models and applied them to art. I’ve been told that people like Dale Chihuly have done these things. The playing field is different. We are leaving on the fourth of April for Tahiti, where we will get on a ship in Papeete, and we will sail from Tahiti to Chile.
HH: Peru.(Callao, Lima)
FH: Peru. We’re stopping in Easter Island, Bora Bora, many of these other sights. And I will be working as the artist for that month on the ship, making my work, interacting with people, dining with guests on the ship, and talking about the other art that’s on the ship, which includes Picasso, Miro, etc.
JM: There was, a few years ago, maybe 5-6 years ago or more, someone was running an art fair on a boat. FH: Oh they would be the Lesters. We know them very well. We’ve done that fair five times.
JM: Is it still a going concern?
FH: It still exists. The ship is mostly docked in Miami. They do occasional ventures. The quality of the ship is extraordinary, and the experience is interesting.
JM: They were going to places like Charleston, Savannah. HH: Now they just stay in Miami. FH: We know them very well. We’re aware of a whole bunch of things in the art world—
JM: What’s the name of the ship?
HH: The SeaFair.
FH: SeaFair is the name of the ship, and their organization is called International Fine Art Expo. They founded…they were the founders initially of Art Miami back when there was only Chicago and Art Miami, the two art fairs in the United States. They founded Art Palm Beach. Here in New York, there are a couple of guys we met a few years ago in Miami and they started doing a hotel fair, and they’re called the Select Fair. They came to me, because they knew my work, at some venue they had seen me, and they came to my studio to talk to me to try to convince me to do something in their fair. When they saw some work I was making, they offered me the opportunity to install these transparent pieces in the windows in the glass stairwell in the space. So, I ended up creating a new piece of work that worked in that installation. I wouldn’t have made it had they not come to me. In the process of them coming to me, our interactions, I gave them a lot of observations that we had made from doing 50 fairs previously. They took that information and heeded many of our suggestions and now in May we’re going to do a fair with them here in New York. They’re doing their first booth fair. They’ve gravitated from hotel fairs and they’ll be doing tent fairs in Miami this year. They’re living off the art fair.
JM: So, in other words, what we were saying earlier, Helen and I were talking, I shared that I had conducted almost fifty interviews with some of the top dealers here in New York and a couple other towns like Chicago and LA and that it seemed to me that the reality of it was that there was no gallery system such as the schools wanted everyone to believe. The art schools were preparing students for a gallery system. There’s no system. There were a bunch of individuals who ran galleries with as much differences as retailers in any line of work.
FH: Let me clarify: there’s not an art gallery in the country that cares whether you went to school or not. The only thing they want to see is the work, and whether they think they can sell it, and whether their audience wants to see it.
JM: I interviewed many of New York’s top art dealers and recall asking each and every one of them,
“How many of your artists have MFAs?”
Most of them say they don’t know, and don’t care. Like you said, it’s about the work, not the degree. That only carries weight if you’re looking for a day job. It has almost nothing to do with why a dealer wants to represent an artist.
FH: What’s a requirement is the ability to create work that people want to buy. An art gallery doesn’t exist just to sell art. It’s a place where people who are interested in art come to look at it. It’s a place where artists come to look at it. It’s a place where writers come to look at it. It’s a place where clients come to look at it.
JM: Say, the reason why a writer needs to get a book published is so they can read it, so they can experience their own work. The reason why an artist benefits from exhibitions is like getting a baby out of the womb, or wine out of a bottle and into someone’s belly. An artist takes the work away from the safety of the studio and hangs it naked on a strange wall. It is the first time one can actually see it one’s own work with honest eyes. Frank, I want to ask Helen a few things.
Helen, because for many years you were a long-suffering artist’s wife, watching Frank— who is always extremely enterprising and very industrious—watching him deal with a parade of rascals and thieves, along with a few nice people too. You worked in the business world, working in a completely different environment informed by a whole different set of standards. When you and Frank decided to form the gallery, what was your level of confidence in terms of choosing artists to represent, what was guiding you? To what extent were you relying on Frank?
HH: In the very beginning it was just I, relying on him totally. I came to discover by accident that I actually had an eye. I don’t know anything about art. I have no education in that area.
JM: Except that you’ve been living around it for thirty years.
HH: I’ve been living around him (Frank Hyder). You and I have been friends for a long time, I’d walk into your studio, or maybe Doug Wirls’s studio, all these other artist’s studios, and I’d say, “Oh, I like that. That’s interesting.” But I had no historical reference. I had no idea what I was looking at. I went through a period of time where I would put on these group shows of graduating students from all the universities in Philadelphia. I would go to every senior thesis show. I would go to many studios, and from that I would pull together a show based on “fresh”, fresh ideas. And they were pretty damn good shows, and I picked them by myself. It was then that I realized that I could actually see what they were trying to say and create a language. I still rely on him, but it’s kind of funny. We’ll walk into a show and I’ll pick the things I like, and I’ll bring him around and we pretty much pick the same thing. Maybe its because we’ve been together for 45 years, I don’t know; but I think it’s because there’s a synergy between us as well. There have been artists I’ve pulled and I want to work with this artist, and he’ll go, “No, I don’t think so.” And I’ll be persistent and he’ll finally acquiesce and I was right. So I think he’s learned to let me have an eye, because his level of what he wants to show may be a little higher than mine. He often says I have an eye for the Craft, but I think he’s learned to trust that I have an eye for what the industry wants as well.
JM: Well, I think that what you’ve both been saying is that Frank, as an artist, has an aesthetic agenda and a different sense of the nature or the character of the body of work he’s trying to produce. Whereas you, as someone who has interacted with artworks without a specific purpose in mind, now that there’s a purpose, that purpose has let you organize your ideas about it in a way that has shown you that you can make choices with confidence and actually be right a lot of the time.
HH: Well the other thing, Jim, in any gallery, with any of the dealers, you’re going to see the same thing. Out of a hundred artists, twenty percent of them support the operating function of the gallery by sales. The other eighty percent you just like, like to show their work. They may not financially support what you’re trying to do.
JM: But they help you to deliver an esthetic message. It’s like what you’re saying about the two shows. One of them was a bust in terms of sales but the other one was a huge critical success, so it all averaged out in the end.
HH: But there are galleries where if you don’t meet a (sales) quota, you’re out the door.
JM: People will come into the gallery to have a look at particular artwork because it attracts them, and then they might leave with something else.
FH: That’s right, and art fairs have a particular character. The glitz, the things with bling are very attractive. People are drawn to those things. We’ve had a conversation with a dealer from London, from Quantum Gallery in London. He’s been in the business for 30 years, and I asked him for his observation in the way we do our shows. He said, “Well, it’s very clear that you understand that you have to create a visually interesting space, and you have to invite people in to see what’s right over there in that corner, and that reveals that you’re paying attention and you have experience in doing this.” And at the same time, what we know is that if you want to succeed, you show up every day and you tune, readjust, move, change, try different strategies, because every time you hang things on a wall, it’s a strategy to get people’s attention to look at the thing.
HH: You have five seconds.
FH: Yeah, you have to get someone’s attention right away. And you’re competing with an immense number of things. So if you happen to have artist who gets mentioned in an art article about a fair or a blog article about a fair or photography of their work appears, and we’ve had them show up on national news, national news in Canada, we’ve had them in the major papers, we’ve interviewed in Chicago and in Houston. And we’re a little gallery. We don’t have resources. We have a small agenda, but we have a program, and that’s the way a really good gallery that does shows at fairs looks at it: you have a program. You have a point of view you’re trying to present and you have a group of artists that you believe supports that point of view. Some of them are going to bring people in the door, some of them are going make you money, but they work synergistically off one another.
JM: So in other words, creating a gallery is a form of installation art.
FH: It is a form of installation art, absolutely. And the arrogance and the pomposity of some galleries is visible immediately from the way they install their work and their generosity and openness by the way other galleries install their work.
JM: I don’t need to ask on which side of the fence you guys fall.
END PART TWO