Walking the Walk: Part three of an Interview with Frank and Helen Hyder




James L. McElhinney © 2014


Frank Hyder: We got involved with an artist, a Cuban-based artist, who approached me about six years ago with a project he was doing and he wanted to create a group of inflatable sculptures. This is out of the galleries, but to take place during an art fair time.


James McElhinney: Literally pop-up art.


FH: So, I said from day one, “I want in.” So it revolved around commitment of each of us. We had to put our own money up to make these things. So we’ve got José Badia and Thomas Essen. We’ve got very established artists, all of us down there in the mud, driving stakes in the ground, running extension cords, turning these things on. So we had our 10 monumental pieces go up. It was a killer as a piece. The great thing about them is they fold up, and you can take them in a duffle bag and get on an airplane, which I actually did and I flew to South America. I set it up downtown on the streets in Caracas. I then went by plane into the Andes Mountains going village to village. I’d set it up in the town square. Everybody would come down around the thing and have their picture taken with the art. I’d talk to them about what I was doing, fold it up and move on to next place. I didn’t get paid. Nobody funded that.


JM: You should have had a video crew running around with you.


FH: But the idea was smashing. So when last year a show was curated here in New York City by the Maryland Institute of 162 years of its graduates, they took a small number of people to put together a show. I was included in the venue. And when they became aware that I had these monumental forms, up in Beacon they had three of these things. They were unique. The art students were mystified by them, and here I’ve been making these things and producing them in different sizes and dragging them around. I’m not making any money on them, but I’m doing it for the love of art. So I take the money that I get from selling another painting, and I put it into those.


JM: So, in the ten years since you’ve been operating a gallery, and obviously you’ve been nimble and adapted and grown and evolved as the scene has grown and evolved. In the ten years since opening your gallery, which you call Projects Gallery, was there a discussion about what to call it?


Helen Hyder: Yes. When we first opened, we actually called it our last name, Hyder Gallery.


JM: Why did you decide to not call it “Hyder Gallery”?


HH: Well, we did our first art fair; and the director of the art fair knew that I was green. She pulled me aside and she said, “Let me give you a piece of advice. If you don’t want to be seen as a vanity gallery just representing your husband, you either need to change the name of your gallery or that’s what you’re going to be perceived as.” I took her advice, I was mad at first. How dare she, but she was right. So we then went around figuring what the hell we were going to call it. Most dealers usually call it their name, and then we started doing these things with Mural Arts and Brandywine, and we said well we are doing these projects.


JM: Well, it was that time Jeffrey Deitch had Deitch Projects, and there were a lot of people. It was a word that was in the air a lot.


HH: Right. So that’s partly the reason why. There was a moment there where even though we’d been married for so long, I went back to using my maiden name because it became an issue with people.  “Oh you’re representing your husband, so we get a special price.”  And that was an obstacle I had to overcome. And then I got to the point where I got tired of being schizophrenic, and I just went back to using my married name. When people come into the booth or the gallery, and they look at his work, and I present his work at the level that I do, at some point they’ll say, “Are you related?” I’ll say yes, he’s my husband, and it’s not an issue. And they’ll understand that he’s just one of many artists. Yes, it is my husband; it’s not that he gets special attention. Everybody gets treated the same. When he’s in the booth with me at the art fair, they talk to him as though he’s the dealer, and then they read his nametag and they say, “Oh! You’re the artist.” and it’s generally not a problem.


JM: Well, there’s something to be said for an artist wanting a gallery to get it right, too. Like, you can say you did this for 30 years before we decided to do this. Like I got tired of having to rely on people I couldn’t work with, or I couldn’t work with in a completely transparent way, and we just want to get it right.


HH: Well, an awful lot of artists can’t talk about their own work. They can talk about other people’s work. Like, he can sell other people’s work much better than he can sell his own.


JM: Well, that puts you immediately at a disadvantage because at the end of the day you’re asking for money. It’s a lot easier to advocate for someone, and say wow this person is really great and you want to buy their work. And hopefully the buyer will get the idea that if you’re advocating this person, this person is really great. You must also be really great and they’ll want to buy your work, too.


So, in the ten years since you’ve been opened for business and doing art fairs, well, the first year how many art fairs were you doing?


HH: The first year we did—


FH:  Two. We did Art Miami and then the one in Santa Fe.


HH: And then we did the one in December.


JM: So how many are you doing now? A year?


HH: We average about six shows per year. It varies. It depends. We’ve done as many as two at one time, which I refuse to do anymore.


FH: We’ve done five this year so far.


HH: But simultaneously?


FH: No, we’ve done five this year so far. And we’re about to do one more in May.


JM: That makes six in six months! So how do you physically do it? Have you got a half-container that moves around, those pods?


HH: NO. We’re a mom and pop operation, that’s what we do. Generally we do a fair along the east coast, generally, where we don’t have to ship it because shipping is extremely expensive. You have to understand, the booth fee is generally about for a small booth $15-20,000. That’s just to get in the door.


JM: That would be for how many days?


HH: Four days.


JM: Including set-up?


HH: No, and some days you don’t have a day on the other end. You close at 6 and you’re out of there by midnight. So you’re looking at $15-20,000 just to get in the door. And if it’s out of town, you’re looking at hotels, transportation, shipping, all that stuff. It can get pretty expensive.


JM: You have to entertain clients.


HH: Oh that’s fun. We could do that.


FH: You have a big expense; but for example, when we started, we did one fair that was our big event and maybe we tried another one.


HH: And we lost our shirt.


FH: And we lost money in the second one. But now we’re doing 5 or 6 ourselves, and I do with other galleries as many as 15 different fairs in the year. So about the venues…going back to this notion of how the art world is in a process of decentralization, echoing the reestablishing of economic centers—all these things are determining factors. You go where the clients are, and that’s how galleries are surviving. So on the books, the money you make in this town, or at the fairs keeps the gallery functioning some place else.


HH: Well, there’s another issue we haven’t talked about. When we first started doing the gallery, we went the traditional route of doing advertising; and we put ads in Art In America and ARTNews and all the major publications, $3,500 a month. You had no idea who was looking at you. They may have a circulation number, but you don’t know who is looking at YOU. No feedback, no sales.  And so when we started doing the fairs, we said this is advertising, this is how we reach the two to five to fifteen thousand people who are going to see us this weekend. We know what they’re looking at, and we know what they’re interested in. So we can now adjust what we are doing. So when you look at the magazines now and you see that their advertisers are fewer and fewer, and they are always the same players over and over again, there’s a reason for that. It’s because people who used to spend money on magazine ads are putting that money into fairs.


JM: Well it’s partly, too, because of the tablet readers and the Internet and the print journalism is a dying—


FH: Like I said, we’re going to do this trip thing, we’re going to have the iPad there with us, with the gallery’s entire agenda in digital form. We’re going to reach out. They’ll be able to visit the website. Hopefully we’ll have small examples of other artists. We may in fact do business. So in a sense it’s a venture to create a different art fair, a little bit less competitive. We don’t have as many other galleries competing with us, but hopefully we’re going to make new clients.


JM: So what are the big trends that you’ve seen over the last ten years? We spoke about a few before we turned the recorder on, the idea that in a lot of the schools and colleges and universities studio programs are starting to fall by the wayside. Also the perception that galleries, specifically the physical walk-in brick and mortar galleries found in clusters like Chelsea, for instance, are suffering.


HH: There are many galleries that are not brick and mortar anymore. They exist purely on the Internet.


JM: Here’s one of my questions: I understood that at one point for a gallery to be considered for an art fair, they had to maintain a brick and mortar presence.


FH: That’s no longer though. In theory it’s true, but it’s no longer true. The other thing is you used to have to have an agenda, a program that you produced that demonstrated that you were doing at least six exhibitions a year that were real exhibitions. Today people create phony agendas and put them on the Internet and pretend they exist.


JM: Online exhibitions?


HH: The other thing is when we apply to some fairs they used to want to know your exhibition schedule. Now they want to know what art fairs you’ve done. There’s a hierarchy within the art fairs.


FH: The dynamics continue to change. Artistically, ten years ago everywhere you went you were seeing these gigantic digital photographs, manipulated in the computer, Photo-shopped. You’d see them hanging up everywhere. There was a period of time where you were seeing resin, resin, resin, resin, resin. Now resin is disappearing a little bit. Now it’s LEDs, new format lighting. Mechanical things are trending in.


JM: Anybody working on plasma screen display.


HH: Up-cycling is a big thing right now.


FH: A big part of what’s going on is that there really is this shift of things. The best place to see it all in one day is to go to an art fair, because you can walk stall to stall and you can see what I saw the first time in Chicago when I went to art Chicago in 1986. It was like Marlboro no longer had a fancy building. They just had a box right alongside the Fischbach Gallery or some other gallery. And suddenly the playing field was equal and the work had to stand on its own.


JM: Very interesting point. So without the theatrical installation art of the private parlor of the refined gentleman or the snob appeal of an upscale gallery with a haughty hottie intern at the desk who ignores you; so without all of that, everybody is just stuck in a box like everyone else, and you’re saying it calls more attention to that art.


FH: It levels the playing field. And the other thing is that in spite of all the manipulation and all the prejudice that people believe, when people go to art fairs, they really are pretty open-minded. And they look at everything or don’t look at it some times, and you can’t control that. They just look. They paid their money to get in the front door, and they’re going to look and enjoy it and they’re going to talk. It forces art dealers to have conversations with the people.


JM: That’s very new because I remember when we were in school and getting out of school and starting to show. The dealer was very often in this office in the back room and you were dealing with some counter-help, some floor sales-person, and only once you got past the interference of the public contact people would you be invited back to sit and talk to—


HH: Well, that’s one of the secrets we’ve learned. We can smell you a mile away. We really don’t want to talk to you.


JM: Well, it used to be that if you walked into a gallery looking like a artist—that’s why I always wore neck ties, is because people would not know that I was an artist.


HH: Yeah, but you would say some word that gave you away.


JM: But that’s changed, you’re saying.


FH: Absolutely. The whole nature of this conversation has revolved around how the field is changing. We’re sitting here in 57th Street in one of the most illustrious gallery streets in the world, and at the same time countless little enterprises are out there. People are trying to conceptualize new ways of presenting the work at the highest quality. We saw a fair this January that was staged in a circular tent near the bay of Biscayne, and the quality of the work was museum quality. But they were showing contemporary paintings with old sculpture and with fossils—all of it was top shelf, but the venue was so unique and the exposition was so extraordinary. We walked out and we felt like we had gone to a great museum.


JM: Well, I guess this is another question, because you, Frank, among a lot of the artists I know, were certainly one of the first to stop just putting a canvas on the easel and painting it. You were doing the woodcuts and painting the woodcuts. You were playing around with screen forms. You were doing ceramic murals. I remember walking into your studio on 2nd Street in Philadelphia and having tiles all over the floor and this kiln that was in some kind of jerry-rigged arrangement where you had to fire these things. But now I attend a lot of exhibitions here or I go to the museums where I am seeing more shows like the Rosemary Trockel exhibition at the New Museum last year. She had an Audubon print next to one of her paintings, next to a piece of pottery she’s done, next to an installation, next to a book by Humboldt. William Kentridge’s marvelous show at MoMA is a great example of many different genres being manipulated by one artist. This goes back to what you were saying earlier about how an artist’s work is not about just the individual piece. It’s about the body of work. We are seeing this more and more in artists like the Barbara Bloom, who recently organized a show at the Jewish Museum by drawing on the museum’s permanent collections. Artists today have to be polymaths, doing all sorts of different things. We would have accused them of being unfocused, “all over the place” back when we were in school. Artists today work across disciplines. They work in books at the same time they might be working 3D, or video. They make paintings and do performances, and do anything else they please. So how do you deal with an artist like that if you’re trying to intersect with a market?


FH: Well, let me just say that traditional galleries are still doing what they always did, which is attempting to pigeonhole an artist, to take the low hanging fruit, to take the stuff that’s easiest to sell and run with that. For me, the salvation has been that we’ve had our own gallery and I’ve been able to generate my own platforms. So that, as you generously pointed out, my impulse, which is historic now, goes back 40 years ago I couldn’t stay in the canvas we were taught in, I was working in other venues and crossing borders. When I was teaching that became a valuable skill that other schools recognized I could basically walk into a print shop or ceramic studio, a painting studio or a sculpture studio and actually function. And so I became the mixed-media specialist that was the guy that was brought in to liberate the program. But still the tradition galleries still want to go for the low hanging fruit. That hasn’t changed yet.


JM: When I walk in, there’s a room with one idea, all the paintings are the same


FH: And I don’t argue with those people. If they want to pick from my bush, that one fruit, that’s fine. But I don’t depend on them; I’m free to make it another way.


JM: With other artists, I mean for instance, I know some artists, let’s say another painter out of Philadelphia who is a little more traditional, who shows his oil paintings with one gallery, shows the drawings and watercolors in another. Some artists might show prints at one gallery if their primary dealer is only interested in painting. This was unheard of twenty years ago. Do you deal with any artists you’re only dealing with part of their productions?


FH: That may or may not happen because you’re going to be limited by the gallery who represents them. There is still a pecking order.  If a gallery’s got a NY venue, it’s got more power than a gallery that has a Philadelphia venue. If a gallery is European based, it’s got more power than just a New York base. Those are old rules that are hard to shake. We’ll take the work on any terms that we can, but we also do not edit our artists. We let them come in and put this show together. We’ll lend our insight, “Maybe if you didn’t have this piece here, the whole wall would look better. Let’s try it and see where it goes.” Whereas, a lot of other galleries you don’t have that input at all.


HH: But, we have other ends of the spectrum. We’ll have an artist who is having a solo show drop off the work and leave and say, “You hang it.”


JM: That’s the way they want to do it.


HH: That’s the way they want to do it. “Just hang it, I’ll be back. When you sell it give me a check. I don’t want to know.”

And then we have other artists who come in and they want to spend three days installing a show and they want to drive me crazy. So you have both. But we do have artists that have multiple bodies of work; and whether they’re working with another gallery that shows that and I show this; or that other body of work is not up to my aesthetics, it’s not that I’m editing it—they can continue to do that, no problem, just this is what I can work with. I’m pulling their low fruit; it’s just that I can’t do anything about that. It’s business sometimes. But the other thing that we do because he’s an artist, we’ll have an artist who’s sort of on this road and we’ll say, “Hey, take this idea; go over there.” Sometimes they take the idea and it works; sometimes they don’t and they just keep going on that road. Being an artist, you have to grow; just like a gallery.

(To be continued)

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