Artists’ Commerce

by Colin Keefe and Jacque Liu


The following essay stems from a conversation on art and commerce. The participants were Heidi Nivling and Larry Becker from Larry Becker Contemporary Art (founded 1988) and Sarah Eberle and Ben Will from Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art (founded 2007). Colin Keefe (Mount Airy Contemporary) and Jacque Liu (Grizzly Grizzly) moderated the conversation.



The common perception is that business and art are as intrinsically separate as they are linked. Selling art can be a means of sustaining the lives of artists and gallerists as well as the artwork itself. But how does something as subjective as art fit into something as objective as the commercial gallery? What role does commerce play in the interpretation of artwork? We asked four gallerists, who also have or have had lives as studio artists, how they investigate these questions and navigate the territory of supporting artists’ practices.


Artists As Gallerists


As the focus of Citywide is artist-run spaces, it seems apropos that this conversation focus on two galleries started by artists. Heidi Nivling and Larry Becker both studied fine art, first at Temple University and then at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Sarah Eberle studied at the University of California, Berkeley and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Ben Will attended Fairleigh Dickinson University and Middlesex University. Throughout our conversation, each of them spoke of investment in the artist rather than the objects; of responding to the work and fitting it into the market rather than changing the work to fit the market; and of filling one of the numerous voids in the visual art ecosystem. Of course, financial success is a goal, but for our panelists, success seems to be measured in metrics beyond market values.


As artists themselves, each of our panelists retains personal insights into the art-making process. This is not to say that commercial gallerists who did not study studio art lack an understanding of the studio process, but rather to emphasize that our panelists share the artists’ perspective and have a sense of what artists need. There is an a priori knowledge of when to push and when to give space.


The clearest example of this occurred when Will and Eberle spoke about their focus on artistic practice rather than the artworks themselves. Both stated that “very few people work on one thing specifically.” Many contemporary artists will cyclically make a wide range of work, from videos to installation to prints to paintings, etc. Some will be more sellable than others. Interestingly enough, they’ve found as much success in terms of sales when they show installation art as when they show prints or objects.


When speaking about these exhibitions, Will said, “We are all searching for that authentic moment.” Can the artists’ studio process be described any differently? For these gallerists, their work seems to be about following each individual artist’s practice in order to provide meaningful support. For Nivling, in the 1970s, it was about being “active in generating multi-artist curatorial projects in what has since been described as ‘alternative spaces.’”


Filling a Need


In starting their respective galleries, the participants all spoke of filling a need within the community. As artists themselves, each of them has access to the artist community in a way that they would not have had solely as gallerists. They have an intimate knowledge about who’s doing what, where, and how well.


For Becker and Nivling, it began in the 1970s with artist-curated exhibitions in raw alternative spaces. As always, the number of artists was greater than the venues; few of those venues truly reflected the work of the time. Free of institutional constraint, they worked with artists, using the exhibition as another tool in their creative practice. Their “cohorts” included artists such as Dan Graham, Robert Ryman, Italo Scanga, and Bill Walton. Presenting the content of these artists became a creative endeavor of its own. Connecting spaces with artists through context injected the Philadelphia culture with dialogue about contemporary work and ideas. Of those early exhibitions, Becker said, “We were offering [artwork] more than as something to buy. We were offering knowledge on how to look at objects.”


In the present day, the need has shifted from physical space to sustaining artistic practice. Citywide in itself shows that the DIY spirit that Becker and Nivling championed has grown and is flourishing. In Philadelphia, we also have a number of nonprofit exhibition venues and granting opportunities. The problem, however, is that many of these opportunities are one-offs. A venue or grantmaker might support an artist once, for a single exhibition or project, and then move onto another artist. Eberle asserted:


“I would say that we started Rebekah Templeton intentionally as a commercial space because we saw that there was this gap where artists were getting these nonprofit shows and these nonprofit grants. [They] got to this point where they [were] like, ‘Okay, I’ve done this, I’ve done this…now what?’ And we felt like there needed to be a place where you’re not getting picked up by these crazy big commercial galleries in New York, but you still want to keep making work, and hopefully make a little bit of money while you’re doing it. So we created our space as a venue for that—for artists in Philly, and to try to keep the artists’ community in Philly strong.”


Creating Experience Through the Gallery


These approaches to gallery practice are grounded in a felt need to create a set of experiences that share, educate, and broaden the art ecosystem. Gallery practice, in this sense, is a creative act—built out of a love of artists and what they do, a desire to share

art with a larger world. Galleries have always been understood to inhabit the space between artist and collector. What we find interesting about these artist-run commercial galleries is that the artists use space in very specific ways that reframe what “commercial” means. “Commercial” becomes an inlet or forum for conversation, connection, and developing a love for art objects. The spaces become venues for dialogue with the people who make the objects, the people who show the objects, and the people with whom the objects will potentially live—a commons.


The term “commerce,” when applied to these spaces and their creators, can be interpreted as occupying the full sense of the word. There is, of course, the physical transaction where goods pass hands, but commerce also refers to social transactions—the social dealings between people that generate value through the exchange of ideas. Becker even went as far as to describe their space as “partly an educational institution.” This reflects an intellectual or emotional connection in addition to market. Will and Eberle echoed the importance of the viewer’s gallery experience. Will likened it to that of the DIY music scene, stating that people have a desire to be “involved” when artists are first shown, before they become famous. Eberle added that people “want excitement. They want to be involved. They want to be there when it happened. So we’re trying to create that atmosphere.”


We often look at the art object as the locus around which all of these transactions normally take place, but in a very real sense, the people running these spaces are engaging in a creative enterprise that performs the same functions as art objects profess to—they engage, they inspire, they frame questions, and they demand interaction.



“You’re Standing in It”


Most notable from our conversation with these gallerists is that while the market plays a greater role in their ecosystem, their work is fundamentally focused on the artists and their practices. For artists, it often seems like we are endlessly chasing galleries. There are so many of us and so few of them. With Larry Becker Contemporary Art and Rebekah Templeton Contemporary, however, we found that it is they who are following us. They are like artists in the studio, with their creative enterprise being the gallery itself. But their materials are paradoxically more abstract—relationships, the market, aesthetic needs, marketing, etc. And like art objects, everything needs to be nurtured throughout the whole process. Nivling offered a statement which rings true for the studio and the gallery: “You can never be complacent, certainly. You can be happy, but not complacent.” About the work itself, Becker put it best: “People say, ‘Aren’t you doing your art anymore?’ And I say, ‘You’re standing in it.’”


COLIN KEEFE is an artist, curator, and co-director of Mount Airy Contemporary in Philadelphia, PA. Recent solo exhibitions include Robert Henry Contemporary, New York, NY; Abington Arts Center, Jenkintown, PA; and RHV Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times, Village Voice, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia City Paper, Toronto Globe and News, Los Angeles Times, Sculpture Magazine, and theartblog. Keefe received his BFA in sculpture from Washington University and an MFA in sculpture from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

JACQUE LIU is a former member of Grizzly Grizzly (2010–14), Vox Populi (2008-2010) in Philadelphia, PA; and the co-founder of artist-run Takt Kunstprojektram in Berlin, Germany. Currently, he serves as the Percent for Art Project Manager at the City of Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Collaboration, creative programming, and arts administration play an important role in his artistic practice. In addition to exhibition curation, Liu has led creative programming, such as Philadelphia’s inaugural Community Supported Art program, a collaboration between Grizzly Grizzly and Tiger Strikes Asteroid. He received his BFA with an English minor from Alfred University and his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He was awarded Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Universität der Künste Berlin.