How can an art gallery in New York City, especially Manhattan, fight elitism in the art world and create a broader community based on trust and empathy? By establishing good relationships with their neighbours, organizing multiple events – from casual dinner parties to nights of performances – and giving financing options when purchasing artworks, for example. Sounds too good? If seeing is believing, head to Chinatown and attend the opening of Public Swim on January 17, a new art gallery by Madeleine Mermall and Catherine Fenton Bernath, who tell us how the urgency of opening their own space put them together faster than they thought.
A curator and an artist join forces to open a new gallery in the Lower East Side. But how did you two first meet?
Artists friends we had in common connected us knowing we were both interested in starting a gallery. With busy schedules, it took some time, and when we finally met up, it coincided with our needing to make a decision on the space almost immediately. Real estate in NYC is a powerful motivator! It definitely helped push us to take a leap of faith on each other. And happily, we haven’t looked back!
Madeleine, you’re not a curator only though. You graduated with a degree in art history and creative writing, so in addition to working in the art world, you’re also a fiction writer and a poet. How do you feel these two worlds/interests – literature and art – complement each other? Meaning, how do you feel literature and poetry inform the way you curate and understand art, and the other way around?
Writing and literature were my first loves, and I think so much of my passion for art stems from that. Though I mainly focused on conceptual and experimental art in college, I find myself in my curatorial practice more drawn to art that does feel ‘literary’ in a sense, meaning with more narrative characteristics or world/character building. Like with writing, the quality to transport, to engage the imagination, and to create empathy – in the many nuanced meaning of the word – are important characteristics to me in an artwork. I also enjoy the transcendent quality that the viewer/reader experiences when interacting with both modes of expression.
There is always a little room for us to step into the material; perhaps we have to sneak in, be the voyeur, or we can brazenly stand within the scene, the components primed for our arrival, but our entrance is a step towards comprehension. Comprehension of what? The answer is contingent, for each individual to discover, and I think that process of discovery carries through art and literature. In my curating, I try to bring this quality forward, to create narratives and conversations between works on different scales so that the viewer can find their own meaning, their own profundity, within an exhibition. I hope that, like a good novel or poem, the themes universal to our shared humanity are present and that the viewer discovers or gains in some way from this exposure.
Catherine, you also work beyond the role of an artist. You started curating exhibitions in 2015, are an executive producer of various TV projects – including one for Sundance Channel – and have also been involved in theatre projects supporting women and gender non-conforming artists. Do you think art has a broader meaning than just object-based production? How do you approach art from these many different perspectives?
Whether I’m curating or making art, there’s always a sense that both are emerging from a bigger place either real or imaginary. I usually have ‘a world’ in mind from where the work might be coming from or might exist within. There’s no doubt my experience with television and theater have contributed to a broader scope of thinking about the work and what can sometimes feel like a never-ending conversation with myself. That said, it’s strong work that continues speaking outside the studio or gallery wall, and if I can spark a continued dialogue with the viewer, then I’ve succeeded!
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But let’s start talking about your new joint project: Public Swim. When and why did you decide to start it? How was the project originally born?
We were both doing independent shows and artist friends recognized a similar style we were going for with our installs and thought we should talk. It was clear pretty quickly that we both thought high prices and an elitist model still dominated the art scene now and alienated both new collectors and emerging artists alike. We were interested in offering an alternative model as a means to shift the narrative and get art into the hands of everyone and not just those with deep pockets.
You want Public Swim to be more than a gallery; it’s intended to form “a lively community where everyone feels welcome” and where “collectors and emerging artists can come together for engaged conversation and art viewing pleasure”. What plans or activities will you program/organise to achieve so?
We’re trying to establish an intimate connection with our audience, our artists and our community beyond. We want to provide a space where people feel welcome when they walk in our door, can sit down and take their time engaging with the work and feel comfortable asking questions. Programming supporting the work on view will run the gamut from a night of performance to a casual dinner party. We had our first event earlier last month in response to artist Emilia Olsen’s installation in our gallery’s front window entitled How to be Alone. We had a playwright, a comedian and a photographer in dialogue with their own work as a means to explore Olsen’s piece further. We did not announce it on social media and are experimenting with ‘word of mouth’ as a way to present future programming.
The sense of community goes further than this as you also expect Public Swim to become “a neighbourhood focal point and gathering place”. Why is community so important to you, and how do you think art can contribute to the sense of belonging to a community?
It’s important for us both that we are connected to our immediate neighbors and the broader community. Our gallery exists in Chinatown and we have signage in Mandarin included above our door as one means of reaching out. We have connected with the art teacher at the elementary school across the street who’s excited to bring her students into the gallery to check out the work on our wall and how it might connect to what they’re doing in the classroom. Our kitchen supply store neighbors have been so excited to see our space evolve, watching us do the painting and repairs ourselves and offering help if needed. We want to create a space that goes beyond the art on the wall, we want to feel like we’re contributing and are a real part of the neighborhood.
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You also say that everyone is invited to this pool party and define yourselves as “refreshingly non-elitist”. But collecting art is usually reserved for the economic elite, to those who are wealthy enough to spend on artworks because they don’t need to worry about making ends meet. How do you navigate through this dichotomy?
We will be offering a range of price points for works within the gallery, plus unique items will also be available through our website. Payment plans for higher-priced works will be offered as well. We’re hoping that there will be something for everyone.
Before the opening, you’ve been exhibiting a site-specific window installation by Emilia Olsen, which we were just talking about. Was it to create more expectation, so the people wandering around the neighbourhood saw that there was something coming up?
We are fortunate to have a large picture window that can act as an installation space for our artists. We are the first commercial space on our block to push back on the steel grate covering at night and leave our window exposed. This is an exercise in trust and belief in the safety of the neighborhood plus an opportunity to use the dark hours to highlight work in the window. Emilia’s installation was a great chance for us to offer people walking by a hint of what was to come and allow us more time to complete needed renovations. In the piece How to be Alone, Olsen assembled a paper cutout of a woman in the bath. The window to the outside viewer is partially shielded with domestic blinds in an attempt to implicate the viewer with our ‘peeking’ in her.
The inaugural exhibition that’s to follow takes as its starting point an excerpt from a 1922 issue of House & Garden, which outlines the state of existential distress that should occur were the doors to disappear from our homes, revealing the elements of our existence. In the present digital age of compromised privacy, we thought Olsen’s window piece was the perfect setup to the 1922 quote by Mary Fanton Roberts questioning life without doors and a great metaphor to themes of privacy we hope to explore further in our upcoming inaugural show.
The gallery is about to open, so it’s still pretty risky to talk about the future. But what are your plans for the upcoming months? What things should we be excited about?
We’ve been so focused on launching that the future feels a million artworks away! We do have the next nine months or so planned out though, and we’ll be working with artists who each will be transforming the space in their own way. Without giving away too much too soon, we promise it won’t be boring and you’ll always feel welcome.
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