The In Crowd
The Boston art gallery community finds strength and struggle in its size.
A boy and a girl walk hand-in-hand on a boardwalk, a man tattooed from head-to-toe leers into the camera, and destitute children eat in front of a stained glass portrait of Jesus. As I enter the hall of Panopticon Gallery, I am surrounded with photographs by Harold Feinstein, who is known for his collection of Coney Island photos that span six decades. Around the corner is a collection of works by Stephen Sheffield, whose haunting black-and-white self-portraits, including one in which he holds his hand up in front of the camera, obscuring his face, portray the photographer as an enigma. In another nook, there are a number of works by Alipio Hernandez, an up-and-coming young artist whose mixed-media creations contain pieces of photographs cut into small fragments that are physically stitched together.
Faced with so many images lining the walls, I was unsure just where to go first. Fortunately for me, the man behind the front desk recognized the look of uncertainty on my face. Panopticon benefits from its location in the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square. “It’s forced traffic. It’s also opening up people to the arts who might not have been really interested or may not have even gone into a gallery,” says the gallery’s owner and director Jason Landry. “Sometimes galleries are intimidating. Sometimes you go in there [and] people don’t talk to you. People don’t say hi. They don’t even look at you.” Landry presents a striking contrast to the stereotypical image of the snobbish gallery owner—he believes in the value of connecting with each customer who passes through his gallery.
But the role of Landry and fellow gallery owners consists of more than welcoming the public into the art world. Gallery owners seek to represent each artist in the best light possible, not only to make a sale but to help them succeed even after their collection leaves the gallery itself. Although running a gallery out of Boston presents its own set of challenges due to competition with the New York art gallery scene, Landry and his colleagues persevere out of their admiration for art and the artists themselves.
A gallery owner is more than just a smiling face who welcomes wanderers through his or her door. The operation and maintenance of an art gallery requires an eye for recruiting talented artists whose work will be featured in the space and organizing the gallery in an attractive layout. Yet gallery owners must also possess the media savvy to manage public relations and the business acumen to manage finances.
The reality of how busy running a gallery can be is clear in the situation of Michelle Wojcik, director of the Galeria Cubana in South Boston. The Galeria Cubana is named as such since it specializes in displaying and selling works by Cuban artists. The U.S.-imposed trade embargo forbids Cuban artists from directly shipping their work to the United States. Fortunately, the gallery has one of few permits from the U.S. Treasury Department, allowing Wojcik to travel to Cuba and carry artwork. But this means Wojcik is required to leave the country on a fairly regular basis. “I have been hand-carrying all the artwork in and out of Havana on a plane,” she says. Paper pieces are stored in portfolios, canvas pieces get rolled into tubes, tubes get packed into boxes, and it all gets brought to the states by Wojcik herself.
Gallery owners are responsible for the artistic integrity and organizational strength of their gallery, both of which are challenging in their own right. In some cases, gallery owners are fortunate enough to be able to divide their responsibilities with a gallery president, a gallery director, or others. In the case of Panopticon Gallery, the work of running the gallery rests on the shoulders of just one proprietor, with intermittent help from the occasional intern. “You have to understand that running a gallery is not a 9 to 5.... I’m always working,” Landry says. “And I like that.”
CRAFTING THE ARTIST
Despite the time Landry must invest in running Panopticon, he finds his work highly rewarding. “Being able to give emerging artists their first exhibition is very fulfilling,” Landry says. He enjoys working with all types of artists, whether they be notable artists like Harold Feinstein or newcomers like Alipio Hernandez. Yet there is something particularly satisfying for Landry about the first showing of a new artist’s work. “Seeing the expressions that they have, seeing them bring their friends and family—that gives me a lot of joy,” he says.
Wojcik also enjoys garnering exposure for her artists, but the particular mission of her gallery to promote Cuban artwork adds a certain level of significance to her efforts. “I think it’s very unusual for people in this part of the United States in particular to see anything coming out of Cuba,” Wojcik says. “I really enjoy contributing to the art scene in that way. And I love engaging with the artists in Cuba and being able to support them.… To see the base of collectors being built over time is really exciting.” Wojcik finds assisting her artists in gaining traction outside of their native country particularly fulfilling.
Some gallery owners view presenting the work of emerging artists as an opportunity not only to promote their art but also to give them insight into their own work. Owner of Khaki gallery in South Boston, Nahid Khaki, who also has worked as an artist for three decades, appreciates how her role and years of experience allow her to help artists view their work in a different context. “I will tell them how to go about making their work better or how to go about showing it or displaying it,” Khaki says. “You have to be careful how to guide them or direct them, because you don’t want to make them feel that you’re saying something critical.” Khaki’s experience as a gallery owner and as an artist gives her particular insight into how to interact with artists, but other gallery owners agree that selling artwork is merely one part of the process. Gallery owners have the potential to guide artists and introduce their work to the art world.
Not all gallery directors worked as artists for years like Khaki or even possess a professional background in art. Many years before he even thought of owning a gallery, Landry left art school where he was studying photography in order to work in business. After about 10 years at a Fortune 500 company, Landry decided to come to Boston to study at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. It was during that time that he began considering running a gallery. “I was trying to figure out a way where I could marry my business background and my photography background into one thing that I could succeed at as well as help other people,” Landry says. After completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Masters of Fine Arts, he started working at Boston University’s Photographic Resource Center, where a colleague put him in contact with then-owner of Panopticon Gallery, Tony Decaneas. He was looking for a buyer for his gallery, and Landry was looking for a gallery to buy. Both walked away with what they wanted, and Landry has been running Panopticon Gallery since 2010.
Wojcik’s career trajectory is even more unexpected. Wojcik, who is not trained as an artist, owes her current position at the Galeria Cubana to her academic interest in post-Soviet studies. When she spent the summer of 2002 in Cuba doing research for her dissertation and for a policy organization, she took an interest in artists’ studios. “Art being…one of the few professions that [Cubans] could do privately…I basically could step into a home or studio and really get a glimpse into Cuban life,” Wojcik says. “Then I started to realize how very wonderfully expressive and sometimes emotional the work is.” Art studios and artisan markets provided Wojcik with a window into aspects of Cuban culture, but she ended up becoming fascinated with the artwork itself. A changing political climate prompted her to leave Cuba in 2004, but her devotion to Cuban art and culture stayed with her. Three years later, Wojcik’s passion culminated in the opening of Galeria Cubana in Provincetown, MA, followed by the opening of the gallery’s Boston location in 2009. Though Landry, Wojcik, and Khaki’s paths have little in common, a profound passion for art and the artists’ success unites them.
PAINT DOWN THE DRAIN