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WE FELT YOUR PAIN

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In the last issue of Big RED & Shiny, executive editor Rachel Gepner wrote of her time in the SoWa gallery/studio complex. Her piece prompted a range of responses in our Forum, and inspired Rob Clifford of the currently-homeless Clifford-Smith Gallery to draft a six-page reply. Below are his thoughts as they arrived in our inbox.

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Rachel Gepner… we felt your pain.

Okay, so we’re not artists. We’re a gallery. A virtual gallery for the moment, taking a hiatus from the exhibition thing for a bit, but we hope still a gallery in some people’s hearts and minds.

We had an exhibition space at 450 Harrison Avenue until this past December. We opened in 1998, joining pioneer galleries in the building Genovese Sullivan and Kingston, and lots of artists and creative professionals and “small businesses”. The lines between those were often, if not always, hard to draw. In our (Clifford’s and Smith’s) minds, we were all artists – visionaries following many paths and attempting to piece together paying gigs in order to keep doing whatever it was that gave us a kick in the ass on a creative level.

And lucky for us, we would visit and be visited by our neighbors. We would congregate, and offer feedback or lend an ear. We would smoke cigarettes (Jim and I have since quit, although I still have cravings), and we would be there at all hours of the day. I do mean “lucky” for us because 1) like you, we too sought that kind of environment when we scoped out locales for the gallery, found it, and LOVED that about 450 Harrison, and 2) I think you’re right Rachel, it has since changed.

I know as well that our experience in the building was different from that of those who came before us. Jim and I often romanticized about what it could have been like, had we been down there when it was really rough around the edges. In fact, Jim had been to parties in those buildings years before. We knew, and over the years met, artists and others who lived in some of those spaces, heard about the bands who practiced, loudly, fearing a rat in search of a ravioli more than a fussy neighbor calling the cops. A place where, we thought, probably anything goes. Cool. And a place, a building, which was merely a shell for the spectrum of creativity that was happening inside its walls. Sadly, to some, it’s as if the building is now the thing, the creative attraction, and some of what goes on inside its walls second to that, and not nearly as pure as what came from the artists, the squatters, the creative types of the past.

But back to what we know – Clifford-Smith’s experience. In 1998, our neighbors at 450 Harrison Avenue included…

Genovese Sullivan: wife and husband duo (he a visual artist too) who seemed to have traded in the pursuit of material goods and financial gain for a life of art, and with that the stresses [and trust us, there are some]that accompany a mission to fill their HUGE gallery space with art they were passionate about, sharing that passion with all of us, and for a payoff that has no bottom line.

Kingston Gallery: bunch ‘o artists. Banding together to run a cooperative gallery space, and to put their art out there. It was and is about exhibiting, and not slick marketing; about the collective and the dialogue within a network, and not networking.

Bernard Toale Gallery: Bernie was the Newbury Street veteran whom we decided, after pulling his name out of our asses, to invite to lunch with a plan to pick his brain and find out all there was to know about running a gallery. We had lunch, learned that there were no answers, and made a new friend. As luck would have it, Bernie was planning a move from Newbury Street to 450 Harrison, opening his new space the exact same month we were to open Clifford-Smith. In those next couple of years he shared everything with us, and it’s impossible to quantify and describe all the ways in which we benefited from knowing him and his partner Joe. What I can say is that the environment we were looking for, and found at 450 Harrison, was epitomized by our friendship with Bernie.

[Sidebar: When BADA (ask somebody if you don’t know who they are) offered squat to young, emerging galleries who had questions and needed guidance or guidelines, Camellia and David, Caroline and Kathleen (who were at Kingston then), Bernie, and the grand dames and gents of Newbury Street (Barbara, Howard, Arthur) were there for us at every turn with advice.

Little known fact: there is virtually zero competitive crap in the gallery biz. The fact that the advice from the afore-mentioned was often “get out while you still can” is explained by real-life experience and genuine caring for another human being, and not to be confused with an attempt to get rid of the competition. That misery does indeed love company is evidenced by the fact that many of us gallery dudes and dudettes are friends and explains why one often sees us in public traveling in packs.]

Back to 450, and our neighbors in the beginning…

There was Peggy, who although you’d never know it looking at her (she glows and has energy to match), preceded us all at 450, hailing from the days when the only thing louder than the down-and-out guys queuing up at the Pine Street Inn, having the same street-corner argument they’ve had a bizillion times before, was the volume of the bands. She’s weaved her way past blowjob negotiations on Harrison and into the various entrances to the building for years, working with other terrific artists to make the most beautiful things out of hand-painted silk.

Lisa was downstairs, then down the hall, then upstairs, and when she wasn’t moving studios or homes she was cranking at the Museum School, painting like nobody’s business, making these freakishly gorgeous portraits in oils, and charcoal, and sewn material. Talent oozing out her pores.

And there was Greg and Ruth, also incredibly talented artists, who worked long hours producing acutely well-made and handsome frames, helping other artists and excited collectors present their work in the best way possible. Besides the conversation, the appeal of going up to the fourth floor was to smoke with Greg and to [hopefully]find a plate of cookies made by Ruth. Serious cookies. Not like any other. Seriously.

We showed some of Greg’s and some of Ruth’s artwork over the years, once as part of a group show in which just about every artist with a studio at 450, or who did some other kind of work within the walls of 450, participated. We called it “450” (ah, the cleverness…) and we all decided to send a portion of sales next door to the Inn. Just to say “c’mon guys, find some new arguments for us to listen to.” It didn’t work. The show did. Wonderfully. But the guys are having the same argument.

Other friendly faces we’d see at irregular times included Kevin, the professional photographer, whose personal art resulted in some of the most endearing, intimate portraits of people; Jamie, the landscape designer who loved being around other visual artists and constantly looked around for inspiration; and Dave, Jim and Margeaux, the industrial designers who came to just about every opening we had, and I have to believe it wasn’t just for the free wine, ‘cause it was crappy.

The sounds we could hear through the paper-thin walls (and floors) of our space were the really odd imitations and cackling from the guys next door who designed visuals for radio stations, and the constant back-and-forth of the very busy party planners upstairs who wore very serious heels. The building smelled more like paint back then. Artists’ paint. Love that smell. Sometimes one could detect an odor of incense, or tobacco, or some other thing one might light up to lubricate the creative process. Occasionally the sensory assault was the toxic odor of a polyurethane no human was meant to inhale, or maybe the scent of the Chinese raviolis being assembled at the other end of the building. If the wind blew the right way, between that and the bread baking a block away, one might have the sensation that they’ve just had dinner without ever chewing.

When we opened, just eight short years ago, 450 Harrison was surrounded by empty lots and empty buildings. There was no Gateway Terrace, no Lofts At East Berkeley, no Rollins Square, no Wilkes Passage, and the late (great) developer (artist) Jack McLaughlin was just about to break ground and build Laconia Lofts. From our third floor window we still had a view of most of Back Bay, as well as into the windows of the live/work spaces in the Harry The Greek building, some belonging to artists with whom we would eventually work.

The building’s only immediate neighbor with some street presence was the Pine Street Inn. As a gallery whose chief objective was to get people in to look at art (and ideally then think, feel, react, and sometimes even purchase), Clifford-Smith’s biggest challenges were educating people about where we were, and then trying to convince them that it was safe to come. People still don’t believe us when we tell them that our eight years next door to the Pine Street Inn were completely uneventful, save for the one time we left a case of champagne in the car and later witnessed, through the broken back passenger window, some of the boys enjoying the bubbly in the grassy field a block away. But that could have happened anywhere. Seriously. It’s not the poor down-and-out souls (they’re called “guests” at the Inn) who put those wheels in motion. It’s our fucked up world, and mine and Jim’s stupidity that made that one possible.

Anywho…

As time marched on our landlords (GTI, eventually led by the tireless marketing genius who makes it all happen, John Kiger) were instrumental in putting the building and the immediate neighborhood on the map. I fear they were also instrumental in coming up with the SoWa moniker, but hey, we’re not all perfect.

Over the years, there would be many more great neighbors to come (and occasionally go) inside the building, creative types, who would become our friends: our roomies (artists and former Kingstonites) Kathleen and Caroline of OH+T gallery; our gal pals, theSkirts; the snot-nosed kid on the block at Gallery Katz; visual spin doctor CBDesign; Samson’s Camilo and Alexandra, who along with folks like James Hull are beacons for those of us operating in Conservative Town, a place that CAN make us feel like what we do is just shy of Crazy Town (one more exit on 93); and the Kayafas clan, headed up by Arlette and Gus, who were smart enough to do something creative that actually made money, and from what I’ve observed in the short time I’ve known them, used their success to exhibit compelling work, to buy the same for their personal collection, and to give back generously (with their time, energy and dollars) in support of the region’s artists and institutions.

Over those same years, there were of course some who came to 450 and whom we did not get to know, and it appears that you, Rachel Gepner, were one. I wish we were around more when you moved in, perhaps we could have hung out in the building. Even though we’re not artists, and we quit smoking, and I’m an aliterate, Jim and I can still hold our own in a conversation, although in my case it can’t be about sports or current events. But by a year-ago April, Jim and I were already absentee gallerists, working our other jobs at MassArt and WGBH so that we could keep the gallery open. Of course that meant we weren’t at the gallery to put in the time and make it what we wanted (and knew) it could be, which meant it couldn’t turn that corner and succeed enough – just enough – to sustain itself and support, say, even our dog, Lucy, so we kept working in order to buy Lucy’s sack of lamb-n-rice bits, and people would come to the gallery and ask “Where are Jim and Rob?”, and we wanted nothing more than to be at 450 Harrison surrounded by all you creative types, so we tried to at least maintain our level of debt, but the more we weren’t at the gallery the more we sank, and then lease renewal time came, and…

In those same years, new buildings went up and old ones were renovated, and realtors, residents and restaurants are moving in where once only artists and the homeless would venture. Nothing new there, just a very alliterative way of putting it on my part.

Even if we weren’t around as much, Jim and I felt other shifts at the ‘ole 450 as well. Clifford-Smith Gallery was nothing if not team players, and totally willing to do what we could to participate, and bring people in, and promote all of the creative activity and enormous talent represented by our neighbors in the building, as well as the faculty artists and students coming out of our crazy good art schools in the region, the huge artist base that chooses to stay and make it work in Boston, all the while bringing in artists and work from other places that further put what we loved to show in a larger context.

One example of a shift though, for us, was South End Open Studios. Like you, Rachel, we loved to participate. Our first year there we were asked and happily hosted a breakfast at the gallery, kicking off the weekend. Eventually though, it was written in to all of our leases at 450 that we had to be open, an odd sort of arm-twisting when you’re trying to get folks’ participation and buy-in. And the fees went up. And we had to participate, and we had to pay them. ‘They’ made galleries pay more. So here Jim and I are, having a hard time affording Lucy’s lamb-n-rice bits, and they’re charging us $160 to be there, and ‘on’, and open for two days. Over the course of seven Open Studios weekends, our gallery sold three small pieces. And that’s okay, because that’s not why people were out there. They were out there because it was an Open Studios weekend. They wanted to walk into an open studio, see things they didn’t have a chance to see day-to-day, meet the artist, hear from them directly about their work and the creative process, eat M&M’s that were touched by far too many people for my taste. They could come in to the open gallery any time of the year. I was actually accused by the producer of the weekend, a person I worked with years ago (and so I thought knew me a little better than this), of taking advantage of the audience being delivered to me. Whoa. People. Let’s not get too full of ourselves. It’s really simpler than that. Spend it on the fees to be open on a Saturday when we’d be open anyway and lose my Sunday too, so I can watch people walk in and sometimes, as in your experience Rachel, back right back out with an expression of fear on their faces – or – dog food? Extorted fees – dog food? Hmm… I’ll let you guess which won out. Oh – and we were reminded often that we also got membership in United South End Artists for our fee. Pardon me, those of you who already see the irony. It’s United South End Artists. We’re a gallery. We’re not supposed to be in your group. You guys are supposed to get together and talk about how much we [the galleries]suck. Remember? That’s like inviting your parents to a slumber party. Sheesh. I wrote a couple of letters over the years to the leadership of USEA and to the producers of Open Studios, but never a response. Just an invoice for participation fees the next year.

Okay. I’ve vented. Back to your year at 450 Rachel.

I am not intimately familiar with the workings and objectives of the SoWa Artists Guild, but your experience of it, and some of the promotional vehicles they are “making available” to you, seem akin to some of the stuff which eroded the experience for us at 450, and part of the reason we did not take on another lease there (the other part being we needed a break financially). We found First Fridays (which I have to once again say my partner Jim Smith initiated in that neighborhood) to be getting more circus-like, and mostly at the hands of artists who you COULD say, if I may quote an artist and writer, “found a way to make stuff that sells and settled in their rut”. Some of our newest neighbors were hiring models to hand out promotional materials and rolling out billboards with images of themselves, posing in front of their art. Granted, a handsome artist, yes. But in front of their art. What does that tell you? An artist on our hallway erected lit palm trees to get people to his door, and he would hang his own artwork out in the lobby with more signage about a Special This Week Only 10% Off Sale! Wow, what a savings. Beats the gal’s prices next door. I think I’ll buy his painting. Tool.

For the record, Jim and I liked the days when there was all kinds of stuff hanging everywhere, but as the neighborhood and building “came along” and it became a post-no-bills sorta place, we were damned if we were going to let the only visuals be one single person’s aesthetic, giving an impression as soon as one came off the elevator, impossible to represent all that was going on in the building. Became a constant fight for us… if it can’t be everybody, it sure can’t be that crap.

I don’t know, maybe we’re the stupid ones Rachel. Committing ourselves to what we feel honestly and unapologetically sure of, and working other jobs so we can do so. Looking for an experience which can not be measured or written into a lease or delivered by a guild, an environment which is so achievable but also so hard to create or maintain when the interesting and the talented are pushed out and you find yourself wondering “Was I wrong?” Do you really need to be around unique, inspired people who have creative ideas and output that amaze you, who challenge and boost and nurture your creativity, or who sometimes are just good for a stupid fart joke?

Maybe that’s why Jim and I closed our space. We said a bizillion times that we knew what we could put out there and sell tons of, but then it would just be about units sold, and it would be boring, and we’d probably be making money. Maybe we should stop our belly-aching, put our faces on some billboards, and sell some art!

I know what you’re thinking.

So Wa.

respectfully and long-windedly submitted by
Rob Clifford
Clifford • Smith Gallery
May 15, 2006


Links:
Clifford Smith Gallery
SO LONG, SOWA by RACHEL GEPNER in issue #43

Image by, and courtesy of, Youngsuk Suh. Found at ArtNet.


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