The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 31: ASSASSINATION: Barbara Ann Levy, Director of The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery

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Head shot of Barbara Ann Levy. Courtesy of Facebook.
The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery at the 2008 Bridge Miami Wynwood Art Fair. Courtesy of The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery.

Barbara Ann Levy, a gallery owner who lives in West Palm Beach, has one of the most daring programming that has strong ties to the gay community and artworks that reflect a diverse approach to self-expression. As a former New Yorker who relocated away from one of the major loci of the contemporary art world, I have a profound understanding of the trials and tribulations of working within the art context as a displaced New Yorker. After all, you can’t remove the jungle out of the cat.

Last winter, The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery was one of the featured galleries at The Bridge Miami Wynwood Art Fair. Even though sales were tough due to the bad timing of the recession’s full swing, Ms. Levy has become more aggressive about revamping her gallery as an online presence where she can connect with new people through this powerful medium. Also she has become fairly experimental in her ability to find artists from Facebook, which only within the past year or so has become a juncture for all types of art professionals to hook up. This approach makes one wonder whether studio visits are a thing of the past?

Also it is admirable to see her gallery battle the public’s expectations for a gallery that is involved in a political thrust, particularly within the gay community. She has a roster with many gay artists who are not afraid to explore tough erotic themes and the deconstruction of social stereotypes.

If you have any questions about artwork at The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery, feel free to contact the gallery at barbaraannlevy@gmail.com.

And now to the feature presentation you all been waiting for regarding THE ART ASSASSIN’s personal account of the “assassination”:

qi peng: The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery (The BAL Gallery) started in Cherry Grove, New York in 1997. There was a two year period where you also added a Chelsea location. What is the history of its founding of the original and Chelsea spaces? What were the challenging of maintaining the location in Chelsea amongst various galleries such as Freight + Volume, Claire Oliver, etc.?

Barbara Ann Levy: I used to own a summer house in Cherry Grove, NY on The Fire Island National Seashore. Cherry Grove is located in an unspoiled protected pristine beach community on federal land on the Atlantic Ocean. There are 250 houses and a handful of businesses mostly bars and restaurants that cater to day trippers from NYC and Long Island, NY who have access to its beaches and to a weekend nighttime crowd who take The Sayville Ferry across The Great South Bay from Sayville, NY to “let their hair down.” Cars are not permitted. There are no roads. Instead there are boardwalks and quaint seaside cottages. Residents use red flexible flyer wagons to pick up groceries from the center of town and there is a Postmistress who has sorted the mail into her 90’s.  It has the feel of an old English village and particularly one from the Miss Mapp series by E. F. Benson. Many residents garden throughout the summer and host cocktail and drag parties.

One day, a friend of mine, the former curator of The Limbo Lounge art gallery from the NYC East Village art scene in the 1980’s Michael Gormley and I walked by The Ice Palace Entertainment Complex and noticed an empty storefront. This was in 1997. We put our heads together and created a salon style exhibition. It worked. The art sold. The show created excitement. Prior to this Cherry Grove had suffered a post AIDS era depression. Many residents died from AIDS related illnesses. Properties deteriorated and so did the spirits of the residents. The gallery provided some hope for a future generation of artists, musicians and performers. The gallery became a community hub and remained one close to 9 years.

In 1999 I decided to try my wings in NYC where I lived and worked as an artist for 28+ years and found a space in Chelsea somewhat off the beaten track in an older funky walk up commercial loft building on West 17th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. It was located on the third floor. I had good company as I joined dealers Richard Anderson, Axis Gallery and Rupert Goldsworthy. We all had opening receptions so we got some business but the economy was already starting to take a slow nosedive and the southern Chelsea location didn’t help. Business in the city was vastly different from Fire Island where I had no competition and was the only Fine Art gallery for miles around. In Chelsea I had fierce competition. Even so my gallery was launched with help from Tibor de Nagy Gallery who loaned me one of their artists, Trevor Winkfield, a noted British Pop Artist.  This helped to get the attention of the press. Gallery shows were reviewed by The New York Times, Art In AmericaThe New York Observer and many others. I was a sassy ‘start up’ and showed provocative artwork. I hosted panel discussions with cultural instigators Jim Fouratt and Willoughby Sharp. I organized a museum style exhibition by one of the founders of Art Therapy Edith Kramer who was a woman who worked in the machine shops on Grand Street in NYC in the WPA Era. The show was called “Machine Shop 1945”. This gave me credibility. I was after all a studio artist not an art historian.

In 2001 9-11 changed everything. This had the effect of an aftershock in the business communities in NY state. Tourism contracted.  I sold my Fire Island house and held onto my Chelsea location for one more year. It became clear that I could no longer hold onto two spaces. I moved into a much smaller space in Cherry Grove as well on the dock of the bay to cut costs but the economy did not rebound.

In 2006 I closed the Cherry Grove gallery and moved to West Palm Beach, Florida. It was time . All good things must come to an end.

qi peng: What is a typical day at The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery like? What responsibilities do you have as the director and curator of the gallery? Considering that you have moved the gallery from the New York City area into the West Palm Beach location, how has your curating style changed with the environment and the audiences within each environment? How does the artistic milieu in the Chelsea area differ than that of Florida, where the art fairs happen and your gallery is based out of?

Barbara Ann Levy: My gallery life is well integrated with my personal life.

This year the gallery is all online. I spend a good deal of my time everyday on the various social networking sites and my own website as well at http://www.balgallery.com. I plan to participate in Artnet‘s auction area as a dealer as well as Zatista, another online art auction site. I have gathered my artists together on Facebook and continue to follow the thread of my gallery’s direction. It seems to have a life of it’s own.

This year I participated in my first and last art fair. The Bridge Art Fair was held in two locations: South Beach and in Midtown, Miami but that did not work for me. My gallery was born in a site specific social environment and was of that time. That gallery has been put to bed since Bridge! The gallery’s new identity is re-emerging online. Again there is too much competition and overkill at art fairs. There was just too much to see in Midtown with so many art fairs all participating at the same time that visitors appeared burned out as they wandered from booth to booth in a fog. For three days we had no visitors at all.

qi peng: How would you describe your curating style and underlying philosophy and approach to how your audience and collectors respond to the artwork? Do you believe that art must serve as a counterpoint to the stereotypes and hackneyed ideas that the everyday media presents? What is the controversial or provocative exhibition that you have presented and how did the audience respond to the show? With a strong focus on the work of gay artists, do you feel that your space has a sociological and political thrust for the general public? Is the gallery involved in any causes and how do such partnerships affect what artwork you present?

Barbara Ann Levy: Yes I do believe that art must serve as a counterpoint to the stereotypes and hackneyed ideas that the everyday media presents.

I don’t have partners and therefore have the freedom to create provocative social and political exhibitions. I have applied for business loans and been shunned because of gay content. Regardless there were banks who said yes and gave me hefty loans. I have had many sexy shows. Gay love and sex, sex role stereotypes and transgender issues have been themes in the artwork shown in the Cherry Grove gallery.  I have had countless conversations with artists and visitors to the gallery about gender roles, drag and such. It remains a fascinating topic of conversation. It helps some to start to think ‘out of the box’. Today the gallery scope has broadened to include international artists found on Facebook and other social networking sites.

In Cherry Grove I created an environment free of fear and retribution for being a member of the lgbt community so that gay artists could be themselves and show relevant art. No closets. No apologies.

qi peng: With the recent downturn in the American economy, have you seen any changes in how the galleries been able to interact with their audience? Can galleries afford to take a risk in curating riskier exhibitions during this period? Are you seeing collectors’ habits change within the West Palm Beach area as the national banking and other financial sectors are suffering from various problems such as foreclosures?

Barbara Ann Levy: When I moved to West Palm Beach I was encouraged to open a gallery. So many galleries in West Palm Beach have closed up in the last year. There used to be many contemporary galleries on South Dixie Highway. Only one has stayed the course. For rent and sale signs are everywhere you look. Condo and apartment buildings are going broke and what once sold for upwards of 300-450,000 is now being sold for under 200,000 and as low as 180,000 in a high rise luxury building with serious design and panache. Foreclosures can be found in many of the luxury high rises in downtown West Palm Beach. Times are downright bad even in paradise!

Online dreams seem to be alive and that is where I plan to do business in the coming year. The world is our oyster as we watch the American economy wobble on its axis. Thank God for the web. We can reach beyond the turmoil and possibly find relief. Time will tell. I keep hearing the word Dubai!

qi peng: What is your favorite online resources and art magazines or journals for checking out the latest art news scoop? Do you have any favorite tales from The Barbara Ann Gallery you wish to share with your fans and column readers here? What are some hobbies that you enjoy outside of your work in your gallery? How do you interact with its audience in the internet world? Do you feel that selling artwork will be more aligned with Internet-based sales or the white-box gallery physical setting? You also mention that you include artists that you met through Facebook. In what ways is this an innovation for finding top-notch talent that a gallery owner would not find normally through regular methods such as studio visits?

Barbara Ann Levy: For me Facebook is very much like Cherry Grove and its social environment. Social networking suits me. I like to gab to strangers in the virtual town square as they find my blog or site or befriend me in Facebook. My gallery has resurfaced to engage artists from Mumbai, India, Finland and Hong Kong. I stay open to artists as they approach me online to possibly show their art or write for my blog or simply to chew the fat.

I have so many tales from Cherry Grove to tell and someday I may write a book if I get the courage. I had a window seat in my gallery that visitors naturally migrated to after they looked at the art to speak with me about anything and everything. I am a trained therapist so welcomed this kind of interaction. I heard all kinds of tall tales and then some. Intrigue, political and otherwise abounded. If those walls could talk we would all have to head for the hills.

The yearly event The Miss Fire Island Contest is usually the talk of Cherry Grove. It started as a gay dominated event and as one to celebrate gay life but slowly  was transformed by its commercial appeal. Today it caters to a boating heterosexual Fire Island crowd. Former Gay attendees stay home. There is much mumbling and grumbling by the gay community of Cherry Grove about this state of affairs.  In conjunction with the contest I hosted an exhibition one summer by a local Sayville artist, a photographer named Chris Casaburi, http://casaburi.com/projects/miss_fire_island/001.htm. He exhibited large glossy color photographs of the contestants. They seemed gay positive to me, fun and energetic. The show was controversial since the artist is a heterosexual and according to some has an outsider perspective considered exploitative to the gay community. The contest is a female impersonation contest where designer gowns and hair are the norm. One year I tried to sell Avon in my gallery as a bread and butter series of items. Not one lipstick sold. Unless it was Gucci, Fiorucci or Pucci “fogetaboudit”! The contest is taken very seriously by contestants. Money is involved. There are sponsors: large liquor companies. One contestant was so upset that he never spoke to me again since he thought he looked fat in his photograph. In another photo one could see a contestant’s crows feet. The images had not been air brushed or altered but had a punch. I could not win with that exhibition! In subsequent years I showed other photographs of drag performers with the same response. I had to start to seriously think about it. Was it that I was a woman and was perceived as an interloper?  Was it that the actors like tribal people felt their souls were stolen by the camera? Or is it that the art of female impersonation can never live up to the internal state or fantasy?  Perhaps I will never know.

qi peng: Do you have any advice for up and coming BFA and MFA graduates who are graduating from art school and are starting to hunt for galleries to show their artwork? Do you think that there are too many talented artists within the system than what the top galleries, especially in Chelsea, can handle? With the recent closures of so many galleries within the New York art world such as Rivington Arms and Roebling Hall as well as other areas such as Little Tree Gallery, what trends are you seeing within the extant galleries and how they are presenting their work to the public? Do you see any trends within the established museums such as MOMA and Whitney in how they are dealing with the recession?

Barbara Ann Levy: The art fairs have taken over the art world for now. I don’t think this trend will last. I don’t know what will happen.  I do know that the traditional gallery structure has outlived its usefulness. Times they are a changin’. Your guess is as good or better than mine.  I do know that art will change also. Our institutions are mutating at a fast clip. They need to keep up or will go under. Many of them have become too big and unwieldy without good public relations or service. They have become the agents of depersonalization. I am sitting on my hands for now and love cyberspace. No overhead! It is fair and has created a level playing field for smaller galleries with emerging artists. Democracy is alive at least online! In addition I can talk to someone In Mumbai without fear of impending doom and documentation. (although according to this week’s news this freedom may also become a thing of the past.) I remember hiding a work of art by a female artist who documented men she perceived as being despots. This was pre-9-11. I bought a piece at The Richard Anderson Gallery that showed Giuliani covered by her obsessive compulsive bug-like black marks. I thought it would be unpatriotic post 9-11 to hang it in my living room.

qi peng: What is your opinion about online curated galleries such as Collegeartonline (CAO) or Ugallery? In what ways is their exhibition style different than that of The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery? Any opinion on online artists registries such as White Columns or The Drawing Center? Any opinion on juried competitions such as New American Paintings or the Chelsea competition hosted by Agora Gallery? Which method is most important for a starting artist to get validation for the work that they execute?

Barbara Ann Levy: Person centered living seems lost in this time period in our history. The Getty Center was a turning point in the arts. Suddenly children began to be taught art making using a subject centered curriculum instead of a person centered one.  It was less costly to teach every child how to make a squiggle instead of nurturing the child’s individuality. That takes valuable time. I would tell each budding artist to “know thyself”, be honest in your use of materials and subject matter. Writers are told not to write about stuff they know nothing about. Start making art about the life and subjects you know. Secondly “follow your bliss”. Let the art come from the bliss and you will know how to exhibit it , who to talk to etc…You cannot be a sheep and be an artist too. You need to be the individual you were born to be. I know this sounds corny and perhaps a leftover scrap from my generation. Ours is the “free love” generation after all! Artists need to be out of the box to be free to think and to create necessary change.  Art is an agent of change.

qi peng: As your gallery has attended the 2008 Bridge Wynwood Art Fair, how was the experience there? What is your opinion on art fairs and its seemingly more commercial and less conceptual presentation of artwork as compared to that of more traditional exhibitions? Is it possible to present artwork in a challenging way within the Miami warehouse spaces? What elements of playfulness can enter into the Miami art fairs? Do you think that dynamics of art fairs will change as the recession is underway?

Barbara Ann Levy: Art fairs seem to me to be more about the fluff of real estate development. Not great for art and artists or for dealers. They are a step along the way in the process of the art world and its reconfiguration but not the last word and I do predict their demise. They are an attempt at social networking but fail the test. Too many art fairs lumped together are creating their implosion just like what has happened to other institutions. The best art exhibitions flow from the culture and its transformation and the best art reflects that process. It is like the migration of the NYC art world: Soho to Tribeca to the East Village and now to Chelsea and Williamsburg etc etc… The best venues for art like the best art naturally occur like the School of Visual Arts photo exhibition post 9-11. It was potent because it was born from truth. Like art that is self conscious and that lacks integrity galleries have to be careful to create spaces to show art that reflect the truth of their time and place and of the art they show. The Dia Art Foundation was brilliant (no pun intended) in this regard. They created temples for art that reflected spirit. All was integrated. Street art is another great example. Futura 2000 and other grafitti artists led the way for Keith Haring and other impromptu art events. They were born from street culture. I think that social networking sites can begin that process of integration of culture and art that I am attempting to describe.

qi peng: On a lighter note, do you have any favorite restaurants, hangouts, or cool places around New York City or West Palm Beach or any other city that you would like to recommend to fans of your gallery? What do you like best about the places that you have chosen?

Barbara Ann Levy: I love the Italian food served up at a NYC style restaurant at di Napoli on Clematis St. . They have the best Eggplant Parmesan hands down. I would also recommend a funky out of the way restaurant with serious home cookin’ like stuffed cabbage and homemade coconut cake like Grandma used to make located close to Riviera Beach, Florida called The Carving Station. They also have amazing 50’s style jello with all manner of fruits and veggies imbedded in them. Like edible party favors! Love the easy relaxed Jewish deli like environment with its attendant clanking of glasses and silver and the elderly who come because it is an all you can eat place for around 15.00. A delicious bargain. In this economic climate it is the place to go!

I don’t party much these days but Clematis Street in West Palm is relaxed, safe and fun. You can hang out there with friends on a balmy Florida night unlike NYC where nearly all of the parks are taken over by drug addicted homeless people who beg for loose change. (I will most likely get a lot of flack for this statement!)  There is a club called The Lounge that hosts a live art auction on Wed nights for young artists and visitors. On Thursday and Saturday nights there is free entertainment in the downtown square by a choreographed fountain. Soon West Palm will host Sunfest. Everyone is a volunteer that works this music festival. James Taylor is a headliner for it this year.

I am awed by the good public sculpture in WPB to include interesting and playful fountains that children are permitted to play in with the assistance of an adult.  Some are choreographed to dramatic music. My particular favorite piece of sculpture is located in a park at the off ramp on Southern Blvd. It looks like fingers rising up out of the lake in which it is situated. It has presence, caught my eye, and is delicate and refined in its movement even though it is a rather large clunky piece.

Last but not least I love driving up and down A1A along the ocean with my convertible top down. The water is crystal clear and turquoise. I sometimes listen to rap music along the way and loud! I have a VW silver Beetle! I am a teenager at heart!

qi peng: Apart from contemporary art, are there any other types of art from earlier movements that you enjoy? What are some highlighted pieces from your personal collection that you wish to share with your readers? How does your interest in art history enhance your ability to find new pieces or artists that will have an impact in defining the arc of the future of artistic directions?

Barbara Ann Levy: I grew up with an artist father who introduced me to the Met at 10. Old Kingdom Egyptian art, reconstructed tomb and mummies especially the animal mummies awed me. I made art about it when I got home from my visit.

I am influenced by the German Expressionists, Kokoschka, Alice Neel, Outsider Art, Cezanne, Arp, Alex Katz, and on and on. There are so many artists that have moved me either through the placement of shapes on a canvas or the pace and rhythm of the marks. I love the smell of turp and the texture of paint. Schools of art from Seaside communities have also influenced me: Provincetown and Henry Hensche come to mind. I like painterly paintings that are mushy and all about the paint as well as the cool flat color of Alex Katz. I am in love with his paintings most of all. There is a respectful consideration of the subject and a Zen influence in them that I crave in my daily fast paced and sometimes cluttered life.

qi peng: How are you able to balance out a program comprising various media ranging from the straightforward drawings of Jason Seder to the mixed media figuration of Albert Schweitzer to the forceful abstract paintings of Camilla Fallon? What do you feel will become the future cutting-edge trends within the art world?

Barbara Ann Levy: I do have an eclectic range in the artists I show. It has been described as having a hot side and a cool side. Again individuality is key. I look for authenticity in the art I choose. I follow the course of an artist’s life and try to understand the art in relationship to that. I choose artists as I choose my friends and each brings something unique to the table.

Social networking is the beginning of a new way to make artwork and to create online processes that help individual’s blossom and flourish in collaboration worldwide. Art as avatar. Boundaries have shifted. National boundaries are dissolving in cyberspace. It is easier for me to ask my artist Koushal to send me an image online than to send his actual work to me from India. It is comfortable, friendly, and portable. It is like a Star Trek experience of “Beam me up Scotty”. This is the beginning of a ‘green’ world and the beginning of getting ourselves back on track as human beings. My prayer is that computer technology will instead of cutting us off from one another to create a depersonalized world will instead become the key to our human connection. New art may come out of that.

qi peng: What are some of your future projects and upcoming exhibitions that The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery will be experiencing? What are some potential challenges or past hardships that your gallery has overcome and that you are proud of?

Barbara Ann Levy: My gallery existed in a community that was being burned down. One year 7 acts of arson were created in the federal park that bordered Cherry Grove. To this day as far as I know arson is still under investigation so many years later. There were people in the shadows in the Grove, possibly members of hate groups that seemed compelled to keep the community fearful through small acts of terror like lighting people’s doors and gates on fire, leaving hateful notes under doors, etc..I stayed the course. I kept the door open to gay expression until two years post 9-11. I stayed but watched tourism tank.

qi peng: Before we embark on the last question, thanks very much for your time. Is there anything else that you wish to share with fans and viewers of your gallery?

Barbara Ann Levy: I suppose that my message is to “know thyself” and “stay the course”.  Life is like the art making process and visa versa. “You gotta be in it to win it!” (Sorry…;)

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at qipengart@gmail.com
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Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 2:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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