The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
James Fuentes is one of the most talented gallery founders and leaders in today’s contemporary art world.
He began his career as a dealer right out of college by opening a small gallery (Gavin Brown’s former space) on Broome St in lower Manhattan. Fuentes has become known for his zealous and diverse program, which spans a wide range of genre and artists. We caught up in on a spring afternoon in his lower east side gallery at 55 Delancey Street to discuss his career path and his vision for the gallery.
Brett Wallace: What inspired you to start a career in art?
James Fuentes: I was an undergraduate at Bard College, where I studied filmmaking and anthropology.
At Bard, there was the Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) graduate program. I think that was kind of the eureka moment for me, when I discovered it.
Even in school I was kind of aimless, but the moment I found the CCS library, I finally had things to sink my teeth into. That was really the moment, where all of it really came together, my burgeoning interest in filmmaking, my background as a writer and all these things just came together. Marieluise Hessel was instrumental in putting that library together and I got to meet her a few years ago. When I met her, I told her that Bard really planted the seed for my career. In that library, I kind of started on the path that I am still on today.
BW: What were some of the intelligent risks you took in your career path to get where you are today?
JF: Professionally I have had a lot of freedom and support in NYC because my family is here. I am from this neighborhood originally [Lower East Side] and my family then moved to the Bronx. From the time I came back to New York, after Bard College, I was able to take chances that other friends of mine may not have been able to do. New York is the hardest city to exist in, but I was in the fortunate position that [for me] it was the easiest place to be because my family is here. I was extremely open out of school, with no fixed idea about what I wanted to do. That has been central to getting me to this point. Also, I have latched onto people who have functioned as mentors, but not in a linear way. For example, I metJonas Mekas [founder of the Anthology Film Archives]. I studied with his brother and I was lucky to have him as a resource early on and as a connection to the avant garde downtown scene. There were many other individuals along the way, that I was fortunate to come across and I was also fortunate that they gave me the time of day. These are people who have been instrumental in pushing me forward. I have been able to learn from them and gain confidence from them. And frankly, the few years I had out of school in random jobs and difficult scenarios really humbled me. The variety of experiences was very helpful early one and helped shape my perspective and lead me to the right thing. In my first full-time job out of school, I was a security guard at the Met. Professionally, I did things the opposite of the way things should be done. I opened a gallery right out of school. I was looking for a place to rent out of school and a friend of mine was going to graduate school and had a space to rent, a store front, where I could live and use. I was working at the Met at the time and the space came my way accidentally. It compelled me to start my career path as a gallerist. After a few years of running a gallery, I decided I wanted to train and learn the ropes from other people, so I worked for a few dealers including Jeffrey Deitch. Then, fast forward eight years and I had the experience of having my own business and failing and learning from people who have an immense position in the art world. For example, I curated an exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and I was a director at Deitch Projects, which were both formidable experiences. And, before I even worked for Deitch, during a very open time in my career, we created a television show together, a dream project for me, called the ArtStar. I found a producer, who was the former head of animation at MTV, would help us raise money and manage the project. I connected him with Deitch and I was able to be the executive producer and co-creator for this television show. Really, what I did was create introductions to people.
I realized early on, that some of the most successful people I was observing were people who were really generous about putting other people together. It has this karmic kind of return, so I try to do that – connect people, even if it isn’t something directly beneficial to us.
BW: Your gallery is close to the New Museum, but you aren’t exactly on gallery row in the Lower East Side. What role did location play into moving to this current space?
JF: It was weird, Delancey Street was like the most invisible street, but if you looked at it on a map in 2007 to 2010, this location was actually smack in the middle of it all. The other reason for the location was because I grew up in the neighborhood and considered Delancey Street to be kind of iconic – songs were written about it. And, it functioned as an important way of life for so many generations, so I was excited to be on such an iconic street.
BW: What is your program vision?
JF: I like to think of my program as non-elitist.
When I first opened, I thought, does New York need another gallery? And I thought what would make my gallery different and I started thinking about some of the artists I would advocate for.
I do feel like this field runs the risk of being somewhat ageist, male dominated and uniformly white. I realized, at the time that I opened, which elite graduate art program you came from, also seemed to be super important. So I realized a lot of the artists I would advocate for would fall outside of all that. That is what led me to take that step towards my current program vision. My program is all about the work. One of the distinguishing facets of my program is that I can state that the artists who we represent were born between 1933 and 1989, which is pretty remarkable. Another interesting thing is that there is more of an appreciation of artists who came outside of the academy. An example is Lonnie Holley, who we are showed at Frieze New York this year. He is a self-taught artist from Birmingham, AL and his work was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. . Holley is indicative of this very intense sort of shift in the art world. For example, Massimiliano Gioni (see previous interview with Gioni) recently included quite a few artists who were considered outsider artists in the last Venice Biennale and curators and museums are really starting to understand the importance of artists who were outside of the academy. When we had an exhibition of Holley’s, I was shocked at the people and the artists who came out of the woodwork with fanatical, intense appreciation of his work. Chris Martin [the painter] said that he had visited Holley 15 years ago and bought all these drawings from him and it really impacted him and I realized that a lot of these artists have been fertilizer for artists that we know and love for a long, long time.
BW: When you look at an artist, who may not have the recognition but that other artists love, is that one of the early signals you would look at to identify them as a fit for your program?
JF: I would say that is probably very indicative of a lot of the artists in our program. For example, an artist like Joshua Abelow, is very much an artist’s artist; and the same thing with Jessica Dickinson, whom we are showing now. I think that is something that I was always drawn toward.
JF: Thompson played an important part in my career. When I decided to close my first gallery at 23, Thompson [who was 28 at the time] said “James I am really psyched that we did this show and really grateful at the opportunity”, but I was partying and wasn’t really opening the gallery on time. I was 23 and Thompson said to me, “at this point in my life I am disappointed because I really take my career seriously.” At that moment, I realized that the whole point of having the gallery was that I wanted to be of service to the artists and in that instance I felt like I was being somewhat of a disservice. It really got me thinking and motivated me to professionalize myself.
BW: How do you think about your career path?
JF: I think, up until the point I opened my gallery in my early 20s, I was the last person that anybody would have thought would have had a very clear sort of career path, but during that time I fell into this position or role and it became very clear to me that this was my life-long mission. I started to become a longer-term thinker and it wasn’t so much about satisfying something in the immediate.
BW: What career advice do you have for emerging professionals?
JF: I am a big believer in doing it yourself. One of the things that became apparent to me right out of school was that I would have to ingratiate myself to groups or cliques, but instead I decided I would make my own. I was thinking as an artist at the time, but I think that concept really applies to other fields too. To attempt to or create to do something on your own is such an immense learning experience. And also, making do with what you have enables you to be resourceful.
I think it is super-important to try to have empathy and try to be in some else’s shoes. It is something to constantly work one – it’s not easy, but a helpful thing to keep in mind.
It is about initiating and encouraging and facilitating dialogue and conversation and ideas though all these different ways: the artwork on the wall, the press releases that we write, through our conversation here. It takes a while to figure out how to do it and requires constant reworking, especially in New York where everything is constantly changing. It is necessary to try to adapt. I think in a weird way, there is never an answer.
BW: Who inspires you?
JF: Lately I have been inspired by Michael Heizer. His ambition seems both forceful and quiet at the same time.