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Feature Mon Jun 16 2008

An Interview with Britton Bertran

Even though his space, Gallery 40000, closed in January, gallerist and curator Britton Bertran has not stopped presenting art to the masses -- he's just moved his activities over to Bertran Projects, his online gallery. Recently Bertran received a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, where he has been consulting for the last five years, to do a feasibility study investigating the possibilities of opening a new, Chicago-based contemporary art gallery under the Foundation's auspices. He took some time out of his busy schedule to share some of the art biz wisdom he's accrued over the past few years.

Tell us more about this new grant.

Keeping in mind the word "feasibility," this new gallery would be a showcase for past winners of the Driehaus Individual Artist Awards and would emphasize curatorial and educational programming for emerging artists. Where the gallery would be located and how it's run is all part of what I will be exploring. This is pretty exciting, and I'll be having conversations with lots of arts administrators, collectors, curators and artists here in Chicago and around the country to get the best possible scenario put together.

You are still working in a curatorial capacity even though you are no longer running a space. Can you discuss this a bit? How might people find ways to gain gallerist/curatorial experience and/or remain "in the game," so to speak, without a space?

Since I closed 40000 in the beginning of 2008, I've been thinking about how to creatively maneuver in the art world, locally and nationally, without my own physical space. Once you get the bug, it never really goes away. I will be curating some exhibitions soon in other people's spaces, but I am also looking for ways to change up that format as well. I'm not exactly sure what this means, but like anything else, curating gets pretty old after a while.

Right now I am relying on my wee photo-blog/Website to be conceptually creative, promote artists I like and who I have worked with in the past, as well as showcase Chicago as a flippin' awesome place. That being said, there are plenty of opportunities, in Chicago especially, to create situations that are fun, aesthetic and academic (if you're into that kind of thing): 'Do you know some artists? Do you or a friend have an apartment? Do you have access to the internet? I know you have a myspace ... well there you go.' That's pretty much the formula. It helps if you have beer, too.

How has having your masters degree in arts administration benefited you? What sort of business principles might artists pick up from such a program?

A masters in arts administration helped significantly in that it defined what I wanted to do, and what I did not want to do. It also put me at an epicenter of theory, business, art history and real live artists who are not as elusive as one would think. As far as business principles go - this is pretty much learning to keep/get your shit together. More specifically, networking, marketing and promotion become the triumvirate of planning. Once you've got a solid feel for this down, you're more than half way there.

If school is too expensive, are there any books on arts business that you're recommend?

There are plenty of books on arts business out there, but none of them are better than real life experience (internships, volunteering, etc.). A lot of critics and academics fulfill their potential tenure contracts by pumping these out, which leaves a lot to be desired. One book I would highly recommend, however, is "Words of Wisdom: A Curator's Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art," which is a book of essays that came out in 2001when independent curators were all the rage. There's also the Internet. Studying successful organizations and their programming, design and history can be really beneficial.

What attributes make a good gallerist?

A good gallerist defines their gallery. From the outside looking in, the gallerist has to be consistent, continually taking chances, aesthetically up to speed, knowledgeable of their audience, and thinking about the future. From the inside looking out, the gallerist has to be all of the above -- plus a relationship expert, frugal and determined. Galleries are also, hopefully, extensions of the gallerist's personality. This is worth mentioning for artists who feel that "right now" is the time to approach the gallery with their portfolio. Get to know the gallery and the gallerist first. Talk, stalk and really investigate if this is the right gallery for you before you approach. Please don't just drop CDR bombs and expect immediate glory and riches. This takes a lot of work.

What skills do you think were most important in running your gallery?

I don't know about skill, as the gallery doesn't exist anymore, but I can talk about what I liked doing the most while running the gallery. The educational standpoint was very thrilling and important for me. Talking to visitors about the show and the gallery was definitely a favorite element. All different sorts, casual passersby, art students, collectors and the boozing free-loaders - they were all fun to talk to. I also really enjoyed putting the physical exhibitions together, and making those all-important decisions like, "how high should this painting be on the wall?"

What were some of your fears when you switched from nonprofit/government work to becoming a gallery owner? How did you overcome them?

It was more relief than fear in switching from nonprofit work to owning a gallery. The fears mainly consisted of loosing that bi-weekly paycheck and health insurance. But the satisfaction of cutting through the red tape with one fell swoop was extremely relieving. The entire nonprofit system is caught up in archaic governmental structures put in place in the 1950s. It doesn't work anymore. The bureaucratic bullshit is overwhelming, and either needs to be done away with all together or brought up to speed.

I will say, after ranting a little bit there, that the programmatic structures that are afforded by nonprofits from there governmental stance can allow for some extremely interesting elements. One thing that commercial galleries can do is to adopt this thinking into their own programs in order to make it less intimidating for casual visitors and more stimulating for artists.

How important was support from others in getting your gallery started?

It was extremely important. The artist Mario Ybarra Jr.'s amazing new exhibit at the Art Institute has a theme running through it with the saying, "No Man is an Island." This really got me thinking. From figuring out how to get insured, to drywalling and the damned electrical wiring, friends' help from the beginning to the end made the gallery what is was, and I am very grateful to them. It helps if you have beer, too.

Where should artists and aspiring gallerists look for support?

This seems like an obvious answer, but "other artists and gallerists" is the lame answer to this question. Although competitive, other gallerists and the folks who work in those galleries in Chicago have the amazing ability to be helpful and gracious with their time and knowledge. And all artists have a bevy of alternative non-art making skills that are invaluable to making a gallery happen: from the aforementioned damned electrical wiring to Website design and word-of-mouth marketing.

The key to this all is to make sure and be reciprocal in the support. Make sure you pay it back. I really believe that 75% of the art business is karmic. I guess I also believe, now at least, that these reciprocal relationships are 75% of life. In other words, and another opportunity to declare my mantra, "Don't be an asshole."

What criteria do you use for choosing artists?

Now that I've gone from a real-time gallery to more of a virtual gallery (or one that uses alternative venues), I look for artists who are interested in working with multiples, editions and the like. This is not to say I've abandoned the ideals of a traditional gallery, but quite the opposite. Right now I am specifically looking for artists who don't traditionally work in the multiple format, who are interested in exploring multiples as a new way of working.

How much does "what's current" and what's marketable play into your decision-making?

What's current and marketable has never really been a major part of my M.O. What's "future" and interesting to me is what I base my decisions on. At some point, you really have to rely on your instincts. It's my hope that I can use those instincts in order to instill a curiosity in the looker or, less importantly, the potential collector through presentation and education. In addition, many of the decisions that I make have the artist in mind as well. Giving them the experience of a physical exhibition often allows for their own educational experience which, in turn, helps them think abut their own art-making. Often, the general reliance on the market factor by both gallerists and artists can be a hindrance to future developments. This is especially true in Chicago where the market is, how do you say, stagnant. Why not stop bitching about the market, and make something else happen? Sorry - mini-rant there.

You've discussed before the role of mentors in helping you to grow professionally. How should artists and aspiring gallerists go about finding their own mentors? What are some qualities they should look for?

There are mentors in all parts of life, and they have been around as long as the one caveman taught the other caveman how to light a fire. Artists and aspiring gallerists should look in all the right places, but also spend some time unlearning what they think is right. This often means looking in the wrong places. This also means mistakes and failure are implicit.

Look for mentors who have already made those mistakes and failed (they are everywhere), and ask them how they did it. Most importantly, create your own agenda, and do not rely on the agendas of others. And when it's your turn to be that fire-lighting caveman teaching that young aspiring caveman, make sure they burn their fingers a couple of times before they get that fire lit.

About the Author:

A native of Johnstown, PA, Lauri Apple is a contender for the title, "world's most renowned bag lady," thanks to her somewhat popular (at times) website, FoundClothing. Lauri has a JD and doesn't know why, but it will take about 30 years for her to pay it off, and that worries her. Her favorite cities are Prague, Pittsburgh, Austin and Chicago. When she's not looking through people's trash, she's either painting, taking pictures, or making/thinking about making cartoons about her weird life.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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