Art New York

An Art Dealer's (Outsider) View of New York

By Phin Jennings

Jun 13, 2023

An Art Dealer's (Outsider) View of New York

Monday 15th MayNew York, where I am flying to as I write this, certainly isn’t my place. This will be my third visit, and I’m too polite for anyone to believe that I didn’t touch down yesterday. The art world is somewhere I fit in better or, at least, art is the reason why I am travelling today. In the next week I will be mounting two short exhibitions of South African painter Nelson Makamo’s work: one at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair and one at a pop-up gallery space in Chelsea. The shows coincide with Frieze week, a time where everyone (dealers, gallery directors, collectors, curators and hangers-on) is in town, if not to do something important, then to feel like they are doing something important. 

I hope this diary will provide an outsider’s view of New York, a just-insider’s view of the art world and perhaps improve my chances of becoming a true inner-circle member of both. 

Wednesday 17th May 

For the last couple of days I have been busy putting pictures up on walls. Yesterday was a simple install of paintings and drawings in Chelsea and today it was a slightly more troublesome three-and-a-half metre tall tapestry going up as part of 1-54’s special projects programme. Art handlers are some of my favourite people in the art world to spend time with because (a) I never feel like they are scoping me out, trying to get a sense of how important (and, therein, how worth talking to) I am and (b) they are being paid by the hour, so they really have no choice but to talk to me.

Yesterday I travelled up to Flushing Meadows for my first baseball game, where - sipping on a 24oz (that’s 709ml) beer and shouting “let’s go Mets!” whenever anyone else did - I did feel a little bit like a New Yorker. That was until the man I was sat next to turned to me and asked “Yankees out of town, huh?”.

On Wednesday I visited Mala Project, a trendy restaurant chain disguised as a neighbourhood spot, where I ate cold noodles, hot wood ear mushrooms and crispy scallion pancakes.

Friday 19th May 

I knew before I opened my eyes that today wasn’t going to be my day. Last night, after the VIP opening of the art fair - which I spent standing by our tapestry, speaking with visitors and drinking a polite-but-not-overeager number of sugary cocktails - I went on to Planet Rose in the East Village for a karaoke party put on by a British PR company. This was my chance to show that I belong; to let my conversational skills glow, to continue to drink politely but not over-eagerly and perhaps to provide backup vocals for a couple of mega-gallery directors. A most definitely overeager number of Bud Lights, an emotional rendition of Neil Young’s “Harvest” and exactly zero conversations with gallery directors later, I returned home worrying that I didn’t harness the opportunity quite as I could have. 

On the upside, the tapestry we are showing was featured in the New York Times today. This lifted my mood and made me feel like I am an important dealer, maybe just one that could use some self-control and singing lessons. 

Sunday 21st May 

Today is the last day of both exhibitions. Art fairs are always busy for the first couple of days, usually Wednesday and Thursday, when the VIP’s (read: buyers) are around and calm down over the weekend. It’s a classic art world adage that the gallery director will have flown out of the fair’s city by the Friday. A friend, who works for a large art fair also happening this weekend, told me that by the Sunday many galleries are sending in staff with VIP passes because all of their exhibitor-pass-holding directors have moved on to something more important. My operation is fairly small so I’m still here, still eating bodega salads and still trying to trick the people serving me into thinking that I’m from around here. 

Last night, after eating a dinner of eggplant and broccoli in black bean sauce at Wo Hop - Chinatown’s second oldest restaurant, I went to Chapel Bar for a party organised by 1-54. I was promised that this was the spot: an interesting, exclusive and, most importantly, local bar attended only by those in the know. I chose to believe it - even after reading on its website that it is for “bon vivants, provocateurs and culturati." I headed to the Flatiron District with high hopes. The party was fun; the drinks were tasty and free, the attendees stylish and the music (which included a performance by Tunisian singer Emel) far better than karaoke. The room was filled with gallery owners, collectors and out-of-towners like me. It wasn’t a wholly authentic New York experience, but it was nice to feel like a member of the... erm... culturati for a night. 

Thursday 25th May 

Since the fair and exhibition ended, I have moved my lodgings from the Upper East Side to Bushwick. On Monday I visited the studio of painter Debbi Kenote, who showed me how she stretches her canvases into star-like shapes inspired by quilting patterns. I have come to terms with the fact that I can’t leave the house without spending $50 here, and have been using my free time and newfound financial insouciance to check out some of the places I have been recommended.

For art: Harkawik, Marvin Gardens and Karma.

For clothing: Chickees, Lara Koleji and (of course) Drake’s.

For books: The Word is Change, Spoonbill & Sugartown and Sweet Pickle Books.

For drinks: Parcelle, Le Dive and Mr. Fong’s

For food: Punjabi Deli, A&A Bake & Doubles and Two Boots Pizza.

Someone told me (and I have not fact-checked this in case it isn’t true) that New York contains the same number of people as London in half the amount of space. The art world feels like this too sometimes. In both, you are shoulder-to-shoulder with people who want you to believe that they belong in the overcrowded room. Do I belong in either?

Sitting on a plane back to London, I don’t think I can say I became a New Yorker in the last 10 days. Nor do I feel like I am quite a bonafide art world insider yet. But this trip has certainly improved my ability to pretend - and helped me to realise that I am not the only one doing so. 

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