I met James Fuentes when I moved to downtown New York City in the fall of 2003, when he was working for Jeffrey Deitch. I shared a loft studio on Grand and Crosby, down the street there was a vortex of cultural activity coming from Deitch Projects. They had skate ramps, hosted art parades and workshops, and they brought a populist tone to a part of the art world which made the myth of being a career artist feel attainable.
The incredible spontaneity and energy of that time was characterized by geography, in particular the loose divisions between public and private spaces. James Fuentes was the first person that I knew of who decided to go out on his own to start his own gallery space. I recently met up with him at Cafe Katja on Orchard Street to find out how his enterprise came into being.
Jon Santos — How did you arrive in New York?
James Fuentes — Well I was born and raised in New York City, I went to Bard College upstate, so after studying I came back to the city, but I came back with a whole different sort of lens. I had a different relationship to the city, and I knew all these artists from school, and basically I’ve been active with artists ever since.
JS — But your education at Bard wasn’t in curatorial studies or an MFA, it was undergraduate liberal arts… did you have a focus on art?
JF — No. Filmmaking and anthropology, those were my focuses. But in a way I was pursuing an interest in possibly making my own art or film or video work, but then out of school I just kind of realized that because I felt so comfortable in the city, that maybe I could create opportunities for artists in the city. I met Jeffrey [Deitch] very early on, maybe five or six months out of school, like in ‘99. I was at an opening in Leo Koenig’s gallery in Brooklyn. And Leo did a gallery swap with John Weber. So there’s this Sol LeWitt show in a garage in Greenpoint—I know. And of course Jeffrey was there, and this cowboyish Williamsburg guy who I was friendly with said “Hey man, I know Jeffrey, want me to introduce you?” And I said “Yeah, that’d be cool.” Remember the cowboy hats in Williamsburg? So that’s how I first met Jeffrey and we just kind of kept in touch. Jeffrey opened a gallery in Williamsburg right before September 11th, and then like five days after September 11th he moved out and was completely, “I’m not going to have an annex gallery in Brooklyn now.” But then me, Tim Ronan and Alfredo Martinez took over that space which became Beacon’s Closet on North 11th, and we did a show there. So my connection with Jeffrey was strengthened by the fact I kind of inherited this space. But he didn’t want to seem like he was abandoning Brooklyn at all, it was just a matter of practicality. He stayed in the mix. He wanted to continue the conversation, he promoted our show…
JS — What was the space called?
JF — We called it Entropy, It just lasted for one show. But it was a crazy, crazy show, like seventy artists… Paz De La Huerta was in the show, she was a student at St. Anne’s, Alfredo borrowed Basquiats for the show, which he ended up forging. There’s all these crazy narratives that overlap, because Jeffrey was also on the authentication committee, it was a crazy time.
JS — And at that time you already knew you wanted to be involved in the curating and exhibiting of artists’ work?
JF — Yeah, totally. And it manifested itself in all of these different one-off ways. I mean also the time necessitated it, after September 11th. It wasn’t like there were jobs or exhibition opportunities, so it was a time people were making opportunities for themselves. And for me it was a great way to learn, be collaborative, and be open. It was crazy pitching this show that would become Artstar. I had been in New York my whole life, but it was one of those moments where it felt like your dreams can come true in New York. Like I’m walking into a meeting at Rockefeller Center right now to pitch a television show…it felt wild. It was also the one time my interest in filmmaking and my activity in art actually overlapped. It was kind of the ultimate project for me as all my interests were wrapped up in it. We got a deal in 2003, it was finally broadcast in 2006. Artstar was very low budget. We made eight one-hour episodes for a million dollars, which I guess for television is not a lot. But you know, we did it. Because there wasn’t that much budget for scripting, it made for kind of a bland viewing experience. Out of those eight hours, there was probably an hour of compelling television, so it wasn’t a crazy success. It only really reached eleven million across the United States. It was broadcast but it was as if it didn’t even happen.
JS — So you were working on it for three to four years?
JF — Yeah, it takes that long for something like that to happen. I wasn’t working on it full time, for all that time. In 2003 I started working as a gallery director in Chelsea, and then in 2004 Jeffrey asked me to come work at the gallery, so I worked for him for a couple of years.
JS — So technically in the production of this show, would you call yourself a producer?
JF — I was an Executive Producer, and Co-Creator.
JS — But it was as if Jeffrey was doing the show, the public could view it that way, because he was the star.
JF — Basically there was an open call at his gallery, and it culminated with a group exhibition. He would invite people from his world to come over and do critiques, and they would visit their collections. It was good. I think it would actually at the end of the day hopefully function as an insight to the New York art world to a kid studying art anywhere. Because we had gotten it off the ground, that’s what lead me to start working for Jeffrey.
JS — Can you talk a bit about your experience working for Jeffrey, and how that influenced what you are doing now?
JF — What I appreciated about Jeffrey was that he advocated for non-academic art, which sounds like a simple notion, but I think it’s actually kind of an intense and radical position. I think it’s the most non-elitist way to look at art. I really identified with it because I grew up in a very working class kind of environment, first generation American. I was down with that concept. I’d see him with very important clients, and he’d revert to this fourth grade grammar. It was the most legible, clear, straightforward kind of way to talk about art that really impressed me. And it also made me feel it was an accessible thing for me to do, to be a translator for artists. It made that idea feel less daunting.
JS — The role you play with presenting artists to the public, also with Artstar, there are some things that have happened in the last years that are unprecedented. Can you talk about pictorializing an artist in that light and how it affects what you do?
JF — Yeah, I’m kind of dealing with it firsthand right now with Amalia Ulman, who has 74,000 followers on Instagram, was on a panel with Klaus Biesenbach, Hans- Ulrich Obrist, Simon de Pury, and a founder of Instagram [Kevin Systrom], and she was the only artist on the panel. The founder of Instagram was saying, “Everyone’s an artist on Instagram,” and Amalia’s kind of the poster child for this right now. What’s interesting to me is that Amalia’s just employing this tool. Amalia has created an Instagram persona which is kind of kindred to a Cindy Sherman or a Nikki S. Lee project where its like, ‘I’m going to be this person’ and the persona is dealing with strategies that Instagram celebrities use, and also ninety percent of the images are completely appropriated on some level, she’s pulling them in out of the stratosphere, and creating this really strong narrative. I have been just astounded by her ability to create a celebrity out of herself, it’s not like she has an army of PR people. It’s like this feedback loop, which is pretty incredible to watch. We’ve had other instances where artists blow up, but I would say Amalia’s case is the only instance where she’s directly addressing celebrity as a part of her work.
JS — Do you mind if I ask how this affects your relationships with artists? Do they leverage their celebrity?
JF — Out of all the artists I’ve worked with in ten years plus, she’s as professional, and as down to earth as it gets. It’s an important thing for a lot of people that there’s an element of name recognition for the artist that they are interested in, but for some of my favorite collectors, and for many great museum curators, it’s not the only barometer they use. I’ve been fortunate to be able to sustain my business and have it grow by not being overly concerned with that all the time. It’s a pretty local tight knit kind of thing.
JS — What was it like to leave Deitch Projects and start your own gallery? Did you do it at a time that felt it was the right time?
JF — It was cool. Yeah, I mean I felt like, I was approaching thirty, and I had gone through in my twenties, there were a couple instances where I felt like maybe I should find a different career path, you know. I felt like I had put so much love into the field, but I didn’t feel I was getting any love back. So, I was definitely at a crossroads. I was pretty much prepared to leave the art world after Deitch Projects. But then basically I found this space that had a sign in the window, it was a two story building, said $2,500, four hundred square foot apartment upstairs, four hundred square foot storefront downstairs, and I visualized this is where I can live, the gallery would be down here, I just visualized it through the fucking window. I was like if this is for real, if I could rent this space, this will be my gallery. So it was really just happening on this fucking space, because in New York so many of our projects are so dependent, and our livelihood and our quality of life is so dependent on space. You know, like space is so important. So I think I had suppressed the idea of opening a gallery in 2006 after Deitch because I didn’t really think it was feasible. I knew how intense it was to be a gallerist, especially after many years, I figured it’s basically the kind of career path that only escalates, it only gets harder the longer you are in the field you know, which is crazy, I always had this idea that I wanted to do something where I could chill the older I got, you know?
JS — That’s probably not the reality right?
JF — Yeah that’s definitely not the reality.
JS — What are the challenges to staying relevant?
JS — So, that PS1 Expo show a couple summers ago, remember that?
JS — Yeah.
JF — At the gallery at the time I had a show by an artist who came up in the 1970s, this guy Richard Nonas, and he was known as the most mystical of the post-minimalist artists. So he kind of came up with Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, and Gordon Matta-Clark, they were collaborators. Literally his sculptures, just steel, readily found steel cut geometric forms mixed, and wood, found wood that he chops, kind of makes little assemblages. And so after the expo show, which was so progressive, very of the moment, and even forward thinking, I mean I loved the show, it spoke about ecology, spoke about post-Internet, it spoke about all of these important really great things, there was 3D printing, and all this stuff, it was great. But then I go back to the gallery, and I see these chunks of wood on the wall, and I realize I’m a fucking dinosaur, you know?
JS — I don’t think that’s true. That’s interesting that you have that perception, because you can’t step out of your body.
JF — Right. But it was a crazy sort of thing.
JS — Like ‘the world is moving fast’ kind of thing.
JF — Yeah. I think it also speaks to the strength of Richard Nonas’ work too, ‘cause something I would say about his work when people would ask me, “Oh how has his work changed over the last thirty to forty years?” was that actually it hasn’t changed, you put a piece of his work from thirty years ago next to a new work you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But because what he was talking about was almost like a bridge between the industrial era and the pre-industrial era, what’s interesting is how the world changes around it. His work just fucking remains so solid.
JS — And I think that’s a great thing.
JF — I think that’s a great thing too. But it really impacted me in such a way that made me take stock, rethink my program, kind of realize that you know, I like to be both in the past and present, and thinking ahead, I like doing it all. But it made me sort of want to participate in that conversation more again.
JS — The PS1 Expo conversation?
JF — Yeah, the expo. I don’t feel out of touch with it, I feel very connected to a lot of those artists and that work, but it was interesting. I think the best thing that I realized about me and my program, is just like it further made me acknowledge like who I am, I’m a Gen Xer, I’m very analogue. That doesn’t mean I can’t participate in these new conversations, but it’s also really important to realize that.
JS — Downtown New York City…now and then.
JF — That’s my favorite subject. [laughs] That’s a really deep one.
JS — Maybe start with what was up when you entered.
JF — So when I entered downtown in 1977, [laughs] I can say that my earliest memories were like seeing art, Keith Haring chalkboard drawings, like on the subway. I grew up on Madison Street and I saw this very iconic mural by Lee Quiñones on Madison Street. It had this Donald Duck character with a thought bubble and it said “If graffiti is a crime, then may God forgive us,” and it was this crazy scene. So as a kid, growing up I felt like I was absorbing a lot of art all the time, but it was street art, you know? I hate calling it street art cause I feel like that’s only a very recent term. So those were the seeds for my interest in art. Pre- 9/11 and post-9/11 downtown were very, very different. I would say downtown now, as compared to when I started my career, is—I don’t know. Maybe this is kind of what everyone in their thirties who’s been there and done that and is looking at the next generation thinks, maybe this isn’t accurate…but I think that artists right now coming out of school are the most careerist they’ve ever been, to a point where in many instances it’s not allowing for most growth. Amalia Ulman, its almost like even her careerism is part of her work. She’s got it, she’s tapped into her voice, she’s young. But you know Joseph Kosuth was younger, forty or fifty years ago when he had his first show. I don’t think it’s out of the question for an artist in their early to mid twenties to be starting a career. I don’t think that’s out of the question at all. But I do think it’s unfortunate that artists who are in their early and mid twenties right now less and less seem to be able to, or want to afford themselves time to explore, and to take chances, and just be kind of more open to what the world might bring. I see that as an unfortunate by-product of the strength of the art market right now in New York. Particularly, if you’re twenty-five, and you have a solo show anywhere, its like you’ll sell out your show, because there are so many hungry collectors for the newest stuff. And when it’s at a reasonable price point, forget it, you could be cashing in left and right if you want.
I think for a young artist it’s difficult to resist that temptation to want to participate in that, everyone wants a piece of that right now, also maybe out of necessity, maybe they have student loans, you know it might just be the nature of the beast, its a very expensive city to be in right now. I feel that downtown has lost quite a few of its qualities that defined it when I was younger, but I think a lot of it’s still there. My director James lives around the corner, he’s tight with these Grand Century kids around the corner on Grand street, they have artist studios but they also host shows there that are only up for like a day, but they are really good. There’s actually tons of artists living in Chinatown and LES right now, which I was shocked to learn that’s even possible. I think there’s still an opportunity to have a semi-nostalgic experience as a young downtown artist, there might be a couple of the people that were around in the eighties or nineties, that you read about, that are still lingering around that you can still be in dialogue with. But, its like every day huge chunks of it are literally being erased, and I think that New York has lost a lot of artists and talent to other cities. Like a year or two ago a young artist moved to New York and moved to the outskirts, Ridgewood was an outskirt and now Ridgewood has gotten expensive, and now those artists are moving up to Hudson or to Detroit. I think we are kind of in a semi-crisis in that respect, that New York is losing a lot of the people that make it so great. The artists that define this huge community, a lot of great artists, figures young and old are being lost, they are leaving New York.
JS — And simultaneously you are working with an artist that is an international, Amalia Ulman, that isn’t localized, that’s an interesting shift.
JF — Yeah she’s not a New Yorker.