Together with partner, Gian Enzo Sperone, Angela Westwater owns the Sperone Westwater Gallery in the West Village. It is a gallery that has been instrumental in the careers of extraordinary artists such as Bruce Nauman, Evan Penny, Richard Tuttle and William Wegman, to name but a few of the artists they show, but on the way to the interview, we really wondered to ourselves how deeply gallery owners connect with art—and how deeply they connect with money. We need not have worried. It would have been nice to have had NYSD readers with us in Angela Westwater’s apartment the better to show you how engaged she is. When she spoke about the work in her own home, she positively burned with a kind of controlled enthusiasm and connection to each piece. She’s a natural communicator and answered our grumpy questions about the current, manic art world with grace and thought.
I want to start with a rant, and my rant is about the Chelsea area for art galleries—we hate it. There isn’t a single tree, there’s nowhere to have coffee, in the summer it’s hot, in the winter it’s bleak and windy, and none of the galleries are the least bit inviting no matter what the seasons … do you agree with any of this?!
Let me ask you this: I don’t get a chance to review any of my comments?
No, but you can say it’s off-the-record and we don’t put it in.
Oh, okay. Um, regarding Chelsea galleries … well, we’re on West 13th in the Meatpacking District, so we’re a bit out of that kind of wind tunnel area. We did look in Chelsea long ago, in 1998 or something, but we never found quite the space we liked … also one of the times that we went to Chelsea, some of the fumes from the body shop, you know spewing out, you were covering your mouth with a gas mask or something, so I’m sympathetic.
Why did you never establish yourselves uptown?
You’re right and, maybe we should have, maybe we should take a look at that. I think one of the reasons, however, would be space. Moving things in would be a factor. There are certain artists, I’m thinking of Bruce Nauman; we [also] show Richard Long, and large Mario Merz sculptures … frankly we need the space to show [those].
Why do so many people find going into an art gallery an intimidating experience?
I think for good reasons, because often galleries do present a very cold, distant, forbidding kind of front.
I don’t know whether they do it because that’s the attitude of the gallerists but when I first started going around the galleries I was aware of it, and sensitive to this. In fact, we’ve always tried to have someone right upfront at the reception desk, someone smiling, someone who says hello.
That’s the problem. They never say hello.
… well, I find it off-putting too. Especially in a situation where you walk in and you can’t see a human being. In fact the art that they’re showing was made by individuals. It’s all about that specific human talent. And therefore it really is completed, the kind of emotional, psychological exchange, if you will, by a person interacting with that work of art. Presumably it is intimate. It ought to arouse all of the senses … so not to have a person there, to make it more machine-like or clinical, does seem antithetical to the existence of the institution itself.
Do you think most dealers care? I mean what do they care about the public?
Probably not. I’ve never kind of discussed this issue or aspect with other dealers.
Have you ever had just somebody walking in off the street and spending three million dollars on a painting?
Um, I don’t think so.
I might be naïve, but aren’t you in it for something more than the money?
Of course! I certainly feel that way. We’ve always had the long haul, historical point of view in mind and if you take that point of view, of course you’re interested in working with the artists in educating others about the artists, and in a way committing to the idea of glory and a place in history for these specific artists. To accomplish that of course you need to be cognizant of those who do not just pay the price to take the art home, if you will, but museums as well as young artists, writers and other contributors to our culture.
But you are the enabler. You’re the one who filters the work coming up. And if the artists are really good, ultimately they’re going to be in retrospective in a big museum. I don’t know why there isn’t a collective feeling for bringing people to galleries, to art. I suppose money gets in the way.
Years ago, for example when we started in SoHo, I found a slightly different atmosphere … my first entry-level job in the art world was in 1971, when 420 West Broadway opened and I was the gallery girl. There were a few other galleries and a couple of good art bookstores. When you ran out to those places, basically it was like a community united by art … maybe in those times because art wasn’t as chic, trendy and global as it is today, there was a different attention paid to telling people about the art. If it had been the gallery scene of today, I wouldn’t have met Sol Le Witt, Richard Serra, a number of museum curators …
So you said ‘chic, trendy and global’ now. Tell us about ‘now’, what is it like?
Certainly because of the speed of communications, everyone is able not only to read about art but to read about auctions. And obviously a great value has been added to art, by which I’m talking about dollars and some kind of financial figure. So now what one hears about is the dollar value. And that certainly catches a lot of people’s attention, and perhaps for some of those people, art has become more accessible.
You’re in a strange position when it comes to that … I mean you want to sell work …
But I guess you don’t want to be seen as a moneygrubber.
Right. Well, this also would reflect the attitude of our artists. I’m kind of a news junkie—everyday I read The New York Times, The New York Sun and The Financial Times on the weekends, I would not miss. There is a successive increase in articles, in all of these publications, about auction prices—who is rising, who is falling, who is the hot kid on the block. There is a lot of reporting that didn’t used to occur … also now one sees an increased role of artists actually hoarding their work themselves and I think we’ve seen a rise of collectors promoting artists they collect.
Is it too idealistic to ask if you care to whom you sell work?
We are concerned about where we sell work and what homes they go into … of course the ideal is a museum. One of the pleasures for me [is] always getting to know these collectors, and really having a dialogue about the work … I’m thinking of one collector from Chicago. He was a passionate collector who did his due diligence, who did his reading and then would come in and grill me about the painting … I remember once saying to him ‘Would you like to meet the artist?” and he said ‘Not right away. I don’t want to have my opinions swayed by what I might think about him or her as a person.’
Your first response to something—is that what you ultimately go back to when selecting work?
I think there are those kinds of ‘eureka’ moments and I think in many cases there is that sudden gripping moment but on the other hand you want to go back, you want to think, you want to deliberate. You want to have some time on your own because it’s really about this interaction, one wants to have this intimate connection with it.
What about easy-on-the-eye?
I don’t mind easy-on-the-eye … but I’d like easy-on-the-eye/hard-on-the-head.