I never understood the dynamics of the art market. Soaring prices, a few prominent galleries, and a rotating selection of the same artists indicate that the relationship between gallery, artist, buyer, and value, would obfuscate any everyday consumer. When it came to street art and graffiti, which focuses on accessibility, questions about how galleries manage to maintain relationships with artists, make sales, and identify trends within the market still remained. To understand the financial side of street art, I decided to interview three galleries – 3RD Ethos, Hashimoto Contemporary, and Pop International – hoping to learn more about the ways in which galleries and money intertwine.
All three interviews highlighted distinctions between the galleries’ role in both business and art. Connie Byun, owner of 3RD Ethos, opened her concept space just over a year ago, learning on-the-go with help from the community she’s fostered. Jenn Rizzo, curator and director at Hashimoto Contemporary, formerly known as Spoke Art, spent years working at different galleries. At Hashimoto, she aims to curate a space that represents the gallery’s varied clientele. Jeff Jaffe, owner of Pop International, has owned his gallery for over 20 years. At the beginning of our interview, he emphasized that he would be talking about the relationship between the “art of business and the business of art.” I discovered it takes a careful balance of the two to create a masterpiece.
I. Pop International: The Opening
When Jeff Jaffe opened Pop International in 1997 at its original location, the majority of the art world was concentrated in a small enclave in SoHo. There were no other galleries that focused on big-name pop artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Roy Lichtenstein. After starting his career at Circle Fine Art before proceeding to Martin Lawrence Gallery, he realized that there was an imminent need for a gallery representing pop culture. When Jaffe and his partner saved enough money to source an investor, (both of which he eventually bought out,) Pop officially opened on West Broadway. The reception that this newly inaugurated, mid-sized space received was overwhelming.
“It was unbelievable,” he remarked. “Unstoppable. We were mobbed.”
Jaffe discovered he had stumbled upon an unsatisfied niche: people were responding to whatever was pertinent to the time. This still fuels Pop today. As rent prices soared and the rest of the art world migrated toward Chelsea or the Lower East Side, Jaffe moved the gallery to its current location on Bowery. A similar focus on the community, comprised of artists, collectors, and even random walk-ins prevailed, alluding to a calculated, predesigned choice Jaffe made to ensure that the gallery he owned reflected the art it sold. He wanted anyone that walked through its doors to feel comfortable.
“We don’t assume here. One of the biggest sales I’ve ever made was to a guy who walked into the gallery with ripped jean shorts, a torn t-shirt, and a funny hat on his head,” he told me. “He spent $50,000.”
If it’s a $100,000 Warhol, well, that’s a completely different thing. But, usually, if it’s a regular street art piece, it’s all about the emotions it evokes.
II. Pop International: The Sales
Repeat business accounts for about 40 percent of Pop’s sales. It usually starts with newcomers who haven’t started growing their collection, though there are a few “serious” collectors that Jaffe does business with. The gallery predominantly focuses on younger, more inexperienced collectors, who perhaps can’t afford to pay for a piece in its entirety.
With a line of credit, Pop offers an option to pay back the remaining difference over a period of 12-months, interest free, which along with their mailing list and other various marketing channels – Instagram, Art Scene, Art Net – generates business and recognition. The ultimate goal for Jaffe and his staff is to form a bond with those who attend their openings, and teach them that collecting art is valuable, fun, and accessible. Though Pop sells pieces by Warhol, their prices run a wide range, from $450 for a print to a whopping $1.2 million for some larger canvases.
Jaffe makes it a point not to sell art on an investment basis. If it’s a $100,000 Warhol, well, that’s a completely different thing. But, usually, if it’s a regular street art piece, it’s all about the emotions it evokes.
“Do you love it? Do you have a visceral reaction?” he asked. “That’s what I tell people. Is it something that just grabs you? Can you afford it? If you can’t, don’t buy it. But if you can, and you love it, that’s a really good reason to buy it.”
Since studying at Cranbrook, he’s come to understand technique, but after 20 years as an owner, he understands what sells.
III. Pop International: The Challenges
An artist himself, Jaffe acknowledges that another facet of running a lucrative gallery is the relationship he has with those he represents. Everything from setting the price of a work to letting graffiti artists tag his own pieces is a group effort, extending towards the inclusive discussions he has with his staff about the influx of submissions they receive through their online portal, which is open to the public. Ultimately, he looks for artists who know what they’re doing, even when the decision isn’t based on his own preferences.
Since studying at Cranbrook, he’s come to understand technique, but after 20 years as an owner, he understands what sells. It’s an instinct, fine-tuned by years of selling, making, and appreciating art. Pop doesn’t just sell internationally acclaimed artists, they also represent locals, such as UR New York, Boudro, Sean Sullivan and Arno Elias. After recent expansions on Bowery, like the partnership with CitizenM Hotel that opened next door, Jaffe is a firm believer that both street art and graffiti epitomize the essence of an art movement. That’s what he refers to when he speaks about the pop culture of today.
As the neighborhood remains in flux, some of Rizzo’s favorite parts of her job involve talking to walk-ins about Hashimoto’s exhibits and educating them, even if they may not know much about art.
I. Hashimoto Contemporary: The Opening
Over on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side, curator Jenn Rizzo sits at Hashimoto Contemporary with her dachshund Tubey, quieting the pup as she explains why she’s the only person working that day. Rizzo runs Hashimoto New York with the support of her assistant director Raul Barquet. Together with a few others, like owner Ken Hartman, they form a team of individuals who communicate seamlessly across coasts.
After graduating with her masters from FIT’s Art Market program, Rizzo worked at Jonathan Levine Gallery in Chelsea, where she climbed from gallery assistant to director, before meeting Ken Hartman during his search for a new curator. Everything fell into place. Originally, Hashimoto opened as Spoke New York shortly after its two San Francisco locations. It aimed to welcome every person in the neighborhood, which retains its old-New York style with merengue music filling nearby Stanton & Ridge streets.
As the neighborhood remains in flux, some of Rizzo’s favorite parts of her job involve talking to walk-ins about Hashimoto’s exhibits and educating them, even if they may not know much about art. This is how solidarity forms within the community. All of Hashimoto’s Saturday night openings are filled with art and pop culture fanatics alongside locals and other drop-ins. The November 2018 opening, a solo-show by street artist Brian Viveros, witnessed fans crowding the tiny gallery in advance, as they stood in line for a picture (and possibly a free print.)
“I’ve been doing this for many years at this point, and I’ve never seen an artist so wanting and excited to engage,” she told me, referencing that all of Viveros’s pieces had quickly sold out. “It was really nice to see. It’s all about making a special connection.”
Although exhibits are largely based on her and Ken’s interests, a crucial aspect is understanding what’s right for the business – discerning if the artist is developed enough, or whether their prices will go up and how this would affect sales.
II. Hashimoto Contemporary: The Sales
For Rizzo, one of the key aspects of managing a gallery lies in understanding that both communication and timing are vital. She chooses artists based on personal taste, discovering many through Instagram. This alerts Rizzo to evolving trends within the market, like the shift away from figurative art toward a newer form of illustration. Once she finds an artist she likes, the process can face occasional difficulties moving forward. Sometimes, another gallery represents the artist, or they might not be interested in doing other shows.
Although exhibits are largely based on her and Ken’s interests, a crucial aspect is understanding what’s right for the business – discerning if the artist is developed enough, or whether their prices will go up and how this would affect sales. That’s where the timing comes in. Once a show is arranged, Rizzo is in gradual conversation with the artist, leading up to a near-daily correspondence in the final weeks, with flexible deadlines. On occasion, an artist will cease to communicate with her, subsequently jeopardizing their sales. This is one of the biggest hurdles she faces in managing Hashimoto.
The first, second, and third choices of all the buyers are considered, and whether they were able to buy a piece they wanted from a previous artist.
III. Hashimoto Contemporary: The Challenges
Rizzo noted that open correspondence is just as important on the consumer side. Hashimoto also spreads the word through their ‘Collector Preview,’ an advanced showing of the works for sale that’s organized by a request-only email list, about a month before a show opens. At that point, the gallery has already been heavily promoting on all their social channels – Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter – and has generated interest from buyers for specific works. After Rizzo inquires about the works privately, she tries to decide the best system for divvying them out.
The first, second, and third choices of all the buyers are considered, and whether they were able to buy a piece they wanted from a previous artist. At times, this has lead to people backing out. On Rizzo’s side, it requires an explanation to the artist as to why their previously sold work is now back on the market, even after she’s done an invoice. After, she would need to search for previously interested buyers who are willing to purchase the piece. In general, she concedes that it isn’t a perfect system, but rather a give-and-take that requires cooperation on both ends, whether what’s being sold is a $10 stack of tarot cards, or a $25,000 canvas.
Originally named ‘Spoke Art New York,’ in December 2018 the gallery officially fused its two identities, and now goes by one name: Hashimoto Contemporary. This isn’t the end for pop culture at Spoke. The gallery will continue its influence on the street art scene, but between three physical spaces, a print shop, and a guy whose literal job it is to travel and represent the galleries at art fairs all over the country, the gallery has its hands full. The move to Hashimoto will, ideally, make a clear distinction between the fine art chosen to be exhibited regularly, and the pop art shows that, going forward, will be limited to pop-ups.
When she opened 3RD Ethos as a concept store, Byun took note of the move towards more collective, collaborative, and creative spaces in New York City.
I. 3RD Ethos Gallery: The Opening
Blending two distinct spaces is not a new idea to Connie Byun, owner of 3RD Ethos Gallery in Bushwick. On a snowy Saturday afternoon, she took the time to sit down with me and explain a little more about her passion project come-to-life. Created as a concept store with a retail front that blurs art and fashion, 3RD Ethos is an ever-evolving space that was created after the long-time Bushwick resident saw an opening for a storefront she had her eye on.
After studying, living abroad, and working in the fashion industry for over 15 years, Byun settled in Bushwick, still freelancing, when the then-nascent North Brooklyn street art scene was less boisterous than it is today. She briefly moved to San Francisco before returning in 2012, where she witnessed the beginnings of Bushwick as we know it today – creative, and booming with vibrant murals. Lately, she’s also noticed the neighborhood shift back to its graffiti roots, presumably in response to the recent commodification of street and urban art forms. When she opened 3RD Ethos as a concept store, Byun took note of the move towards more collective, collaborative, and creative spaces in New York City.
“I think it’s just the way society is going. No one started it, it’s just a thought that’s coming together,” Byun said about these tight-knit communities. “It’s a good thing. It just depends on what will have longevity, or what won’t.”
When Byun hosted her official opening in January 2017, she was surprised by the turn out. Alongside artist and curator Lucky Rabbit, the show featured artists like Dirt Cobain, Turtle Caps, and Kafka. The opening was the first iteration of Byun’s vision for 3RD Ethos as a creative networking space, where those with different interests could come together based on a similar appreciation of art. This type of egalitarian vibe is what set 3RD Ethos up to be the wonderfully inclusive gallery it is today, developing as a multi-sensorial experience as Byun fills the interior with essential oil scents, visually appealing art, and smooth music that’s never too loud.
“The past few shows I’ve had, like Alex Rupert, may not necessarily be the typical ‘street art,’ but the same crowd and artists have still come to show their support,” she beamed proudly. “I love that. I’m really happy with it.”
Eventually, she learned how to maintain a healthy balance, and more so, how to find different channels of generating income in the absence of the steady paycheck she was accustomed to.
II. 3RD Ethos: The Sales
At 3RD Ethos, the biggest problem Byun faces is understanding how to best manage her time. In addition to all the sacrifices and lifestyle changes she’s had to make since opening the place, she’s found it difficult to draw the line between socializing and networking, one of 3RD Ethos’s primary focuses, and actually running her business. She would spend her time hanging out, often giving things away for free, without realizing the effect it could have on her finances.
Eventually, she learned how to maintain a healthy balance, and more so, how to find different channels of generating income in the absence of the steady paycheck she was accustomed to. The night before her official opening, she received a shipment of denim jackets from a friend who worked in the fashion industry. As the artists were setting up for the show, she asked if they would be willing to paint on the jackets and split the profits. In doing so, she created a crafty source of income for both sides. In her storefront, she combines both concepts, giving artists a platform to sell anything from canvases to painted apparel and sticker packs.
“We have to support each other. I don’t make money doing this, there’s no personal income,” she admitted to me. “I just wanna keep this space going.”
Despite her sacrifices, Byun doesn’t regret creating a space that she, and her community of artists and supporters, truly believe in.
III. 3RD Ethos: The Challenges
The minuscule, tedious aspects of a running a small business can still prove an asset. Every day, Byun puts a rack of t-shirts and denim jackets in the center of the storefront, so customers aren’t intimidated by the gallery. She makes it a point to welcome everyone who walks through her doors, whether they’re interested in art, fashion, or just curious.
In the past, she’s made sales to visitors who were simply grabbing brunch or finishing their laundry nearby. All the money collected at her openings go towards the electricity bill, from the $5 sticker packs sold, the cheapest item in her store, to the most expensive work she’s sold, worth $1,800. Even the few dollars donated for alcohol consumption help.
Byun faces other challenges as well. With a gallery in the heart of Bushwick, she’s familiar with the pressures of gentrification. Though events at 3RD Ethos are a hit with the community, Byun has been attacked with a spate of noise complaints. An article in Bushwick Daily outlines statistics regarding the non-emergency police number, 311, and how it has seen a spike in calls over the past year. Evidence suggests that many of the new residents, often caucasian, use 311 to report frivolous misdemeanors by longtime neighbors, usually people of color. Byun noted that the police were often called when the gallery was hosting hip-hop events.
Gentrification poses additional threats to 3RD Ethos’ location. Recently, Byun learned that her landlord received an offer from Starbucks to rent her space. In the last 15 years, she’s earned her reputation in the building as a reliable tenant, and as a recognizable face in the neighborhood. From a business perspective, however, it’s hard for an independent shop to compete with a multinational corporation.
Despite her sacrifices, Byun doesn’t regret creating a space that she, and her community of artists and supporters, truly believe in. It’s the same gut feeling that leads to all the works that are on display in her gallery, which she says has a lot to do with the instinct she acquired working in fashion. She realizes what will sell, but also knows that she isn’t in it for the money, a kind of capitalist mentality that caused her to leave the very industry that trained her. Though she doesn’t technically have to like it, she does have to believe in the idea, a criteria she’s applied to all the artists she’s chosen to showcase, because, in her own words: “would you want to work with something you don’t believe in?”
It’s about us: everyday people who, together, try to support in any way we can, moving towards this idea of a community that grows stronger as time goes on.
The Success of Symbiosis
A successful gallery fuses many moving and interdependent parts. Whether open twenty years, or just one, the relationship between artist, gallery, and collector emerges hand-in-hand, with neither side harnessing quite enough power to overtake the other. Artists need galleries to survive financially, and galleries look to artists to promote their own business philosophy, on trend with whatever the art market is capitalizing on. The community brings these two disparate ideas together.
At Pop, Jaffe created a thriving business model based on the feedback and reception he received from his community, whether it was a tourist who heard about Pop through word-of-mouth or a collector searching to purchase a work. Rizzo applies a similar, collective method through her constant communication with Hashimoto’s mailing list and inclusive options to keep buyers aware and ready to interact with artists at openings. Byun takes this tactic a step further by fostering a place that’s all about networking amongst creatives, while simultaneously appreciating art, fashion, and music.
For a world that’s often shunned by outsiders due to its exorbitant prices and seemingly never-ending funds, missing from understanding how money works in the street art scene was realizing that, what was once an exclusive experience isn’t only about the artists, serious buyers, or the tiny, white-walled spaces that all the transactions occur in anymore. It’s about us: everyday people who, together, try to support in any way we can, moving towards this idea of a community that grows stronger as time goes on.
All these symbiotic ways that galleries function – from the hand of the artist, to a customer attending an opening and buying something as small as a print, or a sticker, forming a compact part of a massive whole – this is what Jeff Jaffe meant when he said running a gallery is all about understanding how the art of business affects the business of art.