The NADA Network

Jeff Bailey on How Hudson, New York, Became a Viable Base for an Ambitious Art Gallery

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The NADA Network
Jeff Bailey on How Hudson, New York, Became a Viable Base for an Ambitious Art Gallery
The dealer Jeff Bailey outside his Hudson, New York, gallery

In the modest Upstate New York town of Hudson, at the end of the central Warren Street, there’s a livid-colored Victorian house with a subtle sign that reads Jeff Bailey Gallery. Inside, a visitor will find a light-filled, white-walled gallery of the kind one might expect to find in Chelsea, gleaming with polished wood floors and professionally hung work by emerging artists. It’s an unexpected apparition to come across in a blue-collar former industrial hub a five minute’s drive from open fields and farmland—but it’s a testament to the fact that Hudson, long a savvy antiquer’s paradise for its ample stretch of furniture and design stores, has matured as an art destination as well.

A career Chelsea gallerist who moved his operation to Hudson in 2014, Bailey is part of a group of entrepreneurs—now including the nearby September Gallery’s Kristen Dodge—who are entrenching the town as a place where collectors can expect to find art-fair-calibre work in a far more rustic setting. It helps that the surrounding area is dotted with the homes (and country houses) of a whole segment of the art community, including people like the artists Kiki Smith and Marina Abramovic and the dealer Zach Feuer, who until this summer ran his own gallery in town with Joel Mesler called Retrospective. What’s interesting is that, despite the two-hour distance from New York City, these art professionals are hardly detached from their business—fairs, email, and social media make sure of that.

As the latest installment of our NADA Network series, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Bailey—a NADA member who fondly remembers when the fair held two editions at the local Basilica Hudson—about how he came to the town, what a few unlikely art legends are doing there these days, and how the location makes business sense.

 

To begin, I just wanted to say thanks for talking to me on a day that I know the gallery is not open. 

You know, it’s interesting. The gallery is typically closed today, and yet I’ve been working today. In Hudson, galleries are open different days. Mine is open Friday through Sunday, because that’s when we get most of the foot traffic. Some galleries are open more, some are open less. But I still work roughly the same amount I did when I was in Chelsea.

How does that work out?

Well, in the just over two years since I moved the gallery up here, I’ve realized that everything that it takes to run a gallery—to put on shows, interact with your clients, interact with your artists, so on and so forth—requires an amount of time that’s more or less fixed, no matter if you’re in Hudson or in Chelsea. Because you’re not just relying on walk-in traffic to make things happen. 

I’d like to follow up on that later, because it’s a very interesting point. But first, let’s talk a bit about your backstory. Where are you from originally, and how did you find your way into art?

I’m originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and I grew up in the South, first there and then in New Orleans during high school. I went to college in Virginia before transferring as a junior to New York University to major in art history, because I wanted a strong liberal-arts education. But when I got out of school I had no idea what I wanted to do, so first I briefly worked at Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker for about a year, and then I worked in the fashion business for about 11 years. That was at Ralph Lauren, and I had a number of jobs with them through the years: retail, merchandising, store management, and wholesale sales.

They’re a great company, but I became disinterested. And since my interest in art had never left, I thought, “Well, now I can use the job experiences I’ve had to apply my interest and experience in the art field.” So in the late 1990s I went to work for a small gallery called Earl McGrath on 57th Street, and then I worked for Richard Feigen on the Upper East Side. 

That kind of classical art is a very different kind of thing than what you show.

[Laughs] Well, it is. Initially I thought, “Well, I’m not so sure about this job.” I was Richard’s assistant. What appealed to me were two things. One was his very eclectic program. Richard has an interesting background—he gave Francis Bacon his first show in the US, he was showing German Expressionism in the ‘50s, when not many people at all were doing it, but he also was into French 19th-Century art, Courbet, Baroque, Joseph Cornell, and a whole range of other areas. He showed James Rosenquist and Ray Johnson too. So I knew I’d be exposed to all of these things as well as the collectors and curators interested in this broad range of work, and I thought that would be a really great foundation, even though my primary interest was in contemporary art.

And how did you go from there to founding your own place?

Afterwards, I briefly worked with Derek Eller, a dealer whom I have great respect for and who shows a lot of artists that I like. So I hung a shingle there for about six months or so, and then it just felt like the right time to take the plunge and open my own space. So I did that in March of 2003, and at the time I was afraid it was going to be the night we invaded Iraq. It wouldn't have been the greatest night to open a gallery, so I was a little concerned about that. It’s silly.

You were in Chelsea for a little over a decade, is that right? 

Yes. I had three spaces in Chelsea. The first was 511 West 25th, on the eighth floor. Then I moved to a same-sized space on the second floor, which had a nice little patio out back that we used for a couple of exhibitions. Then one of the ground-floor spaces became free on 27th Street, and like many dealers in the area I thought, “I’d really like to be there.” So I went over there. And then Hurricane Sandy happened. I’ve talked to a few people about this recently, and it was one of those moments where—as painful and awful as it was for people to have to close their gallery, losing money and losing artwork—I mainly remember how people really came together in an incredible way to lend support to each other.

I vividly remember all the dealers on 27th Street emptying the art from their basements after they had been pumped out, and we were all drying this artwork on the street and it was just nuts. [Laughs] But people just came together. There was a really nice client who would bring lunch to me and others those first few days, and within two days the ADAA [Art Dealers Association of America] was out there giving money to help people work through their issues. That really touched me: a professional organization realizing a pressing need and helping people. Eventually, we got back on our feet—the whole block. Then, two years after we reopened, I moved upstate. 

What prompted the move?

My lease was up in Chelsea and the rent increase, had I renewed, would have been huge. The neighborhood and block were in flux, and a move anywhere else in the city would have been much more rent than what I was then paying, plus the cost of a buildout, et cetera. So, I decided to move the gallery to Hudson and base it there. I was familiar with the town and found a great space, and at the same time I significantly lowered my expenses and became part of a small but growing arts community. I continue to do art fairs. And I'm only two hours from the city. 

You’ve had a house upstate for quite some time, too, is that right?

Right. I’ve been a weekender upstate, first in Greene County from 1994 to 2003, and in Columbia County since then, and I’ve always just really loved the area. It’s just beautiful, and there’s so much history. This morning I was at the Thomas Cole House in Catskill, and they have a Jason Middlebrook show incorporated within the house until the end of October. It’s really cool.

It’s interesting that such a historical art site, dating from when the Hudson Valley was a haven for landscape painters, is doing contemporary shows. Is that happening elsewhere too?

Yes, more of that is happening. Last year the Thomas Cole House and the Frederic Church House had a joint show entitled River Crossings, which featured contemporary art in both homes with the premise that those landscape painters’ art was contemporary once too. They’re historical homes, but they want to expand their audience. Jason was a good fit because his work is grounded in nature, involving cuts from actual trees that he makes paintings on.

Anyhow, the fact that there are different outlets for contemporary art to be found in historical places is part of why the Hudson Valley is a great area, and it dovetails with why I liked working for Richard Feigen, who also mixed up art from different eras. I haven’t done it so much in my own programming, though I did do a show that combined Shaker objects from the Shaker Museum in New Lebanon, New York, with contemporary art, titled “Simplest Means.”

I’ve also assisted that museum with programming, including a really great exhibition they did of Francis Cape. He shows at Murray Guy and he made these exact recreations of benches from different utopian societies throughout the country that were shown there. It’s very interesting to see contemporary art in different historical contexts.

 

[related-works]

 

Your gallery also includes a combination of different eras, but that’s because you tend to show either emerging artists in their 30s or older, but still arguably emerging, artists in their 60s and 70s. Many of these artists are from the South, which is a rarity in a New York gallery. How do you find your artists?

It’s interesting, when I first opened my gallery there were not too many artists on my radar whose work I was very interested in and who weren’t already showing with other galleries. So I asked my friends, “Who else do you like?”—it’s something I often do when there’s someone whose eye I respect. And I also went to MFA shows and the slide registries at White Columns, the Drawing Center, and Artists Space.

You don’t really hear about slide registries, where unrepresented artists used to submit their work, that much anymore. It was such a great service, pre-internet.

Yes, and, of course, now you can do so much of that online. But this was in 2001, 2002. Then, to answer the other part of your question, the Southern connection comes in part through the Birmingham Museum of Art. I met the curator then of Modern and contemporary art, and I said, “If there’s someone in town you think I should visit, please let me know.” And he said, “Yes, there is. Her name is Amy Pleasant.” And Amy’s backstory is indicative of other artists that I’ve worked with.

She’s originally from Birmingham and she went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then chose to move back to Birmingham for personal reasons. That was a number of years ago, and since then we’ve done four or five shows together. She’s a good example, as are many other artists, of the fact that you don’t have to be in New York City. It certainly helps—you have to know what’s going on—but some out-of-town artists are really great at just coming here several times a year and really staying plugged in and doing their work away from the city, but they have to be disciplined about it. 

I also did a show with Lonnie Holley around 2010, and the connection there again was Birmingham. Lonnie, he’s a very interesting story—he makes incredible assemblages and works on paper, and he’s been collected in depth by the Arnetts and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. I found his art to be incredibly moving and I thought it would fit into my program, and so we did one solo show together, and then recently I did a small drawings show. It was a rich experience. You need to shake it up—you need to make people hopefully look twice. But now more self-taught artists are being shown in contemporary art galleries.  

One thing that I find admirable about your program is that there’s a real diversity among the artists, and pretty much all in the emerging category. Most of them have never had an exhibition at a blue-chip gallery or major institution, though some have had shows at smaller museums in the South. These are working artists who have created a life out of their art, but not the kind of artists who are living high on the hog.

Well, yes. I’ve also shown a few who have moved on and done extremely well. 

Like who?

Matt Connors had his first solo show at the gallery before he went to graduate school. Of course, everybody wants to do as well as they can, and I take pride in giving a lot of artists their first solo shows. I didn’t set out to do that, but as a dealer you want to show something new and fresh, or give someone exposure to someone who has maybe never had it in New York, and you of course hope for institutional interest, but the chips fall where they do.

I show the work I believe in, and obviously there’s a commercial component to it—you have to make money at it, and some fare better than others. The hope is that with all their hard work, and the gallery’s, down the road there will be a bigger payoff. I’ve always liked the story of Matisse, who did not sell a painting until he was 40. So, 40 today in the art world, that seems pretty old to a lot of people. I realize it’s a different world, but I think that says something.

Well, you just showed Walter Robinson, who is a perfect example of an artist who has been working for years but whose art only catches fire in the latter part of their career. He is now going through a real moment: I see his paintings in fairs all over the world, most recently in Copenhagen, and he’s about to have a major show to inaugurate Jeffrey Deitch’s reborn SoHo gallery.

Walter is such a terrific artist and I have always admired his work. I was so happy that I could work with him. One good thing about being up in Hudson is that even if someone is working with another gallery in the city, it’s far enough away to be able to give them a solo show. So it was fun to work with Walter, for sure.

I’ve noticed that you also a younger artist in your program who has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, Irena Jurek.

Yes, Irena is terrific. Her drawings are so personal, they’re celebratory, they’re very sexual. She revels in different materials, be it paint, glitter, or incorporating other things in there. There’s a real spirit to the work. She had a solo show at the gallery last summer, and I’ll be showing her at Untitled in Miami this year too. 

It seems other artists can’t get enough of her. Just looking at her CV, she’s been curated into shows by artists like Peter Saul, Brian Belott, Hennessey Youngman, Adam Parker Smith, and more. 

It’s always great when you see other artists really getting behind the work of a particular artist. Irena also just had a strong show at Romeo NYC, which is Aurel Schmidt’s gallery on the Lower East Side.

It seems there’s a new gallery on the Lower East Side every week. There’s also been quite a bit of activity in Hudson lately, though. 

I will say that in the last two and a half years since I’ve had the space, Hudson has changed more than I anticipated it would. Kristen Dodge’s September Gallery just opened, there’s Jack Shainman’s School space in Kinderhook, and there a lot of artists are moving upstate. There’s the Basilica Hudson, which is a beautiful space where NADA did two fairs some years ago, and they have an exhibition space called the Back Gallery where there’s now a show of Marc Swanson’s work. There’s also great food in Hudson, so that really helps. [Laughs] 

The James Beard Award just went to a restaurant in Hudson, which is crazy.

Yes. Zak Pelaccio of Fish & Game won the James Beard Award for Northeast, and he just opened up another space in Hudson called Back Bar that’s really good. I remember when there were only two restaurants on Warren Street, back in 1994. One thing you could attribute all this growth and success to is that Hudson, visually, is a beautiful town, and it also feels very real. It has some real problems—it was down on its heels for a long time.

It was super prosperous at the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th, but then that all changed. It started to come back into the ‘80s, and then the Amtrak line helped. Now the fact that you’ve got the surrounding landscape, the Catskills and the Berkshires on either side, all these cultural institutions, and it being less expensive to both live in and have a business—all of those things come together in its favor in a big way. 

I’ve heard there’s another excitingly improbably development coming to town—that the artist David Hammons is opening a jazz club on Warren Street. Is that true? 

Yes, he bought this old church on Warren Street, and it’s going to be some sort of a jazz venue. And it’s great that someone bought that because it was vacant for a long, long time, and it really needed the work. So, that’ll be cool.

There must be quite a bit of buzz around town about the most famously reclusive artist opening an establishment there. Do you know when it’s actually going to open?

No, all I’ve heard is that he bought the building and that it was going to be a jazz venue. That’s all I know.

And at the same time, a much less reclusive artist, Marina Abramovic, has been working on her institute up there for quite some time. They bought a building that is supposed to be converted into a center. Are there any developments on that front?

I haven’t heard anything new about that. They’re not doing anything about the building, though the Second Ward Foundation, which is a not-for-profit space that’s periodically  open up here, showed a video portrait of Abramovic in her space that’s supposed to be open one day. 

Isn’t the artist Jeffrey Gibson also opening something in a school up there?

Yeah, Jeffrey purchased a former school and he now has his studio there and between five and 10 other artists’ studios. What’s great about being outside of New York is that everything is so much more affordable, so you can acquire a building and rent part of it out, all for a fraction of what it would cost in the city. One nice thing that does is that it gives you some investment in the neighborhood, literally—it means you’re a taxpayer here and you can grow with the community. So that’s exciting that he can do that.

I think that was one of the ideas behind the Retrospective Gallery experiment that Zach Feuer and Joel Mesler had in Hudson for a while before it closed this year, that you could rent a storefront space for a minuscule fraction of what you’d pay in New York City, and that it would then be possible to do shows that could then be disseminated online to a wider audience. Do you know what happened?

I haven’t seen Zach in a while, so I’m not sure exactly why, but I wish they were still around. It’s always exciting when a gallery opens, and there’s always a little sadness when one closes for whatever reason. So many people can have a rich experience through a gallery, whether it’s the artists, the collectors, or the dealer, and a real community grows and develops, so, yeah, I wish they were still around. 

Hudson is very well known as a destination for antiques and design, and it has such a critical mass of design stores on Warren Street you’ll see lots of people on weekends walking up and down the main drag and shopping in the stores. If you want to buy a Hans Wegner table set or any other mid-century modern staple, Hudson is the place to go. Do people also know to go there to buy art? Is there a real, consistent collector clientele there? 

Well, more and more. Hudson is a bit like the Lower East Side, where there’s a whole mix of different retail establishments, restaurants, and other things, so you get some people who may not know who you are, and I have walk-ins where somebody buys something. It’s very different from a place like Chelsea, where it’s pretty much just galleries, so therefore you’re getting an exclusively art-centered crowd coming through the door, which you want.

But there are some other galleries that have been in Hudson for years, like John Davis Gallery, and a lot of artists have lived in the area for a long time. So I guess some people know that you can have a great art experience and you can see really good work in a town as small as Hudson.

One thing I’ve noticed in Hudson’s design and antiques stores is that there might be a few people shopping inside, especially on a Saturday or Sunday, but then there’s always a little photo studio set up in the back of the store where the dealers take pictures of their wares and post them on 1stDibs. I’ve heard from a few dealers that this is a big chunk of their business.  

If I were relying on walk-in traffic, the gallery would not succeed. I think that’s only something that could work for a New York gallery. But now, because of art fairs, because of the internet, because of the way people share images, then all of those dots connecting together make it easier to be in a place that’s not New York City and have a gallery. Not to speak for the furniture dealers, but I assume that’s the same in their case.

Clearly, 1stDibs and other sites like that have become a very big thing. And Artspace! I’ve had success on Artspace, and that’s great and exciting. I embrace any way that somebody can come to art, learn more about it, and discover it—and then, ultimately, people are seeing still things in the flesh at some point. But it’s exciting: on a Tuesday, maybe I’m at home, maybe I’m at my gallery, maybe I’m down in New York City, but I’m still conducting business.

You mentioned before that, as a gallery operating outside the main art thoroughfares, you stay open three days a week and then use other channels to run the business the rest of the week. How do you ensure that those three days are as impactful and meaningful as possible, and how do you spend those two or however many other days advancing the gallery’s operations?

Very good question. With Hudson, most of the foot traffic is on the weekend—though you could call the weekend Thursday to Monday. I know my spouse, John, says that when he comes up on Thursday from the city the train is fuller than it’s ever been. So occasionally I’ll have a client who says, “I’m coming to the area, will you be there on Tuesday?” And I will certainly try my best to be there. I need to be fairly mobile because I’m working with people from the city and it’s important that I’m available other days if they want me to come then, but I also have my laptop and phone so I can be plugged in from wherever I am, I was talking with a couple of artists recently about how, with email today, there’s really a breakdown in our sense of time. A Sunday feels less like a Sunday. And people want information around the clock, so they’re looking online and they shoot me an email at whatever time. 

Would you say that you sell more to people from your traditional collector base that you built up in New York City or to people who are in the upstate region and the Hudson community?

Fortunately, I’m very grateful for clients who have remained interested in the program, and some of them come and visit me upstate when they’re on their way to the Berkshires or something like that. It’s not all wine and roses, though. There are others whose summer thing is going to the Hamptons, and they just don’t really come to our neck of the woods. So that’s real, but hopefully they’ll see us at a fair.

But one of the things that has benefitted in moving the gallery up here and expanding the program is that we often have two solo shows at once, so I can also feature people in a solo-show context who I didn’t show before, and that helps to increase your audience—especially if they’re someone who is already known and has interest. Walter would fall in that category. But then nobody knew the work of the fellow who was showing alongside him, Dylan Languell, yet the show did well because things were reasonably priced.

So it’s a combination of all of these things—I have to work hard to be known in the community, and I have to work hard to keep the audience I had in Chelsea interested too.

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