Interview by Megan Keenan. Illustration by Jessica Song.
It’s not uncommon for an artist, or a group of artists, to create their own space… but how often do those spaces get credited with changing the art scene of their city? Well, artist Davida Nemeroff created a space that did just that when she founded Night Gallery in Los Angeles, California. Function was fortunate enough to reach Nemeroff at her home in L.A. and talk to her about her journey from Ryerson student to galleries, how L.A. changed her life, and the importance of making things happen for yourself.
Function: How did you time at Ryerson prepare you for your life that you have now?
Davida: I had an extremely meaningful and impactful time at Ryerson, in part because I got the opportunity to be a part of the editorial team of Function. It’s funny to think about it, because I would make posters and throw parties and sort of collaborate with people and that is actually what my career is now. Privately, the artwork that I make, it is still very much rooted in photography and the history of photography, all of which I studied and excelled at the most at Ryerson. It is interesting to see what an important role it has played in my life.
FN: You have an incredibly busy life, how do you balance the work you do as an artist with the work you do running a gallery?
DN: I haven’t quite mastered it yet. It’s something that I constantly try and get better at. It works on a project-to-project basis. There are different projects that have come up, that if I feel that I can do them, then I can balance both. I’m very fortunate because at the gallery I have a big staff, because you need to have a lot of vision to run a gallery in this very competitive, very fast-changing world, and I’m supported by this team that enables that time if I need it. You do have to give so much of your creative energy to the people that you’re working with that there is a limit, and the older you get the less you have to give. Like when I was at Ryerson and doing Function, I mean I just remember being a fireball of creativity, and even when I started Night Gallery I couldn’t stop but to think about how to connect these dots, almost like it was a negative thing for me. It was hard to manage. And now it doesn’t come as easy or naturally and I sort of have to work at it.
FN: How did moving out to Los Angeles affect both you and your work?
DN: It’s a very cool place, I feel lucky that I somehow ended up here. It’s a very existential and philosophical place, that’s very expansive, that enabled both the gallery to exist and for me to live my life as an artist. Not right now, but I plan on making work in the future, and I identify as an artist, and I live my life as an artist. At work I’m very businesslike, but when I come home I tend to just be an artist.
FN: I was going to ask actually whether or not you still identified as an artist primarily, or if you identified more with being a gallerist?
DN: Primarily I am, but for the sake of the business, when I’m there, it’s not important for me to flex that muscle. Lots of artists run galleries, and in a lot of galleries, the very successful ones, the gallerist’s vision is, often times, a huge part of an artist’s career. Making artwork consecutively, for a long time, all of which is good, is almost impossible without having a conversation with somebody you trust.
FN: And how did Night Gallery start? What is it that made you want to open your own gallery?
DN: Well it was probably a bit of the city. Like when I showed up in LA I had never been here before, and it’s a very strange city the way it’s set up. It was a hard city to locate myself in and it was a hard art scene to locate myself in at that time. I had just graduated from an MFA program at Columbia and I moved here to work for Katherine Mulherin who ran a project space out here for a few months. So I had this part time job, which was why I decided to come out here, I had something out here. When you graduate from a school in the United States as an international student you have one year, called your OPT Visa year, to sort of make it work; so if you’re not in the arts you would find a company to hire you, or if you’re in the arts you’d find a gallery to represent you and that’s how you could stay here. I didn’t really plan on that; however, being in Los Angeles made my chances much greater than they would have been in New York. I graduated in New York and I very quickly knew I wasn’t going to make it there. Ultimately there wasn’t what I was looking for, and I came from a city where the art conversations happened in bars, and I was much younger then, so I still really liked having nighttime conversations about art and criticism and was looking for that place, and then I couldn’t find it so I built it. Not totally knowing what I was doing, but ultimately that is what happened. And then that place that was this hotbed for conversation slowly turned into a commercial gallery where there’s definitely a lot of dialogue, but it’s not as far reaching, and it’s definitely much more than just the staff and the office and our goals are different, our survival goals are different.
FN: Something we are trying to emphasize with our issue this year is the concept of collaboration. I know that when you started Night Gallery you worked with a lot of your peers from Columbia in the space, so I was wondering if you could talk to us about what collaboration means to you.
DN: I think it’s a cornerstone of art ultimately. Sometimes it’s laid out very clearly, like two artists collaborating, and sometimes it’s a final result that is under the guise of one artist but they had a huge team to help them make the artwork. I think that it really is super important. I think collaboration is essential to art making because it takes so long to reap the rewards of this effort, so often times the reward is a relationship, and a relationship can be the reward for ten years before you see any sort of financial reward. There are a lot of artists, and many of them are very good, and there’s nothing to say that the artists that I choose to show are better than other artists, it’s just the conversation that I want to be having and it’s with these artists in particular.
FN: When Night Gallery changed from this hub for conversation into an actual commercial gallery, was that an intimidating process for you?
DV: Well, I had a partner, Mieke Marple, who no longer is my partner, but a year after running the gallery space I knew that I couldn’t do it on my own. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to run a commercial gallery space, but I had been encouraged. Not being American, so not necessarily even knowing how the art world here works, which is very much tied to the art market. And yes, it’s been very intimidating to do because you’re up against people who have really deep pockets, and you’re up against other gallerists who can offer more to other artists, and you’re really asking artists to get into a belief system with you and that’s hard. It’s hard but it’s rewarding when it works out and even if it doesn’t work out and you’ve just made it to the other side, it’s still rewarding. You know, I’ve just done it for so long. I’m more intimidated now than I was before. Starting a commercial gallery is very invigorating, cause you’re starting from zero, and you have no overhead; you haven’t amassed an overhead, you haven’t amassed a staff, and your expectations are only what’s in front of you. In the seventh year of running a business, you’ve sort of created something large that involves a lot of people, something that involves a full time staff that are relying on you, and artists that are relying on you, and collectors that are relying on you. And I feel like its much more stressful now than it has ever been. In particularly in this Trump administration where it’s like, oh my god we’re really supposed to be asking ourselves what’s important and I am a firm believer that art is very important particularly in public schools, and if you can prove that there’s a big industry with art and that it’s not just the top people that get to participate, that somebody can come up with a business plan and approach the art world and succeed with a number of people, then you are sort of proving that there is a demand for art. I’m hoping. It’s cool, I’m very lucky; certain parts of me are different, certain parts of me are the same.
FN: You spoke in another interview about not wanting to curate with a “capital C,” could you talk a little bit more about your style of curation?
DN: I’m much more like a programmer. A curator really, you know, there’s like a responsibility to write a thesis to their curation and that’s not something that I’m interested in doing. I can’t really do that, I can’t write my ideas down, I can only speak them; a show that is curated by me is not interesting… to me. I’d say that I’ve grown to respect curators more than I did when I gave that original interview and I had dinner with a curator friend last night and it was interesting because I’m just so far away from the curator circle, and I was just like… oh god, there’s so few jobs for curators, they really have to fight for them. Some of them are deeply strident on the idea that art belongs to the people and that institutions are the problem. As a commercial gallery I definitely have strong feelings about institutions and how they can’t support themselves and so they need commercial galleries to support them and support their projects. And if a commercial gallery can’t just find a bunch of money to put down for a project, then the artist that they work with for a project won’t be chosen for the museum show. And that there is this inflated idea of the importance of the museum and institutions… it just takes working in this industry a little bit to see that there are a lot of problems there.
FN: How did it feel for you when Night Gallery moved from its place in the strip mall to where it is now? Was that like a “proud mom” moment for you?
DN: Ya! And that was definitely with my partner, Mieke, I would never have done that without her and her father who helped build the new space. That was very important, I could have never done that without her and I will forever be grateful for our time as partners because it enabled what needed to happen for the gallery. That space that was the original Night Gallery is now a number of different galleries that are really good, and they do a lot of interesting programs and they are very much connected to the scene here in LA, but after three years in a strip mall, throwing events where there would be hundreds of people on the street, we just needed to move somewhere else. You know, for the most part I would say that the gallery was not disruptive to the neighbourhood that it was in and rather that it was a warm place for people in the neighbourhood, that if they wanted to come in and check it out, I was always there to have conversations with them and I go back to those same galleries and I see a lot of the same people; people who were teenagers and now they’re adults and it’s cool. I think it was a positive contribution to this corner, you know, cause it does play a part in gentrification. Where we moved, I feel very grateful that though we are part of this larger downtown development, we are placed very much on the outskirts on a very small, weird street that’s very hard to find with a great landlord who, you know, we’re just very lucky with the sort of buildings and landlords and people that we have worked with. So yes, it was terrifying but it was also very cool.
FN: You’re an artist, and a gallerist, so you get to see both sides of the scene. Do you have any advice for the artists looking to get their work into galleries?
DN: I mean I kind of feel like I gave it away by saying that for the most part I show people that I’m close with. It’s different now because I don’t just have a civic responsibility, but sometimes a global responsibility, to show artwork that is far reaching because of the scope of Night Gallery. I definitely think if you can’t get your work into galleries you should definitely start your own gallery. And you know, the word gallery is very open ended… but put on your own shows ultimately, because that is how Night Gallery grew, we weren’t waiting for somebody else to do it… we just did it.
FN: And what would be your advice for people who do want to make their own gallery space?
DN: I guess just really open your mind to what a gallery could be. You know, like if you don’t have any money and you couldn’t ever possibly pay rent somewhere, well then you’re probably not going to rent a space… so then where is your gallery? Is it in the foyer of your building? Is it in the bathroom in the basement of Ryerson? What do you have available to you? And then there are a lot of spaces where alternatively you could go hunt for a space and see how much the rent is, see what you can afford, get a number of people involved. You know, you need some funds to run an actual space. 8/11 is a great example of a space that runs and functions, that reminds me of the old Night Gallery.
FN: And finally, what would be your general advice for emerging artists entering the professional world?
DN: Don’t get discouraged. I would also say to keep your overhead low, keep costs down. Don’t frame before you have to, you don’t want to be lugging frames around, its much easier to carry rolled prints around. There’s something very satisfying about framing your work, and it makes it feel very complete, it makes you feel like you’ve gotten to a certain level, but maybe it’s not where you should be putting your focus.