For the one-year anniversary of Underline Gallery’s opening, gallery director Casey Burry sat down with art critic Oscar Laluyan to discuss her background in the arts and reflect upon the experience of running a contemporary art gallery in New York. Read the interview below.
OL: Coming in to relaunch back in September 2011 for Underline Gallery, what were the challenges that you faced and were you successful in accomplishing what you set out to do?
CB: Before reopening as Underline Gallery, the gallery was called PJS Exhibitions and was run by curator, art dealer, and current owner Patrick Sullivan. The space, which opened in 2010, hosted a diverse lineup of solo and group shows that revolved around a groundbreaking roster of emergent artists. We re-launched the gallery last September with the intent of creating a more intimate and non-exclusive environment, where artistic community and creative dialog could flourish and thrive. By using dynamic and creative approaches, we started to explore alternative possibilities of art exhibition by creating an accessible space where artists, curators, art lovers, and experienced collectors could come together.
We started to ask ourselves: Why do people buy art? And why is it so important? On a personal level, I become interested in a piece when I have some deeper emotional connection with it. The work becomes important — it becomes a part of me. By integrating a special understanding in the display of the artwork, I try to create this connection for our visitors and enable those who would like to build an art connection with a variety of price points and a range of both small-scale and large-scale works.
Needless to say, we came across a number of challenges. First off, one of our greatest goals has been gaining access to a larger audience, acquiring trust, and garnering exposure throughout the New York arts community. Through such a community, we hope to forge lasting collaborations with artists, curators, clients, and other arts institutions. Thus far, we’ve been successful in gaining a following and creating a reputation for our fresh perspective on fine arts curation; we’ve gotten support from fashion houses, the Norwood Arts Club, and the Vitra Showroom, to name a few, for current and future collaboration.
OL: Is there a fair representation of female artists / curators / or even gallery directors in today’s art industry?
CB: Regardless of gender oppositions, there is a lot of competition that I find unfortunate. I’m not interested in the gender divide and the question of labels, even though Underline does feature a large number of artists from different genders and races. As a gallery director, I’ve always been interested more so in creating a web of support and breaking down the competition that exists within the arts. As in the hip hop world, I think the art world should preclude a certain degree of endorsement, in which established artists support and encourage emergent ones, rather than the type of antagonism we see in much of the New York arts scene.
But to return to your question, I don’t think there is a fair representation of female artists, curators, or even gallery directors in today’s art industry. It is still a male-dominated field and men continue to get more recognition. Although it has never been a key focus of our curatorial direction, we feature a variety of female artists, whose quiet and fiercely beautiful work is evidently feminine in perspective and voice, and corresponds to our gallery’s overall aesthetic.
OL: What made you decide to work in the art industry?
CB: Coming from a diverse background that included linguistics, art history, cultural affairs, fashion, business, marketing, and arts programming, the gallery seemed like the most natural way to combine my previous experiences into a single profession. My past careers have all involved collaboration and so, as gallery director, I’ve been set on infusing everything we do at Underline with that communal spirit. Creative exploration and community participation have fueled our success and kept us motivated as an arts space. The success and future of the gallery depends on each and every artist, curator, visitor, and collector that has stepped through our doors.
Having said this, I think there is something truly exhilarating about working in the arts and having the opportunity to run a fairly new gallery within New York’s booming arts scene. Our mission at Underline has always been to make art more refreshing and, ultimately, to step away from the traditional models of art exhibition. This in of itself has been a motivating force for working in the art industry; merely the chance to work with art, as a reflection on contemporary times, has been exciting at every turn.
OL: In today’s media saturated world, how can you underscore a strong presence for the gallery?
CB: It may sound cliché, but our gallery’s philosophy is inextricable from its name. Like the underline of our title and logo, we aim to underscore important, innovative works by some of today’s most talented artists. It really is a media-saturated world, and it’s difficult to get noticed as one of the newest of thousands of New York galleries; the truth is that media influences business dramatically and in ways that are rarely intuitive.
We’re always trying to think of different ways to stand out and reinvent traditional curatorial standards. For example, we gear many of our exhibitions around specific topics, issues, and dates that occur simultaneously with the show. For example, our annual SHOP exhibition is held on Fashion’s Night Out. Jordan Sullivan’s solo show Natural History, an exhibition that explored remembrance and memorialization, was on view around Memorial Day. The Good American, a group show that investigates contemporary American identity, opened on the Fourth of July.
While we organize our shows around specific curatorial themes, we are always trying to create an intimate and communal space that facilitates art appreciation. In this respect, I believe our gift shop truly sets us apart from other galleries in New York. Affordable objects such as hand-crafted t-shirts, limited-edition prints, and one-of-a-kind artist books open up the arts to a variety of buyers and art lovers. We aim to encourage collectors of all kinds — both those who want to add to their collection and those who want to start one — to take home a piece of our unprecedented collection. Our focus on artists’ books is one of our niches at Underline; the personal, intimate quality of the book, most of which are single or available in limited editions, enable our visitors to purchase a unique object for a more affordable price.
OL: With every show staged at the space, how do you keep it fun and fresh?
CB: Great question. One of the central facets of our curation revolves around the idea of updating tradition — making it new, so to speak. We seek out work that juxtaposes classic concepts and innovative techniques and our philosophy as a gallery similarly intends to revolutionize traditional standards of art exhibition. For the gallery, this involves making the viewer’s experience intimate, while keeping the experience exciting. To this extent, all of our events and exhibitions revolve around the interactive experience of our visitors. We try to be as inventive as possible with our space, by putting on provocative exhibitions and holding artist talks, workshops, film screenings, musical performances, and thematic openings.
Our opening receptions are indicative of our unique perspective, marked by color, humor, and verve. While some art openings can be unwelcoming, we try to treat each reception as a celebratory, experiential event. For example, our opening for the summer 2012 show The Good American featured vintage American cars, hot dogs, American beer, and a USA-themed soundtrack. As part of Jordan Sullivan’s Natural History, the artist set up a recording booth where visitors could record their own sound clips recanting personal memories. Other exhibitions have featured three-dimensional works and QR codes, through which the viewer can listen to the artists speak about their work. Aside from the purely experiential aspect of the gallery, we aim to create an authentic connection between the artist or artwork and the viewer or collector. We try to make each event and exhibition unusual and interesting, while maintaining the intimate, authentic, and interactive experience that we aspire to create.