Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Ioana: Nikki, I’m so happy you’re doing this. Welcome!
Nikki: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Ioana: Tell us what you’re up to.
Nikki: I am currently managing director of an art gallery in Soho, New York, called Peter Freeman, inc. We have been in this space on Grand Street since 2012. Before that, Peter started the gallery on Broadway and Prince back in the 90s. I’ve been working here since January. So it’s been fun.
Ioana: Can we go through what it takes to run a gallery?
Nikki: Okay! Gallery life can be intense. It’s about managing people; it’s all about relationships. I manage a team of about 15, so a lot of my time here is spent listening to problems as they arise and helping them solve them. My role as managing director, I do speak a lot with the artists, but we have sales directors in other people who do more of that.
So my role is to make sure that our team runs smoothly, and we all have the same goals in mind. We have to open a show or set up an art fair booth. My role is to make sure everyone’s on the same page and doing their job.
Ioana: So when you look at building your team to support a creative enterprise like this, what hands on deck do you need?
Nikki: Good work ethic. Someone willing to jump in, even though it’s technically not in their job description. I mean, sometimes shit happens, or someone’s away, and I need people to step in and do the job. I’m always open to collaboration. People having ideas, and putting them forward on the table is excellent. Not to say that we always go with them, but I try to create an environment where there’s no bad idea.
Ioana: That’s amazing.
Nikki: Yeah. Hard workers.
Ioana: The people that you work with, do they have a background in arts? Are they creatives themselves?
Nikki: Yeah. A lot of the team here, they’re artists themselves. Some aren’t. It varies, but a lot of them here do tend to be. Even our bookkeeper is a visual artist. So I’m always surrounded by creative people, which is what I knew interested me way back.
Ioana: I’m glad you opened up that subject. What brought you to the present day?
Nikki: I grew up in Australia. I studied art history in Brisbane at the University of Queensland. Brisbane is my hometown, so I can say it, but it’s not the most culturally forward place. But during those university years, I was exposed to a lot of art, whether it be ancient Rome or the Abstract Expressionist movement of the sixties. So I learned a lot. And that was interesting to me.
What wasn’t interesting to me is putting paint on canvas or anything like that. It was the business side of things that interested me. I started looking at commercial art galleries in Brisbane, of which at the time, there weren’t many. And I sent a letter in the post. And said, “Look, I’m willing to intern for free.”
Ioana: Were you in college at this time?
Nikki: Yes, and I interned for a gallery that’s no longer there, called Fox Galleries in Brisbane. And it was really that that fed the machine because it was a much smaller team. There were maybe three or four of us, so I did speak with the artists, some of them are good friends now. I did see the business behind it all. I did have to stuff envelopes with invitations, put a stamp on them and send them out.
Ioana: You did it all.
Nikki: I did it all. Yeah. And then seeing the final product, which is an art gallery opening – that’s what I do now. Yeah. And now looking back to those 20 years ago, I can appreciate that was a moment in time where some artists now are quite famous. It was the late nineties Brisbane, some of the street art that was happening, we brought into the commercial gallery realm, and it sold. So it’s not for nothing. Even though you think you’re a little gallery in Brisbane, we could look back 20 years later, and we see, “Oh, well, that guy showed in that group show and look where he is now.” So it’s kind of cool.
Ioana: I love that. Anything that we do, you never know what effect you’re going to have and how it’s going to resonate down the line.
Nikki: Sometimes, it doesn’t affect, but it could be a byline in a book that’s in this library. You never know. But I look back on that time now and see that place was meant for me then.
And so then, after college, I moved to Melbourne, which was a bit more culturally forward. Then I continued my postgrad, where I really got into the nitty-gritty of art business and then worked for commercial galleries. I had a museum stint there for awhile. I opened up my own space for a short time.
Ioana: Talk to me about having your own space. That takes a lot of gumption. What was it like?
Nikki: It was interesting timing, just before the financial downturn. It was a cool space in the middle of Melbourne CBD. We called it “Untitled.” It was on the fifth level of a building with no elevator, which kind of pissed a lot of people off. It’s not like here in New York where we’re used to that. I think we lasted two years and we showed some great artists.
Ioana: Did you have partners?
Nikki: I had one partner.
Ioana: What was your role?
Nikki: He was more background. I was running the gallery. I did everything.
Ioana: You ran the ship.
Nikki: I ran the ship. I mean, it was a smaller ship.
Ioana: Would you ever do it again?
Nikki: I get asked all the time. Yes and no. Yes, I would. No, I don’t want to do it by myself. Purely financially, the money that you need to back that is substantial. And yes, I would if the right people wanted to collaborate.
Ioana: What collaboration would be the dream?
Nikki: I don’t know.
Ioana: That’s a good answer.
Nikki: Yeah, the thought of running my own space does interest me and excite me, but I know that hard slog. Especially here.
Ioana: In New York City.
Ioana: Talk to me then about the New York City gallery scene.
Nikki: I moved here in 2009 and got not out of any particular plan or goal, it’s just how it happened, employed by an art fair company. So my first introduction to the New York or the U.S. Art gallery market was via art fairs, which I think is very helpful. You get to learn a lot of galleries and about their programs. You’re not stuck into one thing. And I also really honed my skills in event management and managing people, because that’s essentially what this is.
The New York art scene changes every day. I mean, we were talking about Chelsea galleries moving down to Tribeca, but you know, there’s nothing new under the sun. Those Tribeca galleries were there 30 years ago, 40 years ago. So everything is becoming cyclical.
One thing I’ve seen the most, especially in museums, is representation. So much more of an awareness of diversity, which even five years ago, we weren’t talking about as much as we are today. So African American artists, female artists. That is a considerable push in conversations that I’m more aware of these days.
Ioana: Who is driving those conversations in the commercial gallery space?
Nikki: I always liked the ones who did it way before it became this thing to do. Galleries like PPOW have always been at the forefront of that. And I admire them for that.
Ioana: When I think of the traditional gallery world, what comes to mind is this idea of pedigree and privacy. If you’re a part of it, great, if you’re not a part of it, then you’re not a part of it. People have regarded it that way for a long time.
But the world is moving in a different direction. Things are opening up and becoming more democratic. The level of entry into being represented or selling your artwork is not as much of a barrier, because people can represent themselves.
Nikki: Bushwick artist studios, artists run spaces. I mean, they’ve always been around in some shape or form, but artists are certainly taking it into their own hands. And of course, Instagram. An artist has an Instagram account, and they’re their marketers.
Ioana: It’s shifted the thinking around this whole business. How do you regard that?
Nikki: It has. There’s still something to be said about an artist who has gallery representation and a gallery who can represent them in the best way possible.
I mean, you have to take it on a case by case basis. Some artists are excellent sellers and are excellent technologically, and don’t think twice about putting themselves out there.
But other people can’t do that. They don’t feel comfortable doing that, and they won’t do that. So the role of a gallery is still essential. And I’m not just saying that because I work in one. Putting them forward and placing work in museums, working on publications. Legacy in this day and age of instant gratification is critical.
Ioana: Yeah, I agree with you.
Nikki: Yeah. So a gallery can help with that and steer them in specific directions or put them in particular museum shows that will give them a legacy.
Ioana: It sounds like your purpose is very much attached to the path of the artists. You’re intertwined.
Nikki: Yeah. That’s why we are here sitting in this room. It’s because of the artists. That’s number one. My day to day sometimes can get tied up with general management of people, and things, and money, but it is the artists that put us here. So I have to, yeah, and I want to.
Ioana: What part of nurturing and artist’s career moves you?
Nikki: Seeing the satisfaction.
Ioana: You’ve been doing this for a long time, and you’re attuned to what it takes to help grow somebody’s career and the arts. So there must be something beneath at all that fulfills you.
Nikki: Sure. It’s sharing the work with other people who may not have access to it. So here we are turning it around again. When you see an artist’s work in a museum and thousands of people walking past this work every day, you know that you’ve had something to do with making that accessible for everyone, that’s key. I love that bit. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I remember when we sold that to such and such,” and here it is five, ten years later. That’s cool.
Ioana: That was very cool.
Nikki: Yeah, it just happened. I was in Australia for the summer. I’d previously worked in an Australian Aboriginal art gallery in Melbourne, and this summer, I went to the Queensland Art Museum. And I remember writing those invoices back in 2005 and lo and behold, here are those pieces. And my daughter could see it, and that’s cool too.
Ioana: Yeah. It’s like you’re creating access to culture by helping move precious objects around and creating awareness.
Nikki: Right. And that awareness, it’s awareness. People may not like it or respond to it. It might make people uncomfortable, but it’s making them feel something that they wouldn’t have probably felt had they not seen it.
Ioana: And therein lies the key, my friend. Because I don’t think art is meant to be ornamental, necessarily.
Nikki: I mean, if we talk about how much the art world has changed, it can be ornamental. It can be purely financial, which sometimes is a tough pill to swallow. But I’m not going to say there aren’t clients who buy something and they don’t put it in their lounge room or their bedroom. They put it in storage and may not see it for ten years, or maybe they flip it in ten years or less. So it means something different to everyone. But for me, it is sharing all of the artist’s vision that I like.
Ioana: That’s beautiful.
Nikki: That’s why galleries are essential because you get to learn the artist’s vision. We’re spokespeople for that.
Ioana: In the best-case scenario, it’s a symbiotic relationship.
Nikki: Not to say there aren’t rife with problems, like in any relationship. And people move on. Artists leave galleries, and galleries drop artists. It happens. And sometimes artists get too big for some galleries. We see that a lot. Sometimes artists get pinched by more prominent galleries.
Ioana: How do you move through that? How do you negotiate that?
Nikki: Sometimes, you can’t.
Ioana: Can you give me an example?
Nikki: A mid-career artist whose career a mid-level gallery has been working on will be taken up by a mega gallery after the foundation is set. Do you know what I mean? They get them on the brink of their career. It’s not a complaint. I get it, and I don’t know what you can do about that. It’s totally up to the artist, and let’s be honest, money and exposure are driving forces. Artists want to be exposed, and mega galleries have a bigger audience.
Ioana: There are pluses and minuses everywhere. I imagine the type of attention an artist would get at a smaller gallery is much richer and more intimate than at a more established corporation.
Nikki: I would think so. Yeah. But I mean, you can see galleries that have been around forever close because one or two of their artists have been poached. They’re the one or two artists that keep the lights on, and if they go, you have to start from the beginning. But if you have a staff of 15 or whatever, it’s tough. If you asked me how the New York art world has changed, I feel it’s more cutthroat than ever before.
Ioana: Yeah. How does one navigate that?
Nikki: You ride with the punches, and you don’t get attached to any particular outcome.
Ioana: Sounds very Buddhist of you.
Nikki: Yeah. I’ve been learning that lately.
Ioana: Dive in a bit deeper. As you know, we’re studying vulnerability and what it takes to push ourselves and embrace some things that might be uncomfortable and hard.
Nikki: Yeah. It depends on the situation. But you find the opportunity. You may not do this immediately, it might take you a couple of days or weeks to lick your wounds, but then you ask, “Where’s the opportunity in this?” And sometimes down the track, you look back, and something awful that happened turns out to be okay.
Find the opportunity and learn from it. Don’t make the same mistake twice, that’s key. The ups and downs of my career are huge. But when I look back, things turned out how they had to turn out.
Ioana: What gives you the fuel to be so optimistic?
Nikki: Just don’t stop. Don’t let yourself be swallowed up in how things should have worked out, but didn’t.
Ioana: I love that so much.
Nikki: Don’t give people the satisfaction. I mean, the best revenge is doing good. Allow yourself a moment to feel your feelings, but you can’t let it weigh you down. The world is so big. There are so many more opportunities.
Ioana: It sounds like you are operating and thinking from a place of plenty.
Nikki: There are more opportunities out there. I guess that I am a bit spoiled in the city where I live because there are a ton of possibilities here. So that also does have a factor in it. But yeah, there’s so much more out there. So sometimes with roadblocks, you just don’t get caught up in what could have been.
Ioana: Do you think this applies to artists who have approached this gallery but haven’t been able to work with you?
Nikki: Absolutely. People I’ve interviewed for particular jobs and then it hasn’t happened, there is a place for them somewhere. But it’s tough, you gotta, you know, pull your socks up.
Ioana: Pull your socks up?
Nikki: Get on with it!
Ioana: Oh, man. Yeah. Talk to me about Instagram.
Nikki: There is a place for it. It’s cool that I can hashtag an artist and see what they’re doing or where they’re showing, or if there’s a museum in Rio that I can’t get to I can go on their page and see install shots or look up their location and see what people are taking pics of. That’s cool.
Ioana: Yeah, that’s sweet. Have you discovered talent through Instagram?
Nikki: No. I hear stories, but it has never happened to me personally. I’m open to it.
On the downside, Instagram is quick gratification. Attention spans are short. It focuses on how many followers you have, which, as we all know, doesn’t mean anything. But I think in that aspect, the cream always rises to the top. So if you’re an artist and you’re hard-working, and you believe in what you do, and you’re speaking your truth, you’ll eventually get there.
And that’s the great thing about being in this industry for 20 years. Now I’m seeing artists or people I used to work with or didn’t work with from 10-15 years ago. Some were the shit back then, and where are they now? And the other ones who were grinding and putting in the work, they’re getting recognition, or they’re successful, and they’re happy.
Put in the work. If you believe in it, you will, and the cream rises to the top. I truly believe that.
Ioana: Louder for the people in the back!
Nikki: I couldn’t have said that ten years ago.
Ioana: Because you didn’t have the context. Now you have the 20/20 hindsight.
Nikki: I’m sure I’ll be seeing it more and more the older I get. It’s true — quality matters. And passion and interest and drive and hard work matters.
Ioana: It’s digging deep.
Nikki: It’s digging deep. Even when we get these roadblocks and we don’t want to dig deep.
Ioana: There’s a difference between being introspective, asking yourself the tough questions, showing up every day, and “hustling.” There’s a mindfulness aspect.
Nikki: Is key. 90% of it is showing up.
Ioana: Ben Tyree has come on the podcast and talked about the same thing. How you could be creative, and of course, you don’t start out being great at what you do. But how would you ever know how far your potential can reach if you don’t show up every day.
Nikki: Absolutely. And showing up can be hard. I think going back to Instagram and instant gratification, I think these days, we might expect to be successful all the time because that’s what it looks like people do. We know that’s bullshit, and showing up every day is critical.
Ioana: Do you talk about that with budding artists who approach you about representation, and you’re not quite ready to embark on a relationship with them?
Nikki: Of course. And I would give them other avenues. So if I think their work would fit in another gallery or artists run space, I never promise anything, but I can make an introduction. The community is big. I’m happy to put that together. Whether or not it works is another matter.
Ioana: That’s amazing.
I think art can be finicky because people are very subjective; it’s not measurable, necessarily. It’s not like when you go to the dentist and have your cavity filled with 100% success.
Nikki: True. And sometimes, we forget that artists put their soul out on a canvas or in a sculpture. We’re not just talking about teeth. So this body of work could be representative of some dark times they were going through three years ago, and they’re now getting the guts to say, this is it.
I see that a lot with artists. They work on a show for five years. Then it brings up a lot of memories, and then all of a sudden, it’s up hanging in a gallery space.
Ioana: What does that feel like for you?
Nikki: I think that’s a question for the artist. I’m very conscious of it, but I cannot even begin to know what they’re going through. If anything, I think some artists get very detached. There’s a process represented artists go through where they eventually know that personal pieces are going to be out there.
Ioana: It’s a vulnerable space for them.
Nikki: It can be. Some, I’m sure are empowered. Some don’t want to see the work ever again, and others don’t want it for sale. It depends on the person.
Ioana: How did you cultivate this hyper-awareness? Not everybody has it.
Nikki: Yeah, I’m into that. I’ve worked with enough artists over time, and it’s always exciting for me leading up to a show. So I often wonder if I’m feeling this good nervous energy, what is the artist feeling?
Ioana: Do you have those conversations with the artists?
Nikki: Sometimes. Most of the time, they’re happy. There’s a relief. But people are different. Some will come late. Some won’t show up to their openings, some will hide in the backroom, whereas others will Instagram the shit out of it.
Ioana: And it’s all good.
Nikki: It’s all good. We all cope differently.
Ioana: And it’s about human connection. Your ability to be open and read someone’s vibe is what helps you do a great job as a gallery manager.
Nikki: Yeah. The vibe reading is key, especially with staff as well. You should bring it to all the different levels. You have to be aware.
Ioana: What artwork do you see out there that you’re psyched about?
Nikki: I enjoyed Jess Johnson’s show at Jack Hanley Gallery last week. She’s a New Zealand artist. Her attention to detail is second to none. She’s also incorporated tapestries that she’s done with her mother and some virtual reality videos.
Ioana: Tapestries and virtual reality video. Holy cow, she runs the gamut!
Nikki: I enjoyed that. After summer, in the first week of fall, it’s an exciting time to be in New York City. Galleries are opening up. It’s like the September issue, that fall show.
Ioana: What shows do you have coming up?
Nikki: We currently have Franz Erhard Walther, he’s up until October 26, and then we have Mel Bochner to see us out through the year, which is going to be great. And then we have Fiona Tan for January, February video installations, which is what we’re working on now and trying to figure out logistically how we do that — blocking out light, projectors, all that type of stuff.
Ioana: How do you figure out how to best showcase her work?
Nikki: Yeah, ask me in like… hahaha!
Ioana: I love that! You’ll figure it out even though there are no answers now.
Nikki: We have a rough sketch from the artist showing where she wants things to go. The team is researching projectors and stuff.
Ioana: It’s going to be great.
Nikki: Oh, I know this for a fact. It’s going to be great. There’ll be some ups and downs, but we’ll open on time.
Ioana: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want to talk through?
Nikki: The New York art scene. If you say that to people, even if you come into this gallery space, you can feel a bit intimidated. Don’t take it all too seriously. The work is serious at times, but it’s here to be seen. So don’t get caught up in his feeling that “it’s not for me.”
Ioana: I think it’s the hardcore New York narrative. Then you come in here, and it’s the tall ceilings and the columns and the echos that you hear on the space. I can see how this space can feel beyond anything anybody can embody.
Nikki: Right. Let that go, man. Let that go. You will learn something about this guy who’s showing his work, and something might resonate. Don’t let the discomfort stop you. Ask questions, or not. Explore, read.
Ioana: I see it as a shift in perspective, from feeling like an outsider coming in to spectate, to feeling like an integral part of the culture.
Nikki: You don’t have to like it as well. If you can come in and you see a show, and you don’t like it, okay, cool. That’s good.
Ioana: You reacted to something new.
Nikki: And we’re not all breathing down your neck, or not going to talk to you if you don’t buy anything either. Let go of those stereotypes about the art world. There’s warmth there, and there’s an energy there. Truly passionate people will speak with you about what’s going on, or the show, or the artist.
Ioana: What comes to mind as you’re saying all this is all the art fairs.
Ioana: You worked for Art Basel and Affordable Art Fair. You managed and built exhibition after exhibition. The mindset you’re talking about reminds me of that because the art fair vibe is so much looser. There’s a lot of buzz, a lot of foot traffic, so things in a way are much more accessible.
Nikki: Yeah. Working for Art Basel was incredible. We put amazing shows together and to see how they handle the volume of people in an area with some of the most expensive artworks on the planet is extraordinary.
The art fair gives you space to be exposed to a lot, sometimes a bit too much. It can get very overwhelming, and then art fair fatigue can set in, and you don’t know where you are.
But art fairs are important. I mean, everyone will always poo poo them.
Ioana: Because it’s a lot of work.
Nikki: Yeah, it’s a lot of work. I find that more now working on the other side, then I did working for an art fair company. We’re in the midst of trying to figure out Art Basel Miami and all the logistics that go with that. It’s a lot of work for galleries that have small teams.
It will be great. We’ll put a booth together and open on time; I know that for a fact. It’s just the bumps, the ups, and downs.
Ioana: Well, you’re surfing them beautifully.
Nikki: It’s all about the surf, man. It’s the Australian in me. I’m like, “You got this.” And when you don’t, feel like you do.
Ioana: Do it anyway.
Nikki: Do it anyway. Take a risk. Fortune favors the bold. I always go back to that saying. And don’t get attached to specific outcomes.
Ioana: Good stuff. Thank you so much for doing this. It was a pleasure.
Nikki: It was fun. Thank you for coming here. I had a lovely time.