NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
Valerie Gay is a multi-talented woman. Val is the executive director of Art Sanctuary, and before that, she worked in institutional advancement at Temple University and as a Vice President at PNC. Val is a trained opera singer and still performs in the area, conducts choirs, and runs financial literacy classes (in all her spare time!). She’s making a huge impact on art in Philadelphia, and I couldn’t be happier to have her as a part of this week’s Curate This.
-Jane Golden, Curator
Giappo has (literally) stuck his face all over the city. Yet the ownership, the relationship between the artist and the city, that these stickers imply may be misleading. As an ex-gallery owner in Philadelphia, a lifelong artist, and long time curator in the city, Giappo has born witness to the flux of interest in Philadelphia’s art scene from the inside and outside. Despite the challenges, Giappo continues to strive for global recognition in a gallery scene that so frequently ushers its saviors to the manger. Curate This chats with the artist about his radical approach to gaining recognition, how clique-y the art world is, and the dire importance of context in showing your art.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
CT: So, you have an interesting method of sharing your work, can you tell me about it?
Giappo: In an attempt to promote my own work, I decided, after years of taking the traditional route—presenting my work nicely in an email, attaching my resume—I needed to take an untraditional approach. I wanted to take the tools that big-name galleries use, and use them against the galleries.
Instead of wasting all my time looking for a gallery that was the right fit for my work, I compiled mass lists of contemporary art galleries, and sent them one mass email blast. Using email marketing programs I am able to track who’s looking at my emails, which of my links they are clicking on, and how many times. These are the same tools that all of the top galleries use to see what clients are looking at what.
Well, the emails were almost like personal emails or form letters to the galleries, which resulted in the most traffic I’ve ever received on my website. But I did get a lot of generic cut-and-paste responses from the galleries too. Stuff like, “Thank you for your interest in the gallery. Unfortunately we are not accepting unsolicited submissions at this time,” blah, blah, blah.
Typically most email blasts will get 15-20% of people opening them, though my gallery list was averaging well over 30%. There was also a large percentage of galleries reopening the email. I had one gallery who opened the email over 100 times. Whether that is one person opening the email, or them forwarding it to other people, there was obviously a lot of interest in the email.
Interest is one thing, but what happened from there? How did the conversation evolve?
Sometimes I’ll go to these galleries and act like I am a person representing Giappo. I went up to Chelsea one day, bounced around some of these galleries in New York, and stopped in the Zach Feuer Gallery, which is a pretty prominent gallery. I mentioned Giappo’s name, and the director asked, “Is that the guy who sent the emails?” I acted dumb, and she was like, “I think Zach posted it to his Instagram.” At that point, I sort of fell out of character because I got a bit excited. (Laughs) These might be seemingly little things to most people, but to me it means that people are talking about it. Whether it is good or bad, to me, is irrelevant. But it also shows you how difficult it is to break the barriers of these circles, because even with a conversation being generated, it is still difficult to break through.
Edward Winkleman, who pretty much wrote the book on how to approach galleries, reposted one of my emails to his Facebook, and wrote: “the best cold call submission email I’ve seen in 15 years,” though I pretty much have gone against everything he’s ever said to do when promoting your work to galleries. Typically his Facebook posts get like 30 likes, this one got around 300, and with a bunch of comments. Some people said, “give that mother-fucker a show, this is genius,” and some people trashed it.
I would be more than happy to create a show with this material, and I think eventually I will. most people would say that I have to establish myself with a particular style first before having shows about these more conceptual ideas.
I had a show at Bottle Bar East, and it was the strangest place to show these Art Forum ad panel pieces I had made. It was way over most peoples’ heads in that setting. No one had any fucking idea what was going on there. The pieces were very art world oriented and very conceptual. A buddy of mine from New York was like, “you can’t show these now. You have to show them ten years from now when you’ve established your name with a particular style, and then you can do whatever you want.” Unfortunately, I guess I’m forced to conform to that. Right now, I’m focusing on a particular series which is a mixture of what I believe to be my recognizably signature styles, in an attempt to create a cohesive body of work that will appeal to galleries. Once I get over the hump of becoming known for a “signature” style, I’ve got material for days. I can easily have a full show, just of Ed Winkleman’s Facebook post, and print out screen shots on canvas. There is so much visual information in these screenshots. I feel it would make a very good show that provides an interesting commentary on social media, the art world, and people’s perceptions of art and artists.
Well, you have definitely got a conversation going. On the other side of that conversation, what do you think keeps a big name gallery, or multiple galleries, from pursuing you?
For one I don’t have an MFA from Yale or Columbia, that’s probably one of the main reasons. Someone isn’t telling them that they NEED to show my work. That’s honestly how this shit works. I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard it. You have to find that person who is willing to give you that break, give you a show, or tell someone they need to show your work. The art world is very clique-y, very gossipy, and they are all followers. They stick with what works.
What would you like to get out of this experience?
I would hope that the ultimate outcome of these experiments would be a gallery taking an interest in my work. I never really saw these emails as my work. I know in hindsight it turns into an entertaining piece, but this really was just a way to grab their attention and make them take a closer look at my work. Ultimately, I would like to be represented by an international art gallery or multiple. I don’t want to stop at one. I obviously aim big, or else I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I get criticized for aiming big sometimes, but that is the way I’ve always been.
I’m currently in my longest-standing relationship. We’ve been together for over three years. He challenges me in my creative career and my general outlook on life and success. However, I’m in a perpetual state of internal conflict. I find myself trying to curate life to meet his improbable standards.
We’re polyamorous, but I’m committed to him. I’m in love, but I am still not certain that it’s mutual. His partners have a sense of entitlement– not only do we feel like we should be able to be creative in any way we want, but we also think we should profit from it. We’re very adept at pretending to know things that we don’t. We think we’re good without much practice, and we claim to be experts just by calling ourselves so. He lends his partners a sort of undeserved elitist mentality. I represent the millennial generation: young, urban dwelling, wanna-be creative from a small white bread town, pretending to know what I’m doing. The secret is finding a way to make yourself irreplaceable, but the fact is that 99% of us are not. It’s not just about working hard; it’s about doing something different, standing out in a huge crowd of people all vying for the same attention.
But, bottom line, this relationship works for me. I like the challenge and I feel like I’m up for it, even when I’m not.
I had a previous relationship that was conventionally great but for some reason it just didn’t feel right. The attraction diminished, the sex got bland, and every conversation got boring and repetitive after a while. We had so many good times, late nights and laughs, but that faded and I knew I needed something more.
Philadelphia, it’s me, not you. That isn’t a line. I’ll always be impossible to satisfy.
When I first graduated from college, I worked briefly as a bartender in Philly. It was around the art museum and Fairmount park, a nicer area of a city that could benefit from a little revival overall. I had some funny regulars and my friends would come in and I’d over pour all their drinks. It was a reckless and carefree time. I shared a loft-like apartment in North Philadelphia with two other aspiring artists, and many other creative people surfed on our couch. The neighborhood was undesirable for most, but we loved it. It was the first time we really felt like adults—which we weren’t. There was something liberating about walking to the corner bar and asking for a six pack through metal bars, slipping our collected worn dollar bills through the crack, and waiting outside of a closed door wondering if the anonymous arm would reach back out with our cheap beer. Sure we had sketchy neighbors, but they were our sketchy neighbors. It was gratifying to be rebelliously independent. Even more so because our parents were horrified by our living conditions, reiterating the fact that we were not adults, but just pretending to be. I broke up with Philadelphia for a few months to travel, but when I got back it was waiting for me and I felt compelled to start pursuing my career in a creative field on a more serious level. At the end of the day, I wanted to be drinking a beer at the bar, not standing behind it.
I excitedly took a job at a screen printing shop a little outside the main city in the spring of that year. I was so bright eyed when I came for the interview that the manager hired me on the spot. He didn’t understand why I wanted the job so much, and put me in my place when I called the warehouse a “studio.” Being that printmaking was one of my concentrations in college, I naively felt like I was on the right track. Ultimately I worked in a warehouse mixing inks, doing inventory, burning screens, and helping out on the presses. It was long hours and very little pay with no AC in the summer and no heat in the winter. The work was physically and mentally draining, but it was work that I liked. It was male dominated, and about 80% of the workers had fled here from Cambodia during the war. I couldn’t really relate to how hard their lives must have been. I grew up in an indistinguishable rural town in New Jersey where nothing ever happened. I’d smoke weed with the guys in their van after work, and have heard some pretty violent stories (which I’m afraid to repeat), but I never felt like I was in danger. We’d make fun of the boss just like any other colleagues. I still think about them sometimes and wonder how they are doing. It must be hard to move up in the world with “crip” tattooed on your neck, but that guy was my favorite; he was always respectful.
Eventually there was an opening to be an apparel designer in the office attached to the warehouse. I initially felt proud of the promotion, but I didn’t have to think much so I got bored early on. I remember staring at the clock a lot, convinced that it was broken. I was only there for about 6 months before I was offered a job in publishing in NYC (which I have since left for similar reasons). Philadelphia and I were in a failing relationship and it was mostly liberating for me to leave, but it was still hard to get in my car and drive away blindly from the place where I had my first taste of freedom. I miss Philly sometimes, it was genuine.
New York, being that it is so romanticized, felt like the right step for me as someone who is endlessly looking for the next best thing. I fell in love with him almost immediately, but I’ve worked tirelessly to gain a minuscule level of acceptance and success here as a creative professional. My story is all too common. The other morning I woke up hungover next to one of NYC’s other partners; this happens to me more than I’d care to admit. There was a picture in his room of him smiling a few years back. “I used to be so much more hopeful” he mumbled in a melancholy tone.
NYC can be manipulative, but it helps knowing I’m far from alone. I work as a designer in social media marketing now, a trendy profession that didn’t even exist a few years ago. I’m not particularly fulfilled, but I have to remain hopeful that it’s putting me on a good trajectory for whatever comes next. I’d like to be able to support myself by giving back someday, contributing to something that actually matters, likely not in NYC.
One thing I have definitely learned is that whether NYC is better than anywhere else is purely subjective, and the definition of success is so variable. It’s imperative that you keep your head up. The most conventionally “successful” people here jump off of the tallest buildings. NYC can certainly give you life, but he can also take away everything if you let him.