“People are going to come and say: ‘How does this place stay in business?'” Brian Shevlin, the founder of Con Artist Collective said, talking a mile a minute and gesturing around Lazy Susan, the new itsy-bitsy gallery at 191 Henry Street still in the midst of a “mini facelift.” But that doesn’t bother Shevlin– maybe it won’t manage to stay “in business” in the traditional sense, but he hopes it’ll succeed as a rag-tag, largely artist-run project space that’ll surprise and delight in a way more bottom-line driven galleries don’t.
“We thought: wouldn’t it be awesome if Con Artist Collective could have a space that we could just sort of have the keys to and give it to an artist and say: do whatever the hell you want, you’ve got this many days?” Shevlin said. “It doesn’t matter what they do. They make money or they don’t make money. They sit in the room or they don’t open at all. It doesn’t really matter, it’s your space.”
With the gallery scene getting chased out of Chelsea by overpriced rents (and the stagnant scene), the neighborhood to Lazy Susan’s north may be roiling into a big frothy art-world bubble right now (Artsy just ratified what many have long known: “New York’s Most Important Art District is Now the Lower East Side“). Big names and blue chip artists are perking up to the possibilities of the so-called “gritty” LES, prepared to throw around a lot more money.
So Lazy Susan, barely a sliver of a gallery space on the fringes of the scene with with no real monetization model, might seem like a fool’s errand–an expensive shot into the giant paint pool destined to fade once the rents bump up and the budget-squeeze rubber hits the road. But Shevlin’s Ludlow Street-based Con Artist Collective, a sort of rallying space for the underdog in the increasingly exclusive Manhattan scene, isn’t exactly a new kid on the block. Over six years it’s grown to a formidable 600-member network with an accessible $50-a-year membership model.
The inspiration for Lazy Susan– which is technically a separate venture from Con Artist, even if it has many ties– was born out of the short-lived City Bird Gallery, run out of the same space last year by Sarah Wang and Shaina Yang, two Con Artist friends. “Me and some of the other members of the collective kept going to their events and going, ‘Man, I love artist run spaces,” Shevlin said. “The events just felt so fun and full of life. You know, you can tell when it’s an artists-run thing it’s just for the love of what they’re doing.”
But a year later, City Bird was gone, unable to figure out how to turn the cool space and absurdist events into actual $$. So what makes Shevlin think he stands a chance in the very same space? Apparently, it comes down to opportunity cost and appetite for risk.
Once he and another Con Artist Collective member, Michael Sharp (also the curator of Wasted Spaces), looked at the budget and operation costs of City Bird, they realized that spreading costs between a small team could make the dream of a flexible artist-run gallery more palatable in the high-rent area. “It’s the reality of: we can afford to lose this much on a space,” he said. “That’s the worst case scenario, we lose all the money, every month, and we can still afford that.” The other two backers are Steve Rivera, director of Novella Gallery and Jill Connor of Artists Studios.
Of course, the curators don’t want to lose money–and they aren’t against any number of ways for their artists to try to monetize the space, from selling out a gallery show, to discovering that star, money-making artist, even to Instagram sponsorship or some other commerical involvement.
“At the end of the day, we really do want to sell every piece in every show, because the artist pretty much pockets a huge amount of that money and if we can create a space that has a reason, has a clientele interested in buying the stuff that’s there, that doesn’t fight the idea of the space,” Shevlin explained. “But it isn’t tantamount or the most important thing. That isn’t why this space exists. If this space never makes one penny in its entire life, it theoretically can still continue, because that’s not its monetization.” He hopes this will funnel down to the artists who present in the space–maybe they get four other artists together and each pitch in $100 to do something fun and outside the box.
Shevlin likened it to a non-profit or benefactor situation with grant money allowing a gallery to exist independent of the market. But instead of a non-profit, Con Artist uses some of its revenue to fund its share of the costs and the price is low enough the other three members can afford it too. In theory, if one of the members can no longer afford to be a part of Lazy Susan, they can bow out and nominate someone new to take their place.
But how do the artists who want to use the gallery get chosen–and if you’ve got a cool idea, what can you do to snag a week or even a month in the space?
As of now, there’s no formal application process. Basically, if you want in you should cozy up to one of the four business partners/curators–from public-network Shevlin, to under-represented artist supporter Rivera. Shevlin said the four drew their weeks out of a hat and spent some time horse-trading to bulk up a few month-long periods (though every once in a while there’s a week sandwiched in between three-week exhibits). There are no rules for whoever ends up presenting at the gallery or what they do in the space–it could be anything from a group exhibition to a performance to a studio space for themselves. Shevlin said he could even just choose to use all his weeks to show his own work if he wanted to. It’s all part of the “lazy susan” aspect, a continual rotation between curators, artists and influences in the space.
Lazy Susan had a run of small warm-up exhibits and little collaborations over the winter, but this Sunday at 7 p.m. it’ll open with Rivera’s pick, “ad hoc ad hominem” by sculptor Scott Penkava. The exhibit, a look at studio practice and cycles of technology, includes a laptop sculpture made of old VCRs and a large work table covered in artworks, tools and other studio riff-raff that slowly tilts itself up and then comes back down to rest all by itself. (And Penkava let drop there’ll be a surprise from the trashcan.)
If you really want to know what’s happening at this under-the-radar gem, your best bet is probably to stay tuned to Instagram or just drop by.
Lazy Susan, 191 Henry Street, b/t Clinton and Jefferson. Open Thursday-Sunday 1-6