(Photo courtesy of Public Access.)

The pandemic has been rough for museums and art galleries. The Met is on the brink of selling masterpieces to keep the lights on, and galleries — small, intimate spaces — are largely empty because of capacity-limiting social distancing guidelines. All of this makes the buzzy start of Leo Fitzpatrick’s new gallery on St. Marks Place, Public Access, twice as exciting.

If you squint, Fitzpatrick — just over 40, with a graying, mid-length beard and lanky frame — still resembles Telly, the teenage terror he played in Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids. The role launched Fitzpatrick’s acting career, which has included appearances in another Clark film, Bully, and acclaimed shows The Wire and Broad City. At the same time, he’s gradually established himself as a subversive force in New York City’s art world. His first gallery, Home Alone, refused to sell any of the artwork on display, removing money from the equation so that artists could create without the psychic constraints of commercial pressure. Later, his tenure as a director at the lauded Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea was defined by inventive and boundary-pushing curation. 

Fitzpatrick lives in the East Village with his wife, creative director Chrissie Miller, and their young son Otis, in an apartment several blocks from Public Access. The gallery itself is small and unassuming, several steps below street level, between Second and Third Avenues. The current show — which closes later this month — features collages by underground zine maker Weirdo Dave. 

(Photo courtesy of Public Access.)

How did your relationship with art begin?

I grew up a skateboard kid, and when you’re a skateboarder you tend to look at the world a little differently, like, how can I manipulate this thing to make it skateable? So you’re looking at the world through a different lens. Then when I was 14 I met Larry Clark, and for somebody who didn’t know anything about art, meeting Larry was a strange and great introduction to it because he’s sort of an outlaw. He’s like the opposite of the pretentious artist type. 

What was the scene like in New York back then?

The feeling at the time was that you needed to contribute in some way. You couldn’t just be like somebody who hangs out, you have to make a zine or start a band or do something to justify living in New York. 

How did that lead to your first gallery, Home Alone?

I was hanging out with the artists Dan Colen and Nate Lowman — who shared a studio together — and Hanna Liden. Me, Nate and Hanna decided to do Home Alone. The reason it was called Home Alone was because it was just a storefront window, down on Franklin Street, and the art was just in there. There was no person in there, so the work was “home alone.” The art was never for sale, so we let artists do whatever the hell they wanted. After about five years or something it was getting more successful and it definitely started to feel like a job, and so we sort of quit while we were ahead. 

You were a director at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea until last year. How did that end?

When COVID hit, Marlborough let go of a lot of people. They weren’t the only gallery, tons of galleries let a lot of people go. You have to remember this is when people thought things were only going to get messed up for maybe three months, so it was interesting to see all these major galleries kind of say, Oh, we can’t afford to hold you or keep you on salary. I was smart enough to get a consulting job a year before, so the only thing that hurt was that my health insurance was connected to Marlborough. 

How did your takeover of Public Access come about?

I guess I was sitting around frustrated like everybody else, looking at my phone too much. Then on the day I got laid off I called Nate, my old partner from Home Alone. I was like, Hey, let’s do another gallery. I looked to him for advice, but I’m the person who ultimately made the decision.

I was looking in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, which has a really great gallery scene, but didn’t really fall in love with anything. I thought foot traffic would be great, but other than that there was really no incentive to be down there, and then I found this space. I don’t think there was ever a discussion — I was like, alright, let’s fucking do it. And the amazing thing is that being on St. Marks is actually dictating the type of art to show.  

What’s special about being on St. Marks?

It’s like being on an island. There’s no outside influence and I’m not comparing myself to anybody. I see a need for something like this for younger people, because they are so hungry to do anything. I see young kids in here who don’t know each other, becoming friends talking about, Hey, I’m a photographer, Hey, I make videos, and they’re showing each other their art. And it’s kind of cool to be able to have a place to nurture that. It’s weird because when I was growing up there were galleries that had those communities, but I feel like the price of rent has really driven everything into a more business-oriented model and it affects the thing from the top to the bottom. I see it in other cities, galleries that are willing to take chances, but I don’t see it so much in New York City. Everybody’s playing it very safe and following trends.

What does that mean for how you plan to run the gallery? 

It’s like that expression “drive it like you stole it.” It’s all about having fun. I think of the gallery like making a mixtape, like, you gotta listen to one song, figure out what the next song should be, and how it works in the rotation. And hopefully you have a big knowledge of music. 

How have you picked the artists you’ve shown so far?

It’s been like building a weird skateboard team or sports team. I want the guys who turn a basketball game into a dodgeball game. Like, when one of my artists walk into a room, I want people to be nervous. So my plan was for the first year not to work with any established artists that are already showing in the art world or have galleries, which is harder than you’d think, to find these artists who are kind of on the fringe.

What about the current show? I saw that Weirdo Dave keeps coming in and changing things up. It seems a bit unorthodox.

Dave makes this zine called Fuck This Life, so Weirdo Dave and Fuck This Life are kind of interchangeable. He finds all these images out in the world and he cuts them all out with an X-Acto knife. I don’t think he even uses a ruler. He just kind of lays it out. I know the discipline that goes into his art, and it’s not easy. When I refer to sports teams, he’s like my star batter. This was a no-brainer show for me.

How has it been organizing shows during a pandemic?

Logistically, it’s been a fucking nightmare. But the good thing about art galleries is that they’re never that crowded. It’s not like I’m showing the Mona Lisa. So it’s manageable. We do have people make appointments, and that actually helps a lot, but if one or two people walked in from the street we wouldn’t turn them away.

Are you looking forward to spring?

I think next spring and next summer is going to be really exciting, and to already be on the ground running when things pop off is going to be fantastic. All this is kind of like a rehearsal or something.