In this informative Q&A, Harriet White interviews Joel Sager about his vision for the gallery.
As any artist envisions his next artwork, Painter and future PS: Gallery Owner, Joel Sager, reveals his vision to improve upon his good friends’ celebrated gallery and bring it into a new era.
There is often a misunderstanding that artists aren’t good business people. They are typically seen as romantics, who create artwork without consideration to the business of their craft. Yet, painter and PS: Gallery curator Joel Sager defies that stereotype. Having been a curator and permanent artist with the gallery since its inception, Sager is the natural successor. With this next step, Sager will use his artistic perspective and PS: experience to freshly build upon Jennifer Perlow and Chris Stevens’ foundation, living up to their celebrated legacy as arts advocates in Columbia. In this Q&A, Sager discusses his past involvement with the gallery and his new business plans while demonstrating just how business savvy an artist can be.
What has been your involvement with PS: Gallery?
Joel Sager: I first met Jennifer Perlow in 2003. Jennifer asked if I would be willing to have her represent me. I said sure. She sold three paintings in a week, and asked me to keep bringing more work due to the positive response. I kept bringing more work, and it kept selling well. Over the years, we developed a close friendship and a great business relationship.
Within a short time, she discussed with me opening a gallery, and she wanted to know if I’d be willing to be the curator. I helped open Poppy Fine Art as the associate curator, and Jennifer was the owner. It was a side project to test the waters to see how the public would react, and they reacted positively.
Over the course of the next year, Jennifer decided to dissolve her partnership with the other owner of Poppy Fine Art, and she opened up independently Perlow-Stevens Gallery with her husband in 2006. I also helped found PS: Gallery and establish that branding and a new voice as a curator. We built relationships over the course of time with 100+ artists that have exhibited with us for the past eight years, and as a permanent artist at the gallery, I personally continue to create new work to be exhibited.
What was your role in branding PS: Gallery?
JS: Ultimately, everything came down to Jennifer. She was the owner. I respected her opinion, but she hired me because we balanced one another out well. She was more to the right on artwork, and I tended to be more to the left, so we balanced out choosing work that was accessible but still cutting edge. Plus, we were just great friends. We didn’t always agree, but we respected each other, so it showed in how we curated exhibits. We flourished in the fact that we could have differentiating opinions, but at the end of the day come together for these artists on exhibition.
How did you decide to become owner eventually?
JS: I actually said no in the beginning. She offered it to me when she found out about Denver. I’ve seen how hard she works, and it seemed to be a daunting prospect. But I hit the ground running when she made the announcement. I got all my ducks in a row, so when she made it, I wanted to concentrate all of this sentiment like “What can we do to save the gallery?” The community was offering information and money. A week after that announcement, I thought: “This could work. It could not just work, but it could be hugely successful.”
It’s difficult to own a successful gallery. People are realizing what the city be without a commercial gallery. It is cliché, but sometimes you don’t realize what you have till it’s gone. I think people are willing to do a lot to keep it around. I plan on taking all of that sentiment and improving on the foundation that Chris and Jennifer built. My goal is to make it hugely successful in honor of them and in honor of arts in Columbia.
Although you don’t have Jennifer’s business background, what would qualify you to be the owner?
JS: Every successful artist I know is an entrepreneur. You can’t just make beautiful artwork and exist in a vacuum and expect to make a living. You have to be a talented artist, but you also have to be business savvy and be able to utilize those skills to gain exposure and sales.
Essentially, I am running my own business as a painter. I literally have my own LLC, and it is a business to run. I have a business model for my painting, so it is more of how that larger idea of running that business translates into running a gallery. Clearly, there is cross-pollination in it being an arts related field, and I speak the language of artists with regard to various media and techniques. So acting as liaison, I have the strength to speak that arts language.
How is PS: Gallery a cornerstone of the arts community here?
JS: I think it is simply in the fact that it is one of few commercial galleries that exists representing local and regional artists in Columbia. I feel like we are a cornerstone in the sense that we are exposing the public to contemporary art and ideas. It’s not a membership where you pay and come show your artwork. It is not publicly funded. It is privately subsidized, which is difficult to do, but also is something we can offer the community and the cultural arts. It is free to anyone who wants to be exposed to broader ideas about contemporary art.
How do you plan to build upon the foundation of PS: Gallery?
JS: Our long term goal is to get more national recognition. We have been put into larger gallery guides, and I would like to continue to pursue being on the map as a national destination in the Midwest for the arts. We offer something fairly unique in the gallery setting, which is group exhibits of 4-to-6 artists for two or three months. We have a large enough space where we can show a body of work from that many artists. A lot of galleries can’t say that. That’s one of the things we plan to preserve and keep building upon.
I also plan to bring more attention to the gallery not just nationally, but also to the city. Believe it or not, there are Columbians who say: “We have a gallery? I’ve never been before. What’s it like?” All I can do is educate them on who we are and show them we want to make art accessible to everyone. It is free admissions, and if you see something you love, you can buy it. It doesn’t have to be anything cerebral, or art as an investment.
What fresh ideas will you bring to PS: ?
JS: We’re going to maintain the basic infrastructure and business model, but something new we’re going to introduce is sponsored exhibits. We’ll be working in partnership with different entities and corporations in Columbia, and each exhibit will be sponsored by one of these entities. It will help our national reach, as well as our local reach. It will also make things much more sustainable as a commercial gallery. Yet, it’s symbiotic because those corporations will be given artwork in exchange for their sponsorships. They’ll be able to host events at the gallery, and they’ll get a discount off artwork. There will be advantages going both ways. It is a complete change in the business, but it is a simple solution to helping sustain the gallery in a real and permanent way.
What do you see as challenges in the future, and what are your strategies to meet them?
JS: The challenge frankly is having a commercial gallery. You have to sell artwork to pay the bills, but you have to push the envelope enough visually to have integrity. It’s a delicate balancing act. There are obviously ways to overcome that by boosting your sales, but ultimately, my thought for sponsorship was a way to address that. These big corporations get artwork, but they are saying we want to sponsor you, we believe in you, and we are willing to put money behind you. The association is a partnership, and we need them for sustainability.
How will you now acquire new artists?
JS: I’ll continue to do what we’ve already done. We accept submissions from artists, but we’re also continuously scouting for artists we love. Although Jennifer typically traveled west to scout, I tended to travel east. We were going different directions in the country and bringing back artists we were really excited about. We showed each other these artists and told each other why each artist would work well. It’s a dialogue. It’s one of the best parts of the job, and getting to tell an artist they’ll have a show is great.
How does the PS: team work together?
JS: The team – Antoine Matondo, Jonny Pez and Amy Meyer – has all become friends. We all have a say in what’s happening in hanging the shows and accepting artists into exhibits. We all temper one another, and I’m always open to consultation. I’ll use the strength of the staff to help me decide what is artwork that is going to still push the boundaries and make people think more broadly about concepts in contemporary art but also be accessible not just monetarily but also conceptually.
How do you see the community having a role in supporting the sustainability of PS: Gallery?
JS: The community response has already been overwhelming. The great thing about our online campaign is people can help on a small or large level. We have a goal of $40,000 on Indiegogo, and we should be able to reach way beyond that in my opinion. This is a chance for people to help at all different amounts. Some people have limited means, but they appreciate the gallery, and that’s a way for them to say, “Here’s 25 bucks.” If everyone who came to one of our openings, enjoyed wine and all the great conversation and artwork gave $25, we’d be golden.
Is this new ownership an opportunity to give a fresh perspective for PS: Gallery?
JS: It’s absolutely an opportunity. Jennifer and Chris are my good friends, and it isn’t pleasant to see them go, but I know they have amazing opportunities in Denver. But, I have an opportunity now as well. At first, I wanted to put my head in the sand when Jennifer first spoke to me about it. Yet, I look at all the wisdom Jennifer imparted, and all that would be squandered had I declined. I have two sons, so you see your children, and you think about the large existential questions about life: “Who am I?” “Where have I been?” “What have I done?” I feel satisfied about what I’ve done as an artist, but now this is an opportunity to broaden what I am doing, and I see it as an extension of that role. I think being both an artist and gallery owner is going to be an amazingly complementary, two-pronged approach to my life.
How does it feel to take on someone else’s legacy?
JS: It feels like a natural transition. I am not a stranger buying up a gallery. Although I don’t have the sweat equity or the money Jennifer Perlow or Chris Stevens have invested, I was there since its birth, and Jennifer was frankly kind enough to consult me on many decisions. She made me feel like I was a part of it from the very inception. It feels like my own in a lot of ways, so that was a large impetus behind why I changed my mind and am making something happen. She always made me feel like PS: was my baby, too.
Harriet White is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism with an emphasis in magazine reporting. While a student, Harriet was published more than 30 times ranging from short artist profiles to a long-form narrative on refugees in mid-Missouri. With past internships at Procter & Gamble’s Government Relations department in Brussels and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, Harriet is now pursuing a career in foreign affairs, as she will move to Washington D.C. in June 2013 to intern with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Communications department. For more information, please visit: www.harrietewhite.com