Dennis Christie, Hustler of Art, 32, New York, NY
There’s nothing like a college environment to give you a glimpse of what someone might become as they begin to explore their future in earnest. I have few friends who have stayed on one track their whole career. And Dennis does it with crazy humor and chutzpah. With endless knowledge about the formidable world of art, Dennis makes museum visits painless, fun, and educational. I caught up with him about the opening of his new contemporary art gallery.
How many careers have you had? What is your current title?
One. Partner & Director of DCKT Contemporary, Inc.
What project will you be working on next?
Upcoming shows here and art related travel:
May 7 - June 18: Mario M. Muller: Heaven or Las Vegas @ DCKT
early June weeklong trip to Los Angeles & San Francisco for studio visits, gallery & museum visits, artist openings
June 24 - August 12: In My Empire Life is Sweet: Rosana Castrillo Diaz, Augusto Di Stefano, Dan Steinhilber (curated by Tyler Green) @ DCKT
late June/july trip to New Mexico (to go to The Lightning Field) , LA, and Japan (hopefully)
Your house is burning down. What one possession (aside from human/animal life) would you grab on the way out?
As much of my art collection as possible.
When and how did we meet?
Boston University, 1992. We met as a result of my friendships with your suitemates in your dorm room. I don't remember the exact first time we met but I have visions of you in coxswain gear.
What is your first memory that you can recall regarding the world of commercial art?
“Commercial art” is a loaded term that I don’t really identify with. To me, commercial art is poster shops and the tacky “galleries” that cater to tourists. Pretty much what is left these days in Soho storefronts, for instance.
My very first experiences of going to real art galleries in New York was right after I moved here in 1994. The two visits that really stand out are seeing a Nam June Paik show at Holly Solomon and a Roy Lichtenstein show at Leo Castelli, both in Soho back then. I remember that Holly Solomon was talking to a big group of people about the show and the gallery. I was really star-struck as I had read about her and seen reproductions of her Warhol portrait, etc. Now I know how routine that sort of thing is and how annoying those tour groups of Scarsdale housewives are.
When did you know you wanted to work in this field?
Between my sophomore and junior years of college when I took a Modern Art course during a summer session. I was an Archaeology major at the time and was freaking out because one of the degree requirements was to spend a semester on a dig. All the options were out in the middle of nowhere and I was only interested in being in a city and staying in a hotel with my own bathroom. I hate camping and all that nature shit if I have to be in it for longer than a day. So this roughing it on a dig thing was just not going to happen. The Modern Art course really opened my eyes and I quickly switched my major to Art History. From there it was a few years of trying to figure out what to do with the degree I was working towards and earned. I was really naïve and thought I would get an assistant job in a curatorial department at a museum somewhere. No way, not without an MA. So then I thought I would go back to school and worked towards that half-heartedly. All the while, I was educating myself as best I could by reading Artforum and Art in America cover-to-cover every month because there were no Contemporary Art courses offered.
How did you get your break in the highly competitive Manhattan art world?
For assorted reasons, I moved from New York City to Savannah, GA, in 1995. I got restless there pretty quickly and decided that I had to move back to NYC. I knew I needed something to move FOR rather than just moving FROM one place to another. I planned a trip to New York City to find an apartment and something to do. I opened up an issue of Art in America and went through the full-page ads. I didn’t know but a few New York City gallery names and not so many of the artists either. I was basically looking at the images and making decisions on whom to contact that way. I made a list and started faxing, offering myself as an unpaid intern. I scheduled about five interviews, came to New York City, found an apartment, and landed an internship with Charles Cowles Gallery. I didn’t even meet Charlie at that time but I really liked the show they had up (Darren Waterston), the staff, and the fact that the gallery was the entire top floor in the legendary 420 West Broadway building in Soho.
Tell me about your history at the venerable Charles Cowles Gallery.
My first day as an intern was in early April 1996. The building was having the roof redone and there was a torrential downpour - water was literally pouring through the ceiling of the gallery. The staff was freaking out trying to deal with it and told me to sit in the corner. I sat there saying to myself “I hope every day is not this intense.” Amazingly, not a single work of art in the gallery or storeroom was damaged. I took that as a good sign. So I interned through the summer and then there were some staff changes. Charlie was going to have to hire someone full-time so I went to him and said, “Hire me. I can do this. I want this.” That is the moment that I really learned that if you don’t speak up for yourself then you’re not going to get what you want out of life. That August signaled my official start in the art world – I was salaried, got benefits, and assumed the title of Assistant Director. I was still learning – every day – and stuck with the Gallery through two location changes. We ended up on 24th Street in Chelsea in January 2001. That Fall I was named Director.
What made you want to open DCKT Contemporary?
Ken Tyburski, now my partner in DCKT, and I became friends and he said he wanted to open a gallery. That was in late spring 2001. We started talking about it with someone who we thought would make a good third partner. Then 9/11 happened and it wasn’t exactly the best time to try to start something up. The third person decided to go his own way. So it went on the backburner until early summer 2002 when Ken approached me again. I was ready to do it but couldn’t figure out how to leave my job and start anew with no money in the bank. I had told Charlie Cowles that I wanted to do something new and when it came down to it I asked him if I could start it under his roof while I still worked for him full-time. He wanted to keep me around and said yes.
Which artist’s body of work recently made an impression on you?
Ken saw Tom Gallant’s work and met him last fall in London. Ken came back and told me about these amazing cut paper and origami sculptural installations made from porn magazine pages. I rolled my eyes but decided to humor Ken so we included Tom in a group show a couple months ago. Once I saw some pieces in person and met the artist I knew it was the real deal. The work is incredible and got a great response. We’ve scheduled a solo show for spring.
Do you have a favorite medium for art (i.e. sculptures, paintings, photography, etc.)?
No, although in my own gallery we tend to work more with painting & works on paper. It probably has to do with the logistics of moving, shipping, hanging and that they seem easier for me to sell.
What is your favorite city for work and pleasure?
Paris. It’s got it all. I don’t speak French yet still feel tres comfortable there.
So I suppose all those years of French class didn’t stick, huh?! What are your favorite museums to visit worldwide?
Whenever I travel I always visit as many museums and galleries as I can. I always love going to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, starting with lunch at Georges on the top floor and then working my way down through the museum. They always have amazing shows.
One of my favorite museum experiences ever was last summer when I went to Marfa, TX to visit the Chinati Foundation.
It’s 9 PM on a Thursday, what would you be doing most likely and where?
If I can manage to get out of work obligations then I would prefer be home watching Netflix DVDs or at a bar with friends.
What advice could you give to an aspiring gallery owner?
The same that every gallery owner told me: “Don’t do it!” Little did they know that it just made me want to do it even more.
The most important thing is to have a good eye, get as much experience as you can, build and continue to build your knowledge and develop relationships within the art world. Money is helpful too.
Have you ever bought any art on eBay?
I haven’t, but I used to search for works by artists that Cowles Gallery represented and others. It was always surprising to see what would turn up. Mostly crap! But there occasionally is something of interest. I know of a major New York City gallery that has bought minor works by their artists from eBay and resold them for huge profits.
What do you think of online auctions? Is it just a sign of the times?
Online art auctions were suddenly everywhere toward the tail end of the e-commerce explosion and then disappeared just as quickly when that all collapsed. It was crazy – Sotheby’s spent who knows how many tens of millions of dollars on their project and it never caught on like it should have. It was all too much too soon I think.
What I really like now is that the auction houses got smart and put their sales catalogues online. Of course, it doesn’t and shouldn’t take the place of seeing the real work in person but it does save me a lot of time and money.
What art websites do you regularly check out?
What do you like to do that is not art related?
I’m always listening to music and reading, usually simultaneously. My favorite place for this is laying on my sofa.
I love to travel but that is almost always art related (except when I head down to FL, where I’m originally from).
I like to smoke and drink.