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Transcript: The Road Less Travelled with Joel Mesler

Guest Joel Mesler with host Charlotte Burns. Photo credit: Harrison Epstein

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to “In Other Words”. I’m your host Charlotte Burns, senior editor at Art Agency, Partners. Usually on these podcasts, we pick a topic, and we have several guests who join us to discuss it. Every now and then, we’ll have a regular feature in which we do a one-on-one interview with a person that we believe has taken an unusual approach to making their way in the art world.

We first turn our attention to Joel Mesler, who has travelled a long way from his days in LA where he was an art dealer—perhaps may have committed a few petty crimes—to New York where he successfully opened a gallery and was heralded one of the major dealers in emerging art in the Lower East Side, and now as a family man who is picking back up his art making habits as well as art dealing in the Hamptons, of all places. Just in time for the summer.

I thought we’d have a conversation beginning with your recent change of gallery. The one thing you’ve done throughout your career is seek to reinvent yourself, and you’ve always been playing with the gallery model.

Joel Mesler: Yes, I agree. That is the case. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it’s one of those things that maybe it happened not by choice, but rather survival or circumstance. We all like to think everything we do is unique and original and cutting-edge, but sometimes it is just literally trying to survive and figure out life. If you have the chance to think slightly out of the box, then hopefully good things happen. And different things happen.

Charlotte Burns: You wrote recently: “The art market has always moved in cycles but this time around it seemed different. There was talk of a bubble, and the market for mid-tier galleries like mine began to suffer, most often because of skyrocketing rent. Because of my growing parental responsibilities, I for the first time couldn’t sleep in the gallery. I needed bedrooms, and lots of them. So, what does a mid-tier gallerist like me do?” This idea of the middle market being squeezed is something that I wanted to talk to you specifically about. What does a mid-tier gallery like you do? When you talk about changes, what do you mean?

Joel Mesler: There are many factors at play. I’m talking specifically about Manhattan right now because there’s a whole different set of circumstances and issue if you’re talking about Los Angeles or San Francisco, or Chicago or even cities in Europe. So Manhattan specifically, I think, had seen such a rise in real estate prices. And there’s such a struggle for space at every point that dealers are suffering the same kind of real estate scrunching that the rest of the city is.

Right now there’s no center for the galleries. When I started, the Lower East Side was kind of a fringe area. Galleries could go there and put an open sign on and start doing exhibitions. Even the Lower East Side now—the real estate is so established that either a gallery needs help with funding to perpetuate their gallery, or like me, early on, they didn’t care about anything and didn’t have really any responsibilities, or cleanliness habits and could sleep in their gallery, maybe shower at the Y. Those galleries are still popping up all over, God bless them because they have no needs. But as soon as you actually do need to have money on some level, the game changes for you. And so the question is: where do you go and how do you keep the doors open now?

Charlotte Burns: And also how do you maintain your artists? In the early days, you just showed people from your graduating class.

Joel Mesler: Right.

Charlotte Burns: Some of whom have gone on to be really established, successful artists.

Joel Mesler: Right.

Charlotte Burns: So as you grow, you risk losing them.

Joel Mesler: Right. And I think this is another struggle for the mid-tier galleries. A perfect example right now is Henry Taylor at the Whitney Biennial. I cannot tell you how my phone and emails have been ringing from collectors that I have been offering work to for like seven, eight years. Even one of the paintings that’s in the Biennial right now is actually one that I offered and I couldn’t place because of the size. Now, you know, anybody would take that painting.

Charlotte Burns: But also he just made a record for that. The Terri Philips sold at Christie’s for £149,000.

Joel Mesler: I think his work and his narrative are very timely right now. Here’s an artist that had been struggling making work, living out of his car, working his full-time job at a home for autistic men. And slowly getting some recognition and some cash in his pocket.

He’s always kind of having a moment. You know, there’s the PS1 MoMA show, but that didn’t really change the market the way I think that the recent sale and the Whitney Biennial is clearly going to change the market. The work is timely, it’s honest, it’s sincere. He’s an older artist with an established pedigree. So, everybody knows he’s not a one-trick pony. So he’s kind of the perfect artist right now—and price point—that collectors can get behind, curators could get behind.

Charlotte Burns: And you met Henry…

Joel Mesler: Outside of his studio in Chinatown. Chinatown in LA in that period of time—there’s like a two block radius—it was like an adult playground. It was essentially run by Chinese and mahjong parlors, and so the LAPD never would go into Chinatown because they had their own laws and rules. And so if, as a local round-eye, you could kind of ingratiate yourself into that community, you are “protected” in that area.

And so, people like myself and Henry who lived and worked in this area, you know, we would drink beers outside and do things that you wouldn’t do, let’s say, in West Hollywood without any repercussions. And so I met Henry, walking by his studio. He was grilling and offered me a hotdog or a hamburger and a Budweiser. And so, realizing that he was this cool, weird character with paintings in a studio, I obliged. That’s where, you know, the romance began.

Charlotte Burns: And he’s a prolific artist as well. So, what’s the situation now with Henry? He’s at this moment in his career where, if you’re his gallerist, that’s the moment that you typically need.

Joel Mesler: Hence we are at the mid-tier gallery situation. I mean, this is kind of the crux of it. I think it was four years ago or five years ago, Tim and Jeff from Blum & Poe decided to do an exhibition with Henry. They were incredible to work with. It seemed like the perfect situation for Henry at the time to have gallery like Blum & Poe behind him and putting their support and their resources behind him.

That show—it was a huge success commercially and critically for Henry, for the gallery, for everybody involved. And so when the PS1 show was happening, they came onboard and they acted as a supporting gallery with myself to support Henry through that.

Charlotte Burns: You mean financially?

Joel Mesler: Financially, spiritually, emotionally, staff-wise, you know? And pretty much anything that the museum or Henry needed, the two galleries were there to support. Fast forward to our current state of affairs—his market being what it is—Blum & Poe has a much more rigorous infrastructure let’s say than I do as a mid-tier dealer, right?

So, this is what happens when mid-tier galleries are successful and actually achieve what they’ve been fighting for, when they actually accomplish all these goals that they’ve set forth for themselves and with their artist. If they are successful, they end up not cashing in financially off of the success unless you squirrel some nuts away for yourself here and there.

Charlotte Burns: But galleries like Blum & Poe started somewhere. So how do they get from nowhere to somewhere? Normally wouldn’t you do that when your artist becomes successful? Do you have to hand over that success?

Joel Mesler: Well that model—the gallery model where you continue to expand until you are eventually Larry Gagosian—is of a certain generation of dealers. I bet you if you ask any of these galleries: “Are you going to be David Zwirner in a couple years? Is that what you’re working on and shooting for?” They, I could almost guarantee you they would say no.

David Zwirner worked to be David Zwirner and he was of a certain generation that could achieve that kind of situation. I feel like we’re in a different time. I’m not sure if that trajectory is now a feasible model anymore. Loyalty—and not even saying it’s a negative or a positive thing—but loyalty doesn’t operate in that same way.

I don’t think that that model—if you are dreaming and hoping for that model or to participate in that type of journey, I think you really need to lower your expectations.

Charlotte Burns: Is that to do with capital? Or the art world becoming more professional? Is it to do with broader economic situations? It does parallel the broader economics that we’ve seen since the recession where a greater degree of wealth has gone to the very small amount of people at the top and the middle has been squeezed.

Joel Mesler: Right. I think that a lot of galleries expand because you always have to keep expanding to support your artist. For instance, when Henry makes a 12-foot painting, I need a wall that could support a 12-foot painting. So, I have to take a larger space. Which means spending more money on rent. And then I probably will need another staff member. And so it’s just a snowball effect of overhead. And then I do have to factor in pricing to keep the doors open.

Charlotte Burns: Let me ask you about your new ventures. So you’ve left Manhattan. Tell me why you left Manhattan, tell me when and tell me what you’re doing now.

Joel Mesler: I left Manhattan because I had to leave Manhattan. Manhattan is a great city to make money and to run around crazy. It’s very different place when you want to raise a family.

So, my wife and I, we set out to find a place to live for our family. We considered Philadelphia, Los Angeles—where I’m from. We were in Montauk last August, and we realized that this is another borough. Everyone from Manhattan was there. We probably saw more people in three days in Montauk from Manhattan than we did in Manhattan.

So we got our friend’s real estate agent and we saw five houses. We bought one, and at the time many people were telling me that the Glenn Horowitz space was available, which was right next to Harper’s Books. And I know that space. It has an amazing history. I was able to get that lease and close on our house within the same four weeks. So we realized that here is a situation where we could have all the joys of living in a world that supports a family.

And then in the summer, some of the wealthiest people in the entire world descend on your town. Not only can I find Picassos now, but I can find Picassos and a dozen local eggs.

Charlotte Burns: And so when you talk about finding Picassos, do you mean that you could potentially step into the secondary market yourself?

Joel Mesler: Yes. I mean it’s been very interesting because the second that I arrived out there and let people know that I was there, I started having meetings. It was amazing how many people are wanting to introduce me to people I have never heard of. Very large collectors that I’ve never met in the city that I would imagine buy from maybe one or two galleries in Manhattan, and the lower tier like myself, you know, never got any of those crumbs.

But out there, I’m the only game in town really. And so perhaps I could act as a vehicle for some of these collections and collectors that participate on a different scale, but because I do know how the art market works, perhaps I could step into some other shoes.

Charlotte Burns: So is this a rental gallery in the same way that you established Rental Gallery back in the day?

Joel Mesler: Yes. Rental Gallery with a little more wisdom and experience behind it. So, instead of just setting out to be a rental gallery where I would host other dealers—because I know the financial benefits and the joys of working with artists—I want to continue working with artists, but I also want to be able to provide a platform for other dealers to utilize the space.

So I’ve actually set the gallery up in a way where there’s like a two hundred and fifty square foot office that’s kind of your “rental” office. I’m trying to keep it open and flexible, which I think the only way to survive in this world right now is to kind of see what happens. And see what works and see what the area wants from me as much as what I want from it.

Charlotte Burns: So are you representing artists in a traditional way? Or just doing shows here and there with artists that you work with in a non-exclusive way?

Joel Mesler: The first summer, I am working with some artists that I work with and for, you can say. And then other artists that I will just be doing one-off projects with. Some artists I have a little more involvement with than others, but again, I would say this is part of maybe the joys or fear of a mid-tier dealer is that you kind of have to let go of some of those labels that have shackled galleries in my tier for so long. I could say I represent an artist till the end of days, but if somebody else has better access to the work than me, a bigger dealer, then isn’t that what matters?

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Joel Mesler: I represent artists. I work with them. Again, I’m just trying to wash those labels away and provide services for people that ask them of me. So, you know, a few of the artists that I’ll be working with—for instance Matthew Chambers has actually been doing a documentary on Henry Taylor for the past five years: all the way from Serena Williams purchasing a painting from Henry, to him painting a homeless man in Downtown LA, to his family shooting rifles in South Texas. It’s some of the most amazing footage.

So we are going to try to screen that documentary at Guild Hall. And then do an exhibition in conjunction with Matt and Henry and how Henry has influenced a group of artists. So again, these are all people I work with and for, and I’ll have some paintings. Which is great.

Charlotte Burns: And so, you yourself are making art as well? This is a big part of the move. You did an MFA. That was how this all began.

Joel Mesler: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: How did you even get into art? Did you always want to be an artist?

Joel Mesler: No. I wanted to be a therapist and I wanted to help people. Probably because I was so screwed up myself. That’s usually how it works. So I went to undergrad for psychology and realized that the group of people that were in my psychology world were crazy. I mean, crazier than me. But the crowd that was in the art department were kind of people that more spoke my language. They were up late at night and burning a candle on both ends and making work, and narcissism and ego and creativity.

And so I found myself spending more time there, and I transferred and did a Bachelor of Fine Arts there. And then went to San Francisco for grad school. So, at that point, I kind of very much fancied myself as an artist.

Charlotte Burns: And you went to work for David Salle?

Joel Mesler: Yes. That was my first job in New York. And, funny enough, I had dinner at his house this past summer when I was out there. And I reminded him that I had worked for him, and I took Polaroids of his drawings. And he was like: “I vaguely remember you.”

Charlotte Burns: You realized that this was going to be hard, to become an artist.

Joel Mesler: Yes. Nobody cared about me or what I did. So, I went to the only place that people—a few people including my mother—cared about me or what I did, so I moved back to LA and she loaned me $30,000 so I could buy a building.

Charlotte Burns: You said that was all the money she had at the time.

Joel Mesler: Yes. My parents had a very messy divorce. It changed California law. Mesler v. Mesler, kid you not. So my mother had $30,000. Not much more. I told her about this dream, how I could rent the upstairs apartment for $1,200 to Frances Stark and Steve Hansen and that would more than pay my taxes, insurance and mortgage. “I just need this $30,000.” She parted with it. The rest is history.

Charlotte Burns: Did you ever pay her back?

Joel Mesler: I did, with interest actually. I bought the building for $240,000 and I sold it for $500,000 in two years. It was the greatest moment of my life that I flipped this building and made a significant amount of money. But it was also the worst thing because it was the only thing that I had done. And I didn’t know what to do with myself after that or where to go. But I couldn’t turn down $250,000. It was the dealer in me. I took the money and then figured it out later. And I paid her back with interest.

Charlotte Burns: The first time I met you was at a Miami art fair years ago. You were in the Nada art fair. Somebody said to me: “Oh, you should meet this guy Joel Mesler. He’s going to be the next Larry. And he’s a hustler. And apparently he’s selling the work from his hotel room because it’s selling so fast, and he’s inviting people back to his hotel room and he has a second booth there.”

Joel Mesler: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: And that was my introduction to you. So it’s interesting that you say you can’t be another Larry.

Joel Mesler: So that Rental was just a couple years old and I decided to start representing artists. And I did have a lot of success, but again, I had success selling works that were no more than $12,000. So, if you sell something that looks good, is good and has potential growth, who’s not going to want to buy anything from you for less than $12,000? So I definitely had a moment.

Charlotte Burns: But you did take a big leap because your next big step was to open Untitled in the Lower East Side. And it was a gallery the likes of which the Lower East Side hadn’t previously seen. This very minimalist yet ostentatious architectural intervention into the tenement buildings of the Lower East Side. And you were sort of setting yourself apart. You and Carol Cohen. And you seemed to be the sort of heir apparent.

Joel Mesler: Yes, that was definitely the impetus and the intent at that moment, was to provide that platform for my artists. I called each and every one of them and I was like: “Okay, here I am. I’m going to take a huge risk and take that leap of faith. Will you guys come with me? Thick and thin, can we turn this engagement into a marriage sort of situation?” They all agreed and we all kind of jumped on board to do that growth. That was 2010. And I think that your perception as accurate as it is, on that situation, exemplifies how the art world perceives growth and things like that. That move did imply all of these other things, thus all this attention was put towards it. Now, you can run with that attention for a couple of years, but after a couple of years, we all know that heat and attention dissipates. And so what are you left with?

What you’re left with is collectors are looking around saying like: “Okay, you know, I bought this thing from you for $12,000 and according to all my studies and what everyone is saying, this should be worth $60,000.” And you’re like: “Ah, I could maybe get you $20,000, but I can’t get you $60,000.”

I think that in a very commercial-heavy world that we were operating in—in 2010, especially in the Lower East Side—this was the subject and the content that reporters and dealers and collectors were all kind of foaming about.

Charlotte Burns: It was a good story. It was just after the recession. Everyone was expecting closures, and instead there was this breed of young dealers coming out the gate, making something their own, dismissing Chelsea.

Joel Mesler: Right.

Charlotte Burns: And taking a new direction. So it was a great story. But actually, I think what seemed to happen from my perspective as a writer in those years was that instead of things becoming more settled, everything just became much more frothy. That style of collecting became much more apparent in those years after the recession.

Joel Mesler: That’s right. Yes.

Charlotte Burns: And seemed to change that dynamic. So where there maybe could’ve been potentially meaningful growth in the art market, for dealers at that level in that neighborhood, instead that what we got was a lot of movement that destabilized the whole thing.

Joel Mesler: And I feel like you’re saying that there are potentially a lot of missed opportunities with single “real collectors” or you know, holders or however we want to term them now. But, the unfortunate thing that I noticed is that even those collectors that are considered stable, they even got swallowed up in the market frenzy. Because there’s no human being in this earth, especially one that’s living in Manhattan or urban centers that buys something for $1 and then somebody offers them a $100—how do you not start to factor that into some of the subject matter?

So, it wasn’t just like this new breed of collectors who we called flippers. It was also that the fabric—there was a shift even from the stability of these more solid collectors. Everyone got wrapped in it, because how could they not?

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Joel Mesler: It was the golden era, you know? Everybody was making money. Intelligent people see opportunity. You had a whole new type of collectors that weren’t educated traditionally in art history. They came to it purely as a speculative financial situation. And so, by them entering the market—yes, I think it affected everybody.

Charlotte Burns: It’s also a property somehow. You know, friends of mine who work in totally different industries, like finance, lived in the Lower East Side, bought very nice apartments and were surrounded by galleries in a way that they may not have been in another point in Manhattan’s history.

Joel Mesler: Right.

Charlotte Burns: That there was that kind of dovetailing so quickly of property and galleries. There’s just this broader engagement. That’s also to do with the fact that there’s been this boom in the museum industry as well, and people go to museums more recreationally than they used to as a form of entertainment and see more art.

So, it’s a visual world. People see things on Instagram. So there’s this moment where it became much more mainstream and accessible.

Joel Mesler: Right.

Charlotte Burns: And with that comes money as well.

Joel Mesler: You could say different types of money. I think that the difference is that it wasn’t just more money. It wasn’t like a bunch of citizens wanting to better our understanding of culture. I think the money was different. The money was never intended to be given away as a support system for artists or dealers or such. It was to make more money.

Charlotte Burns: Is it still there, that money? From your perspective?

Joel Mesler: A lot less of it. And I think that that’s why you’ve seen kind of such a wreckage and head-on collision with the closure of mid-tier galleries is because many of these galleries survived off new collectors or these new sellers, new dealers.

And so, when they left, we all kind of turned back to the more traditional collectors, and many of them got maybe nervous or suspicious of what just happened in front of them, you know? Their relationship to it changed. So, even their money pulled back a little bit.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Joel Mesler: Or they looked to different markets. If you are worth billions of dollars, there are only four galleries you’re going to really look to to buy from that have the kind of stability or infrastructure to support that. And, you know, perhaps certain dealers were aware of that.

Charlotte Burns: So, I wanted to talk to you as well about a few of the things in your past that have been so, I don’t know the words. Sort of wild. You have written about your family, about the fact that your parents had this messy divorce. That isn’t totally uncommon, but your father trying to kill your brother is rare, I think.

Joel Mesler: Yes. I was raised in the 600 block of Beverly Hills. My dad drove a Porsche and my mom had a soccer mom sticker on her bumper. We had a beach house in Oxnard and lived the good life. But that all ended when my parents got divorced. And so it was a situation where, you know, maybe money was always a driving force in my kind of early development because a nine-year-old should never be thinking about money. Because a nine-year-old doesn’t really need money if they have a strong support system.

Charlotte Burns: You were breaking into your former home though, at your mother’s request at that age to steal back possessions.

Joel Mesler: I would see my dad occasionally for lunch, and you know, even for lunch, I was like: “Oh, I’m getting a free meal.” I felt like Oliver Twist or something like throwing bread in my pocket. But there was one time at lunch that I actually got his—he paid for lunch, maybe went to the bathroom or something, and I wrote down his credit card numbers. At that time, infomercials were the only way you could kind of buy anything with a credit card without actually having a credit card. So, I would buy like teeth whitening solutions. Anything that was on the infomercials. Blouses from J.Crew. Literally women’s blouses, and I would sell them.

So even at an early age, I kind of had to learn how to make money and that was kind of a dominant part of my understanding of the world and survival. And so, definitely fucked me up, but I think it made a place like the art world my perfect home because everybody was like me. You know? At least in my little inner circle, everyone was a hustler. You never really had to apologize for making money.

Charlotte Burns: You’ve always struck me as a deal-maker. It was always very refreshing to talk to you over the years that I’ve been coming to your art fairs and at your gallery to get comments from you for different articles. Because a lot of people still beat around the bush a little bit whereas you’re always very frank and would say: “Oh, you know the market’s terrible. The market’s great. I just sold this. I made 100 grand.”

Joel Mesler: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: And you seem so happy with the numbers. But at the same time, reading through your memoirs in these series of articles you wrote for ARTnews, which are super fascinating, and you’re a very talented writer.

Joel Mesler: Oh, thank you.

Charlotte Burns: It occurred to me, too, that haven’t always taken yourself seriously. And you’ve proved to be very flexible.

Joel Mesler: Right.

Charlotte Burns: But I wonder if you take yourself more seriously now.

Joel Mesler: Yes, I mean stopping all drinking and drugging helps that quite a bit because in those states, I would make 100 grand. I was like: “Oh my God, I love the art world. I just made 100 grand. What am I going to do with all this money? It’s so wonderful.” But instead of actually doing something responsible, the anxiety would kick in of like: “Oh my God, I’ve got $100,000.” And not really having coping mechanisms.

So, you know, spending it on various other things that might not have been something that would help me positively in the future. I think that getting dry was very sobering. And I’m hoping, you know, that now there is this new chapter of taking myself seriously and realizing what I am doing is sustainable. But when you were saying that, it made me think of a funny anecdote.

In 2002, I started this building. It was right after I sold my building and I had a quarter of a million dollars in my bank account and I got a building with Dan Hug, and we developed it and Dan Hug opened a gallery. I opened up a printing press and Dave Kordansky opened a gallery right next to Dan.

And so the three of us were kind of in cahoots together with this building. And Dave would say: “I am going to make one of the most successful art galleries in Los Angeles. I’m going to get all my artists in museums.” He had this incredible tunnel vision that I, at the time, kind of scoffed it like: “Ugh, you’re just part of the man, the establishment.” You know? Like: “It’s never going to work out for you.”

At that time I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, but then you know, as I watched Dave’s development, and grow and mature into a dealer, I very much admire him sticking with what he was doing and his commitment level to his passion and his vision. Where, me, I was never 100% convinced—not that that’s the right path, but that perhaps that was my path.

Charlotte Burns: Right. And are you now?

Joel Mesler: I think now, I am in a very different situation where I’m straddling this new transition of trying to be one of the first like, artist dealers that actually get taken seriously. I’m taking my new revived painting career very seriously. And a few other people now are kind of taking it seriously. It’s incredible and I’m making some money doing that and can support my family doing that now. I think my new gallery digs, people take me seriously too because it’s such a stand up gallery, you know?

Charlotte Burns: It looks great.

Joel Mesler: So I think that by all accounts, I’m on my way.

Charlotte Burns: That’s been this week’s installment of “In Other Words”. Thank you very much, Joel, for joining us.

Joel Mesler: Thank you for having me.