Here is a look at an interesting interview with Jonathan LeVine, the founder of the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York. A man who has played a critical role in bringing some of our street favourites into galleries, merging low brow “street -art” with the high art world. Celebrating their fifth year anniversary this year, Jonathan LeVine gallery has been one of the few Chelsea success stories to emerge from the recession.
LeVine, who started out with a humble Philadelphia gallery called “Tin Man Alley” that he opened with a $40,000 loan from his parents, has marked the occasion of his anniversary with with a group show (info here) featuring new and old work from artists like Eric White, Shepard Fairey (who the Trenton-born dealer launched), Parisian stencil-art legend Blek Le Rat, and Brazil’s Titi Freak.
ARTINFO spoke to LeVine about to see how he got to where he is today, where the the market for his art is trending, and whether he’s positioned to benefit from the forthcoming closure of Deitch Projects.
So you’ve been here for five years. How do you feel about getting to this moment?
It’s actually my ninth year in business, but it’s my fifth year in New York. I started curating when I was 26, out of bars in New York. Maxwell’s,CBGB’s, Max Fish — that was the foundation of me opening my business. I’ve built my business from the day I’ve walked in. It’s a much different entity than it was five years ago.
Much larger staff, bigger space, more outreach. My artists are more high-profile than they were five years ago, people know who I am. I’ve had a lot of successes.
Perhaps because you‘ve been able to achieve such successes with street art, some peg you as more of a shrewd businessman than an inspired art connoisseur. Is there any truth to that?
I would say that’s completely untrue. It’s exactly the opposite. If I was a shrewd businessman, I wouldn’t be in this business. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been involved with this before it was anywhere close to being what it is. Most dealers are shrewder than me. I come from an art background as a fine artist, I have two art degrees, I used to play music. I didn’t want to be a businessman. I happen to be very good at business naturally.
How would you describe your clients? Isn’t there a tendency in street-art circles to sell to people who are interested in design-driven areas like cartoons and toy culture but don’t necessarily know much about art?
That’s who a lot of other dopey street-art dealers sell to. I’m an old school dealer. And the collectors I sell to I’ve been selling to for years, and they’re very well educated. I’m not selling to Wall Street guys, I’m not selling to people with stupid money. I’m selling to people with taste, who are connoisseurs. They may not necessarily be the biggest collectors, but I do sell to big collectors, I sell to celebrities. But I don’t sell to those middle-American people. That’s what Opera Gallery does. That’s what the British market was doing. I don’t want to exploit my artists. The reason I do this is because I believe in this as a movement, and I believe it should be accepted into the art world just as much as anything else is.
What would you say to people who don’t consider your artists to be fine art because of their pop-culture approach and subject matter?
Well, that’s their opinion. The artwork that I represent represents a generational shift. The art market is like, “Oh this is cartoon work, it’s not serious.” Whatever. Murakami’s doing it, right? Jeff Koons is doing it, right? My generation, our generation, grew up on TV. Our culture is pop culture. They’re using this imagery because it’s their reality to access something deeper. It’s not that I’m selling a lot of art just because I’m shrewd, there’s a whole movement — it’s humongous, it’s international, and it’s a parallel universe to the fine-art market. My friends just had a show of Brazilian street artists at MASP [the São Paulo Museum of Art], in one of the biggest cities in the world, at one of the biggest contemporary art institutes in South America. They did it with young, living street artists and 300,000 fucking people showed up.
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