|The New York Press
Jack Rydell's Interview with Audrey Regan
rydell: It's been said that you, and those you worked with at Audart, had a remarkable ability to bring in the crowds, which has to be any curator's or gallery director's dream. What's the secret?
regan: Getting the people in to see the art is everything. We weren't just hanging art however. We were staging productions; offering more than a walk through a gallery. I never liked calling our openings "openings". They were celebrations combining new artworks, installation works and performances in the most interesting interior space in New York city at the time. We did everything possible, and I do mean everything, to make those events memorable; to make those who attended want to come back for the next one. In other words, after the first gargantuan effort, for the inaugural show, it was just a matter of getting the invitations mailed ... an overwhelming task unto itself. We mailed out 10,000 invitations for one show alone.
rydell: But, you were the curator - ultimately the one responsible or the one who would be praised or scrutinized for the art on exhibit. How did that responsibility affect you?
regan: Well, to begin with, I took the anti-business approach and followed my gut instincts about almost every curatorial decision. Most of them were good decisions but I cannot say I don't have regrets. There were artists whose works clearly fell short of what I was trying to do at Audart and with a space that size and time restraints, it sometimes became easy to just slot them in. Yes, I do regret that but, as I said, these were rare situations.
rydell: Curating a 14 room space would be overwhelming for anyone, I would think. But, you did it so many times in just two years.
regan: Most curators are looking at one large room, comprising 4 to 8 hanging surfaces. We were dealing with 8000 square feet spread over the most complex assortment of rooms, nooks and corridors. The space had been a bank previous to our taking over - a long corridor with rows of offices, on two levels. This was exciting in many ways; to have such creative possibility but, on the other hand, I take art as seriously as any curator. I never wanted the works of art to get lost in the physical experience of the space itself. Somewhere between going crazy and the white cube, a balance had to be found.
rydell: I attended two of Audart's openings ... celebrations. The Warhol Show and the Fantasy Show. The Fantasy Show was a beautiful curation by the way - absolutely professional and consistently so.
regan: Thank you. It has been described as the best work shown at Audart and it was a sheer pleasure to put that exhibit together. We even had the recreation of a small Catholic chapel, from an Italian church that had been ruthlessly demolished in Little Italy. It was a resounding statement against the destruction of art for commercial progress. Everyday, upon entering the gallery, I would light all 30 candles in that installation. The artist is Diane Adzema, a gifted painter and sculptor, who had personally saved many of the artifacts from that church as they were being tossed into dumpsters by the demolition crew.
rydell: Tell me about the more controversial exhibits ....
regan: Do you mean the baby?
rydell: The cyclops baby, yes.
regan: First of all I have to preface by saying that Audart had big technology companies sponsoring the very show in which I curated Ragnar Lagerblad's installation "The Cyclops Baby". That was the Art & Technology Circus, our biggest art production. On the one hand, I was following my instincts which told me that welcoming this exhibit into the Circus was the right thing to do. On the other hand, I was fearful that any one of our big sponsors might back out upon discovering it. The ethical considerations were powerful and I was very conflicted about it.
rydell: Were you advised by others ... I mean you had a partner and you had people assisting at the gallery. Did you stand alone on that decision or was it a joint decision?
regan: My partner expressed skepticism but didn't strongly object. Others, like the person who served as our engineer at the time, were downright excited although he seemed more into the shock value than anything else because, this was to be a Circus and what could be more appropriate than to have a "freak" in the Circus. Freak, by the way, is an accepted medical term for babies born with these afflictions, although I do not like the word. The word "monster" was commonly used in the 19th century but was replaced by "freak".
rydell: You showed me photographs. It's hard to imagine that an exhibit like this was put on view in the Wall Street area for the business crowd. What was the reaction? Generally speaking.
regan: The artists, Ragnar Lagerblad and Scott Graeber had to prepare the altar or shrine first - before they brought the baby into the gallery. This preparation took weeks - day after day of varnishing little crustaceans and fishes; of building, sanding and painting a four tiered pyramid and finally, assembling everything. The suspense mounted as they worked in the gallery, as it was obvious something "special" was going to be displayed on the top level of the pyramidal shrine. We kept the gallery open to the public during the setup of the Circus. For all previous shows, we closed the gallery while the work was being done.
rydell: When was the baby brought in? Just before the opening?
regan: The day before actually. I was quite nervous, as I recall. But also very excited. On the opening night, I kept an eye on the cyclops exhibit to gauge the reaction. It (the shrine) was surrounded by people with cameras for most of the evening. I don't think anyone had ever seen anything like it before.
rydell: But, what about the day-to-day visitors to the gallery ... the lunch hour crowd you referred to on the phone.
regan: Reactions were mixed but rarely negative. I enjoyed having an exhibit in the show that evoked so many questions. I had deliberately situated the cyclops shrine right at the entrance to the gallery and my office adjoined that area so I got to experience the reactions as they were happening. Yes, there were many questions, the most common being "Is that a real baby in that container?" One woman said she felt sick and had to go back to her office and lie down, but mostly it was a mixture of curiosity and amazement. The medical report on the cyclops baby was framed and hung nearby for all to read.
rydell: This baby was born alive?
regan: No, absolutely not. The baby, a girl, was carried almost to full term and then stillborn. That was 58 years ago! The "specimen" was kept at a major university medical center for research purposes. It would have been destroyed, along with many others. In many ways, I feel the two collaborating artists elevated the importance of this little dead baby. The shrine was absolutely stunning - red with hand applied gold leaf - and the decorations were painstakingly applied by the artists. At the last minute, I decided to canopy the entire shrine in red silk.
rydell: So, you aren't reticent about shocking the public in your curations.
regan: I would shock anyone, who knows me, by hanging typical landscape paintings in straight rows on white walls. But really, to answer your question ... I think people who enter a place to view original art must be prepared for what they will find there. That baby was real - that tragedy of gestation and stillbirth actually happened and real life is not always beautiful or able to produce serenity in humans. And would that exhibit be any less or any more sensational or :important: than the dissected cows by Damien Hirst at Gagosian? Quite frankly, I think the work of Lagerblad and Graeber touches on very important elements of life.
rydell: Were you deliberately seeking exhibits of a scientific nature when you began the curation of the Circus?
regan: Yes, I was. I wanted to include two such exhibits and did just that. The artist, C Bangs, created an installation titled "The Green Man", which was a careful study and recording of the death of her elderly father. Again, we had death at the apex of the exhibit but the important element in C's work was rebirth. The cycle of life and death and possible rebirth is humankind's greatest obsession don't you agree?
rydell: I read all your press clippings. How do you feel about the manner in which the press described the cyclops exhibit?
regan: Tawdry. They capitalized on the "sideshow" aspect of it. But I knew this would happen. I hoped it wouldn't, but knew it would.
rydell: The press didn't get it ?
regan: I believe if there were an exhibit in the Circus that should elicit questions, it was Lagerblad's installation with the baby. The press writers who saw the exhibit made their own silent decisions to present it as a "sideshow" or a freak show. I am not a big fan of the press, although I understand the importance of coverage - for me, being written up in the newspapers is free advertising. An entire column gets written about your gallery and it is seen in a prominent section of the paper. Take out an ad and it will cost thousands of dollars and appear in the back of the paper.
rydell: I am looking at these numbers regarding attendances at the opening nights at Audart. After five years, do you think you might do this again - acquire another art space, for instance?
regan: I have zero interest in repeating history (laughing). It was an exhausting adventure. I cannot speak for my partner but, looking back, I realize how much I needed to dive into something that utterly creative and all consuming and, of course, there is always a price to be paid for that level of commitment ... fatigue being the biggest - physical and emotional fatigue. Somehow I knew the day would come when I could rest but I have to say that we worked at a super-human level during that two year period. In fact, looking back, I cannot believe I endured what I did, for as long as I did, just to make the deadline for the next exhibition's opening. I am glad that period of my life is over.
rydell: What will you do next - I mean off-line?
regan: I've been invited by two gallery owners to co-curate exhibits in 2003. I have accepted one of those invitations. However, I am also looking for a stone cottage within driving distance of New York city - or a small farm. That transition, when it happens, will inspire new art endeavors, probably environmental in nature. I would like very much to invite a group of artists to design a seasonal shelter - a shelter as installation, using only the natural materials at hand - stones, rocks, woven leaves, tree trunks and branches, even flowers. From there, of course, there would be live performance and the playing of original music. Don't get me started!
rydell: I immediately thought of bird's nests when you mentioned natural shelters.
regan: And, they're pretty fascinating aren't they, as are igloos and beehives!
rydell: The natural shelter you envision .. would it work as a gallery, as a showplace?
regan: Absolutely. And this ties in closely with my desire to showcase art in a non typical gallery setting. I could never operate a traditional gallery; one with regular hours and a five day work week. It would bore me terribly - just as the two hour opening that begins at 5 and ends at 7 or 8 would bore me. I have never understood why gallery directors do this because most people don't like the formula. We have to remember however that most people who run art galleries are not that creative, nor are they people oriented.
rydell: You described yourself earlier as a collaborator. How important is the art or skill of collaboration - say in any future endeavors you might envision?
regan: Working with artists (or anyone) who truly love collaborating on a specific project is a wonderful thing to experience. Not everyone is a collaborator though. Certain people fear losing their identity in a collaborative project - and ultimately, they get in the way of creativity. I would never involve myself with people like this in the future. Audart was a valuable learning experience in this regard. I have no idea who I might work with in the future but I do know the type of person I must avoid at all costs.
rydell: But every collaborative effort requires a leader - no?
regan: Yes. Or alternating leaders. Does there have to be just one leader? And what is leadership anyway? Is it being in control or is it the ability to coordinate? There is a huge difference - and I will say with conviction that the person who needs to be in control is the least creative person in the group.
rydell: Control is the opposite of creativity?
regan: It is the enemy of creativity. It competes with creativity. Not everyone is comfortable in the creative world. I rather wish they would find other things to do and stay out of everyone's way.
rydell: Which of the Audart shows was your favorite?
regan: Well ... hmmm ... let me think a moment. I can say that the Salute to Broad Street show was my least favorite but that had more to do with the environment than the actual art.
rydell: The environment? Can you explain what you mean?
regan: The artist whose primary tool is the computer has a different attitude than a traditional artist. One can't generalize, of course, but my personal experience with digital artists required some adjusting on my part. It may be that the technical aspect of the art requires more serious explanation. The digital artist, by his or her very nature, is a mathematician, a technician -- which isn't to say the creativity isn't there - of course it is, but it's not as free-spirted as I was accustomed to. Salute to Broad Street had a formulaic gridwork running right through it - it was technical art. And I did love it, but the Shrines to Fantasy exhibition was next in line and I think, looking back, that it was a clear leap into the opposite realm -- of showing art that turned people on, without the processes being so visible or the artists being so serious about the processes.
rydell: And your favorite exhibition was?
regan: I did love The Urban Frontier, probably the most. It was our first exhibition and the gallery still looked very much like a corporate space. The contrasts were amazing. Dr. Debra Miller curated "Ten Years After: The Warhol Factory" and I did enjoy watching her work. I learned a great deal from her. And the gallery looked magnificent for that show. We worked so hard to get the space ready before the art arrived. It was very gratifying to see it all come together and to realize that every room in the space was perfect for the works that went into it.
rydell: No accident, I am sure.
regan: Well, I had seen photographs of all the work before it arrived; before we began preparing the gallery; so I knew Billy Name would need a black room and Makos a white one, etcetera. The final decision about placement of artworks was Miller's, of course, but she put everything exactly where I anticipated it would go. Her use of the long hallway for Name's portraits of Drag Queens was expected. I knew they should be curated down the corridor but wasn't anticipating that she would wrap them around the doorway into, and then back out of, the vault room, before continuing on down the corridor. It was brilliant.
rydell: I saw that show and yes, it was beautifully curated. I also liked Miller's use of mirror fragments around Billy Name's photos - the ones in the black gallery. But I also wanted to get your view on working with the Warhol Circle artists. Was that a positive experience? Generally, I mean.
regan: Generally, yes, it was, but there are always problems that come up. We had a disagreement with the curator, Debra Miller, about bringing in boutique items, as a source of revenue - you know, souvenirs to sell to the crowds on opening night, as well as to the public during regular gallery hours. We didn't want anything to do with that - we didn't care to have the Audart Gallery turned into a shopping mall.
regan: Andy Warhol wigs; t-shirts, fridge magnets and many other items imprinted with art images related to Andy, as well as reproductions of works by the Warhol artists.
rydell: I noticed t-shirts being sold at the opening, come to think of it.
regan: Yes, you did. And that was a surprise to Audart. The t-shirts were brought in as the opening started and at that point, rather than make a fuss, we just let it happen. But in terms of the art on exhibit and the actual Warhol artists, there were no major problems, other than some last minute framing pressures. We were able to handle everything, very well, I thought. And when you realize that at least 5000 people filled our gallery on opening night, it's rather miraculous that it all went so smoothly. We were prepared. The cleanup after that opening was no small feat however, if you can imagine thousands of people walking around the gallery with wine in hand over the course of 8 hours or more. A very sticky mess, to say the least.
rydell: I remember food as well - more cheese than I had ever seen in one place before, outside of a cheese shop that is.
regan: 125 pounds of cheese to be precise! Forty pounds of French Brie alone. And the best money could buy. We never compromised. All the baguettes were baked the day of the opening and sliced just minutes before the event began. This was standard procedure for every one of our art openings, not just the Warhol show. We used candles, table linens, flowers. The folks at MOMA don't fuss for their big events the way we did at Audart. And, as you know, the galleries of New York still serve cheap wine in plastic glasses at their openings.
rydell: Any advice you can offer to gallery directors just starting out?
regan: Expect eight out of every ten artists you work with to suddenly turn cold if you don't sell their work. Running a gallery is a pretty thankless effort, actually. My partner and I were burning the candle at both ends and we could have used more assistance than was offered by the various artists whose work we exhibited and promoted. You have to be able to accept that, above all else, in my opinion. The artists who are there for you, on the other hand, are so precious and appreciated that they make up for the others. And they are the artists I would want to work with again and again, whenever possible.