Yesterday I had the pleasure of chatting with Uri Pierre-Noel, Gallery Director of James Oliver Gallery. It was an enlightening conversation in which two idealists were able to ground themselves and talk realistically about the art world as a whole, the market in Philadelphia, and the notion of “gallery hospitality”, as Uri so eloquently put it.
At James Oliver Gallery (JOG), they are always working to shatter preconceived notions of what kind of art should be seen, who it is meant to be seen by, and how it “should” be presented. Uri, having started at JOG as an intern 3.5 years ago, is now James Oliver’s right-hand man, who runs the complete operations and then some. (The “and then some” being creative/ambitious projects: a book – guide for the young art collector in the digital age, “Mavens and Mavericks” – a narrative publication of creative professionals’ journeys, as well as parties for creative interns – meet-and-greets focusing on the leaders of tomorrow, like what happened to Uri!). A self-proclaimed “destination gallery” that intuitively interacts with every single guest who enters their doors, JOG achieves its mission of shattering notions and taking names.
Dawn Kramlich: Tell me a bit about your journey; what is your role at JOG? How long have you been there and how did you get where you are today?
Uri Pierre Noel: I run the complete operations; I’ve been with the gallery company for 3.5 years, and started as an intern doing event photography. I had seen the internship posted by JOG on craigslist, and was excited about the opportunity. I enjoyed going to galleries growing up in Brooklyn, came to Philly at 18 years old and took photos of everything that moved. I ended up being an audio attendant and French translator (but I spoke horrible French, so I don’t know why I got it haha!) for the PMA. That was really the job that helped move me up to working with JOG.
DK: [laughing] I’ve always wanted to learn French – maybe we should both take classes! So what are the differences in duties between you and James, now that you’ve been here for over 3 years?
UPN: Here at JOG, it’s like I’m the art dealer, James is the visionary and together it’s a gallery. We like to see shows we haven’t seen before. We can’t show anything that James doesn’t feel excited about; after all, if you’re not excited about it, why would anyone else be?
DK: That is a great point, and I couldn’t agree more! Can you tell me a little bit about the gallery’s history? What was James Oliver’s original mission in 2006, and has it changed at all between then and now?
UPN: The first James Oliver Gallery was in Sonoma County California; this Philadelphia JOG is the second one. The recession brought James to Philly when things got hard in Cali. The original mission was to show work that shatters the rigid notions of presentation of contemporary art in Philadelphia; James wanted to create a modernist (but not pretentious) space that allows disparate groups to all enjoy the true gallery experience.
Gallery hospitality is crucial, and is one of the pillars of what we do here. It is critical for us to maintain an intuitive way of associating with people that come into the gallery – we say hi to everyone and know the audience by feeling out the situation and being hospitable. If anything, the mission has not changed but expanded. We want to look at the entire gallery scene of Philadelphia and see how we can positively impact it as a whole.
DK: That being said, what is JOG’s long-term goal?
UPN: The ultimate goal is to revitalize the gallery scene in the Philadelphia art market. I believe that galleries have been somewhat revived from an events/economy standpoint – going to first Friday, cocktail parties, using a gallery’s real estate as a company which can be sold out as an event space. But there is still more work to do.
People always say art galleries should be free, but we ask why? We do a lot of work for this, and curating is lost on a lot of people. We want to open that rigid notion of a gallery up while helping the wider public be more comfortable approaching and accessing both art and galleries. We hold all kinds of creative events here, and we try to bring in as wide and varied of a demographic as we can.
In terms of working to revive Philly’s gallery scene, JOG realizes that we can either be the biggest fish in a small pond or try to work toward adding water to the pond itself. We do a lot over-seas to build relationships with people/collectors and galleries to bring business to Philadelphia, provide opportunities for our artists, and we want to eventually open the audience globally by filming live gallery openings and displaying them as productions online.
DK: That sounds very ambitious but definitely worthwhile, and it seems like you’re already doing a lot to accomplish those goals! So what about yourself; what is your personal goal?
UPN: [with a big smile on his face and a chuckle] My ultimate personal goal is to be a gallery savant and get a show on Bravo where I revive art galleries. Kind of like Chef Ramsay, but I wouldn’t use the ‘crash and burn’ method to build back up – instead I would go about it using methods of exposure and education (but I’m not afraid to be mean).
DK: Haha! I love it – I would definitely watch that show! A huge part of making a name for an art gallery lies in the artists that you choose to show and represent. You’ve had a lot of experience working with James; can you tell me what types/genres of artists/art JOG tends toward, (is it based on more of an aesthetic approach, or a conceptual approach)?
UPN: Haha it’s almost like complete madness, there’s no specific methodology. If anything, it’s a bit more aesthetic-based than conceptual-based at first, but the work does have to have a very clear and strong connection to a solidified concept. A lot of the work we choose to exhibit tends toward an aesthetic that is minimalist, a little pop-y, or not afraid of narrative; we like to dibble-dabble into various genres. We curate with a story-telling mentality and bring out the artist’s voice through the work. We don’t show a lot of emerging artists, but that’s not to say that we don’t have opportunities for young artists. With shows here, you’ll never be able to predict the next show. It’s always different.
DK: So how often (if at all) do you have exhibitions featuring guest artists (not represented by JOG)?
UPN: I’d say we more often have exhibits of artists we don’t represent than artists that we do represent. I figure, from a business standpoint, you can either beat a dead horse by only showing the same artists over and over, or you can realize that this is a contemporary art world that moves quickly, and continuously create great and relevant shows.
DK: I appreciate and support that perspective; this contemporary art world does move quickly, that’s for sure! So lastly, because we’re very eager to see InLiquid artist John Y. Wind’s upcoming show, I’m interested in knowing what is exciting, for you, about the work of John Y. Wind? What kind of impact do you think his first solo art show The Making of a Modern Man will have?
UPN: It’s exciting because I feel like we have just started to carve out the concept of being the maverick gallery of Philadelphia while being a stable gallery. We’ve been working on the mission for years, and now we finally have a set-up that allows the platform to exist for questioning the world and pushing a button or two.
Honestly I can’t tell you what the impact will be. I think that it will definitely bring out a different demographic; I can’t wait to see what happens! For me, it’s not about figuring out demographics statistically/strategically; we’re not about that. Rather, we want it to reach everyone, and I think varied groups are all excited about Wind’s show. We are a destination gallery – people see us when they intend to – our location [center city, 4th floor] makes that clear. So one thing we have to do more than other galleries is to make sure that everyone has an amazing experience. And we’re both eager and happy to do that.
Check out InLiquid artist John Y. Wind’s solo show at James Oliver Gallery, starting on May 17. Also, keep in the loop about JOG’s upcoming parties/meet-ups for creative interns in the summer – the first one is on July 19, from 10 pm – 3am (ish)!
You can also find John Y. Wind’s work at the preview party night for Art for the Cash Poor 14, Friday, June 7, 5:30 – 8:30 pm