Paul Kopeikin on the Business of Art

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday March 28, 2012


The AIPAD Photography Show opens tomorrow at The Park Avenue Armory in NYC. Presented by The Association of International Photography Dealers (AIPAD), this year’s edition includes more than 75 of the world's leading photographic art galleries offering a wide range of museum-quality work. Among them is Paul Kopeikin of Los Angeles, a member for over 20 years, who will be in Booth #113. Last week I caught up with him for this email Q&A.

Peggy Roalf: What were you doing back in 1991 when you opened your gallery?

Paul Kopeikin: I had been working in the film business for about ten years when I opened my gallery. I was switching back and forth between working for producers (“above the line”) and working in the art department (“below the line”) and while I was good at what I did, my heart was not really in it. As a result my career was not really working. After complaining about yet another boss, I remember my brother Larry saying to me, “If you don’t want to work for assholes you should open your own business.” I knew he was right.

I had worked for art galleries in San Francisco in the early 80’s and remembered how much I liked the art world and so decided to open a gallery in November 1991. It was a time when people in LA were opening spaces in their houses or garage or their parent’s garage and so that’s what I did. I kept my day job and started a gallery in my house that was open on weekends. Not many people came in. I remember one Sunday when I was so discouraged that I decided to take a nap during gallery hours. No sooner had I fallen asleep than the doorbell rang and I looked out to see a curator from the Getty at my front door. I decided then that I needed a real gallery, so opened my first space on La Brea Avenue, overlooking a cement plant. I paid $500 a month and shared it with a painting restorer; he smoked marijuana all day and my gallery always reeked of pot. So I began looking for my next space. I’ve probably moved more times than any other dealer in Los Angeles—6 spaces (not counting my house), each one better than the last.

PR: What in life prepared you for a career in the art business?

PK: Certainly the three or four years I had already worked in the art business and the fact I was always going to galleries and museums. Less obvious is that my father was a small business owner and from him I picked up skills needed to survive in any business. And in many ways the art business is like any other small business. So it’s the business of the art world that came naturally to me and I have always been particularly good at that. I had to learn the curatorial and other aspects of the business as the years went by.

PR: Who in the art world influenced you most in the way you have shaped your approach to selecting and selling works of art?

PK: The two gallerists I worked for in San Francisco, and one I didn’t work for but wish I had. First, John Berggruen, who I appreciated more in the years after I stopped working for him than I did at the time. He’s a great art dealer and I was lucky that he took me to art fairs, and to New York where he introduced me to Leo Castelli, Charlie Cowles, and a lot of other people whose importance I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I started with John as a bartender at his openings and left knowing every aspect of the gallery business. I remember something in particular that he once said, “If it doesn’t sell, raise the price.”  This line has stayed with me because it says so much about the art business and people’s perception of art. It also describes a particular time (early 80’s) and place (San Francisco) that is very meaningful to me.

Rena Bransten is the other gallerist I worked for, and in many ways she is the opposite of John as a person and dealer. It is amazing she has survived in the art world as long as she has, because she is so sweet. And like John she has a great eye. She also had an irreverent approach toward the business, which I try to emulate. In the end this is about art, not brain surgery.

The third person is Jeffrey Fraenkel, who was starting his gallery around the time I worked for John and Rena. I spent a great of time at his place and to this day there is no dealer who I admire more. Had I not graduated with a degree in Theater and Film from UCSC, convinced that I was destined for Hollywood, the early 1980’s would have been the ideal time for me to have started a gallery—particularly one specializing in photography.

At the time there was so much amazing talent in photography just waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. It was akin to the Native Americans I’ve read about who could walk across a river on the backs of fish, they were so plentiful. Ahhhhhh, those were the days! Great photographers were either still waiting for the phone to ring, or hadn’t given it all up to the first dealer they met. I remember just calling Harry Callahan and having him answer the phone when it rang. I was use to Hollywood, where it was hard to talk to people you didn't even want to talk to. And here I was on the phone with one of the greatest photographers that ever lived. Of course he told me I had to call his dealer. Anyway, one can’t talk about Jeffrey without mentioning Frish Brandt, who has been the director and a partner in the gallery since nearly the beginning. My admiration for them both is huge.


Top: Paul Kopeikin at AIPAD 2011. Above left: Two Princes. Above right: Paul with daughter Ella at Moby opening at the gallery, 2011.

PR:  Who in the business world influenced you most in the way you have shaped your approach to selecting and selling art?

PK: In the beginning I was drawn to many of the artists that Frankel exhibited and since it was a different world then, all I had to do was ask to show them; no problem. So some of my earliest exhibitions were of Lee Friedlander, Nicholas Nixon, and Helen Levitt. I had collected their work with my meager income before opening the gallery and was thrilled to show them once I did. But after a few years I started to follow my own path. I decided I liked working with living artists, especially lesser-known artists whose careers I could see flourish as a result of my help. It’s occasionally frustrating, and too few collectors these days trust themselves enough to buy work by an unknown artists, but it keeps the business interesting.

There are two colleagues of mine who although my contemporaries are fantastic dealers whose advise I often seek out. One is Catherine Clark, who has a gallery in San Francisco. She has an amazing stable of artists but what is most impressive about Katie is the way she has built up a client base of truly dedicated collectors, with whom she maintains close and significant relationships. These are people who come to art fairs in other cities just to see her and what she has brought. The fact that she is not operating on the level of a Matthew Marks or Shaun Regan is astounding to me.

The other colleague and friend is Bennett Roberts of Roberts + Tilton here in Los Angeles. He and his wife Julie work with a lot of Internationally known contemporary artists, like Kehinde Wiley and Ed Templeton. It’s always interesting to hear what that part of the business is like; like having to wallpaper his entire gallery, or fly in and put up an artist’s entourage. Those are not things I have to deal with, and I’m not sure I want to.  But Bennett, like Rena Bransten, takes a undramatic approach to the ups and downs inherent in the business; not to mention the inevitable back-stabbing and all of the other bullshit. He deals with it and moves on, and that’s something he’s helped me learn to do over the years we’ve known one another.

PR: You choose your art fairs carefully, and I noticed that you went to Texas Contemporary and NEXT Chicago last year. Do you think there is a good future in midland fairs? How, if at all, is the atmosphere different and how, if at all, does that affect sales?

PK: There are so many new fairs in so many places that I think galleries have to figure out what is best for them, even if it’s not the obvious choice. Fairs change quickly and even those running the fairs. The Armory is still called The Armory, but clearly it is a lot different than it was a few years ago. Last fall Houston seemed like a good bet and I wanted to start a relationship with Max Fishko, who started a series of fairs a few years ago. He’s doing fairs in San Francisco, Houston, and this year will open a new fair in Miami that will go head to head with NADA, Pulse, and Art Miami. That not only takes guts, but talent and vision. He and his team have it in spades and I think they will enter the Miami market as if they have been there all along. 

Since Houston was good last fall I decided instead of doing one of the New York art fairs this spring that I would do the Dallas Art Fair, which under Chris Byrne’s leadership has been going strong for several years. The fair attracts an impressive group of dealers and given the size of the market, the many corporations based around there, and the general wealth I’m sure it will work out fine. Texans collect art. I like the idea of doing a fair where I can meet new people; for that reason, LA is not a big draw for me. But that’s what’s great about fairs in New York and Miami (and perhaps Europe, although I’ve never done a fair there). There are always new people coming into the market and old collectors who for one reason or another I have never met.

Two years ago I had an awesome booth at NEXT and they had a large and savvy audience, so I thought maybe things would be better than previous years when I did Art Chicago. In the Midwest, however, it’s like pulling teeth to get anyone to talk to you, let alone buy, especially if they don’t already know you. But I’ll be watching Tony Karmen’s “Exposition Chicago” coming up in September; if anyone can make Chicago relevant again it’s Tony.

I am particularly excited about The Photography Show this year, and since I didn’t want to do more than one New York fair this spring I decided to stick with AIPAD; I’ve been a member for over 20 years! The fact that David Zwirner has taken a booth is the most exciting thing to happen with the organization since we moved to The Park Avenue Armory. While a large percentage of AIPAD dealers handle contemporary work, the organization has been slow in accepting, accommodating, and encouraging contemporary dealers like myself. There are many reasons for this, but mostly it’s because the entire business has changed so quickly. While there is plenty of photography at all of the other fairs (including most of the dealers who will be at AIPAD) there is no place except Paris Photo where one can see the depth of the medium. And the truth is,the photography market is still the best value in the art world; serious collectors are once again starting to realize this.

Fairs are clearly here to stay and there aren’t many dealers who don’t feel they have to be part of the action. At the same time I don’t think that fairs have made the art world a better place, just a more obviously commercial one. I have a gallery because I believe in the old model: an artist working hard over a long period of time to create a body of work, and then working with a dealer to create an exhibition showcasing that work. As a dealer I always hope to reach collectors eager to understand what that artist has to say in his or her work instead of just making sure they are first on the list to buy. Anyway, “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one...”

PR: Before you moved to your current location in Culver City, it seemed that there was a period when you ran the gallery on your iPhone, from the driver’s seat of your car. Did the experience of not being land-based offer ideas for changing the business model?

PK: The period you refer to was when I was forced out of my gallery on Wilshire Blvd by the gallery owner next door to me. It’s an unpleasant story, but turned out to be a good thing since I’m now in the best gallery of my career. Anyway, after moving in May of 2008 I spent seven months looking for the perfect new gallery and realizing I wasn’t cut out to be a private dealer. The economy was going downhill fast, but I thought the lack of business was because I didn’t have my space and was spending all my time looking for another one. I finally found a great space in West Hollywood where I thought I’d be forever and opened in January 2009 to a particularly harsh business environment. My middle class collector base disappeared. Business remained good at the top of the market and at auction, but nowhere else.

As the economy got even worse galleries started closing and ironically that presented an opportunity for me. The space I’m in now was Perez Projects, who decided to concentrate his successful business in Berlin. I’m two doors down from the original Blum and Poe and across the street from their new space, so many people wanted to take this space over. In the end it was the longevity of my gallery that made the difference, as it should. I am very happy here, next to Western Projects and Angles Gallery; two other mid-career galleries who I have enormous respect for. 

It was never my intention to not have a space, although it is often tempting. I have friends here and in New York who have enjoyed time without a gallery and used their rent money to do more and better art fairs. While not so many people come into the gallery each week to buy, I enjoy having a public space. But I won’t be surprised when the model for a gallery without a public space starts working for art dealers.

PR:  Having operated your gallery for over 20 years, what are the biggest shifts in creating and collecting photography that you have observed—from both the artistic and business side of things?

PK: In the early 1990’s the photography world and the art world were distinctly different places, and the distain for photography was palpable. Few people envisioned how much the art world would usurp the photography world, cherry-picking its best practitioners and raising them to the status of artists. Rather than fully accepting photography’s inevitably equal place in the art world, those who should know better (critics, collectors, gallerists) accept individual practitioners, while continuing to make absurd, self-serving distinctions as to who is an artist and who is “merely” a photographer.

Few people could have predicted how quickly the supply of vintage photographs would dry up, or how high the prices would climb. It’s all happened so rapidly. Surprisingly some of the best prints by the best artists were still around twenty years ago, accessible and affordable. Now, as with the rest of the art world, “B” and “C” examples of an artists work are held up as important examples simply because they are the only thing left to sell.

In regard to contemporary photography the past few years have seen more collectors who don’t rely on their eye and instinct, but instead are more focused on who they should collect and who they should collect it from. This is a major frustration.

PR:  Beyond making larger and larger prints, what do you see as new directions in the future of lens-based art?

PK: I like the way you put that, “lens based art.” But for me that immediately brings to mind non-lens-based art. I am thinking here of Chris Jordan, but there is also Simmons & Burke and others who are basically making their art in the computer. That’s as much the future of “photography” as people using a camera, although Chris does use a camera to shoot the initial elements that make up the work in his series, “Running The Numbers.”

Anyway, I think the art world has to come to terms with, and then start defining the terms as it relates to computer-made art. I wish AIPAD would take the lead in defining the hundreds of different terms used for both the new lens-based and computer-based art, but I don’t think the people in charge see this as their mandate. Maybe it’s for each gallery to decide and then standardized terminology will catch on over time.

I think a lot of dealers have been waiting for things to become smaller again. I’d certainly like to get away from everything getting increasingly larger simply because the technology allows it. What size a work of art is must always come from the artist. Few things are as irritating when reviewing an artist’s work as them being unsure of the size of their own work! The subject of size came up recently with Jeffrey Milstein’s work. He photographs planes, mostly from below, and at first he could only make prints up to 34” x 34.” But soon he was able to make them 50” x 50” and then for his current show at the Smithsonian in DC he was able to make even larger prints. Well, for his subject matter it seems that bigger is better. But in general, much of the work being made today doesn’t really need to be as large as the prints artists are capable of making. Yet artists are as susceptible as anyone to the “bigger is better” mentality. So perhaps the novelty of size has to wear off before we see a greater variety of sized prints in the market.

PR: Has the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time program altered the LA art scene to any degree?

PK: The initiative was designed by and for museums to grow attendance and I haven’t really heard whether it worked for them or not. But the great thing PST did was to shine a light on some of the older artists whose careers were languishing, and that will be it’s greatest legacy.

Upcoming shows at Kopeikin Gallery, 2766 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, CA:
April 21 – May 26: Thomas Wrede, “Real Landscapes” and Brice Bischoff “Bronson Caves.”
June 2 – July 7: Phil Toledano, “A New Kind of Beauty” and Amy Park’s watercolors based on Julius Schulman’s photographs of mid century structures. 
July 14 – August 25: Contemporary Mexican Photography, curated by Alejandro Cartagena.

The AIPAD Photography Show continues at The Park Avenue Armory through Sunday, April 1. Information. On Saturday, AIPAD presents a series of discussions, including a conversation between Rineke Dijkstra and Guggenheim curator Jennifer Blessing. Tickets are available at The Park Avenue Armory during show hours. 643 Park Avenue, at 67th Street, NY, NY.



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