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Accola Griefen Landscape

On Championing Feminist Art: an interview with Kristen Accola and Kat Griefen, the Co-founders and Co-Directors of Accola Griefen Fine Art

Kristen Accola is Co-founder and Co-Director of Accola Griefen Fine Art (www.accolagriefen.com/, which was established in 2011. The business is focused on established 20th and 21st century American and Native American women artists. She began her profession in the art world in 1978 as the sole Assistant to the Director of Lefebre Gallery(1960-1986) in NYC and then held the position of Coordinator of Special Projects at Gary Snyder Fine Art in Chelsea, NY. In 2008 Kristen opened her first gallery. 

Accompanying this is Kristen’s 15 years as a curator. She was Director of Exhibitions and Curator at the Hunterdon Art Museum in NJ for 10 years, where she conceived, designed and oversaw the implementation of the institution’s exhibition program, moderated panel discussions, lectured and wrote didactic wall and catalogue text. For the remaining 5 years, Kristen was an independent curator for various galleries, colleges and corporations in New York and New Jersey. To date, Kristen has curated over 120 solo and group exhibitions, many of which were reviewed in the New York Times and other art publications.

Owing to her wealth of experience, Kristen has been a juror for the Joan Mitchell Foundation and on the benefit committee for the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is also a member of the leadership organization ArtTable and is a founding member of the New York Chapter of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD). 

Kat Griefen is Co-founder and Co-Director of Accola Griefen Fine Art, which was established in 2011. The business is focused on established 20th and 21st century American and Native American women artists. Prior to this, she was Director of A.I.R (Artist-In-Residence) Gallery, the first non-profit gallery for women artists in the United States which was established in 1972. Exhibitions organized and curated by Kat have been reviewed in large-scale publications, such as the New York Times, the New Yorker and ArtNews

Kat is a Lecturer of Gallery and Museum Studies at Queensborough Community College in New York, which prides itself in the accessibility of its education programs and has lectured widely at institutions and conferences such as The College Art Association, New York University and The Brooklyn Museum. She was Co-chair and Co-organizer of the 11th Feminist Art Project Day of Panels in 2017, which was dedicated to the visual culture and Native Feminisms of North America. Kat is a National Committee Member for the Feminist Art Project, a founding member of the New York Chapter of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD), a member of the Council for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and was appointed a seat on ArtTable’s National Board of Directors in 2018. 

Accola Griefen Fine Art was founded by Kristen Accola and Kat Griefen in 2011 and works with women artists in both the primary and secondary market. The two women boast over a combined fifty years of experience in commercial services, curation and academia. In addition to expertise in contemporary American art, Kristen specializes in the works of the European CoBrA movement and Kat in the realm of Feminist Art, among other areas. Accola Griefen’s exhibitions have been well-received in major publications such as ArtNews, The New York Times, and Sculpture Magazine. The gallery also exhibits at major international fairs in the United States. 

In recent years, works represented by the business have entered the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, multiple university museums and the Library of Congress: brilliant testaments to the duo’s keen abilities to discern remarkable pieces. 

Services offered include: advisory to established and emerging collectors, as well as those who wish to consign works from their collections. 

The business stages multiple exhibition programs in New York City and helps facilitate their artists’ exhibitions across the country. 

Stephanie Yeap spoke with Kat (KG) and Kristen (KA) via video call between London and New York City…

1. Describe your business in 5 words:

Feminism, integrity, partnerships, knowledge, and equity.

2. What inspired you to pursue this career? 

 KA: What inspired me – I had taken art classes from the age of 6. I had an enthusiastic mother who wanted to expose me to everything under the sun, but the only thing I enjoyed was the art classes. So I ended up sticking with that all the way through high school, and then I went to a regular university to please my father. But after 2 years I opted out and ended up transferring to an art school. So art has always been my passion. When I was 15, because my mother saw that I had this particular zeal, she decided to take me to Europe where we visited all the major art museums in Western Europe.  To this day it remains in my mind as one of the most influential and inspirational events of my life. But my love of art was always there regardless. 

KG: Both of my parents were artists, though only one of them is working now. They were in New York in the 1960s, and my father managed to establish a successful career as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist. So I spent a lot of time as a kid in his studio in Tribeca, being surrounded by artists and even critics such as Clement Greenberg. By the time I was growing up in the ‘80s, his genre of work had fallen out of favour, but his work was already in big museum collections. So when we went to a place like the Met or the Whitney, it was like, “oh, my dad has work in this collection!”

On the other hand, my mother, in the ‘60s, started building a career in photography and design. Her and her best friend at the time, Barbara Kruger, worked in design at Madmoiselle Magazine. They did all of the design, my mother even published some of her photographs and she studied with Diane Arbus during the one year Arbus taught at Parsons School of Design. My mother was very much set up to have a career in the arts but did not end up continuing. This was far before she was married and far before I was born. Earlier in my career, I came to question why one artist could build a career and a market, and how another woman artist, in this case, might not have the resources or mentorships in order to do so. This is what really drives my career in the arts.

That’s why Kristen and I are dedicated to working with women artists specifically. Now we’re making a point to work with contemporary indigenous women artists because that representation and support are super important.

3. What’s the most wonderful thing about the profession?

KA: For me, it’s the art itself, because I’ve been in love with art in every variety one can name since I can remember. That’s what drives me. The second thing is working with Kat and other colleagues. The partnership with her is amazing.

KG: We were talking about this question, which specifically asks about the profession. But if you’d ask us about the business, I’d say the same thing as Kristen. There’s something very special about our partnership, we are family and we support each other. I know I couldn’t do what we do together on my own! 

KA: Neither could I!

KG: In terms of the larger business, what feels really meaningful is when we have successful placements of works by artists we represent or works we represent at institutions. The fact that we can affect what people are seeing today, as well as what people will see tomorrow, is very exciting. Yesterday we officially had a work by Mary Beth Edelson placed in the Brooklyn Museum! Recently, we placed 3 works by Gina Adams, who is an indigenous Anishinaabe artist with colonial ancestry, in 3 major museums. It’s very inspirational to be able to participate in this kind of work!

4. And let’s get real… What’s the most challenging aspect of the profession?

KA: You know, it’s current-day New York City, so it’s definitely the financial challenges; crazy rents have put so many dealers out of having a physical, public space. That’s a huge hurdle. Since 2008 so much has been written about this. We have lost a big percentage of the mid-level market. They don’t buy as much art anymore due to the increase in expenses in their personal lives. So for me, I see that as the main challenge. 

KG: I think the same thing, but overall the general challenge of being a gallerist or dealer is the ups-and-downs of the market and the unpredictability. 

5. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given?

KA: I got this advice from a professor in art school, who directed it at artists, but I took it to heart because I believe it applies to anyone in this field. He said “be sure you’re doing this out of complete love and devotion to art. Total devotion. There are huge sacrifices, so you have to be motivated and that has to be more powerful than anything else.”

KG: When I was Director at the nonprofit A.I.R. Gallery, my predecessor said to me, “there are no emergencies here, it’s not the emergency room!” And yes, I agree. While sometimes, the stakes feel really high and they are real in financial terms, we are (and better be!) in this business because we really love it and have an enduring passion for the work. We have to make sure that what we’re getting out of these jobs goes beyond financial side.

6. What do you now say to someone who is just starting out? (Maybe it’s that one thing you wish someone had told you!)       

KA: Have a very solid financial plan! As you know, I’m older and started out in the ‘70s. That was a very different time and nobody thought about financial planning. It wasn’t even a concept in the arts. Back then, rents weren’t an issue but that changed really quickly. A lot of us got deeply embedded into the art world here, and then all of a sudden, rents increased and there was a constant migration of galleries and artist studios, and it landed us where we are now.

So I would say you don’t just have to have a passion and devotion to art, but also a business plan!

The second thing I’d say to those starting out is to get to know as many colleagues as you can. 

KG: I’ll add on to say that this business plan has to be multi-year, or ideally a decade long. Simply because there are so many ups-and-downs and you really can’t have the expectation that a business is going to become successful in 6 months or even 2 years. Now we’re getting close to being in business for a decade, and that really feels like an accomplishment. 

Additionally, I’ll say to those getting into the industry: if you have the right interest and contacts, you could try to work in the secondary market. It really can help complement the business you do in the primary market work. The old business model of working with the primary market and living artists whose works you’re passionate about, combined with the sales of the secondary market is still a strong and helpful model. For example, the work we do in the secondary market is essentially 99.9% women. It’s not a different niche and it’s very similar to our model throughout the primary and secondary market. 

On top of this, we can see the incremental growth, but it’s not like the growth in other businesses. I don’t know how many financial planners there are for the art world actually, but I think that’s absolutely necessary. 

7. What challenge is the industry facing that art dealers need to address?

KG: This is more specific for our business and the larger field, but there is still a lack of equity in terms of artist’s works getting collected and entering institutional collections.  I think there are not enough donors and collectors who are focused, in our case, on Feminist Art and works by contemporary indigenous artists, and that lack of parity creates a real challenge.

On the other hand, I believe we’re stepping up to that. It’s not just important to provide collectors with access to genres they already know about, but also to areas they might not have seen before. That’s the challenge, but that’s also where the reward is. Sometimes we have a client who goes from saying, “oh, I don’t know anything about that genre,” to a few years down the line when they have 4 or 5 works by contemporary indigenous artists in their collection and they’re showcasing these works or loaning them to museums. So there’s definitely a great reward. 

KA: Absolutely! The only thing I’d add to that is the big money is focused on a very limited group of artists. This can be very frustrating, but if you’re able to hang in long enough and champion your own cause, you get to help clients learn and grow into much more educated collectors.

8. If you had to be one work of art, what would you be – and why?

JP+Quartet+Five(small).30862

Quartet 5 (2019) by Judy Pfaff. Image from https://www.judypfaffstudio.com/#/judy-pfaff-at-miles-mcenery-gallery-2019/

KA: I thought long and hard about this because there’s so much art that I love! In the end, I decided that I’d like to be a Judy Pfaff installation because through using a completely unexpected combination of materials and colours to create new forms, she evokes so much intellectual and emotive power. It’s almost inexhaustible, and it’s like entering another world or landing on another planet when you look at it!

A.I.R 1974

A.I.R’s first gallery on 97 Wooster Street in 1974. Image from https://www.airgallery.org/

KG: I previously worked at the A.I.R Gallery, which was the first all-women’s gallery. A lot of people see that organization as an artwork itself. It was founded by artists as an experiment and it’s still going strong, decades later, so I think that kind of complex feminist entity is the artwork I’d like to be.

9. What do you personally believe are the best advantages of being part of an association like AWAD, and how have you benefited?

KA: We have the same answer, but it’s really conversing with colleagues, learning with them, sharing business challenges and honestly sharing actual business. At a time when sales are challenging, getting together allows you to accomplish sales that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. A recent example is that we were able to sell a beautiful  Georgia O’Keefe through sitting at a table with a colleague at an AWAD meeting. She happened to say, “you don’t know anyone who wants a Georgia O’Keefe, do you?” And we’re like, yes! So it was because of AWAD that we conducted this glorious sale, which was a wonderful experience.

KG: Yes! Community and collaboration with fellow members!

10. How can you make the most out of being a member of a professional network? 

KA: Well, again it’s the sharing of information, and essentially it’s how we share everything. When I started in the art market in the ‘70s, it was very competitive and no one was sharing. Since then, it’s been a wonderful experience for me to see especially women, coming together to work collaboratively. In every way you can imagine, women are working together. I think the concept of AWAD is extremely pertinent, considering its benefits and there’s really no downside. 

KG: I would also say it’s the one-on-one time with other colleagues that’s important. To develop really rich and useful relationships you need to take the time to discuss things. At the end of the day, I still think is a very trust-based business so no matter how much goes online or on social media. For a lot of people, the big business is conducted through personal connections. 

KA: I’d just like to sum up and say that AWAD is really a wonderful platform for women sharing and spreading the wealth! It’s truly beautifully conceived. 

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