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Between Philanthropy and Fairs: an interview with Robinson Holloway, Founder of Village West Gallery and Executive Director of Art Fair 14C

Robinson Holloway is Founder of the non-profit Village West Gallery and Executive Director of Art Fair 14C. She discovered her passion for the art world by curating solo shows at 350 Bleeker Street, located in the lobby of her fashionable West Village apartment. Robinson is a member of ArtTable, POWarts, and the International Womens’ Forum, and she sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD).

Since founding her gallery, Robinson has gone on to hold the position as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Jersey City Arts Council (JCAC). Dedicated to supporting smaller galleries and artists lacking representation, Robinson joined Art Fair 14C in 2018 as Executive Director and aims to ensure accessibility to the world of fine art. www.artfair14c.com

Established in 2014, Village West Gallery operates on a philanthropic model and prides itself in its ‘no-commission’ approach, ensuring that all sales proceeds go to the exhibiting artists. Housed in a former grocery wholesale warehouse, the business functions as a community space to unite artists and art lovers throughout Jersey City. www.villagewestgallery.com

The gallery’s program features themed group shows throughout the year.

Stephanie Yeap spoke with Robinson via video call between London and New Jersey…

  1. 1. Describe your business in 5 words:

Joyful, fascinating, supportive, creative, and essential.

2. What inspired you to pursue this career?

I have always loved art and was constantly surrounded by it growing up. I mean, my best friend was an artist! However, I was in sports journalism for 20 years and got to travel around the world. I bought art from wherever I went and that was my souvenir. Wherever I was in the world, I made it a point to go to galleries and museums.

I fell into curation as a second career when I was living in Greenwich Village. The building I was living in had a huge lobby and the design committee decided that we weren’t going to have art there. But I couldn’t believe it – how could you not have art? This is Greenwich Village! They wanted mirrors under the pretence that no one would agree on a selection of art, but I suggested a rotation of work. This worked out really well, and because this was something that benefited our building, we believed we shouldn’t charge any commission. So that’s how I started not making any money off the arts! 

Upon moving to Jersey City, my husband and I bought a building, and we realised the ground floor was perfect for a gallery. Here we started our philanthropic gallery, again charging no commission. We primarily host themed group shows, because I love artists, and I like to pick themes that amuse and intrigue me. We are about to open a group show called ‘Slow Art,’ which focuses on artwork that is thoughtful and made for slow contemplation. We received 800 submissions and ended up with 21 artists, with 17 of them being new to the gallery. Putting together a thought-provoking show like that is what gives me great joy in this profession.

To be fair, this only deals with my gallery career. I actually spend most of my time working at Art Fair 14C. What inspired me to create the fair was my time running the Jersey City Arts Council, waking up every morning and asking myself, ‘how can I help artists — poets, sculptors, dancers?’ It was clear from my monthly meetings at AWAD that art fairs were essential to having a career in the visual arts, as this was where works were sold. Most of our local artists and galleries didn’t have access to fairs for mainly financial reasons. So I wondered, how can I give this essential experience to these professionals? And that’s why we started 14C.

I wouldn’t have been able to make that leap without AWAD, as that was where I heard so many members discuss the challenges and benefits of fairs. Considering this, I strove to establish one that would strengthen galleries and increase opportunities for artists. We believe that no one should go under because of an art fair. Our total cost, including NJ taxes, is $741.35, which is phenomenal compared to the $20,000 and above you might have to pay for a booth in New York. Capitalism doesn’t always work well for visual artists, so it’s really important to me to find as many ways as we can to make the arts a living.

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

It’s the discovery of new talent and the incredible community surrounding the arts. Honestly, there’s just nothing better than a new artist who blows me away. It’s just extraordinary to view work that gives me a different window into thinking, feeling and beauty. What’s incredible is that this happens about once a week!

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

Firstly, the challenges of capitalism are a big one because art has become a commodity and people view it that way. The competing pressures of capitalism and its demands don’t always work with the arts, leading to the perception that art is frivolous and merely an additional commodity. It shouldn’t be a luxury, but a part of every child’s education and life. While I believe it’s essential to everyone, this can be challenging for some to understand because they don’t value or take the arts seriously. 

For example, the governor of New Jersey recently announced that our state is the only one to have arts education for all students, and while that’s great, it should be universal. Even from a capitalist viewpoint, the fact is that the arts make for more creative engineers, scientists and even evil businessmen! Without a doubt, it should be there for everyone. 

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

Join AWAD! My membership has been absolutely essential for the career I’m in. AWAD was one of the first organisations I joined (besides the Golf Writers’ Association of America for my previous career!) and now I have a load of memberships. Realising the value of a collegial business association was incredible, considering I never really had colleagues even when I was working at ABC Sports. While I’m still in Jersey City and even though it can feel like I’m on my own little island, having this association and people to talk with, is just great. 

Additionally, Susan J. Mumford (the CEO and Founder of AWAD) gave me a tip that I think is super valuable although I don’t always follow it. It’s to have a small notebook and small stapler in your bag, and when somebody hands you a card, staple it in and make a note where you met them and what you promised them.

For example, Art Fair 14C now has over 18,000 people on the mailing list. I record in this notebook every interaction with an artist or attendee from the fair and note details like what county they’re from or what sort of art they’ve expressed interest in. Being organised is very important from the beginning and putting care into something like this is essential. 

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!)

Be organised! Seriously, this is the most important thing. You meet so many people and in turn, so many business cards. Susan’s advice (as mentioned in the previous question) is honestly the most useful thing, as it prevents me from filling my handbag with 8 million business cards! 

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

What isn’t a challenge?! Right now there are so many, the main one being the global political unrest that makes people nervous and keeps them from buying art. Exacerbating this is the perspective that art is just a commodity. This makes sales challenging because the arts industry is already changing so rapidly, with the brick-and-mortar model morphing into something virtual and more ad-hoc. The treadmill of fair after fair can be quite exhausting as well.

All of this leads me to ask: how is art going to be sold 5 years from now? How much are things going to evolve? It’s going to be really tricky to know how many platforms you need to be on and how to reach out to people, so those are the challenges I’m concerned with right now. 

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

tiffany window

Garden Landscape, ca. 1905 – 15. Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Image from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/9620

I would be the Tiffany window inside the Charles Engelhard Courtyard of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I would be beautiful and sparkling, thanks to all the sunshine let in by the great glass walls. It’s just a lovely place to be and there would be so many people admiring me! Who wouldn’t want to be Tiffany window? 

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

AWAD is truly an incredible resource and I’m able to pick the brains of fellow amazing members. I never had a mentor or anyone like that so talking to them and getting feedback from them has been great. I 100% know that there would not be the 14C art fair had I not joined the Association. I would not have been able to make the leap from running the Jersey Arts Council to starting an art fair without the input of other members.

I also like that because none of us really sell the same tube of toothpaste, we aren’t really in competition and are genuine in our willingness to help one another. I don’t know how many other professional organisations can say that. This really helps us and our small- to medium-sized businesses thrive together, and that’s why it’s so important to have organisations like AWAD. 

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

Show up! Go to events, met fellow members, and talk to them. I’ve never had a bad meeting as I’ve always gained something, whether it was getting to know them a little better or a new piece of useful information. Being the first organisation I joined, AWAD really laid the foundation for me as this has lead me to become a member of ArtTable, POWarts, and the International Womens’ Forum. 

www.villagewestgallery.com

Instagram: @villagewestgallery //Twitter @villagewestjc // Facebook: @villagewestgallery 

www.artfair14c.com
Instagram: @artfair14c // Facebook: @artfair14c

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