The Interview – Betty Cuningham
Carey: I want to talk about your gallery and its history. What show do you have up now?
Cuningham: Right now we have Gordon Moore up. He’s an abstract painter. I’ve worked with him for a long time.
Carey: Rackstraw Downes is also someone you’ve been working with for a long time. Is that correct?
Cuningham: Since ’82, that’s when I had a gallery in the 70s and then I joined with Hirschl & Adler, and I had a couple kids. And Rackstraw was at Hirschl & Adler—he joined probably around the same time I did, probably ’82. And Philip Pearlstein and several others who I’ve worked with at Hirschl & Adler are also here.
Carey: So let’s go back a little bit to the beginning of the gallery because it seems there hasn’t been many galleries that have done such consistent shows for so long. What was it that got you involved in wanting to open a gallery in the first place in the seventies?
Cuningham: I guess I’ve always been interested in art and I was doing my masters in nineteenth century American art at Hunter and I switched to doing it on the attitude of collecting contemporary art upon the appointment of Henry Geldzahler. So I got involved with the contemporary field and I switched only because I was getting a museum credit at the same time I was getting my masters and they wanted me to do something about a museum. So I got my masters at Hunter which was just unbelievable because I had great people for my teachers, like Tony Smith was my painting instructor, and I had Leo Steinberg and Bill Reuben, Howard Davis. Davis was the renaissance scholar.
Carey: That’s incredible!
Cuningham: It is incredible because I was doing it at night. I was extremely lucky because I had been working in a law firm and I met this lawyer who said we had to save art in Europe which of course I was interested in because of the nineteenth century studies in art. All the professors at Hunter were interested in what was going on. The flood had hit Florence, Italy and I was over in Florence doing the publicity for them and got to work for some amazing renaissance scholars but at the same time, I’m still taking my masters. So I had a lot of things going on at the same time.
Carey: The flood seemed absolutely devastating. I remember seeing images of that, Renaissance paintings floating, an incredible amount of damage. That was emotionally overwhelming, those pictures I saw.
Cuningham: It was, it was. There was a wonderful film, I did not create it. I wasn’t part of it but I was responsible for moving this film which was a 35mm film narrated by Richard Burton. It was called Florence’s State of Destruction about the flood and was about what was going on. Foreign camps from American universities were over there putting talcum powder between the pages in the Bibliotheque nationale, working on the Cimabues and all these things.
Carey: What was the next step for you after that?
Cuningham: I moved back up here (New York City) because I wanted to get back to New York and I was very clear that I wanted to go for-profit, not nonprofit—not because I thought I’d make money, but because I thought I knew I had the energy to figure that out. I became a registrar at Marlborough for about a month and they hired me and I was only there three months until Jim Harris asked me to come down to work and that’s how I started out. Jim quit and Dave Hickey came in and Dave remained a good friend and we worked together and God knows what else hit but a lot of things hit. We had the blood show, we had so many things going on. About a year and a half later and I walked across the street and I said to a friend, “What am I gonna do?” and he said, “You’re moving upstairs.” So that’s what I did and I was there for a long time.
Carey: And moving upstairs means what exactly?
Cuningham: I had a gallery from 1972 to 1982.
Carey: So you’re just beginning. It wasn’t something you understood before and what was the blood show, was that Herman Nitsche?
Cuningham: Nitsche came to that, it was a John Freeman show. After that, I guess he continued his art somewhat but it was something that Jim Harris wanted to do. John Freeman brought in buckets of blood. Containers of blood from the stock yards in Chicago and he had catheters of blood. One of the catheters of blood exploded and it went through the floors. And it covered one person’s paintings, his name is Jerry Hunt. He’s a British painter. It covered his paintings and it covered the paintings of another artist, and meanwhile, Jim Harris has quit. There were horrible reactions including the health department and the editorial against us in the New York Times. And so those two artists really suffered a loss and oddly, Jerry Hunt did these paintings that were all white with very fine lines. He comes upstairs, I’m alone in the gallery. We have four floors. We had what turned into J Crew and then eventually the hotel and we had the next door space as well. And we had two basements. He comes out from the basement, his face is covered with blood. He’s crying and I think he’s like thirty-eight. He said he will have his representative call me about the loss of his paintings and I go downstairs and literally, the paintings were a gutter of blood. So we poured the blood into a tin can or a tin waste paper basket, it’s a really long story. Anyway, the bottom line is he goes back to London and his representative calls me and I pick up the phone and it’s a lot of talk, and I guess he was going to try to get some money back for Jerry Hunt and I don’t know what happened it was just like chaos. Anyway, I moved across the street and I took over the space.
Carey: How did that go? What was your first show then?
Cuningham: We called it Betty’s Bowling Alley, it was very narrow and it was just a funky little space and I showed five artists and then I went on and I showed some other people, we showed a lot of people. We had some good shows, mostly painting.
Carey: What are the years that we’re talking about here? This is 1972 until 1982, correct?
Carey: So that’s a time of pivotal change in the art world. There are more galleries popping up in New York, it’s still a small art world, and its gathering place is the Broome Street Bar in SoHo. All these things were happening and then that’s moving into the eighties where there’s another shift, which is that the art market becomes something that it wasn’t before. How did you manage that shift in the growth of the art market so to speak?
Cuningham: I would give myself way too much credit for understanding what was going on. It’s very ironic because I think of myself as a pinball machine you know. I hit the side then I go the other direction, I hit the side then I go the other direction.
There was Robert and Ethel Scull who had been collecting works of art, and when the sale of their work came up, what happened in the world was that suddenly contemporary art became liquid. It was liquid money, you could invest in it. And you can get an instant return by putting it up at auction and that really changed the art world. I would like to say that I knew this was going to be the change in the art world. I didn’t have any idea. And I think that the Scull sale was the change. And then when that happened, people became more generally informed that art was an investment.
I remember the resentment of artists about auctions and how they were terrified to go there. It was like a meat factory, like selling a bull off the land or something, you know. None of them would show up for any of the auctions and then they would sometimes try to get another artist to buy something if it ever came up because if they get no bids it would not look good. But that was the beginning of what changed this into a money commodity which is really depersonalized. I mean that the individual artist became kind of lost, he became less important to the art world and the art became more important.
Carey: As the eighties moved forward, you continued to have exhibitions and were there noticeable changes in how they were being mounted or sold?
Cuningham: I think for me it was a change because I joined Hirschl & Adler and they were showing representational art, which is never shown, which is really ironic if you look at what I do today. I had mostly been involved with abstract things.
So when I went to Hirschl & Adler. I remember seeing some things on the wall—and I won’t name the artist, he’d kill me—and I thought, “Oh God, what is this all about.” But it was a very, very good thing for me because it really gave me something.
I had one child who was just born and I had another child when I was in Hirschl & Adler. We had some amazing shows and I was lucky to be part of them. At that time, I met Pearlstein and Rackstraw, whom I adore and they’re both really brilliant and they’re really stimulating to talk to about art and painting and they’re generous to talk to. They like other people’s work whether it’s like theirs or not.
And so I got to know a lot of these people and it made me realize how important it was for artists to do what they have to do rather than what is expected of them. It’s important that each person in the gallery has his own voice and that the gallery doesn’t reflect only one voice. And so what I try to think about is that mostly the artists in my gallery have a type of energy, an independence, and are risk takers. In other words, they’re willing to do something that the world doesn’t ask them to do. They’re going down their own path and I find that it’s absolutely super exciting.
Carey: Your current space in Chelsea is beautiful—how did you find the space?
Cuningham: I got this space with the help of some backing.I started this place in 2004 and we’re now at the end of our lease here so as of this moment, we’re negotiating my lease. [Gallery moved and is now located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.]
Carey: Is the pressure of sales changing the way art is handled?
Cuningham: I think the economic pressures make you make decisions that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. I don’t think it’s healthy for the market because it becomes, well, it becomes “What’s the easiest thing to sell?” I had a visitor to the gallery just the other day who said something to me which I really hadn’t thought about. He made a comment about one of the artists we now show, and he said, “You know, this will be worth more, you sell it at $35,000 but tomorrow it will be $135,000, and the next day it’ll be $150,000, or maybe it will be $250.000.” He only said that because of the Christopher Wool that just sold at a very high price.
I certainly don’t look to my market place and give them what they want. I mean people that come in and say, “Do you do something like flowers or something?” and I think, “God, that’s right, I don’t.”
Although I guess there’s a flower now and then. I think there is an art market and I think there is an art world. And the people on the outside are really interested and I think these kids that come in and enter art school are rightly being told how to manage their career. But maybe they should try to think about their work more.
Carey: Of course you’re right, perhaps artists are coming out of school thinking of the market and focusing on the market too much, which brings us to the last point—where does that leave artists today and how do they move into this new world that is so focused on the market and also has certain amount of pressure, as you were saying, and stay focused on their work?
Cuningham: I think there are a couple things. Years ago, we used to say, never give up your day job. Of course today it’s hard enough to get jobs—but anyway, that was one thing so that you can paint what you wanted to paint. You go to your studio and you have one side of the studio which is what the artist is trying to figure out, the excitement of what they want to do, experiments, and then you have the other side where the artist thinks, “This will sell.”
And I don’t mean that my artists say that to me, but one thing that came up recently—I was hanging a show here and the artist that I was showing was saying, “Why did you take all out of those works? I thought they were the most salable.” And I thought, “I didn’t think of that. I didn’t even think of that.”
But I’m thinking now what’s happening, and this is the younger artist who said this. I think now what’s happening is that the artist is also feeling this pressure that they have to fit in, which is a totally non-creative art point of view. But they feel that they have to, they need to.
First of all they have to pay the rent and that makes them suddenly realize that they have to be able to make this work and then their parents say, “Oh my God, don’t be an artist. If you are going to be an artist, you better do this.” So when a young group comes in here, students, I tell them never be afraid of what you’re going after. That would be the first thing. And never let anybody tell you you’re not going after the right thing in your painting. I mean let them tell you, but you know there’s a great story about Chuck Close who got told he wasn’t doing the right thing by Al Held. Al Held started painting on one of his paintings at Yale and Chuck never let Al Held come back into his studio. But a lot of kids at Yale get that, they start trying to paint like whoever was there.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with graduate school, but I do think that there’s something wrong with the emphasis on marketing and career, because, after all, painters should be doing what they really love and be excited by it, and they have to figure out how to pay their way in a very expensive world and still have the freedom to do what they really want do.
Carey: Do you often visit artists’ studios?
Cuningham: I find it really interesting, going to studio visits. If I understand it right away, OK, and if I don’t understand it, that’s more exciting.
Carey: Betty, thanks so much for talking with us today. What you just said was very powerful and it reminds me of what you said a little bit earlier in our talk around the time of Hirschl & Adler, when you were talking about the emotion of an artist being not so much part of a group or a trend in thinking. You didn’t use those words, but that they each kind of created their own sphere of thinking and it seems to me to be about artists’ choices as the opposite of what may be taught often in schools and MFA programs—which is that there’s a way to do things, a way to approach things, when in fact it should be the opposite.
Cuningham: Absolutely, and beyond that, I’ve often said that once a movement is named, whether it’s “pop art” or something else, it’s over.
Carey: Any advice to the artist reading this?
Cuningham: Just be yourself. I mean as a dealer, I hope I stay myself. No matter how big the space is or how small the space, I hope I stay myself. Never let the gallery be bigger than you are. Never let the person next to you tell you what to do. The truth of the matter is, Yale doesn’t make artists. They are who they are. That’s what I feel.
Carey: I know the question that everyone’s going to ask or think about. They’ll read this interview and think, “It’s wonderful. Betty sounds like a great person and that she would be a great gallery to be working with.” How do you handle artists being interested in talking to you or having a studio visit? What is your policy on that and how would you suggest to anyone who may be thinking after this interview of coming to see your shows and contacting you handle that situation?
Cuningham: Why am I in this business? Because I really do believe in artists and maybe if I were lucky, I would have been an artist myself, though I don’t think I would’ve been a good one. Right now we’re saying we’re not looking. So that would be the first thing to say, to tell you that I’m not looking. But the truth is I look all the time and I try to look and see things. But right now, my time is much more stretched out unfortunately, like everybody else.
What would I advise? I would go back to the other thing, get a day job. Do I think it’s important to live in New York? It’s nice to be available, because it really does make a difference if I have to go to a far off place to see an artist. But I don’t think it’s essential anymore and I’m not sure that New York is the center anymore. I think the center is in your studio.
That interview was a direct account of what one gallerist went through and is still going through in a very important gallery in New York City. I think the important points from what she said are the fact that she continues to look at art, even if she says she doesn’t. She also emphasizes a point that is often heard: be true to your art, because an artistic compromise is failure. I think it is worth noting how Cuningham saw the market and how her space is not just about making money, though she of course must pay the rent and survive.