Todd Levin Interview Continued…
Carey: Are you only working with, or looking for, major blue-chip artists who have had a very extensive exhibition history?
Levin: In my career I’ve worked with a very broad range of historical periods and price points. When one starts out, one is usually on the lower rungs of the ladder in terms of access and the financial amounts involved. If one gains experience and expertise through time, and is recognized as increasingly capable of curatorial responsibility, one moves up the ladder in terms access and financial strata.
I began with art of my own generation. I think it’s natural to begin with one’s peer group, and in my case that was artists of the eighties. Gradually my career broadened and deepened, and became much more multivalent. Today I would agree that the majority of my time is tied up with what you identify as ‘blue-chip’ art, for lack of a better term.
Carey: I’d like to move back a little bit in time to your beginnings in art, maybe the eighties or earlier. What was it—and this could be very early in life if you want—what was it that first attracted you to art, as a child, as a young adult? Do you remember your first experience with art?
Levin: There is no distinct origin point for me. I grew up in Detroit with a single mother – a very well respected and sought after interior designer who was also an art collector. I was exposed to the visual language of art and design from my earliest memories. As my mother was single, I traveled everywhere with her, which meant artist’s studios, museums, galleries, and alternative spaces. It was a regular part of my life since I was a child.
Carey: That’s fascinating. What was she collecting? That seems an extraordinary experience to me as a child. That’s quite a vision to have as a single mother, I would think that with all the other things a parent has to go through, that building a collection is quite visionary, really.
Levin: I think collecting was a natural outgrowth of my mother’s interest in visual language via her interior design practice. And much of the art that she collected has a distinct graphic aspect. Not unlike, perhaps, design renderings or architectural blueprints. It was something that was around the house. It’s something I was accustomed to.
Carey: And you’re also watching and listening which is kind of unusual to see for anyone to be going into artists’ studios as a child, because it sounds like she’s buying directly from artists and you’re hearing the questions she was asking, and how artist are presenting themselves, correct?
Levin: One must remember we’re talking about the early/mid sixties. A very different time and place. There was no art market of the type that we all accept now as the norm. Going to artists’ studios was a much more common and low-key experience than it is now. There was very little money on the table for a gallerist to worry about if a collector went to a studio to “buy direct.” That would now be seen as a financial arbitrage depending on the artist and gallery involved. Things have changed greatly in the last forty or fifty years in the art market.
Carey: So what happened next for you? What happened in college? Were you taking courses in art then, or learning more about the art world so to speak?
Levin: In university I had a dual interest. I had an interest in visual art because I began collecting art in high school. I also had an interest in music, and attended university for doctoral studies in music composition as well. During my university years I developed very strong relationships with artists who I found interesting in my peer group. I was coming to New York regularly at that time because flights were very cheap and I would crash on (artist) friend’s floors or couches. I was exposed to art and artists in the East Village from the late seventies forward. At that time, it seemed that every person I saw on First Avenue was someone in the art world that I either knew personally or recognized. That was my formative first person experience which I drew upon later as an advisor.
Carey: And the artists that you were initially interested in were, I imagine, the seventies and eighties artists. Do you mind saying who those artists were that initially drew your interest? Who of your generation did you begin buying, trading, etc.?
Levin: Well, my mother was collecting artists of her generation– Calder, Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Nauman, Warhol, etc. I saw that she enjoyed the experience of going to studios to meet and talk with these artists, as well as their gallerists. She enjoyed having discussions with lively, intelligent people. It was important to her. In addition, my mother also felt it important to be a good community member in the Arts. She participated on a number of committees and boards at The Detroit Institute of Arts.
It was natural for me to emulate this model of behavior. By the time I was in high school, I was already interested in art and collecting, but mostly on a regional level. Then, during my time in university, I became interested in artists of my own generation. And that was the reason why I began to travel back and forth to New York on a regular basis, to be directly involved in the creation of culture that interested me, in the same way I had seen my mother participate in art of her time.