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Art Forum Berlin - Interview with Joe Amrhein / Pierogi Gallery

Joe Amrhein and Marek Claassen

This is an Artfacts.Net interview with Joe Amrhein, director of the Pierogi Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Pierogi is a synonym for Williamsburg style, the flatfiles and Mark Lombardi.

AfN: Hello Joe.

Joe: Hello.

AfN: We are here at the Art Forum Berlin. Can you tell us why you chose this fair for your gallery?

Joe: Right now, we have a gallery in Leipzig, Germany. And it's a fair that I think is very important now that Berlin has become a real centre in the art world, and to have some attention to Leipzig, as well, is very important for us.

AfN: But you came here before you opened a gallery in Leipzig.

Joe: We came here before because having a gallery in Brooklyn, NY, Berlin always seemed like a sister city to me, to Brooklyn. It has this new age of artists coming and developing, and it felt very much like Brooklyn to me. The energy felt very good but the collectors unfortunately weren't there, so it was very hard to get things going at the fair.

AfN: But you stayed nevertheless. You have told me that you have been here five times.

Joe: Yes, five times. And I have been teaming up now with the Dogenhaus gallery in Leipzig. He has been very helpful for me, and we have been working with new collectors, and I have been bringing collectors, too. It has been a nice team-partnership for me because the first two times here I was alone which was difficult.

AfN: So this is the first time that you do a partnership booth?

Joe: No, we have done it three times. The first time was together, the second time, we were with two other galleries. Now, we have a partnership again. It allows us to have a bigger booth, to get more attention and we feel a little more energy. It feels good.

AfN: Recently you have opened a branch in Leipzig as you just said. You called that place "the Williamsburg of Germany." In comparison to Leipzig, what does Berlin mean to you?

Joe: Berlin now is Chelsea to me. I am always on the other side of the river, always make it a little harder for myself... [laughs] No, I do like Leipzig, the Baumwollspinnerei is very compelling to me because it has this community aspect to it, the same as Williamsburg had to me. When I first got there, it had this community spirit. Artists would come in to work at great studio spaces and that's one reason I started the flatfiles at the gallery in Brooklyn because of the large number of artists that I could not represent. Having an access to these works is very important, and I have a vested interest in this space. In Leipzig too, we started the flatfiles where artists can come and bring in work and have a voice where they would not have otherwise. And now Brooklyn is becoming much more gentrified, and becoming much more like Berlin; there is more energy, and more interesting in that sense. But Leipzig has more of this sort of development; anything can happen, and I love that... to be with the artists and to have this dialogue with artists, and that's how the soul of Pierogi really started.

AfN: So would you move again to another city that has this spirit if Leipzig loses it?

Joe: [laughs] I only have so much energy... and so much in my pocketbook. It's a hard thing to do but the context of the flatfile which I use, has moved to different cities, not under my name but other galleries have developed this idea which is great, and so I hope to continue that way.

AfN: You started the gallery as an artist-run project in 1994. Pierogi soon became a sort of cultural hub for Williamsburg. Looking back in time would you encourage other artists to run their own business? - And what was the secret that made Pierogi so successful?

Joe: I think I encourage artists to show their work - that's the main thing - and to not rely so heavily on the White Cube, the gallery space. Being in New York and being in Brooklyn, there are so many artists that are trying to get their work shown, and now in Berlin and other places and city centres like that. The simplest thing to do for artists is getting a dinner together, with other artists and friends, and showing their work on the walls; renting a common space together and having shows - just getting your work out there, getting a dialogue going. That is very crucial, very important. If you just rely solely on just getting into a gallery, it can be very frustrating.

AfN: send around jpegs, talk to arrogant galleries...

Joe: [laughs] Yes, and a lot of artists do not have a personality that keeps that pressure at bay. Some do, and it does not determine the work being good or bad but it is important to get your work out there, and that's what I did in Brooklyn as I really wanted to have a dialogue with the artists. And when it becomes interesting and vital, the collectors start coming and the critics start coming, and it develops that way. So we started from the ground up basically.

AfN: So this was some sort of grassroots movement, if you want.

Joe: Yes, it really was because again, being in Williamsburg in the early 90ies, there were a lot of artists there and people were just doing things spontaneously because they had no other option; the market was really depressed at that time. So it felt really vital though, it seemed really interesting because people were doing what they really wanted to do, and opening up a space allowed for this energy to find an escape. It was really wonderful.

The flatfiles at Art Forum Berlin

AfN: Did you have the financial success in mind when you started this?

Joe: I had no strategy at that time. Today I have no strategy for this either but it is developing. I am representing artists now, and I am selling works, I participate in art fairs, and I do rely on that; the sales keep the gallery going. But back then, I really just had the idea of a glorified studio-visit context where I would present artwork and artists would come, and collectors would come - there was no expectation on either side. It was all about dialogue, creating this sort of energy.

AfN: So this would be your main advice: stay in your time and...

Joe: Well, if you do have money or have access to money to develop that sort of space, it would be nice to think about what you are doing and then get involved, but I advise artists to really be proactive and develop it on their own terms. If you don't have that access to money or to collectors that want to invest and help you out, it's important to develop it on your own terms. That usually is the best way because it is much more real.

AfN: A lot of galleries have a space for temporary shows for young artists but you invented the "flat files". An archive as a forum to show artists being under represented or ignored in the Manhattan gallery system. The "flat files" include the work of over 800 artists now. Has this approach of showing unknown artists and sell them for small money also a political background?

Joe: It has a political aspect to it all, too. I feel like the art world is a very class-biased system, that it is very much about selling to people that have a lot of money because the prices of the artwork are very expensive, and there is a reason for that. But there is also a whole world out there, people that are very well-educated and very interested in artwork, and they cannot afford it. And there is a whole world out there of artists whose works are affordable but in the gallery system, you cannot really show that scale because the rents are too high, and the galleries cannot afford to show that kind of work. So what I try to do with the flatfiles - I mean, every gallery has a flatfile system; usually it's just a storage for...

AfN: ...for graphics or paperworks or something like that...

Joe: Yes, that's true and this was a first way to really have curated system, the flatfile system. You allow people to come in and open up the drawers and there are many different artists in it. It's a very eclectic system; artists that come in and the work is only on consignment. It is not represented by the gallery. Some of the artists are but the idea is to have people come in, look at work, and the value of the work can vary from the inexpensive to the more expensive. The idea is to encourage people to start collecting, to invite people to look through work and see. It does not disregard the idea that collectors can come in and have a fixed idea about what they are doing, and they can find new artists. And it invites curators to come in and fill out a show, invites dealers to come in and find new artists. It's just this resource, really. When I first started, I did not realise that it would be such an important force, but now a lot of people come in, and for me, it's very exciting to find people come in for the first time to buy artwork. When you buy an artwork for 5000 Euro or more you always think about investment, and when you have this availability of work, you are buying it because you really love it. And it does not mean that you cannot go to the studio of the artist, or to the gallery of the artist, as work in the files and buy things that are more valuable. But it's a way for you to be introduced to the world.

AfN: You have one of these containers here, and seeing this container at an art fair is - at least for me because it is the first time that I see something like that under these circumstances - like an artwork in itself.

Joe: It becomes a sculpture, yes, and it is an interactive sculpture. It is a way for collectors to get involved again and artists to maybe befriend other artists that might be doing similar work. It is a sculpture, it is interactive, it is a vehicle to enter this world that you might be unfamiliar with.

AfN: Pierogi has been the gallery of Mark Lombardi. One of the most political artists I can imagine. In comparison to that, do you thing that contemporary art is a paper tiger, a tiger without teeth? Tamed?

Joe: I don't think it is, no. I think a lot of it is just fluff and catering to the market but in terms of contemporary work with contemporary ideas, interesting ideas like Mark Lombardi or people that have a serious idea, it lives in the contemporary world, and that's vital, that's very important.

AfN: And you think it is still there, and it is still happening.

Joe: It is definitely there. The thing that scares me, especially being in New York and in the States, is there are a lot of artists coming out of schools, so in debt with their student loans, and everyone seems to have a strategy and read about these artists that are making huge amounts of money, and they expect to do the same. And then they have these strategies to make the money back, and that interferes quite often. [...] The art world is becoming very convenient, and that makes it very lazy in a way, and I think the better work always still needs to be sorted out. Art fairs tend to drive a certain aesthetic, which is very convenient to pack and ship and hang on the wall and then leave. There is a lot of work that is very nuanced, but which gets lost in fairs or performance work or installation-type of works. It is not to say that hanging up something on the wall is a bad thing because there are some beautiful paintings, beautiful drawings, beautiful things but overall, I think it drives an aesthetic of sales. It is all commodification. And I think in the whole scheme of things, it is bad for art.

AfN: Dear Joe, thank you for the interview.

Interview: Marek Claassen
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