In this economy, you might think a person would have to be some kind of superhero to open a successful photography gallery as a young newcomer to the New York art world. And you’d probably be right. We asked 28-year-old Kris Graves, collections photographer at the New York Guggenheim museum by day and co-owner of +Kris Graves Projects gallery by night, how he accomplished this amazing feat.
Photo by Kris Graves.
Aimee Baldridge: What is your educational background and how did you get started in photography?
Kris Graves: I started photographing in high school, around 11th grade. I went to a college named SUNY Purchase—it’s a State University of New York school—in 2000 and graduated in 2004. I received a bachelor of fine arts in visual arts.
Instead of leaving school and trying to do things on my own, I went back to Long Island, where I’m from, and started working for my dad’s manufacturing company. I worked there for maybe two years. But I still was a photographer and decided to start a website during that time named NYfinearts.com, which was a collection of about 35 photographers and artists, people that I’d known from Purchase and after Purchase. It was pretty much galleries of 30 people’s work online. So that’s how I started with my own gallery stuff.
After about two years, I decided to organize some group shows in Chelsea, so I organized in total six group shows that were two or three weeks long, each of 15 or 20 artists, with a lot of photography-based art. I did a few shows in Queens and I did 10 group shows in 10 weeks at this little cafe in Harlem named Society around Christmas of 2006. I worked during all this in a studio in Chelsea that photographed artwork.
One night, at one of those little shows in Harlem, we decided that we wanted to go to Berlin because the flights were really cheap, so eight of us went. When I was in Berlin I got a job interview offer from the Guggenheim. I came back, did the interview, and got the job, then started working at the Guggenheim.
In the fall of 2009, around Thanksgiving, I was talking to my cousin Gravelle Pierre, who now runs the gallery with me. He wanted an office space and I wanted a gallery space, but I didn’t have enough money for it. So he said he could have an office in the back of the gallery, and we opened a little gallery in Brooklyn for two years, did well, had a nice time, did a bunch of shows, and are hoping to move to Chelsea this year.
AB: What was the impetus for putting together all of those shows, before you even opened a gallery?
Kris Graves: Just keeping people together, keeping people working. If people knew I was having a show, they would continue to make work. There was no other reason. It wasn’t for money or anything.
AB: You wear a lot of different hats. What is your typical day like?
Kris Graves: I work nine to five with the Guggenheim—sometimes more, sometimes slightly less. I photograph artwork for publications and anyone who needs it. So let’s say they need a Picasso shot; I’ll photograph that Picasso in my studio. I also shoot for special projects and special events. I shoot store items. Anything they need I shoot.
And then I spend time on my computer at home, maybe four to six hours every day, working with artists or talking to collectors. I don’t handle the money in the gallery. I just worry about my artists and the collectors. My business partner handles all the finances. So that’s how my day goes. I don’t sleep very much.
AB: Are there other things that you do in the course of your work throughout the year that aren’t everyday tasks?
Kris Graves: I’m always looking. I’m at galleries every week. A few days a week I’m usually at galleries either for openings or just to see things. I’m at museums probably once a month. I look at old work of mine almost every day, just thinking about ideas. Everyone has a blog, and I have a few of them and I run the blog for the gallery, which I have about five other writers for as well.
I have a lot of vacation days, so I travel a lot, and that’s how I do my own photography. I usually don’t do my own photography in New York. I have enough vacation time to use vacations as business trips, meaning I can go to London for art fairs and business and go to Madrid for art fairs in February and May.
AB: It doesn’t seem like you opened your gallery during an ideal time, in terms of the economy. Were finances not much of a consideration?
Kris Graves: We didn’t spend much of our own money on the first shows that we did. Not much money was spent at all. We opened the gallery about a month and a half after the economy crashed. Gravelle was going to have an office whether or not we had a gallery, and he knew that an office would cost as much as a gallery would. For a few years he didn’t need to have an office that wasn’t a gallery. We thought it was a good time to open up a business because galleries were very cheap to rent.
AB: Is your gallery profitable?
Kris Graves: We’re profitable because we don’t pay our rent ourselves. We don’t lose money because we don’t have any expenses right now. We don’t have a gallery to pay for, so therefore it’s all profit.
AB: Did you get any particularly good advice when you were getting started?
Kris Graves: Don’t open a gallery. That was good advice. I think that’s probably the advice I’d give people who said they wanted to open a gallery now. I’d tell them it’s probably not a good idea. Having collectors before you open a gallery is a good idea. If you open a gallery without a collector base, you’re probably going to close.
Unless you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to make your gallery important instantly, you’re going to spend three or four years losing money. And then you may break even after that. It’s very hard to run a gallery.
I think showing what you want to show is important. I hope that whoever wants to do this has an eye for it or has an idea about what they want to show, and they can communicate their idea to the public and hopefully the pubic responds. Don’t spend too much money. Keep your costs down and have fun.
Stop sleeping. You can sleep when you’re 40. That’s pretty important. I think people sleep a lot and it’s totally worthless. Sleep on the weekends, and maybe five, six hours a night on weekdays. Just fill your day with things. Don’t waste any time.
AB: How did you build your collector base before you opened the gallery?
Kris Graves: We just opened and started making sales. Everyone else who opens a gallery has a client base. There are people who open galleries and have worked in galleries for 20 or 30 years, so they already have a client base. We didn’t have that so we just started from scratch getting clients, just by having a gallery opening. We had great shows and people wanted to buy the work.
We didn’t really publicize the shows that much, but we got reviews here and there. Our artists aren’t super well known, but they’re well known enough that we have some people at the openings that will tell other good people about future openings. You just really try to have the best show possible and hopefully get lucky.
AB: What are your collectors like?
Kris Graves: They’re young. We have new collectors, and we have a price range that’s not for the super-collector. Our collectors are not people who are going to Sotheby’s or Christie’s auctions. Our collectors are people who have day jobs and work. They’re normal people that love art.
AB: Why do you do all this? What do you love about it that drives you to do it?
Kris Graves: I wish I knew why I liked to torture myself. I could just do the daytime job, go home and do nothing. Or just think about my own photography. I can’t tell you why I think about other people’s. But I do care about the people I represent. I want them to live on past their death. I would love to be collected in museums and have my artists be collected in museums. That’s kind of why I do it, for the longevity of art.
I love art. I love seeing new shit. So that’s probably what I love about all of it. I don’t deal with artists whose work I don’t like, so I’m always seeing beautiful art that I like. It makes me better. It makes me think about art, my own art, so it’s a great thing.
The "Breaking In" series asks successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
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