Strictly Business — Women of Influence

Barbara Krakow, President and Founder of Barbara Krakow Gallery

Artists For Humanity teens speak with Boston-based gallerist Barbara Krakow. Photo by AFH Photography Studio.

Barbara Krakow’s name has become synonymous with the city’s cultural genealogy. The gallerist’s blue-chip, museum-worthy offerings are grounded by her: a seasoned Bostonian with a down-to-earth demeanor and no-fuss attitude. With a taste for minimal, reductivist and conceptually-driven works, Barbara Krakow Gallery showcases contemporary art of all media by emerging and established artists spanning the globe.

A contemporary art dealer since 1964, Krakow’s inaugural gallery space opened at 7 Newbury Street before moving across the street — and out of plain sight — in 1983. Lauded as one of the first gallerists to garner an Internet following, Barbara Krakow has long been ahead of the game. To describe her career’s trajectory, Krakow explains it evolved organically, stating, “everything I’ve done, I’ve done without plans.”

Although Barbara Krakow was one of the first female gallerists in the contemporary art market, the male-dominated industry did not intimidate her. Krakow trusted her instinct, chose colleagues whose taste aligned with her particular vision and hit the ground running. As a result, Krakow’s forty-some years in business have earned her collectors from each continent— and fans who know better than to haggle with her.

Barbara Krakow

While it exhibits a wide range of contemporary art of all media, Barbara Krakow Gallery is keen on work that speaks but does not shout. The gallery’s covetable roster includes but is not limited to the renowned Richard Serra, Kara Walker, Ed Ruscha, Tara Donovan, John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois and Ellsworth Kelly.

In an unprecedented interview with Boston teens, we explore the days before white walls bore her name, as Barbara Krakow reveals her thoughts on the power of collaboration and the sameness of the human condition.

My name is Coliesha Turner and I’ll be asking the first question. We were wondering if you would tell us the story about how you came to be one of Boston’s leading authorities in contemporary art and if there was a pivotal moment that inspired you to choose your career path?

To tell a quick history, years and years ago I worked at a furniture showroom here on Newbury Street and they sold to architects, designers and people who were getting new homes. At lunch, I would roam the streets and stop in different galleries. I went on my honeymoon to Europe. In those days, a Joan Miró print might have been a hundred dollars on Newbury Street. In Paris, you could find this same print for between eight and twenty-five dollars. So I said, “Let’s buy some.” We came back and somebody said to me, “Wow, you’re buying these beautiful prints in Paris and you’re working in a showroom where people need to buy furniture and want things on their walls. Why don’t you ask your boss if you can hang them up?” I said, “Okay.” It wasn’t my idea but I did that.

My whole career is based on no pre-plans — none of that. I went day by day and learned, listened and talked to people.

I went through a variety of partnerships. One of the worst partnerships was with four women, none of whom were aligned with the same goal so we would fight all of the time. It was a very unattractive situation. We once hired a professional management person to come in and spend the day with us. At the end of the day he said, “None of you are ready for a management person. You ought to see a therapist.” So that gives you some idea of how the four women were getting along.

In 1983 I went out on my own and I asked, “What am I going to do? How would I do exhibitions on my own?” to a woman who is now deputy director of MoMA in New York. She said, “You don’t have to come up with every idea on your own. Talk to people. Talk to your friends. Say, ‘Hey I’m thinking of doing this exhibition, what do you think? Do you have any ideas? Do you have any artists who you might suggest?’” So the whole evolution of the gallery is built really on open collaborations with other people.

We have a case study over in Harvard Business School on the gallery. All of these business people want to know our turnover rate as if we were making furniture. When somebody finally loves the work, that’s when it leaves. They didn’t understand how a gallery is run.

I actually bought that case study.

You did? One of the features of the case study was a policy that the gallery has where we have one price.

Nobody gets a better price. Nobody. I don’t care who you are.

You could be President of the Board of Trustees at a museum or you could be a person who has a hundred dollars but the price is the price.

That, in the art world, is a very unique policy because everybody discounts. It’s like an antique store. People come in asking, “What’s your best price? How much will you sell it to me for?”

A lot of people freak out and some people find it unacceptable but in the final analysis we have come to understand that it’s more of a psychological issue. People feel there’s somebody more special than they are and getting something that they are not. They can’t bear the fact that there’s somebody more relevant than they are.

When they finally come to accept that it’s not about that, they come around.

We’re very cautious and thoughtful about how we price things. We know we have to price things at a competitive rate in the international market with the Internet being available for everybody to research a given piece.

As the gallery’s owner and brand, you have a lot of responsibility with choosing art and artists. How do you balance the showing of art you believe in and art that will sell to viewers and prospective buyers?

At our gallery, there is not division between the two. That is, we have no interest whatsoever in showing work that we don’t believe in. One would obliterate all trust.

You have to commit to a body of work. You have to believe in it.

There are a lot of people who do have a particular aesthetic and if it’s not their aesthetic then we’re not the gallery for them. The fact of the matter is, people know why they come to us and why they don’t want to come to us.

Yes, we’re a commercial operation. Of course we are. That’s the only way we’ll survive. I can’t pay my staff, the electricity, my rent, et cetera unless we make sales. However, the truth of the matter is all of these major international artists that we show happen to be able to be the ones that pay for the artists that don’t sell for very much money or that don’t sell.

Over the years I looked up some of the art, and looking just quickly at the art here, most of the artwork that is shown in your gallery is either geometric or has something to do with portraiture. Why is it that that’s what you decide to show in your gallery?

Because everybody has their own aesthetic: what kind of work they care about and what kind of work speaks to them. We basically are not interested in just decorative work.

Work has to speak. It has to confront you in some kind of way. It has to deal with the human condition — which by the way is equal no matter who you are, no matter what your financial position, no matter what your color, no matter what your gender — no matter what.

Everybody knows sadness. Period. And the basic human condition is about everyday people’s emotions; and they’re the same for everybody. Great art deals with that. The fact that minimal and geometric work also has that idea of clarity, a sense of calmness and a sense of peace, appeals to us.

To get back to the first part of your question, if you believe in what you do then your job is to try to tell people why you care about it. They may walk out and say they don’t want to own that but if they walk out and see a Fred Sandback sculpture that’s a piece of yarn on a wall, and say, “Okay I’ll accept that that’s a piece of sculpture,” then you’ve done your job.

That leads perfectly to my next question. Boston is a traditional city that has a traditional reputation. How do you guide the public’s opinion into contemporary art? How do you deal with its resistance or contradictions?

You have to get them into the gallery first. That’s the first thing because otherwise there’s nothing you can do. We will spend hours with people who are new and have never looked at anything. They don’t come in with, “I want a such-and-such.” We just kind of lead them through looking. We say, “Look at this artist, think about this, think about that.”

We let them find their own voice and what it is that touches them. That’s the way you do it.

Boston isn’t a conservative city. It’s the myth that nobody wants to debunk or disassociate from. Historically it was [a conservative city] but it’s not contemporarily a conservative city. Politically, it’s not. We’re probably the most advanced political state in the entire country.

Currently, there are a great deal of discussions surrounding the role of women in the art market. As a key player in the art world, what are your thoughts on the challenges that women may face?

Well, women face challenges everywhere. It’s hardly segregated to just the art world. I can tell you the following. A couple of years ago, I moderated a panel of something called The National Museum of Women In The Arts, which is in Washington, DC. They coupled with Harvard Business School in dealing with the issue of women in the arts. One of the things that they said was they would give us a free ad because I was doing it. At first, we were just going to do the name of the gallery but then I said we should go through our exhibition history to pull out all the women we have shown. The list went on and on and on. However, I can tell you that it wasn’t ever like, “Oh, we need a woman artist in this show.” It somehow was just a natural happening of work that we liked and cared about.

Part of me was thinking, “Great, we don’t have to deal with women [issues], they have their own museum. This is great, we don’t have any responsibility anymore as a museum to show women because it’s already being taken care of.” I understand they were trying to promote it but it’s too isolating I think and it [should be] all about integration. How do you convince institutions? Clearly as you look at exhibitions now the situation has changed quite, I think sincerely, around the world.

You read articles, which say how men’s art sells for more than women’s art which is probably true. It’s the fight that everybody has to make when you’re an outsider. How do you fight the cause to get yourself to be part of the community?

So we happen to show a lot of women. If the work is powerful and strong enough then fine. We don’t make any distinctions on medium. Some people like photographs or whatever but we don’t care. When you ask how I make my decisions, I base them on aesthetics. We have trouble with artists who are only about me, me, me, and then me and how about me and talk about me because we don’t like that too much. It’s a partnership.

People ask if we have contracts. We don’t have contracts because if the relationship isn’t working am I going to sue an artist? Is the artist going to sue me? No, it was just the wrong relationship and didn’t work. So yes it’s a struggle politically. Everywhere you go you read all of these articles about women running corporations and how there’s one to every ten thousand men. But then, you know, one [woman] squeezes in, another squeezes in.

There’s also the question that comes up about a woman who gets into a high position. Is she supposed to open the door for other women? Not necessarily. So that’s the struggle and one has to believe in what you care about and fight as hard as you can to make it happen.

How has your ‘eye’ changed when viewing art, since you went out on your own?

When I went on my own, in 1983, I was like, “Now I have to make all these decisions” so it was an evolving thing. The more we looked, the more we found, and the more we responded to.

Andrew, who you haven’t met, is the director, partner and heir to the gallery. This staff has been here for ages so a lot of conversations are very collaborative within the gallery. Conversations about what do you think about doing this and this artist and so on. It’s teamwork. Everybody works together here in an incredible way, phenomenal actually.

They’re not competitive with each other and nobody is striving to step over somebody else.

Everybody wants to help everybody else. So it’s kind of an amazing atmosphere that’s here in the gallery. We were working with a law firm doing a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. Half of the law firm wanted it and the other half didn’t. They hated each other so I think they were using the wall drawing as a surrogate because it was easier to say, “I hate the wall drawing,” than to say, “I hate you.” Finally the partner of the law firm told me, “I don’t know anything about art and I’ll vote for this to happen but you have to promise me I’m not going to be made a fool of.” I said, “I hear you.” It was amazing for him to admit that he didn’t want to look bad.

For our final question, if you had one piece of advice that you would’ve liked to have received when you were a teenager, what would it be?

Just one? Well… it is probably the hardest: how to believe in yourself, because without believing in yourself you are always at the mercy of other people defining who you are and you are always dependent on other people confirming your value. That is a horrible position to be in. That would be my advice, which is not the easiest thing in the world. Don’t misunderstand me.

Believe that what you’re doing is right for you and try to persist with that.

There’s a quote somewhere that says, “Be yourself, because everybody else is already taken.” So you can’t be Marilyn Monroe, or whoever, because she already took that role. Maybe you don’t want to be Marilyn Monroe, but maybe you want to be Hillary Clinton.

“Strictly Business — Women of Influence Team”

For more information about Artists For Humanity, visit www.afhboston.org