“It‘s Like Deciding to Cut Off a Leg and Keep Walking”: Jessica Bradley On Her Controversial Closure

Jessica Bradley. Photo: Aristea Rizakos.
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I first sat down with Jessica Bradley in late July, hoping to discuss her recently shuttered gallery. I was, at that time, wanting what so many of us did, in the Canadian artworld: a grip on her abrupt departure, a reason for her seeming self-abnegation, an excuse and maybe an apologia for her ghosting from our barely-there art market at the very moment her stewardship was taking root. Because we saw her as a leader. Her gallery was ten years old, breaking through a national impasse and showing at Frieze, Basel; representing Venice Biennale artists; heralding important change; championing the generations beneath her. She was one of two top gallerists representing us consistently, importantly, on the international stage. And before this, she was already a taste-maker, a curator of note, working at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, leading collections and campaigns.

I walked in through heavy rain, met with boxes and crates, and I was, like many of us, upset.

I found Bradley much as I’d left her, however, seated at her desk, fiddling with the air conditioner, her office seemingly untouched by the change. You wouldn’t have guessed that, two weeks prior, she had announced her gallery was closing (and you easily could’ve missed the missive, her gallery’s email announcing the closure like a mute celebration of tenure,“A Great Decade”). Nevermind, social media was peaking with anger (her artists), speculation (her colleagues), and resignation (her audience). Our artworld was disturbed.

Bradley and I talked for nearly two hours that day, and she spoke with the strange clarity that results from traumatic change. However I didn’t immediately publish. She seemed unsure. Indeed, she insisted, a few months later, on a second interview, now that she had taken some time to see things anew. So we met for four hours more. Here is our conversation, one that reflects on her trajectory, the Canadian art market, and her decision to change gears.

Coming into this racket, art dealing, from what you were doing, institutional curating, I can only imagine how much there was to learn …

How to calculate the HST? [Laughs] A huge learning curve. But keep in mind my background wasn’t only as a curator in institutions. There were seven or eight years as an independent curator. [Pauses] That was already a rare career pattern.

I left the AGO when it was going into a period where it was building, and I was already at a point in my life and my career where I thought, “am I going to spend the next three years figuring out how to store the collection and rehang it?” All the while knowing there’s not a museum that reopens after an expansion like that that suddenly has more money or more staff. I knew that it was going to be a long time before I was going to be able to do certain kinds of exhibitions. But when I left, I wasn’t scared. I had the guts, the courage to think, “now what will I do with that?”

There was a moment of burgeoning another generation, too. I had a sense that there was a lot out there. I wanted to work again with artists and with art.

So when I got that little space on Dundas, that’s what I did for a good six months or so. I worked with my little computer and had a few people who were interested in my advice. And then I started to hang a few works in the space. And I couldn’t … deal with the “G” word [“gallery”]. So it was Jessica Bradley + Projects. It’s almost like I couldn’t imagine anything crazier than trying to open a commercial gallery in Canada, in Toronto. I was not naïve. I had total respect for my colleagues, and that I, as a museum curator in collecting institutions, was very different.

What did you know that you needed to learn? And what did you know you were inherently bringing to the job of gallerist, in terms of savvy?

I was certainly bringing all the knowledge I had of artists, and who I wanted to work with. But I went in very ready to learn everything. Most of what I went in to learn was the practical stuff. Like I knew how to hang an exhibition. I knew how to work with an artist. I knew that there were interesting people out there … I had a friend say to me, when I said, “oh I have this crazy idea of opening a gallery” – she said, “you’ll be fine, you’ve been selling contemporary art all your life.” So that wasn’t a problem. I’ve always been pretty good at that educational side of – it’s more than education, though. It’s advocacy. And it’s advocacy for work that’s not easily understood. You have to find ways to bring people into the work. I love that part. I was thinking of the conversion before I was thinking of the sale. [Laughs]

You’ve represented some of the biggest contemporary artists in this country. How did you make those bonds while navigating and stewarding their careers?

I think you always have to realize that it’s not a friendship; that as much as you love your artists and they love you, it’s not a friendship. Some artists are more comfortable and more savvy about what a gallerist is and does for them. On the more naïve end, you might have artists who are asking, “well why are they getting fifty percent?” It’s potentially money for us both. You’re locked into that. At the same time, it was also that they knew that I had a deep knowledge of art and its history. They knew that my investment was in the concept and the content of the work, and they would get that by seeking that in a gallerist, which is frankly very rare. There are some great gallerists who sell lots of work, but it’s not the same as their having an investment in art.

I’ve heard some gallerists describe that relationship as sometimes mother, sometimes therapist, sometimes disciplinarian …

I think all those words apply. But of course sometimes I spent hours talking about struggles in their work, sometimes struggles in other aspects of their lives. You want to be there to assure them even when they’re not asking you to that you see something in their work, that they should keep going … that alone is so important to an artist. They want to know that somebody’s noticing.

At times I was very direct. And I’ve seen it in their faces, and thought, “oh god, I really hurt them.” And the next day they say, “that was a really good studio visit; that was hard but I’m glad.” So yes, I’ve been a disciplinarian because some are more professional than others in their comportment, when the gallery is doing the job for them when they’re not doing the job for you. By the “job” I don’t mean making the work of art, but an equal level of professionalism. You have to ask for it sometimes.

Is your word the last word?

I did have moments where, “this is my gallery and you have to listen.” But I never said it that way. Of course, my word is last. I’m living with it for a month; I’m trying to sell it. If I really think something’s not working, I’m going to tell you, and I’m going to have to wrangle it out.

How well do you think you understand the mind of an artist and where creativity comes out of?

My studio visits, if I were to characterize them, were where I was not tight-lipped. I would start speculating on what I see there, and testing that. And it’s a risk, because I could be getting it totally wrong. But the important thing was not to be too concerned with whether you’re getting it right or wrong, but to throw something back at the artist, so that you can test you’re seeing and begin to go deeper. And that they might see that you’re grappling with in a very honest way.

I’ve worked with some artists who are very, very well-known now, and some very young artists, and either way, that’s how I conducted my exchanges with them about their work when I was first looking at it. It sounds so obvious but it doesn’t matter how long you’ve worked with contemporary artists, you have to come to it with some openness about what it might be.

 What have you been doing since the gallery closed?

This summer was the slog of closing a gallery, and not a lot of fun emotionally or psychologically, because it was incredibly hard to see works going out the door. The works are the artists. I realized that that could happen without my being there; I could disappear for a couple weeks.

But the archives of the gallery, I was very happy that the National Gallery took them.

What do you mean by archives?

You have stuff. You have the ephemeral things like artist publications; sometimes you have things they’ve written to you, like notes, but that’s pretty rare. There are transactions that are under a privacy of information for quite a long time but someone who in twenty years wants to look at the life and death of a Toronto gallery can have access to this material. And I hadn’t really thought about it until I was near the end of it, and I thought, “some of it might be of use.”

But does that mean, with an archive, that you’re selecting what gets included?

No. An archive is an archive. They get everything. Anything that was hard stuff. Nothing gets censored. But for instance, you know how Derek Sullivan has done small, ephemeral posters that were put up and destined to be taken down? I naturally kept all of those. Because I said, at one point, “oh, I need those back!” That’s the kind of thing that’s meant to be out there, but can easily not be, unless you saved it.

So how has it felt to watch some of your previous artists get taken up by other galleries?

I’m really happy if an artist has a gallery that takes them on right away. I know at least four or five of them who, before my closing, had emails, calls, texts, right away. And I think that’s a compliment to the artist. Of course it feels good that we worked together, for the most of them, for ten years, and that you’ve been building with them, supporting them. They do their work. I never had the sense that, “oh, the dealer makes the artist”; that’s absurd. For me being a gallerist, in the true sense of the word, I was helping build a career. It’s not saying yes to everything, every opportunity that comes up. But with some guidance, they say yes to the right things. Not all exposure is good exposure; and not much of it is really exposure at all.

Did you make calls to place certain of your artists?

Yeah, of course I did. Because I felt that they weren’t necessarily going to get immediately jumped on, that my colleagues, I felt, needed to know that some of these had a following … of course I made calls like that. But not too many. Because you have to respect your colleagues and respect their sense of urgency, their reasons for calling on an artist or not.

There must be galleries that you don’t have the utmost respect for, or whose roster you don’t admire … ?

If I knew things [about certain galleries], I would caution an artist; if I’d heard things … I also think you have to respect, though. Unless you think they’re really making the wrong choice, you have to respect their reasons for going to another gallery. I always say to the artists, “it’s not about them wanting you; it’s about you deciding what you want.”

But let’s be honest; finances are a part of this. Your former artists might be making decisions to simply get by.

Absolutely. But [when an artists says], “I got asked by so-and-so,” I ask back, “are they a good salesman? What’s their future vision? Are they going to do fairs here; are they going to do fairs beyond? What is their knowledge beyond the artists they represent? Do you feel good?” Of course artists need to find someone who can sell their work, but it might not be the first thing on their list, or their best desires for a relationship with a gallery.

Smart artists find out from other artists how their dealers behave; they know more than I do about how their cohort, how their friends, are being treated by another gallery. If they’re doing their homework they’re going to speak to those artists they know well, and ask, “do you get paid on time?”

What made you successful in landing a recurring spot with Frieze Fair, where other Canadian gallerists haven’t?

In terms of the mechanics of it, I honestly don’t know. One of the great mysteries is that even if you know people in the field – which I did, even just from buyers over the years – they’re not necessarily on the committee, or they’ve never been to your gallery. They might have known you as a curator, or they might, if they’re on the committee, say “I knew that person and she made some really interesting choices so it’s probably an okay gallery if we want to take on a gallery from Canada …” I don’t know what the discussions are on that level.

We got into Frieze London and I remember I was traveling somewhere and I got the message from Leah Turner [her gallery director at the time] saying, “oh my god, we got in; are we doing it?” And I said, “of course we’re doing it.” And then, two weeks later I was out of the office again, somewhere, Montreal maybe, and I get another call, “you’re not going to believe this, we got into Art Basel Miami, too. Are we doing that?” And I said, “Yes.” [Laughs] That was the Fall to end all Falls, because we did Frieze London, Art Toronto, Art Basel Miami, and we opened our new space during Art Toronto. I was crawling after that.

But, to answer your question, I’d like to think you get in because you have good artists. But you get in, too, because you’ve finely crafted your application.

Was it ever your aspiration to elevate your gallery to the level of the greats? The Gagosians, the Zwirners?

I’m more realistic than that, and I’ve been around long enough to know that wasn’t practical. I knew I wasn’t going there but I knew I had artists that should be respected and should be participating in fairs of that level.

But I mean the question in the way of “hypothetical truth.” As in, was it desirable? Was it a fantasy?

My most desirable fantasy would be not Gagosian, not even Zwirner. But I think I’d aspire more to galleries like Alexander and Bonin or Esther Schipper or Meyer Riegger … that’s survival as much as anything else, but the way they deal with artists they choose is more my [speed].

When you closed your gallery you had shows in the books. Why did you close when you did?

I think I’d been in denial for a year or so. I loved what I was doing, but the shows weren’t firmly dated except for one. I never worked that way [unstructured]. That was a sign.

Jessica Eaton was one of them, yes?

We’d talked about November. But Jessica, the way she produces, she puts off shows a lot, so I wasn’t, “oh, it’s definitely going to be then.” I had to wait to see the prints. And I never pushed artists that way. Of course you have to have your Fall advertising in place, you have to have material in by May. So that’s why I had to make the decision when I did; I thought, I’m not going to go forward because it will mean another year. It’s not that I couldn’t do another year. I had some great things that I wanted to do.

A great gallerist said, when she closed her gallery a couple years ago, “I’m not tired and I’m not broke; I’ve just decided I don’t want to do it this way anymore.”

That’s how you feel?

I’m just saying that’s a great thing to say. Because people make all kinds of assumptions. I was the same – I wasn’t tired and I wasn’t broke. I think there was this nascent, “okay, you’re coming up to ten years; are you going to …?” Maybe this is the time to stop. Because there are always ideas – but then there’s the reality of them. The reality of continuing to do fairs, for instance. I wasn’t going to start and then go back … at least that’s not the kind of person I am. So I looked at the fairs I was doing and the fairs I aspired to, and what that was going to mean, the investment that that would mean, the time and energy. And then I kind of came to this moment, with great difficulty, that, “no, this is going to take another decade, and I don’t think that’s what you’re going to do for the next decade in your life.”

The optics of this decision has so much symmetry, almost glaring: ten years!

Yeah, because I knew so much about what I was doing, and what I’d done, and what I knew for me and my kind of gallery – and I’m not applying this to anyone else – that that’s not what I wanted to do anymore. I had these relationships with artists, some of them very close. You believe in their work, and for the most part they know you believe in their work … I didn’t want to leave them high and dry. But it’s a bad feeling. You know. You loved working with their work and seeing it change. It‘s a bit like deciding to cut off a leg and keep walking. Because it wasn’t going downhill. It was the high. It was the decision to end something you’ve made from scratch. I think the notion that most people were registering, because there was a lot of shock, was, “well, did you decide to leave when the party was [waning]; not wait til that 3AM moment when the part gets nasty?” I didn’t consciously look at it that way, but in retrospect I had a bit of that feeling.

Essentially, I’m the kind of person who’s going to work around the clock. It’s a disease, not a life decision. I sort of thought, “do I want this to consume all of my life or do I want … ?”

How much does legacy matter to you?

I think I’m at a point where, not only have I contributed a lot, but where I am now, I have a lot to contribute further. So where that fits … I don’t see myself as a mentor figure. But I really love working with your cohort, and though I don’t have a lack of energy and ideas, I’ve seen [your] energy and ideas and I do know there’s more to follow, and I want to encourage that.

If there’s a legacy, it’s that I’ve been alive to what’s gone on around me and taken some risks. There’s a lot still yet to come.

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