Since 2001, Jonathan Levine has run a succession of highly successful galleries, culminating with the leading contemporary-alt-gallery in New York City. In 2017 he moved to a million-square-foot art complex in New Jersey where he can bring his cutting-edge aesthetic and punk rock ethos to bigger projects.
WALT MORTON: Your latest idea is a 2017 art competition titled DELUSIONAL where artists can submit work with the top prize being a solo show at your gallery. Winning would be a huge opportunity for any artist. Where did this idea originate, and what are your expectations if any?
JONATHAN LEVINE: Some friends of mine own a gallery in Asbury Park, NJ called Parlor Gallery. They organized a juried show a few years back and asked me to be the juror. They had great success with it and had many great submissions. I really enjoyed doing it as it was really fun. Artists were very excited and the whole exhibition had great energy. Since then I have thought about doing it, but it wasn’t until this year we are trying it. I typically have high expectations but try to temper them — which is challenging. I hope we get lots of great submissions and I hope to be able to build this into a yearly competition with multiple prizes and opportunities.
WALT MORTON: You are going to personally judge and pick the winner and the finalists for DELUSIONAL. How has your taste changed or evolved over the last twenty years, and what do you hope to see your gallery show in the future?
JONATHAN LEVINE: My tastes have changed slightly but not dramatically. I still have a core aesthetic but try to find new artists who push those ideas to another level at all times.
WALT MORTON: Your DELUSIONAL premise is to find the “world’s next great artist.” I remember 1980, when Andy Warhol discovered the little-known street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Do you think there’s an ignored genius like Basquiat and you have a chance to find them? Maybe nobody remains obscure in 2017, now that we have Instagram.
JONATHAN LEVINE: It’s definitely hard for artists to work in obscurity these days because of the internet but new artists pop up all the time and I am often excited and surprised by what I find.
WALT MORTON: An “open call” competition is something you have not done before. In the past, how did you usually discover an artist’s work, and get interested in showing them?
JONATHAN LEVINE: Back before the days of the internet I would hunt for artists via underground magazines, illustration directories, comic book shops, local galleries and coffee shops. These days it’s obviously much easier to find and track an artist’s career and market.
WALT MORTON: A lot of artists think that finding the perfect gallery will be like a magic fairy godmother and all their problems will be solved. What would you say to that?
JONATHAN LEVINE: Definitely not. It will help greatly but it is a hard career and even successful artists have their ups and downs.
WALT MORTON: A show, especially a solo show still has a lot of gravitas in any career for a variety of reasons (political, financial, personal, etc.) But in 2017 the majority of art sales come online, often from customers around the globe. What do you think a solo show does for an artist and how important is brick-and-mortar showing versus online sales for a gallery?
JONATHAN LEVINE: I still believe in the physical exhibition. Work should be seen in person if possible. For most artists it’s greatly satisfying to have their work hung in a gallery and be able to talk to the audience viewing it during the opening. An artist typically works in solitude for months on end, so this is their moment to come out of their cocoon and shine. Also, clients want to see that a gallery is invested in an artist before they buy the work. Nothing can ever make up for seeing the work in person.
WALT MORTON: Do you feel like your gallery has a certain “brand” or “feel” and you have to show works within that envelope? Many galleries limit themselves to one style/genre of painting or art. Are you free to show whatever you want, or does random variety put off collectors?
JONATHAN LEVINE: My gallery definitely has a brand or feel. We support a certain type of artist and collector base but I feel we have enough room to move around. It never becomes boring or restricting for me. I think if a gallery’s program is too “all over the place” it doesn’t have a clear voice and is confusing to it’s audience.
WALT MORTON: A lot of art galleries fail for one reason or another. What’s one big secret of your success?
JONATHAN LEVINE: Perseverance, passion and being too stubborn or stupid to give up.
WALT MORTON: What are you going to do if you discover two people that are equally good in DELUSIONAL? Do you think it’s possible that there are two unknown, miraculously talented artists operating in secret at remote corners of the globe?
JONATHAN LEVINE: I imagine it’s possible and I hope I have that problem. It’s a good problem to have.