STUDIO 54 at JO HAY OPEN STUDIO
Carolyn Kramer, founder and director of Provincetown gallery Jo Hay Open Studio, talks about life, art, activism, and the show Studio 54, an exhibition she co-curated with Didi Menendez of PoetsArtists.
Daniel Maidman: Tell us a bit about yourself - your background, your interest in art, your vision for your gallery.
Carolyn Kramer: My career was spent in New York City from the age of 22 till I was 46. I ran the top modeling agencies in the world – I was a director of many of the top five modeling agencies; I managed some of the top supermodels as well. I lived in New York and worked in New York.
DM: What drew you to that?
CK: I grew up outside of New York, so I always knew that I would live in New York once I got out of school. As a teenager, I was interested in fashion and read the fashion magazines. I graduated in 1982 and couldn’t find a job. A very dear friend’s sister worked for Ralph Lauren at the time. She knew about a little job as a receptionist for what we call a catalogue house, which is a photography studio that only shoots very inexpensive clothing, at a Kmart level. I needed a job and I interviewed and got the job as receptionist and assistant. The models would come in and out. That little job eventually led to my employment with the best modeling agency in the world, Elite Models, run by John Casablancas, and that started my career in the modeling industry.
It was very exciting. It was the early 80’s, when the supermodel was just kind of blooming – Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford – it was a big turning point in the early- to mid-80’s when models weren’t just modeling, they became celebrities. It was an exciting time. And I stayed in that industry until I was 46 years old. Living in New York pretty much the entire time, and made a great name for myself. Other than being an owner of a modeling agency, I hit the glass ceiling. There weren’t too many women running agencies. I had a career I was proud of at the time.
Today I’m not proud of it. No. With the #metoo movement, I’ve recently been very involved with the #metoo movement where it concerns models. I’ve been interviewed by NYT, CNN, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, BBC about the abuse in the modeling industry, the sexual abuse. And so having come from having a very prosperous career, I’m now kind of coming out of the closet in a sense of how I made my living. I’m an outspoken advocate for laws changing where it concerns young models.
DM: What would you be in favor of?
CK: Changing the labor laws so that models cannot model until they’re 18. In answer to your question, how did that lead me to where I am now in regard to art? In 2006, my parents have a house in Wellfleet, which is 10 miles from where our gallery is in Provincetown in Cape Cod. I was going to write a book about why you should never let your daughter become a model. And it never happened because I met my partner, Jo Hay, whom the gallery is named after. I met her here in Provincetown. As it turns out, she was a New Yorker as well, and moved here the year before I did. And she was moving here for kind of the exact same reasons, which was she’s a painter, and she’s a musician, and she left her giant job as the lead art director for Elle Decor in New York, and decided to change her life completely and paint full time. And ended up in Provincetown with her own painter’s studio and sort of compartmentalized her life, because she has a drum room in her studio, and she’s painting full time now. I met her after she’d been here a year. When we met it was pretty instantaneous, we became a couple, and so I decided to stay. Because she was staying. She wasn’t going back to New York, I had thought I would be going back to New York in about 6 months. But she was staying, so I was staying. Which meant I needed to get a job. And so I took my experience of being a model agent, which in essence is talent management, and I turned it into representing artists, instead of models.
I took that expertise and I was employed by the best gallery in Provincetown, which is owned by a landscape painter named Anne Packard of the iconic Packard Gallery. Iconic. It’s like saying Gagosian in New York. The Packard Gallery is a destination. She’s 86 now, and she is a force to be reckoned with as a landscape painter. She’s as talented as Winslow Homer. She’s an immense, enormous talent. So, having said that, I was hired to be an assistant, and very very quickly Anne and my boss, who was her daughter, Leslie, I learned everything I know. I took my experience of having been at a model agency, and combined that with what I learned from Leslie Packard about how to work with an artist and run an art gallery. Leslie in essence was my mentor. Everyone has a mentor when they start out in whatever career they have. When I decided this is something I might want to do, Leslie Packard was my mentor. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.
So I worked for the Packard Gallery for 4 ½ years. And then Jo got into the most prestigious figurative MFA program, at the New York Academy of Art. From 2010 to 2012 we lived in New York; we moved back to New York for a couple of years. She got her degree at the Academy in 2012. Then I was employed by what I would consider the best modern contemporary gallery in Provincetown at the time, and I worked for them for 2 years. And at that point I’m not an owner, I’m making enough money to get by – the Packards were extremely generous with me. I said to Jo, we started talking, why am I working for other people when I have 35 years of experience running multi-million dollar businesses? Let’s open up our own gallery. And that’s how it happened. That was 2014 that we finally opened our gallery. It’s ours – it’s a partnership. Not only is she my partner in life, but she’s a partner in the gallery. And so we opened the Jo Hay Open Studio.
There’s a funny story of why it’s called the Jo Hay Open Studio. Jo’s artist’s studio was a converted garage. I said, you know what, you’ve got 20 years of art in this art studio right now, going back to the Art Student’s League, let’s open it up and make it an open studio, which means the person gets to come and talk to the artist. The catalyst of coming to the space is wanting to meet the artist. We put posters all over Provincetown – “Jo Hay Open Studio Saturday and Sunday.” In the middle of winter, people would come. And the paintings would fly out the door. People could not get enough of Jo’s art. People would buy 5, 10, 15 paintings. Again, this is going back to her early work at the Art Student’s League. By the end of that year, we had sold every single painting she had ever painted in her life, which must have been over 300 pieces of art. And the next year is when we opened the gallery on Commercial Street.
In Provincetown, our version of Broadway is called Commercial Street. All the commerce is here. We opened on Commercial Street in 2014 and we decided to keep the name, because people already knew it. So it stuck. And we just hit it out of the ballpark that first year. There are 60 art galleries in Provincetown. Out of the 60, there are probably only 5 that are modern contemporary art galleries. The rest of them are very traditional, showing classic Cape Cod landscapes. Very traditional paintings. Very influenced by the art scene historically in Provincetown. If you were to research it, you’d find that Provincetown was the first art colony in the United States. At the turn of the century, Charles Hawthorne, one of the greatest American painters of all time, established an artist’s colony, and the brahmins from Boston, 1910, 1920, would take trains to Provincetown and take classes from Hawthorne, and then in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, bohemians started to come from New York City. Iconic names like Hans Hoffman, Pollock, Frankenthaler, Motherwell. They all came to Provincetown to paint in the summer. Tennessee Williams… All of the big names from New York City, none of them famous yet, would all come to Provincetown to paint, and talk, and smoke cigarettes, and drink, and it became a destination for artists.
Now Provincetown is still a destination for art, but it’s no longer predominantly local artists, it’s now a combination of local artists and artists from all over the world, who are represented in art galleries. My gallery is strictly modern. I don’t show any Cape Cod art. None. I don’t have a landscape painter, I don’t have a landscape photographer, I don’t show Cape Cod art. I own Cape Cod art. If you were sitting where I’m sitting right now, you’d be looking at a landscape of Anne Packard’s on the wall that she gave me as a gift. You’d see other art by local painters. But Jo is the only painter that I represent who lives in Provincetown. But I don’t think of Jo as a local painter. When I think of Jo, I think of Jo as a British painter. And she would say the same.
DM: Let’s talk about the vision for the gallery.
CK: What makes me different than I would say most galleries, even in New York, is that I’m very politically driven. I’m not seeing any shows about the women’s march, about Trump… where are the artists in New York that are speaking out about what’s happening in the country right now? My gallery is driven right now, today, by what is happening in our country. All of my artists that I represent are conceptual, there’s not one artist that I represent that doesn’t have a message that they want to depict to the viewer. I myself am a political activist. And so the most important show that I’ve had since I’ve been a gallerist was last month, called Rebel With A Cause, and this show was a portrait show of modern-day rebels and rebels of the past. For instance, Jo painted Emma Gonzales, Wendy Sarsour, Michael Elsasser painted Tarana Burke, the founder of the #metoo movement. O’Neal Scott painted Colin Kaepernick. That’s what the show was driven by. It was my most successful show as a gallerist having nothing to do with money. It was not about the commerce, it was about the art. I was driven by that message.
That’s not to say we’re not interested in business, we’re not a museum. When I speak to an artist, when I make a decision to take on an artist, it is never ever based on how much money I think they can make. Ever. In fact, many of my artists I take on because their art is so important. And yet I know they probably won’t sell. I don’t know anybody that does that, not in this town. It’s very important to me, if you were to say “my bio,” my message that I’m trying to get out to my clients or my friends, of who will Carolyn Kramer be in terms of whether we open up a gallery in New York or London one day? It will always be about the art.
The other thing that I’m obsessed about is figures. I have six figure painters – portrait painters – out of nine artists. Now portrait painting is having a comeback. Absolutely having a comeback. Even Larry Gagosian is starting to look more closely at portrait painters. The most well-respected portrait painter of today is Jenny Saville. I think she’s the most brilliant living portrait painter, possibly living or dead. My mission in terms of my gallery if I had to say one thing, is that it motivates conversation. I think that’s my favorite part about being a gallerist or working at an art gallery. I had the same chills on the back of my neck when I worked for the Packard Gallery. It was the conversation that motivated me. It was her unique ability to paint depth, why just that lonely boat. But in my gallery, because it’s so politically driven, the conversation tends to lead to long long talks about politics. Most galleries in Provincetown you go in, you look at the art, then you might have a lovely chat with the artist. But I ask people to sit down and have a conversation with me, or a debate, about Trump. So that’s what motivates me – art, and conversation, and politics.
DM: What was the inspiration for the Studio 54 show?
I’ve been following Didi Menendez’s page and website for a very long time. Didi has all of these amazing shows and connections, the woman exudes creativity, she’s just a machine. Didi inspires me. That’s rare for me. It takes a lot for me to say that, and she does. She works so hard at what she does, and the way she does it is so precise. I’m incredulous about how much she gets done, and how well-executed her projects are. So when I saw her online profile, I said to myself, damn, I want to do something with this woman. I reached out and I said I want to do something with you, what can we do? I want to collaborate on a show, what can we do together? So we chatted on Facebook, and then we spoke on the phone. And we decided to do a juried show. It had to be about portraits, because I’m portrait driven and she is. We talked about where I live, and my clients. My clients at the gallery is predominantly a gay man. And that’s because Provincetown is a summer tourist destination for gay men. Gay women as well, but predominantly now gay men. A giant destination. So I said let’s come up with something fun that we can do together, and we decided to do a show we would both jury, and that’s when we came up with the Studio 54 theme. It was like let’s do something about the 70’s – disco – the decadence of New York City – Studio 54 – and then we knew we had it, we had the title.
The great thing about the show is this is my youth. The iconic photos of Studio 54 with thousands of people waiting to get in – that was me. But because I was a model agent, I could get in, I was on a list. Here I am having a show about Studio 54, reliving my early 20’s. It’s personal. I don’t believe Didi grew up in New York City, but I did, I was going in to the clubs and the bars from the time I could drive. So it was a very exciting time, and once we came up with the idea, it was like wow, this is really going to be cool. It’s going to be cool because it’s portrait paintings, it’s going to be cool because there’s so much material, it’s happening right now, retro, these are iconic times from the history of New York, there’s nobody in the industrial world who doesn’t know what Studio 54 is, even if they’ve never set foot in New York City.
So we put out this amazing email blast to apply for the exhibit, that Didi designed. Brilliant. We put together the terms, how to apply, what the theme was, we both wrote it together and sent it out, put it all over social media. And the seven painters we selected are fabulous. I’m so excited about this show. I don’t know them, other than the artists from my gallery – they had to apply too, by the way. We have a painting of David Bowie that is amazing by Jo Hay. We have a painting of Andy Warhol by an artist named K. J. Shows. We have a self-portrait of a young painter named Kimberly Torres, her composition is a woman on the dance floor in the 70’s looking like she’s listening to Donna Summer. I can hear the music in this painting. It’s an extraordinary painting that depicts the 70’s and disco. It’s unbelievable.
DM: How do you curate a well-rounded show? What are you looking for from the work, as individual pieces of art and as a body of art that has to work together?
CK: I don’t always have shows that work together. Even this show doesn’t really work together. Yeah, I’m gonna stand by that. It’s not a show that has been curated that each artist has to work off of the other. Each artist is very individual. I’ve never had a show like this, because they’re not my artists. Each work stands on its own, it’s more like a museum show, because it has a theme.
Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art. His first book of drawings, Daniel Maidman: Nudes, is available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He is represented by Jenn Singer Gallery in New York. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.