Why the Curator Came Down to Earth

Andrea Meislin, whose successful Manhattan art gallery is filled with the work of only Israeli photographers, has opened a new ground-floor space where she hopes the sky will be the limit.

It was the final day for Andrea Meislin's very first Israeli photography exhibition, which she mounted in New York in 2004. A couple she had never seen before strolled into her gallery and, spotting photographs of green grass growing in Israel, fell in love and snapped up several.

She learned the man in the couple was on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Meislin says during an interview in her Upper East Side apartment. Asked how they had came acrossher gallery, their answer was - pure serendipity. The couple had traveled to New York from Chicago to pick up a sculpture from the Robert Miller Gallery, which happened to be located one floor below Meislin's. They wandered upstairs in search of the restroom, and a work by Tel Aviv artist Barry Frydlender caught their eye, so they walked in.

Meislin mounted that exhibition in 2004 as part of a program that included the first public auction of Israeli art at Sotheby’s New York. She spent the next nine years in the same space on the building's second floor, filling the gallery that bears her name almost exclusively with the work of Israeli photographers including Michal Chelbin, Frydlender, Sharon Yaari, Ilit Azoulay and Dani Bauer.

Times change, however, and Meislin has come down to earth – literally.

Her gallery has reopened in a new, much more prominent location on the ground floor of a building on one of the major gallery streets in Chelsea. In her new spot, she will no longer have to rely on chance meetings such as the one with the couple from Chicago.

“When I opened the space on 26th Street on the second floor, Chelsea had a very different vibe to it. I think collectors and anyone who was even potentially interested in art liked the idea of going into these big buildings and exploring, going up. Our building has galleries up to the 11th floor, and they would come and spend a day just in each building – studios and galleries, and it was fun – the art of exploration. They felt like pioneers, discovering artists.

“In the past eight and a half years, a few things have happened. The first is that the art fairs have become the primary way that people see and buy art, which is fantastic in many ways. In others, the galleries – all the galleries across the board, small, medium, large – everyone has sort of an agreement about this – that the walk-in traffic has been reduced dramatically from serious collectors. So art fairs are one thing that changed the flow. The second is the rise of the Internet, obviously. And the third, I think, is that Chelsea, with the High Line, and the growth, more laterally, on the ground floor – there are so many more large ground-floor spaces that people don’t need or want to go upstairs anymore.”

Who is Pesi Girsch?

Meislin’s first significant meeting with Israeli photography came when she immigrated to Israel with her family in 2000, after having worked as an independent curator at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona.

“When we knew that we were leaving Arizona and really making aliyah, I knew I had to work. So I looked up the Israel Museum online and saw they had a great photography department. I saw the curator’s name and I sent him an email. I told him that I had all but my dissertation and years of independent curating and research experience, and told him I was very interested in working in his photography department. I asked him if he had a job that had flexible hours where I could do real work and get paid for it. He wrote back: 'It’s possible. Call me when you get here.' And I did, and he hired me that day.

“So I walked into his office, and in his office was a picture by Pesi Girsch, and I asked him: ‘Who is that? Why have I never heard of this photographer?’ He told me there was a whole canon of great Israeli photographers who were not known outside Israel.”

For two years, Meislin was exposed to a great deal of Israeli photography in galleries and museums around the country. When she had to return to the U.S. with her family for personal reasons, she remained committed to Israeli artists.

“When we came back, I decided for the first year or so just to work privately. So I chose a few artists – Pavel Wolberg, Michal Heiman and Leora Laor. I showed their work privately and was very content doing that.

“In the summer of 2003, [Sotheby's Senior Director] Rivka Saker contacted me. I met her in Israel and she knew what I had done there. She was creating this new organization called Artis, and she wanted a week of programming to support the first-ever sale of Israeli art in Sotheby’s, New York. In turn, the sale and the programming would support this gallery. So I went to Israel in November and I chose the works. First, I had to come up with a theme, and decided to show images that reveal, in interesting ways, various land usages in Israel. I knew I wanted to include Pesi Girsch. I knew I wanted to include Barry Frydlender, Simcha Sherman, Deganit Berest, Leora Laor, Guy Raz and others. Guy Raz did a great project of lifeguard towers along the Mediterranean between Gaza and Tel Aviv. The ambassador at the time, Dan Gillerman, came to the gallery when it was up, and he didn’t like it.”

But it was not only the changes in Chelsea that caused the move. Meislin also feels that many of the artists she works with deserve to be shown in a more prestigious space, which the ground floor offers. They haven't just become more developed as artists. They have also accomplished a great deal in terms of exhibitions, and Meislin, as the one who represents them, has quite a bit to do with that.

Take, for example, Barry Frydlender. He exhibited at MoMA in 2007, and two of his works are in the museum’s collection. Meislin says that Peter Galassi, who was the curator of photography at MoMA, saw Frydlender’s work for the first time at her gallery, at an exhibition she mounted for Frydlender in 2004. This was the exhibition that officially opened her gallery.

“I felt it was a fantastic body of work that should be seen, so I really hounded the photo curator at MoMA to come see the show. The assistant came first. He stood in front of it and said, ‘What is this? It’s phenomenal!’ We spoke about it, and he said, ‘OK, I’d like to buy this for MoMA.’ It was crazy. So that was really the start of the gallery.”

Photography was a natural choice for Meislin. She studied the art in college and began collecting photographs in the 1970s. Israeli photography, she says, is her niche, which allows her gallery to survive in the ever-crowded art market. But advantages aside, she also simply loves the artists she works with.

Meislin did not always work with Israeli photography.

“After a couple of years of showing just Israeli photographers, a few of them said that they would prefer to be seen in a broader context of international artists. So I started working with a painter from Canada and a photographer from Paris. I tried to expand my borders a bit, and started showing Boyan (an Israeli painter) and Itamar Jobani (an Israeli sculptor). And then the recession hit, and we suffered greatly. I learned very quickly that I don’t know any painting curators. I don’t know any sculpture or video curators. I really know the vocabulary of photography. I know the curators, I know the history of it, and I really need to focus on what I know and do best and can talk about authentically.”

That was how, toward the end of 2009, she went back to concentrating on photography, and almost exclusively on Israeli photography.

Meislin says that her clientele is mixed. “We have a lot of clients who are Jewish and involved in Jewish communal life, who are proud of being Jewish and buy work for those reasons. More often than not, it’s photography collectors who recognize the value of this great work. It’s always been that way, though.”

I am not a political text

Meislin is cautious about using the word “political” to describe the art in her gallery. Her agenda, she says, is to avoid taking a clear position on Israeli politics.
"The only artist we see overtly doing this is [New York Times photographer] Rina Castelnuovo, because she is a photojournalist. But other than that, I don’t think it’s something that I address directly. Tal Shochat – her tree photographs, which are so beautiful – certainly there’s a political element to those. But it’s not relevant. It’s not something that I choose to explore or stress or highlight. The fact that it’s there is enough. I don’t want to address it.”

But even though she tries to avoid politics, it often finds her anyway. “People come in and they say, ‘Why aren’t you showing what happened in Gaza?’ I say, ‘We are a private gallery. I’m not a non-profit. I don’t have an obligation to the public or to any constituency.’”

Meislin says that one exhibition that fanned some flames was a show by Michal Ronnen Safdie, who presented a series of photographs of Haredi female bathers at a women-only beach in Tel Aviv. Safdie took the photographs over several summers. The women appear crowded into a small section of the water, fully clothed and with their children. “We got a lot of flak for this body of work. Orthodox women from Israel, from America, said, ‘How could you do this to these women? How could you show them at their most private moments? It’s a violation of their privacy.’ We spoke about it. We had real conversations. I spoke about the artist’s right to make her art while being respectful of these people. She did see women getting undressed and redressed, and she never photographed them. They’re covered.”

Meislin says that despite the anger, the exhibition was a success. “She had a beautiful review in The New Yorker and in Art News, and the work sold beautifully. I don’t know that I’d want to live with this, but we did have women who bought these pictures for their dressing rooms. Not that we have dressing rooms, but some people in New York do.”

To add to her success, Meislin recently welcomed two particularly well-known artists to her group. Works by Tal Shochat have been bought for a collection of photographs from the Middle East by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Also, Meislin recently concluded her first deal with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which purchased a large work by Michal Chelbin.

Even though Meislin finds these developments very exciting, they seem natural to her given the status of Israeli art in the world. She believes that Israeli art is right where it ought to be, as many Israeli artists are in demand by excellent museums across the globe.

Meislin says that when she first opened her gallery, the industry felt like something that had just been born. Soon enough, however, came its period of youth, and now both the artists and the field are fully ripe and completely formed.

And so with this new adulthood, Meislin says, came the move to the ground floor. The artists were ready, the gallery was ready, and it was time to leave school and go into the real world, no longer protected by the second floor. It was time for the big leagues.

Meislin chose to dedicate her opening group exhibition, which is on display over the Jewish High Holiday period, to the subject of prayer in all religions. She came to that decision because she felt that with the re-opening of her gallery, “I started thinking about being grateful and blessings and prayers.” The exhibition will be open until mid-October, and Meislin believes that it was the only one in Chelsea that was closed on Yom Kippur.

Mark Asnin