noun || yəNG ˈhefā
Allison Barker is a gallery owner, specializing in producing exhibitions and managing clients.
TA: What’s your current hustle?
AB: Running my gallery! It’s called ABXY – that stands for Allison Barker x You. We opened about a month ago on Clinton Street. I provide studio space to all of my artists so, between producing exhibitions and managing all of them - ABXY occupies like 85 percent of my time. The other 15% I’m sleeping.
We specialize in emerging and outsider art. People always ask me, “why do you decide to represent black artists?” And I don’t even exclusively represent black artists, they just happen to form the majority of the group. And this is the big collective black we’re using now for people of color (because my artists are African American, Caribbean American, Hispanic, biracial, white – etc etc. whole rainbow) But people ask all the same.
So here’s the answer: I didn’t set out to represent black artists. I simply chose to work with the most promising young artists I could find. But it makes sense that the underrepresented talent in this country is black. The artists signed to the big name galleries are selected (for the most part) from schools like Yale and Cal Arts – these are MFA programs, they’re expensive, and extremely small. I’m sure they offer a few scholarships but still – these schools obviously, exclude the overwhelming majority of people who can’t afford art school. Since the system calibrates from that point – the art world faces the same issues of exclusion that affirmative action attempts to correct in American universities.
TA: Has what you’re doing now been a life-long interest?
AB: Well I’ve always been interested in art, and social justice, and healing so I guess – yes. But I didn’t have a plan to open a gallery, or represent black artists, or even to start a business. *
I went to all-girls school (Nightingale-Bamford) – I am so grateful for my education. Nightingale nurtured all of its students into becoming super feisty, outspoken champions of social justice. I mean really, we were so encouraged to question everything and be the change we wanted to see in the world.
In terms of art - I grew up in New York, surrounded by the most incredible concentration of artists and galleries and museums in the world. My mother always nudged me towards everything artistic and musical. She’s a writer and a dancer, and so am I (though much less officially the latter, I just think I’m a great dancer at the club). In high school, I went to the Met whenever I was stressed or feeling lost or heart broken, I guess that’s where I first made the connection that beautiful things make you feel better (outside the home, because my mom was always making our home an ever more beautiful ethereal place).
So, I grew up steeped in the idea that I needed to make my life beautiful and meaningful but it wasn’t until I took an “Intro to Art History” course in college that I figured out what an important tool art could be to change the world, so I didn’t decide to commit myself to it until then. I went in to college thinking I was going to be an Econ major and I ended up double majoring in Art History and French Literature at (Vanderbilt University).
I trained at Marlborough Gallery as a college student, my first job out of college I worked for the National Jewelry Institute, organizing exhibitions of jewelry all over the world. But I was dying to get into contemporary art so, while at NJI, I started moonlighting on weekends and after work for the artist Domingo Zapata and then went to work for him fulltime in 2012 as Director of Domingo Zapata Studios.
I travelled so much with Domingo, and saw so much art everywhere we went – eventually I got ants in my pants – I wanted to work with more artists. By 2014 I had saved some money so I went out on my own kind of with no plan but to write and go to art fairs. I ended up freelance curating shows and art advising while writing for Whitewall and Art Republik. I was deep in the contemporary scene but – but I didn’t know what where I wanted to go with all of these different projects.
I’m lucky to have a mentor in my godfather. He’s a personal hero, a real straight shooter and unquestionably one of the most brilliant business minds out there. He just kept taking me to lunch, and asking me questions, and listening, and figuring it out with me. He’s an art collector, but I think we’ve both learned a lot about the game as I’ve gone through this process. The art world is a crazy place, drenched in patriarchal customs few dare to question. There’s been a good deal of trial and error (and research) involved in navigating the whole thing.
But basically, we decided I needed a space of my own.
I had been meeting a ton of artists. but a few who stood out to me, who I kept putting in shows, and had become friends, and needed studio space. So when I was looking for a space: it needed to be somewhere I could work on all these projects AND ideally, provide studio space to these artists. I couldn’t afford a commercial gallery, and I didn’t really want one, I was more interested in creating a place for collectors to connect with art and artists.
I found this loft in Soho – it was a 5 story walk up – so I got a deal, and a tax write off (because it was a live/work), and I gave these 6 artists keys and I let them come and go whenever they wanted. It was insane. I had no life except for them but they were so good, and they just kept getting better, from being together, getting feedback from each other, and me and my guests, clients and colleagues.
And then things in the America started getting pretty dark (no pun intended), for people of color. I mean, it has been this way forever and it still is but - it was that 2016 rash of police shootings, and violence against black people, and the election… If there was ever a time those artists needed somewhere to create, it was then. And it wasn’t just that they needed to express themselves, it was more than that. It’s the experiences they were channeling, what the work meant to the people who saw it, because sometimes just looking at a work of art can feel like justice, its empowering to see your experience of the world validated in something beautiful and visual and silent – and for those whose experience it is NOT – looking at that same artwork is an educational experience. I think art has the power to teach people things they may not be open to in any other format. And I saw all of that happening and I guess I realized, nothing really mattered more than that to me. My question to myself has never really been what do you want to do? It’s how are you going to make your life meaningful. And here I was – in a situation I could do something about. I had an opportunity to really really involve myself in culture, and the creation of culture, by intermingling of all kinds of cultures in this space.
As I say on my website “ABXY quickly became a haven for collectors and artists of all fields, backgrounds, and experience levels to discover one another. And under Barker’s visionary direction, casual gatherings soon formalized into a cutting edge schedule of programming and events.”
That cutting edge schedule of programming and events REALLY pissed off my neighbors. They called the police on my artist talks, said they thought things were “gonna get violent,” accused my artists of “menacing” them in the stairwells, notes to my landlord about “men with backpacks coming and going.” – such lightly coded language it was blatantly racist. And then they came out and accused me of running a trap house rather than a gallery. It was so painful. We all worked so hard in SoHo, we had created something so beautiful, to have it slandered like that, to the point of convincing my landlord to attempt to illegally evict me – was crushing and terrifying. I didn’t have time to be in pain I just needed to find us a new place. A place that would honor what we were doing and protect us and embrace us - and I found that with the gallery on Clinton Street.
“In 2017, ABXY opened an art gallery to the public for the first time. From their new, Clinton Street headquarters, Barker continues to provide studio space for her artists beneath the gallery while presenting socially beneficial exhibitions and events, which expand the conversation around contemporary art.”
TA: What’s the most memorable career advice you’ve received?
AB: Judy Price, my boss at the National Jewelry Institute once wrote to me in a birthday card something like: “Always be yourself, Ali. If you’re not yourself, no one will buy what you’re selling. You’re an ambitious woman, so expect people to call you crazy – but don’t listen. Standing out is a good thing. Characters draw the audience so don’t try to blend in. You’re doing great.”
How right she was. I think about that all the time. It was a big relief to hear that from someone I respected so much.
TA: What’s been your biggest obstacle?
AB: Misogyny. And I don’t mean people hate women. For women, we face the subtle misogyny of lowered professional expectations and heightened sexual ones. Because, people don’t necessarily hate us, but girls and women around the world feel underestimated and oversexualized. I don’t presume to speak for all women but, I’m a loud mouthed, well educated, white woman living in the most progressive place on the planet – and I feel that way so….it’s discouraging. You think someone is interested the art and then they try to feel you up in a studio visit and all of a sudden you feel REALLY sad and unsafe. You think, omg, is it just because this guy wants to sleep with me that he’s even looking at the work? What is he going to do now? And that really fucking sucks. On so many levels.
Don’t get me wrong, I have so many wonderful, important men in my life, but there are so many stigma women face, so many challenges. Sexual harassment is just the beginning. We still have ZERO guaranteed maternity leave in America, ZERO – not a day, women’s access to health care is constantly caught in these absurd party wars, these are just a few of the MAJOR things that make professional life extremely difficult for women in America.
TA: If you could tell your younger self one thing about life, what would it be?
AB: Be observant and trust your instincts. I used to be more self-conscious about what people thought of me, and it made me vulnerable because I wasn’t looking closely enough at other people – and I got taken advantage of.
TA: Where do you find inspiration, when needing it?
AB: The studio. No matter what’s going on, or how stressed out I am, every morning when I walk into the gallery, I go down to the studio to turn on the lights on, and I see what the artists have created the night before – and everything lifts. I am so so proud of them. The development of their work is the one thing I never worry about. We’re always sending each other to shows and giving each other books and images and talking – and it all just blossoms out of that.
TA: What has been the best moment in your career so far?
AB: Opening the gallery. For sure.
TA: What do you that you find different about your creative process that others in your field might not do?
AB: Well – with writing – almost nothing – I think all writers are weird – nocturnal creatures who drink and smoke in bed while talking out loud to themselves or their dogs….but I really think most writers are freaks like that – doesn’t make me a stand out. With curating though – we definitely do things kinda cowboy. These artists throw paintings at me the night before a show – they’ll have been working for a while, and we’ll have discussed the series and I’ll have done whatever writing for the show but - I have almost zero time to arrange and hang the paintings in the space and I do all that stuff myself. So yeah, what you see in the shows, the result - is my eyes and arms working in like, army mode.
TA: What are you still looking to achieve?
AB: What am I NOT looking to achieve. LOL. I mean, museum exhibits for my artists, there’s a little furniture company I’d like to start with a friend of mine….I’d like to plan an ABXY trip to Paris….
TA: What would you say to someone who may think that their talent is not an ideal career path?
AB: That talent alone never = a career path. Talent is one weapon in your arsenal. No matter what you’re good at, your career will force you to be adaptable, to learn new things. Those things will expand you and push you forward. They will intermingle with your sense of purpose and ambition, and the people around you, and luck and a million other things that will form your career path – so don’t try and circle a square, just keep moving forward, reflect on your purpose, steer clear of assholes, beware of timing and what’s going on around you, and you will find your way to enter the world. We all have our part to play.
TA: What do you see the future holding?
AB: Well I know it hold’s Grave’s show. We’ll be opening a solo show for Grave Guzman in January. Mid February we’re doing a pop up exhibition with for Valentines day with guest artist Bettina Werner, and after that we’ll be doing another ABXY solo show for Corey Wash. But in general, I see a community building around our little family, extending out from our space. I see us getting more involved in our local community…Zeehan already painted a mural on La Escuela Hispanica, next to the gallery, its gorgeous. He’s going to do a paint by numbers style mural with the kids inside the school. Stuff like that, we want to bring people in, grant access to art to those who may be put off by the intimidating Chelsea scene. Basically, we wanna be everyones gateway drug to art. And that’s what I see us becoming. Because art is about life and we’ve all got one of those. So yeah, first LES…then the world.
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