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On the fingers of one hand: Sundaram Tagore says, “The idea is to use art as a vehicle to bring people together.”

West 21st Street, post Sandy (Photo: Lindsay Howard, courtesy Hyperallergic)

First, a personal note about this week’s dreadful events. Three days after I most recently returned west from New York City, the entire north east of the US was torn up by “superstorm” Sandy. For anyone like myself who regards New York City as their home, the large-scale destruction that the storm left in its wake – aspects of which are even now being discovered – is simply heartbreaking. In the real scale of things what has befallen Chelsea is not the most significant outcome of the storm, but in the context of ASfwSS I want to record my horror and communicate my sympathies to my many friends and acquaintances whose lives and work have been turned upside down by this week’s weather.

I briefly thought about holding off posting this piece, particularly given its focus on gallery issues. In the end I decided that those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to continue in our work should do so. New York City will overcome this disaster, as it has overcome others in the past. If I’m flattering myself to imagine that this and other upcoming posts are my tiny contribution to that renewal then so be it.

(Just for the record, this piece is based on a conversation that took place on 27th Street last Thursday, October 25, when neither Sundaram nor I had any inkling of what would occur Monday. Perhaps I should also note that, as it is as far north as it is, Sundaram’s Chelsea gallery actually escaped damage.)

Sundaram Tagore

In my experience Sundaram Tagore belongs to a small and special group of gallerists: there are less than half a dozen of them who, in all the years I’ve been visiting galleries, have struck up conversation with me about the art on their walls without even knowing who I was. Clearly there’s a degree of chance involved in this equation, but on the few occasions when it has happened, it has turned out that the gallerist in question has had a real passion for their profession and for the art they show. Moreover, in every case I have been able to watch their flourishing artistic and commercial success with great pleasure.

Sundaram Tagore Gallery, West 27th Street, New York

Since that day back in 2004 when Sundaram and I talked about Judith Murray’s paintings in his first gallery down on Greene Street, he has not only moved to a beautiful space on West 27th but, perhaps even more important, also opened galleries in Hong Kong, Beverly Hills, and Singapore. Last week, and just before Sandy hit town, he opened a small uptown space on Madison, close to the Metropolitan Museum.

Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Hong Kong

The reasons for this expansion are anything but simply commercial are underpinned by a world view and a sense of morality which strike me is unusual in any business, and he presents them here under five main headings, as though counting them on the fingers of one hand.

(On globalization) When I first opened the SoHo gallery in 1999-2000 I was living in New York City and I felt that nobody was looking at art on an intercultural basis, even in New York City itself, which is a truly postmodern experiment: a global community of people coming together, and discovering how to live together? I was interested in that point of intersection. That intersection is where the real energy and the real power lie, like a kundalini.

I didn’t know at that time what intercultural dialogues meant. But now I know. It’s called globalization. Because cross-cultural values come from the mixing of cultures. In a world city like New York or London or Berlin or Hong Kong or Singapore you have it. When I realized this (in around 2006-7) I saw that the art world was morphing. With more and more of our clients it was easier to meet them outside of New York. Whenever I’d say we were going to Dubai for the art fair, they’d say “We’ll meet you in Dubai!” But when I asked them to come to an opening here, they didn’t show up. So I realized they were traveling, and because they had to travel, they would deliberately time their trip to coincide with the art fairs, so that they could enjoy the power of artistic culture as well as getting their business done.

In 2007-8 we globalized. Because although we were doing well – we were putting up art works and they were selling – there was an undercurrent of anxiety. Everyone thought that with globalization we’d never have an economic bust. We’d never have a recession because things were too big, too vast. If you had a recession in one place, somewhere else would buffer it or swallow it up. We were the first gallery to arrive in Hong Kong. I took the space in 2007 and in 2008 we opened. Today there are galleries like Gagosian and White Cube and Perrotin and Lehmann Maupin. You name it! I don’t know the exact number but they’re saying there are between 60 and 70 international galleries there now. We were the very first ones.

I also started being able to recruit well-known Asian artists. The art world functions on the basis of who you know. Artists have to feel comfortable, because they give you millions of dollars’ worth of art on a handshake. They may know you’re name, but if they don’t know you personally, that’s not good enough. We started getting all these important Asian artists coming in and developing a roster of artists from across the globe: both eastern and western artists. Then we started having curated shows like the contemporary middle-eastern show that we did in 2007. The idea is to create a dialog, to use art as a vehicle to bring people together. We’ll never veer from that idea.

(On art fairs) I knew that something else was happening: the world got flattened. And as the world got flattened we started participating in art fairs. We started out with art fairs in the region, then we went national, and then we went absolutely international. We ended up doing 18 art fairs.

Now there are too many art fairs. It’s like a pashmina effect. They’re getting common. People think if they miss this one they can go to the next one. Once there was a sort of novelty, but now certain art fairs work and certain do not. Everyone wants to be in the ones that work. I saw that the only way to make it work was to have multiple locations. So when clients come to Singapore, it’s much easier for them. They can spend a couple of hours that they wouldn’t spend here in New York. They’ve finished their business, and they want a cultural engagement. They’ll buy something from us on that basis.

(On Madison Avenue and London) This is another effect of traveling. Many of our clients are always traveling. Traveling intensely. When they come home they want to spend time with their families. That dictates how they spend their time socially. They’ll go to Broadway with a group of their friends, and they’ll go to the Met because they live in that neighborhood. But to go to an art gallery in Chelsea because there’s an opening? No. That’s a fact. So we thought we had to be physically close to them. Every major important gallery in New York has a branch uptown simply to be close to them.

I was on the verge of opening a gallery in London. But you have to get the right place. It can’t be just any minor gallery space. I had an extended conversation with an estate agent but I missed that opportunity, so instead I opened in Hong Kong. My final gallery is going to be in London. It has to be. Because London has a special status, not just in the European economy but in the world economy. If you want to have some strength and gravity and claim to be global then you have to have a base in London. In a sense globalization began in London, because Britannia ruled 50% of the world. How do you think globalization began? With all the shipping and exchange there was a dissemination of ideas. Photography came to India a year after it was invented, and how? It was through the British. So you have to have a place there.

(On Technology) Technology is changing us, and changing everything. We didn’t know the iPhone was going to come along. The iPhone has liberated me from having to be in the office. Anybody who wants me right now can text me or email me and I’ll be aware of it. Because of this fact the whole structure is changing. New ideas are coming up. So we have to be smart. We have to spend a lot of time thinking, looking, and assessing. People don’t like to do that because we get comfortable. The old way of doing things seemed to work, so why isn’t it working now? Children are growing up with this technology and their buying behavior is going to be completely different from ours. Every day I buy the paper version of the New York Times, even though I’m subscribing to it on my iPad. But younger people don’t do that. What they are doing is curating their own process of gathering information. A newspaper will guide you page by page through what’s important and what’s of lesser importance. Online everything is of equal importance because they’re all accessed in the same way. That changes the way you look. Those are kind of things we have to tackle, and that could be a huge plus.

(On gallery morality) The question is how do you promote these artists in terms of methodology and technique? Our gallery is based on the idea that you can make money from selling art and promoting artists, but you’ve got to plough a certain amount of it back into the artistic system. We do book readings and book launches, poetry readings, and film screenings. You can do all of that in a postmodern context, you don’t have to separate it out. A lot of people probably sneered at it at first, but nowadays it’s the norm. I added it to all our galleries and it started to work – literally every other night: Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote Globalization and its Discontents, we did most of his books, and William Dalrymple who writes about India. We did Women for Afghan Women way before many people saw the problem. We were giving voice to the voiceless through our mailing lists. Some people come, others will have their own conversations. So that is the format. You have the resources and you plough them back into the system.


“On the fingers of one hand” is based on an original idea by Jacqueline Lewis.


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