We had the pleasure of sitting down with Jonathan LeVine at Mana Contemporary and discussing his move to NJ, his philosophy regarding being a curator/gallerist and to learn about his future plans.
Jonathan started out as an art major, but soon realized his passion was in organizing and curating shows of other artists. His mom said it must be the Jewish merchant in him that gave him his entrepreneurial spirit. He had a knack for organizing and promoting.
His first gig was working as a gallerist at CBGB 313 in the East Village. Here he met up with some now renowned artists such as Ron English and Shepard Fairey. Jonathan quickly became known within the ultra-contemporary low-brow art market, and is, in a sense, a founder of the movement. Jonathan found artists that were otherwise snobbed away by formal galleries, taking in street artists, art brut creators and what is now coined pop-surrealists.
After ventures in New Hope and Philadelphia as a gallery owner, Jonathan knew he had to get back to NYC. Taking a huge leap of faith, he opened his gallery in Chelsea on 20th Street in 2005. Apparently Ron English swayed him away from Brooklyn, as that was where the lookers were. But the buyers lived in Manhattan.
Jonathan found a renewed interest in representing the niche world of these fringe artists and so did his buyers. Jonathan has curated shows from such names as English, NYCHOS, Fairey and others.
I asked Jonathan about moving to Jersey, and he said quite frankly his rent in Chelsea just became too high. He also felt Chelsea was no longer the hip area of the art world, and in some ways has become the upper east side representing mostly blue chip artists now.
Jonathan never felt this was about money; he felt an obligation to support and represent unknown and lesser known artists that he could introduce to his collectors.
Jonathan is quite a down to earth guy, with strong roots in Jersey and his blue collar upringing. Quite a difference from the typical cash cow gallerists with a trust fund or ties to investment banking. His story is inspiring to those who came from similar places and to artists that need support and representation.
Of course the challenge these days is that art buying has gone mostly online, often times with buyers never coming to the gallery. Up to 90% of the visitors to his galleries are not buyers, but rather fans or other artists. We asked Jonathan what is his “special sauce” to make things work. We interview many gallerists and hear how the art market is down, people are buying less art, and don’t even have time to go to the galleries.
Jonathan said there are no shortcuts. It has taken him more than 17 years to build his name and brand. Now collectors trust him even if they make a purchase from the other side of the world without ever setting foot into his gallery.
We were also curious how Jonathan finds artists. He said there are 1000 artists for every gallery, so the process of selection is tricky. He doesn’t recommend artists walk into a gallery and ask to be shown. Jonathan suggests artists should have a solid Instagram page with great images that show consistency and give a sense of reliability and self-promotion skills. These days it’s not on the gallerist to do all the work, he said. He often selects artists that already have a good following, a solid website, and have shown at various galleries to prove they have a track record.
“Artwork does not have the sort of cachet that having a nice watch does, or driving a nice car like a Mercedes or something. You can’t wear this. It’s in your house, the only way that people are going to see it is if you bring them in there, then they have to be impressed by it.”
Jonathan mentioned how he might need to invest a considerable amount of time and resources to represent an artist. Sometimes he produces several shows with a lower amount of sales than expected. He says, “You can never really know how an artist will sell. Just because they have 100K followers on instagram, it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
He says art becomes sort of like fetish items–very expensive fetish items. “I know lots of wealthy people, doctors and lawyers and you know they live in my town, but like that’s just not where their interest is, they’d rather go on vacation and have season tickets to see the Giants.”
“I have a friend, Dylan, and he collects watches and so you know he’s got the standard watch everybody knows which is a Rolex, it’s like you have a Rolex, it must be expensive. That’s actually not the case. You can buy a less expensive watch. But he also has this other watch and I can never remember what it is called. Even more expensive but if you’re wearing it nobody has any clue except for this super duper nerdy watch collector who has a lot of money, so I think the art market’s kind of like that too. It’s also like if you have a lot of money trying to show off and you’re in that next level which is a lot of what our world is you know.”
Jonathan’s content being a blue collar Jersey guy; he drives a Honda, and is extremely down to earth and approachable. How many art dealers can say that? He’s done with NYC, and is home in Jersey City. He’s happy to have his own business and swears its passion, not money that gets him up every day. We have to agree with him. Without passion, nothing is really worth doing.