To celebrate our 25th year properly here at the Weekly Alibi, we're conducting a series of interviews with local businesses and institutions that we've grown with and that have contributed to the growth of our wonderful city.
For our first interview, Calendars Editor Megan Reneau met up with Richard Levy and Vivette Hunt of the renowned contemporary Richard Levy Gallery located at 514 Central SWto ask them a few questions about their 25 years Downtown, the community, art and how it all intersects.
Alibi: What brought you to Albuquerque?
Richard: I went to school in San Francisco for a couple years and then transferred to UNM. I took a couple years worth of English and then decided to switch to art because I grew up in a house with parents who are collectors, so it was a natural transition for me.
That led to becoming a photographer. And I hook rugs … it's a very Northeastern, little old lady sport. It takes me about a year to make a rug. After UNM I opened an antique store … by the Guild. I was attracted to the idea—to graphics of different kinds—so I sold antique photographs, I used to buy old Vogue magazines from the '20s when they were silk screened and made in Paris. By the end of that store, I was selling silk screens and sort of limited edition posters by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, you know, all the classics ...
Vivette: Richard's good at finding things.
Richard: Anything. I can find a source for anything. So in the antique business and in this business, it's a good skill to have.
Alibi: How has Downtown changed in the last 25 years?
Richard Levy: I was going to buy the building and not remodel it but someone else was bidding on the building, as well—my home contractor. He just happened to be working on our house at the same time as all this was going on. I called him and told him I was buying this building and there was silence at the other end. His wife suggested that we buy it together and add a second story.
Alibi: So it's changed a lot.
Richard: Yeah. At the time [JC] Penny's was Downtown but they were leaving.
This was an architecture firm [in the building RLG occupies] and they were just leaving, as well, I mean—mostly people were leaving Downtown then—so I saw that as an opportunity to buy a building at the right moment. I intended to start as a print gallery by appointment only.
Vivette: And that came out of Richard being a publisher.
Richard: I was familiar with what Tamarind was publishing. I knew some other publishers in San Francisco—I knew I could buy their prints and resell them. There was huge demand in those days. People would publish print editions and they would be sold out in a minute. So I started that way, just buying prints and reselling them in very short order.
Alibi: What's your process for collecting the art that will be featured?
Vivette: We're constantly feeling for visual information. If we like something or if we see how it would maybe fit into a project—for example, our next exhibition is snow flakes, it's going to be called “Let it Snow.” We'll fill the gallery with snowflake imagery, so knowing that that's happening, we start scanning. And, you know, Richard's been doing his internet sleuthing [laughs], so it happens in different ways. We have projects in mind, sort of peripherally on our radar, maybe a year or two out once we encounter different types of art. This exhibition is not a great example because this is a celebration of 25 years and celebrating 25 years, you bring a lot of information together.
Richard: Yeah, this exhibition isn’t an example because this is all over the place. What we do is very curated.
Alibi: How does the theme of this relate to the charity We Are This City that you guys are working with?
Vivette: We really wanted to make this exhibition feel more like a community celebration because it’s about the gallery being Downtown for 25 years, so it was important for us to include the artists that we represent today. Our program is a mix of things that Richard finds that we resale blended with artists that we actually work with and consign our art from, so we are career building but we are also making secondary sales.
This show does also reflect that balance in our program. When we go to an art fair, generally a booth presentation will include secondary market and artists that we’re directly working with so we bring them together. We wanted that balance to be reflected in the exhibition well. And Richard is a collector, so we sort of wanted to put a little bit of that aspect of his personality in—the baseballs, that’s a collection of his, so it’s sort of bringing different components that all sort of fit with it being a community celebration.
We’d been looking for the right partner—Richard and I have been talking about this for a while—we finalized that partnership in May or June. We Are This City was interesting to us because of their arts and cultural overlap, but it’s very different: It's very millennial-based. It seemed like a good fit for us, bringing our two networks together.
Alibi: Has changing media impacted your business?
Richard: Oh totally. When I first started—I mean, there were computers—but everything was very old fashioned. To get things printed, you had to go to the print shop and they would have to have things photographed—you didn’t bring them files. Nobody did anything over the internet because most people barely had AOL.
Vivette: When I got here in 2000—even at that time—we'd get a piece of art in, we’d have to load it up in the truck and take it to the photographer and the photographer would photograph it, we would get slides then get the slides digitized... But even at that time, a very small percentage of our collectors were actually looking at art online even though that was for putting it on the website. We weren’t really sending a lot of images. Now most of our sales are online.
Richard: That didn’t happen till a couple years ago.
Vivette: Yeah, that’s a trend that’s really solidified in the last five years.
Richard: But we still go to a lot of fairs. We show up with a bunch of crates and we fill a 20x24-foot space in New York or wherever, Dallas, Seattle or Miami—they’re all destination cities at the right time of year. And we see 10,000, 15-, 20-, 25,000 people at those.
Alibi: That’s a lot.
Richard: Those are people who are committed to art in some way. People still need people to look at the artwork and see what the painting’s like. You can’t really understand paintings online, the brush strokes, you know it's...
Alibi: Yeah, it’s a completely different thing seeing it in person. But it sounds like changing media has impacted your business a lot, has that change affected the art that you've received or that you’re interested in?
Richard: It’s certainly changed photography. It’s much easier to print out photographs and everything photography became digital, but as far as painting and prints, prints have changed too because it’s—
Vivette: Open to the digital world. Some painters that use technology to expand their toolset, like Beau Carey is a very traditional painter but, that being said, when I see this landscape painting here on the wall (Mt. Analogue, 2016), I can’t help but think it’s somehow influenced by looking at digital information.
Richard: But that’s just the collective unconscious. That's everybody being online and looking at stuff. But when it comes down to painting, you still have to paint.
Vivette: Yeah, you still have to pick up the brush. It's just the way you're conceptually connecting the dots. On the other side, we have a painter that we represent that has modified a CNC router which is driven by software. They generally cut special shapes but he modified it and put a robotic arm so it does an individual paint drop application and he writes the software to tell it what to do. So I mean, he's painting but he's not picking up a brush ... it's definitely a creative process.
Alibi: Why is the art scene so different from Santa Fe?
Vivette: Albuquerque is a much more affordable place to live and allows a creative community of many, many different income brackets to be established here. Santa Fe is a little priced out and not accessible to such a diverse group of people.
Richard: The Santa Fe market really started with the more traditional New Mexican, classic kind of images that were more expensive and a little more traditional—
Vivette: And a little more conservative. There’s more room for experimentation here with the universities pushing intellectual, conceptual and—again—economic boundaries. If you're not under the gun to pay huge overhead on your studio space, you can afford to take a few more risks. It allows room to be more experimental.
Alibi: Has the Alibi influenced the art scene in Albuquerque?
Vivette: Yeah, it’s helped get people to events.
Richard: Yeah, and when they started and when we started, we used to do art walks. The city arts organization did that. The city was divided into three or four sectors so the Northeast Heights had one and Downtown and the University area together had one and the Valley had one. I think that was it. And we used to do them regularly. Everybody in the area would be open on a certain day, and we would take out ads together and that was in the calendar section and that’s how people knew about that stuff.