Last summer, I interviewed Camilo Alvarez the Director/Owner/Curator/Preparator of Samson Projects in Boston. Though it was my first meeting with Camilo, he wasn’t entirely unknown to me. I had already seen his booth at several art fairs and knew two of the artists he represents. Because he is an ambitious gallerist with an adventurous program, I was eager to speak with him and get some insight into his point of view.
J: Camilo, tell me a little bit about your background. Did you study art?
C: I went to undergrad for Art History at Skidmore College in upstate New York and then moved back to New York, where I had grown up. Back in New York I worked in many different jobs at museums, galleries, artist residencies, artist studios, and art delivery companies. I moved to Boston in October of ’03, and then opened Samson Projects in March of ’04.
J: Why did you move to Boston from New York?
C: I just needed to leave New York. I was really tired of the scene. Everybody just seemed to be doing the same thing over and over again. When I moved to Boston, I started working for the MIT Vera List Visual Arts Center (a non-profit exhibition space at Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
J: Did you work with the Director, Jane Farver?
C: Yep. Jane Farver and the curator, Bill Arning. I had met Jane back when she was the curator at the Queens Museum. I met Bill when he put a show together for an alternative space down the street from Exit Art, Thread Waxing Space, a while ago too, so it’s was great working with them again.
J: So, that was the non profit route, but Samson Projects…
C: Is a commercial gallery.
J: And why did you choose to open a commercial gallery?
C: I just wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to have to answer to anyone. And that’s why I went the commercial route. I called up all my contacts and a bunch of collectors and sold some art and got some funding to get started.
J: How’d you know who to call?
C: Well that’s always the tricky business right there, pairing the work with the right purchaser. You know you have to find someone that wants to live with this artists’ work, and invariably sometimes it’s impossible to find that match. That relationship is very tenuous and always, constantly changing.
J: Relationship? What relationship? With the collector?
C: The relationship between the Purchaser/Viewer/Collector with Work/Artist.
J: So what is your role in that relationship?
C: I’m somewhere in the middle there. Sometimes, there’s a lot of handholding. Collectors feel like they need to take risks, so I convince them, or expose them, or give them information to help them make a decision. I’m not really a salesperson. I just give them the information and if they like it and they want to live with it, then that’s the way it should be. I don’t want to think that the art is going into storage. I want to think that it’s out there being enjoyed in a home somewhere or getting loaned out for exhibition.
J: So what was one of the most important lessons you learned early on when you were running your own space?
C: That running your own gallery is a lot of work. I knew it was going to be, but it’s also a labor of love. I love working. And when you work for yourself, you work all the time. It’s a lot like an artist.
You know one thing I was really surprised about was the resistance of the viewer, especially the “local” viewer. I mean you look at this place and it’s a storefront. And, I’m very open, and basically, an open space. I don’t even have a door separating the back from the front. It’s amazing how many people won’t walk in, even if the front door is open. And it’s not like I’m charging admission. Maybe they are shy and have never been exposed to this sort of thing. So that’s one thing that I am always trying to do, break the resistance of the viewer and have them experience the actual work. Also Boston is slightly conservative, that’s a mild way a putting it, but one thing I heard left and right was Boston is so provincial. And I’m thinking, that’s bullshit, Boston’s incredibly sophisticated. It’s got an incredible academic situation which is unique. It’s a great location to show challenging art. But, I felt bombarded by the sense of locality. So I began to question, what does local mean? Being from New York, I have a very diverse background. I was like, damn I have no idea what local means. Maybe I should research. And according to my definition, it was someone who had been born and raised in this local town, so then my definition came from that of course.
J: Did you feel a certain amount of pressure that you should be showing local artists and supporting the local community? Why do these New York artists need a show here anyway?
C: Yeah. And that’s all hunky dory you know, but for me, it was like, isn’t it enough that I opened up a space here. The gallery isn’t New York centric, I was showing and I’m still showing artists from all over the world. I’m thinking globally and acting locally. And then, on top of that many of my artists are emerging and others are established. And from the get go, I was also listening to what I considered local artists. It’s very political. Because on one hand you want to gain access to the local collectors and viewers which the local artists already have, but you also want to expose these local audience to new work out there. So it’s an ebb and flow.
J: So, what’s your favorite part of business?
C: Installing shows. Well installing shows and just putting shows together.
To me, this whole pursuit of art is not beauty and that is actually something that I’ve been dealing with for a while now. It lies in diversity. Beauty lies in diversity. I mean it’s amazing when you establish an emerging artist, because artists never work in a vacuum. But then also, just pairing works, and putting things on the floor, putting things on a ceiling, treating a painting like a sculpture or a sculpture like a painting. It’s things like that that I think the viewer in general hasn’t been exposed to as much. I mean Fred Wilson and Alan Ruppersberg, the way they install their own work has been incredibly inspirational to me. That’s how I curate trying to find a new space for it.
J: Fred critiques the museum in really amazing ways and makes us think differently about how we display an object and how we label them.
C: And I think that needs to be brought into the gallery setting. It’s a commercial setting, so it’s supposed to be set up so that the viewers, hopefully purchaser, considers it and views in pristine perfect condition. But, I mean that’s love then.
J: So, what kind of relationship do you have with your artists? Do you have a stable of artists that you represent? I mean you don’t have a long list of artists you represent.
C: Yeah, when I first started the gallery, I didn’t feel like I could go into this hole, into this complete nether region with a slew of artists. I didn’t want to co-op anybody and bring them down with me. So, for the first year and a half, two years, I didn’t represent anyone. And to tell you the truth, I started off the gallery saying, I’m not going to represent anyone. But then, as time went on commercial pressures were building. I wanted to participate in art fairs, and artists were approaching me saying, “hey I really like working with you, I really want to work with you, I think you have a great thing going and I really really like you”. So, I said yes to some people and no to some people. The artists you see on my website are the people I said yes to, and it’s building slowly but surely. But, these are all artists that I’ve known their work for four or plus years. There’s no way I could just pick somebody off the street, or someone that I’ve seen in a newspaper article and say I want to represent this person, because it takes time to build a confidence, to know the breadth of work, to know that you can talk about this work, and know somebody that wants to live with this work. You know where the work should be seen and who needs to see it. So that’s the task. But yeah, I’m working with some artists and they’re of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities and myriad mediums.
J: So you’re kind of creating a universe that’s the way you think you’d like to see the bigger art world representing?
C: I think so. It’s an incredible responsibility. I mean, I call them my artists, but I’m really theirs.
J: You’re really their what?
C: I’m theirs, wholeheartedly. I’m their gallerist. I prefer gallerist over dealer. That’s one way of putting it.
J: What’s the difference between a gallerist and a dealer?
C: A dealer is very commercially centered. A gallerist takes care of the artist. There’s a long-term relationship involved. A dealer will not care where or to what collection a work goes, but a gallerist definitely cares. A gallerist will follow up with a collector every time and a collector gets that. For a dealer, it’s a one shot deal maybe and then that’s it. A gallerist will send a collector the artist’s bio, whereas a dealer sends them an invoice.
J: I love that!
C: It’s a different relationship. Gallerists are much more involved with their artists and they have a long term relationship.
J: So do you exclusively represent your artists, or are they free to move about?
C: No. I actually try and get them other galleries. One of my artists has another gallery in New York City and another one a gallery in Berlin. It’s great. It’s actually something that I helped facilitate because I mean it helps. It’s like me and the other gallery is a team, for this one artist. I help my artists send out packages to other galleries and help them follow up. I mean God knows I know a lot of people and I have a lot of contacts with other galleries, so I know their, for lack of a better word, taste of what they like to exhibit. I’ll tell one of my artists. Hey I think this gallery might be into you. Send them a package.
J: What’s the role of art fairs in your business?
C: For a young gallery they are incredibly helpful for exposure and sales. Not only are they international in scope but they are magnets. They are trade shows when it comes down to it. A lot of “professional” and many not so viewers come through your booth and get to know you. Besides the buyers, you’re around this group of galleries from all over the world which you are trying to maybe position your artists with. So, the art fair serves several functions.
J: Do you think as a young upstart gallery in Boston you can get far more leverage in the world through the art fairs.
C: I think so, definitely, which is slightly unfortunate. I think it’s incredibly annoying that in order to be considered relevant you have to participate in these things.
J: They’re expensive.
C: They’re highly expensive. To tell you the truth, I can’t afford more than two art fairs a year, so I go into debt.
J: But being located in Boston you can do more of them because your rent and other gallery expenses are less than those of other big cities.
J: Is an art fair the best way to view an artist’s work?
C: Definitely not. As a commercial gallery, I have to think about shipping. I have to think about the booth size and it all influences what I exhibit at the art fair. And so the artist’s work can be small and very simplistic, but it cannot be very fragile. It has to be very resilient work for it to travel and that can influence what I select work for the art fair. I also have to consider the viewer because there are many people coming through my booth and I literally have their attention span for maybe 4 or 5 seconds before they move on. It’s like a mall. With them, I want to establish to have a nice window into my gallery’s program.
J: You have to think strategically about how your booth is arranged, so that you attract that kind of attention.
C: It has to be slightly bombastic.
J: That must be fun.
C: Well, the way I think about it is if the work is good, you know people are just going to want it.
J: How should artists introduce their work to a gallery? Or shouldn’t they?
C: Well, I think a unique approach can be very good. I’ve gotten packages where it looks like its ticking or something. You know it’s just screaming for attention, it’s like a bomb. But there are other times when I receive a package and they misspell the name of the gallery. And you know that attention to detail is important. If you want to exhibit with a gallery, you should probably get the name of the gallery right. You have to do your research. Don’t send your paintings to a photo gallery.
I think the best way I learn about new artists is through other artists.
J: New York galleries say they never find their artists ever through an unsolicited package. They find their artists only through introductions from other artists, curators, and critics. Does that hold true for galleries in Boston?
C: Yeah it’s true, less than 10% of the packages I receive are any good, but every now and then you get a gem.
You know, I know what to look for in a package. Because I’ve worked for so many non-profits I’ve seen thousands of them.
J: And what’s in a gem package. What does it look like?
C: A gem package is really about the work. Basically, if the work is good, you know that’s it. I don’t accept slides, so if it’s on a cd that’s great. I can view it and if the work is well presented, perfect. An artist should know how the viewer needs to see their work. So, if it’s a sculpture, you need to give several details of it, if it’s a painting, you need to give a detail. Not only that, but you need to give the information, name, title, year, dimensions, media. If that information isn’t there, I’m swimming blindly. So, it’s all about the information.
J: So, you do think an artist can approach a gallery with a package. It doesn’t work in New York very well.
C: Yes, and I prefer to receive them by mail. Art fairs are not the best place to receive them. You could consider dropping a package off at a gallery, but don’t do it at an opening. It’s better if the artist asks for an introduction from a friend that knows the gallery director. Human beings are social, we need that contact. You know, you get introduced to me by somebody that I know and really like, I’m more apt to listen to you. But if you get introduced to me by somebody I don’t respect, I might avoid you.
J: How about email submissions?
C: I don’t like emails. I mean, I literally get way too much email as it is. I prefer a CD. In this day and age, a CD is so easy to do. Slides have gone the way of the dodos. But even with a CD submission, that’s not the way work should be viewed ideally. A studio visit is necessary. Before an exhibition could possibly happen, two or three studio visits are necessary.
J: How about the artists who live in Oklahoma? What advice can you give them? They may be interested in you thousands of miles away in Boston. They do their research or maybe see your booth at an art fair and say to themselves, “Wow, his program is what my work’s about.” What should they do?
C: I mean that’s fine if they are out of town. If they send their information to me, I might travel out there.
J: I tend to tell artists, if they put together a package for a gallery, besides including a CD, you should include a printout of one or two images, so that the recipient knows whether or not they even want to load the CD.
C: Yes, and a letter’s always nice.
J: A cover letter. Absolutely, that’s good business practice.
C: You want to let this person know that you can communicate.
J: You’ve seen a lot of artists come along the way. And you’ve had a lot of really close friends who are artists that have been working on developing a career. What do you think is the biggest mistake an artist can make in building their career?
C: Non-communication. With whomever they are working with. I’ve had a couple of nightmare experiences where I was working with an artist, took their work to a major art fair and had the work consigned for four months after the fair. I assumed our signed consignment document would be respected. However, right away I saw the same work [it was a multiple] with another dealer at another art fair. I was like, this isn’t cool, this isn’t right. I had already sold that work to a museum. I contacted the artist, and asked if the edition number was available, “oh no that was sold.” I reply, “but I had that one consigned, what’s up?” It ended up that I had to rescind sale to the museum. It was embarrassing. All because the artist did not communicate with me or honor our agreement. Here, I had worked hard to sell a major piece to a museum, and I’m calling and calling the artist with the message, “hey the museum wants to know when the work is going to be printed, when it’s going to be delivered,” There was no communication, no phone call, no email back to me. That’s just incredibly unprofessional, and I never want to work with this artist again. They burned a bridge. If anyone asks me about how it was working with this person, I’m going to give them an honest answer because I looked bad to several collectors and museums. And so veritably, another bridge is burned. It would have been so easy had they communicated to me from the beginning, “You know what Camilo, you can’t sell that piece, or I’m sorry, but I don’t want to work with you anymore.” Instead, they left me dangling.
J: But they should have honored the four month consignment agreement they signed with you.
C: They should have honored the four months. I could have gone for legal procedures against them, but I’m a small guy. If it would have happened to any major gallery, that person probably would have gotten sued. But what can you do?
J: So, is the lesson from that story that artists will try to seize any opportunity without thinking about the bigger picture?
C: Yes. And they often bite off more than they can chew.
J: They make the deal right out of the studio without thinking, wait a second should I be doing this? Should I call Camilo about this?
J: What’s the biggest mistake you think a dealer can make?
C: Not paying an artist. When you get paid, that money is not yours. That money should immediately be paid to the artist. That’s the worst. Once that rumor spreads that you are not paying your artists, nobody wants to work with you.
J: Oh I never hear that, but I don’t believe artists refuse to work with dealers that don’t pay them. I hear lots stories about galleries that aren’t paying their artists. And even if they loose someone, there’s always some other artist standing in line saying let me in, I don’t care.
C: This is very true and it’s very sad. It’s rampant. There are galleries in New York that I know owe artists upwards of a million dollars. They’re getting sued, but they’re still open for business.
J: So your tips for artists concerning the artist dealer relationship would be honesty and communication both ways.
C: Both ways. That’s just a human necessity as well.
J: If someone you care for is beginning a career as a visual artist, what three tips would give them?
C: Definitely get your work documented well. It’s incredibly hard to get work documented. It’s slightly expensive as well.
J: So get the best documentation you can afford.
C: Get the best documentation. If you can do it yourself, I think it’s really good investment to get yourself a nice digital camera these days and some nice lights. That’s all you really need. And there are books out there, light from a forty-five degree angle, you know whatever.
Second of all, do your research. Just get out there. I think it’s incredibly delusional of an artist to think that they’re going to get out of grad school, do a bunch of work, and get represented immediately. I don’t think it’s necessary either. Just get out there. Do your research. Get your subscriptions to magazines. See what’s out there. Make sure you’re not repeating what someone else is doing. We’re all trying to contribute to culture here and want to be in the history books. So you should know what is already out there. Besides looking at galleries, there are the non-profits. I think non-profit alternative art spaces are incredibly important. Gallerists and dealers go to non profits to see what’s next. There are a lot of slide registries that these non-profits sponsor.
I also think artist residencies are incredibly important. As an artist, you should definitely, apply to these, because the selection committees themselves remember the work. They may be involved in other non-profit alternative art spaces. If you are in the circle, then everybody learns about you. Studio visits are incredibly important. Of course you want to get dealers, gallerists, and curators in there, but also get other artists to visit you. It’s all about the dialogue. Art doesn’t exist without a dialogue.
J: Thanks for your time Camilo.
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I had seen Camilo Alvarez’s booth at several art fairs and knew two of the artists he represents. Because he is an ambitious gallerist with an adventurous program, I was eager to speak with him and get some insight into his point of view.
Camilo Alvarez is a curator of contemporary art who has experience ranging from the traditional to the experimental. He has worked at museums, commercial galleries and alternative spaces, as well as in art consultation, delivery and installation. Born in New York City during the Summer of Sam, Alvarez graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. From there, he returned to NYC as Gallery Manager for Exit Art/The First World. In 2002, he served as Program Associate at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture coordinating the summer visual arts residency program. He organized the 2004 Max Wasserman Forum on Contemporary Art for MIT’s List Visual Arts Center with panelists Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, James Ackerman, Kimberly Alexander and Kyong Park. He recently assisted Caroline Jones create a catalog for the MIT List Visual Arts Center’s Sensorium exhibition.