Gallery Representation:  Case Study, Michael Rea

Jeriah Hildwine

Michael Rea is a Chicago-based sculptor who makes large-scale work out of innumerable pieces of hardware-store unfinished wood (pine, I think). His imagery has included giant mechs (fighting robots), a giant artillery piece, the proton packs from Ghostbusters, and a writhing, impaled anaconda.  His work has been shown at the Next Art FairWestern ExhibitionsVersion Art FairCo-Prosperity Sphere, and at Ebersmoore.  He is currently represented by Ebersmoore.  They graciously loaned several of his works to us for the exhibition Flesh and Bone, curated by myself, my wife Stephanie Burke, and our friend Annie Heckman, at Co-Prosperity Sphere.  I approached Michael to ask him about his thoughts and experiences in regard to gallery representation.

Jeriah Hildwine:  First I’d like to ask about your personal story.  I’d like to know how you got your first exhibitions after undergrad, during grad school, and then after grad school.  How did you first get involved with Ed Marszewski and the Co-Prosperity Sphere?

Michael Rea:  Well right before I left Chicago to attend graduate school, I was in a group show at gallery called Unit B in Pilsen, which was run by Kimberly Aubuchon, who now runs Unit B in Texas. A friend of mine had shown there and mentioned my work to her. I was also in the Rockford Biennial that summer. During my first year at the UW, I began to talk with Michael Thomas who ran Butcher Shop Dogmatic. My friend Geoffrey Todd Smith had been discussing a show with Michael and mentioned my work. After I met Michael he wound up giving me my first solo show, which was the show right after Geoffrey’s. I believe it was at the opening that I met Edmar for the first time. Soon after that Edmar invited me to participate in Version, where I displayed the majority of the work from, my solo show at Butcher Shop Dogmatic.

Rea's "Machete"

Rea's "Machete"

JH:  Regarding your solo show at Co-Pro, what was your professional relationship with Ed like at this time?  I’ve never really thought of him as someone who represents artists, but more like someone who provides exhibition opportunities along with tons of other stuff.  Was it different back then, or…what was it like?  Did you think of it as having gallery representation, or not really?  It would be cool if you could explain the relationship like you’re telling it to someone who doesn’t know how galleries work, from the financial arrangements to everything else, like did Ed take a cut of sales, did you rent the space, was there a contract, or were things more informal, etc?

MR:  Well Ed and I had work together a number of times, beginning with the version show and then in various other group shows/events/auctions. There were no contracts, and I did not have to rent the space. The way things worked is Ed would get a 30% cut of all sales. This is under what a commercial gallery will take. Most commercial spaces take 50%. Around this time or a little after Edmar had expanded into some loose representation with a few artists under the name Ruben Kincade, which was a project space attached to Co-Prosperity Sphere. Around this time I began to work with a few spaces in LA, and started showing at a few other places outside of Chicago. Back then I was not really all that interested in representation; I would book one show at a time and negotiate the cuts and shipping on an individual basis.  Some times this went well, other times not so well. I like to do a group show with a space to see how they handle things and then move on to a solo show if everyone is still friends and happy with the way things are working.

'Benita' by Michael Rea

Jeriah Hildwine with 'Benita' by Michael Rea Photo by Stephanie Burke.

JH:  Okay, so at some point, you started showing with Ebersmoore.  How did that happen?  Did they approach you, or did you approach them? What was the conversation like?  Did they start by putting you in a group show, or did they offer you representation right away?  How’d it all start?  Also, how did you deal with telling Ed that you were showing with a gallery now, and how did that go?

MR:  I met Dominic and Sara, when Dominic was still working for Aron Packer, and Sara had just started the apartment space. I liked what they were doing and was impressed with how hungry they were. Once the space moved to the West Loop and they picked up some momentum, they started building a roster.  They seem to move into this next phase very pragmatically. A nice six-person roster and a nice variety of artists. This would have been around January of 2010, I had just shown a piece at Western Exhibitions, and I was approached to do a solo show, and whether I would like to be represented by Ebersmoore. The solo show was set for November, and EbersMoore arranged an exhibition for me in the Special Projects section of Next in the meantime.

JH:  Could you talk about your specific relationship with Ebersmoore?  How does the artist-gallery relationship function with you and them? Those of us who aren’t represented by galleries often have no idea how things work.  How often do they show your work?  How far ahead do they schedule your shows?  How do sales work?  When curating a show, do you make the decisions, or do they?

Jeriah Hildwine with 'Machete' and 'Keg'

Jeriah Hildwine with 'Machete' and 'Keg' by Michael Rea Photo by Stephanie Burke.

MR:  Well, EbersMoore, get 50% of sales through the gallery and when I do shows in other spaces, group or solo, EbersMoore negotiates a cut for themselves. This part can get tricky; the artist will usually always get 50%, and the two spaces will split somewhere in the 20/30 ballpark. When Ebersmoore is involved they handle the shipping. The usual procedure is you, or your gallery ships out and the new space handles the ship back. All of this can get fuzzy, which is why it is nice to have a gallery to handle these sorts of things. I personally do not like these negotiations or the haggling over prices, and this sort of stuff is what the gallery is for. I am completely new to this sort of stuff, and EbersMoore is just getting their start, so it is a nice environment to grow and learn things along the way.  Once again there are no contracts, just conversations and discussions of what is best for everyone involved. I am currently scheduled for a solo show in September of 2012. This is nice since it will give me a little time try a few new things out and experiment a bit. The last couple of years have been a bit hectic and there has not been a lot of time to play around in the studio.

As far as curating the shows, EbersMoore has been more than gracious, considering they let me cut a hole in a wall and run about 20′ of cannon barrel through their living room. Once again this is a conversation that develops over time, and continues through the installation of a show. I feel you should trust your gallery, and this is someone that is invited into the studio for the occasional conversation about work. It has been nice working with Dom and Sara, since there are two of them. This seems to make for a nice dynamic. Not only can these conversations help the artist, but they also help the dealer. The dealer needs to have a firm grasp of what the artist is making in order to showcase/sell the work.

Rea's "Behemoth"

Rea's "Behemoth"

JH:  OK, so that was it for my questions about your personal story.  Now I’d like to ask some questions on your thoughts on gallery representation in general.  Do you think it’s important for all artists to seek representation?  Or is there a heuristic an artist can use in deciding whether or not to seek representation?  When might an artist be better off on his or her own?  How should an artist go about approaching a gallery to seek representation?  Are there any caveats about scams, or bad professional practices artists need to be aware of and avoid falling victim to?  What are an artist’s responsibilities towards his or her gallery, and what can they expect in return?  Do you have any other thoughts on gallery representation?

MR:  Representation can be nice, but it can also be a pain in the ass. You have to find a place/people that you like working with that are going to help your career. The other nice side of things is there are not contracts; it never hurts to try something out, and if it is not working out, try something else. I do not think representation should be a main concern for an artist, but something that just happens over time or does not. I think artists should spend their time and energy making art.  With that said, Art is not made in a vacuum.  Artists need to talk to their peers, and attend shows. In my experience these interactions will lead to opportunities. Whether these opportunities manifest into representation, show opportunities, or just good dialogue, they tend to be the best way to get things started. I find the best way to meet galleries is to go to galleries for their openings and return on a Saturday afternoon. A lot of times there are not that many people around and you will get an opportunity to chat with the dealer. Never talk shop at an opening, the reason you are there is to look at work, not sell yourself. I think building a rapport is the best bet.  To answer your last few questions, never sign a contract, try to discuss all details up front, and never assume anything.  Other than that, just try to make good work.

Jeriah Hildwine is an artist, educator, and writer.  You can see his work at www.jeriahhildwine.com, and read his columns at Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.