Photograph by Irving Haberman
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Interview With Gallerist Sidney Monroe
July 15, 2011
Contributor Jonathan Blaustein interviews Sidney Monroe owner of the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, NM.
JB: How did you get involved in the business?
SM: It was accidental, almost. After college, I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then, I started working in contemporary galleries in New York.
JB: Were you in the photo department at the Met?
SM: I was not. I was in the retail department. It was a fascinating time, because it was at the time of the Tutankhamun exhibition, and it was the first time they put a satellite retail operation in the exhibition, as opposed to just in the gift shop. It spurred their entire retail model. I can’t remember the numbers, but in the three years I was there, sales went from like $3 million to $50 million, because of the expansion of the retail model. This was before they had the retail stores in airports and such.
JB: So is this in the 80′s?
SM: This is in the early 80′s, yeah. I had been a business and economics major in college, and always had an interest in the arts. My circle of friends was always artistically inclined. I was completely talentless…
JB: Entirely, perfectly talentless?
SM: Entirely talentless, but I was always in a circle of creative people. When I took that job at the Met, it was a beginning opportunity in the retail department as they were expanding. Within a year, I became a manger of the book shop. In the book store, you could take anything you wanted to read, you could purchase at at discount, and I immersed myself in learning about art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an incredible place.
JB: It’s my favorite museum in the world. I studied art more there, when I lived in New York, than even in graduate school.
SM: Anyone who’s been there knows you can spend hours, days wandering, and still not see it all. And I had access to the catacombs, because there’s storage under Central Park. You go down in there, and there’s a Rodin sculpture with a tarp over it. Crates with you can’t imagine what might be in there.
JB: I would kill for a chance to see that. If any of your people end up reading this, I want a secret tour.
SM: I’m sure it’s all changed. Especially in a Post-9/11 world. This was the 80′s, things were very loose, and it was a great training ground.
JB: So you moved from there to the photo gallery world?
SM: The contemporary gallery world.
SM: I started at a gallery that’s no longer in existence, and quite frankly I can’t remember the name. Then I went to The Circle Gallery, which was a commercial galley specializing in contemporary prints. For a while, they were kind of legendary for having a retail model for a gallery, opening different branches in other cities. That’s where I cut my teeth in the art business. That led to an opportunity to meet Alfred Eisenstadt. He was in his 80′s, and had done some museum exhibits. But he had never done a gallery/selling exhibit. Somehow he had gotten in contact with the owner of The Circle Gallery. I was then the director, and became involved in talking with Eisenstadt about doing an exhibit. My wife-to-be and I got to go up to the Time-Life Building, and sit across from Eisie at his desk. We were both in our 20′s, he was in his 80′s, and it was like a lightbulb went off. I was sitting across from a man who has witnessed history.That’s when I got hooked. We did this exhibit, it traveled nationally, and was huge at the time. It was on CNN, Good Morning America, all the morning talk shows.
JB: Had any of the LIFE photographers shown their work in a gallery context before that?
SM: Not so much. Time-Life had a small gallery in the building, and they would routinely do exhibits for the photographers, but nowhere near the scale of a public gallery. Eisie was a very, very smart man. Of all the LIFE photographers, he published dozens of books. He was ahead of his time in that he understood that photojournalism should be more broadly available to the public, as opposed to just existing in a magazine. I firmly believe this drove the last 10 years of his life. He worked on supervising his prints, traveling exhibitions, doing interviews, meeting the public, from the time he was 85 until he died at 96.
That set off a spark for me, and within a couple of years after that, I had two partners and we opened a gallery in Soho on Grand St. It was just devoted to photography, with an emphasis on photojournalism. That gallery opened in the fall of 1996. We did several shows with LIFE magazine photographers, and presented the first ever exhibition from the archives of Margaret Bourke-White’s estate. Fast-forwarding, after 9/11, being in that location was no longer viable for commerce. My wife and I decided to leave Manhattan, come to Santa Fe, and start over.
JB: Why did you choose Santa Fe?
SM: It’s a good question, and we’re just realizing that we’ve been here 10 years, now, and it’s gone by very quickly. We couldn’t find a location in Manhattan quick enough to relocate. The location we had on Grand St was the quintessential Soho gallery. Cast-iron columns, 16 ft ceilings, everything you would want in a beautiful gallery. Already the migration had already started towards Chelsea. We looked, and all that would be available, if you weren’t one of the big players, would be on the 6th, 7th, 8th floor of a building in Chelsea, and I didn’t like that model. We have always believed in photojournalism, and that it needs to be seen by the public. We’re very passionate about spreading the message, so the public is integral to what we do.
We’d visited New Mexico, and I have family roots here. We knew there was a vibrant art scene in Santa Fe. We did some research, and depending on the data, it was either number two or three art market behind Manhattan. Quite frankly, we took a leap of faith. 9/11 happened. We decided in October, we moved over Christmas break, and we opened the gallery in Santa Fe in April of 2002. We honed down very tightly on photojournalism. That’s all we’ve focused on showing here.
JB: Are there other galleries now that have followed your lead and do what you do, or do you still feel like you’ve got a unique position in the market?
SM: I think we accidentally found a unique niche. Accidentally, because it followed from a passion. Something sparked, and that’s the direction I went in, and at the time nobody else was really doing it. Now there have always been some photo galleries that show some photojournalism in with their other programming, but to my knowledge, there is still nobody doing pure photojournalism, and that’s really become what we’re known for. Both within the collecting and museum community, and the public gallery-going community as well.
JB: I’m sitting here in the gallery, surrounded by artifacts of American history, and I know you said already that you developed a relationship with Alfred Eisenstadt, and that was the catalyst for the gallery, but how did you develop relationships with the other photographers whose work you show? Especially because I’ve got to imagine you’re working with Estates, because many of these people have passed on.
SM: That’s correct.
–(editor’s note: Right here, we were interrupted by a strange woman who took the time to complain that there were no photographs of dancers on the wall. She felt slighted. Mr. Monroe patiently answered her questions, and treated her with respect, despite the fact that she was behaving like a complete nutbar.)
SM: Partly, it was fortunate timing. When we began, many of these photographers were still alive. Eisenstadt introduced us to many of his colleagues at LIFE magazine, Carl Mydans was still living, as were many of the other LIFE photographers. It’s almost like a fraternity. One of the things we’ve been so passionate about is getting these photographers to make prints while they’re still alive. As a photojournalist, unlike a lot of other photographers, they never considered making prints during their lifetime. They were on assignment. They had a job to to. They got their assignment from LIFE or LOOK or whomever, they went out in the field, shot their work, sent their film back, and chances are they never even saw it. It was edited, and used or not used in a magazine.
When we met some of these other photographers, particularly with Carl Mydans, and we suggested that they could go back through the work and see it fresh. He’s seen it in a magazine, or a book, but to sit down with a negative and a printer…the printer would say, “Carl, you can make it this big or that big, we use different paper, crop it this way or that.” It opened up a whole new possibility for them in doing their work. We’ve met these photographers, we’ve encouraged them to do this, but a lot of times they’re hesitant. It’s just not something that’s in their thought process.
JB: Then. But probably we would say that’s changed.
SM: That has changed. And now you get a lot more photographers who say, “I want to do what he did.” It really was like a fraternity, and one by one, we either knew about photographers, sometimes we’d talk to them and they’d be resistant. I knew Eddie Adams way back when in New York. Eddie was infamous for refusing galleries. I never really approached him, but I’d always talk to him about it. Within a few months of his passing, his wife came to us and asked us to represent the Estate. It’s a combination of people coming to us, people we’ve put out feelers to, and it’s a very close-knit community. Almost all of our photographers are colleagues of some sort. Sometimes to almost a humorous point. We did an exhibit once, and a photographer found out he was hanging next to another photographer, and he said, “Son-of-a-bitch, I hated him then, and I don’t want to hang next to him in your gallery.” So we moved the exhibit around a little bit.
JB: You did?
SM: We did. My wife likes to say “We work for them.” And that’s true. A lot of times they’re elderly, and we feel very privileged. It’s important to get their work represented, particularly while they’re alive, and to get prints made that will represent a legacy for the future.
JB: You developed a relationship with a network of photographers who knew one another, and as your reputation built, they came to want to work with you. But what about the collectors themselves? How did you develop a relationship with a network of people who wanted to buy these prints.
SM: It started very innocently. This is what we were passionate about. This is what we put on the walls. This is what we want to talk about. And it was slow going in the beginning. We had many times where we had exhibits up, and the established photo collector would be like, “Gee, I don’t know about your gallery,” and then they’d look at it, and they’d say, “But this is photojournalism?” And we were like, “Yeah, isn’t it great?” A lot of what we’ve done, is that we’ve educated people about photojournalism.
Moving to Santa Fe was very liberating, in a way, because in the New York art world, there’s a tremendous pressure. What’s hot? What’s the next big thing? More so in the art world, but it does also permeate into the photo world. So seeing old history on the wall isn’t very sexy. Moving to Santa Fe, there’s more freedom, it seems, of peoples’ perceptions of art in general. We’ve tried to create an environment where the photographs speak for themselves.
JB: So most of your collectors have been into the space? Are most of the people local to Santa Fe?
SM: No. We have a very wide base. Fortunately, having been in business in Manhattan for so many years, a lot of those clients follow us. Of course, so much can be done in the virtual world now. It doesn’t replace the experience, but certainly they can follow the imagery. We also do photo fairs in New York and Los Angeles. Often, it comes from the first conversation you have with a person about why they’re having a visceral reaction to a particular image. Being complete academic nerds, we can recite everything that was ever vaguely relevant about a particular photographer. It’s about cultivating relationships and knowledge. You touched on the retail model. I believe it’s an important model for a photography gallery. And by retail, I don’t mean retail selling.
JB: Well, that was my next question. Because we’re in downtown Santa Fe, and during the course of this interview, I’d say 25 people have already been into the gallery, and an additional 40 have been looking at pictures through the window. I think some people believe that people come in and buy things off the wall, and other people think that’s a fantasy. I was hoping we might be able to address, from your own standpoint, how it actually works.
SM: Personally, our goal is to spread the gospel of photojournalism, so getting the work seen by the public is critical. It’s a part of what we do, and another part is to educate. That doesn’t mean we preach, but I’m available to anyone who wants to ask questions, as we saw earlier, from mundane to serious. There’s no screening process of who gets to talk to me.
JB: Is that because we’re in Santa Fe? I wrote some things that were critical of some of the galleries in Chelsea for that reason. The approachability factor is nil. Here you’re talking about the fact that you’re almost perfectly approachable.
SM: That was our posture in New York. It’s just who I am and the way I work. It is bothersome sometimes, but that’s just the way it is. And I have to say that it has resulted in some incredibly long-term relationships with very important collectors. I think it’s a thing in the art world, and everybody has their model, and they can do it the way they want. But by design, I want the work to be seen, I want people to be able to ask questions. The retail model for us is that we’re open to the public, and we’re here to show photography. Both in New York and Santa Fe, we’re connected to schools, workshops, communities. Santa Fe is wonderful because of the Santa Fe Workshops, and Center as well. Many instructors bring their classes in here.
JB: You’re talking about retail as a way to engage with the public and have an exhibition space that enables the work to be seen. I’m curious, a bit, about the alternative way of viewing the concept of retail. The idea that people are going to walk in off the street, buy something off the wall, and take it home with them. As opposed to sales coming through built-up relationships over time. How often do you find that members of the public cross over to become collectors, as opposed to the public being appreciators?
SM: It’s hard to quantify, but obviously it’s a very small percentage. But just yesterday, a young couple came in and asked about a Margaret Bourke-White photograph we had exhibited seven years ago. They got married here seven years ago, and came back again on vacation. They asked about the photograph and they bought it.
JB: So it happens, but it’s the exception. It’s not the basis of your business.
SM: No. It’s not the basis of our business.
JB: Nor could it be?
SM: No. Nor could it be. Or should it be.
JB: Right, but in a sense, we’re talking about the exhibition divested from commerce. The exhibition is about getting the work seen, which is not that different from a museum or a public space.
SM: That’s exactly right. A lot of people, as they exit the gallery, say this is like a museum.
JB: As you said before, by design. You could be a private dealer with a small office, if you wanted to be.
JB: It’s a perfect opportunity to ask, you’re opening your big summer exhibition called “History’s Big Picture” on July 1st. It’s not on the wall today, so I thought you might be able to tell us a bit about that.
SM: Curating is always interesting, because you’re juggling dozens of ideas. It occurred to us that this year is our 10th year anniversary in Santa Fe, during which time we built our photojournalism focus. And it occurred to us that we’ve got this incredible stable of photojournalism that we could curate from and make “History’s Big Picture.” The hardest part is editing, because we could do ten exhibits called “History’s Big Picture” and not duplicate any images.
JB: Really? How big an archive do you have? Given what you just said, how many pictures do you have access to?
SM: Jonathan, I couldn’t even tell you…
SM: Thousands. We have archives in the gallery, we have off-site location here and in Manhattan, and we have our photographers who maintain archives.
JB: Sure. I interrupted, but you were talking about “History’s Big Picture.” As a curator, that’s kind of a broad theme. What did that mean to you?
SM: The pictures that tell the story of history. You have to edit your timeline for history, of course.
JB: American history?
SM: Primarily history as it relates to America. We chose 1930 as the starting point, and wanted to come as close to the present as possible. We have several images from 2006, 2007 and 2008.
JB: Am I correct that for the recent work, you’re showing Nina Berman’s pictures?
SM: We are.
JB: At APE, we spoke to her earlier this year. She’s fantastic. How did you come to get her work in the show?
SM: She is fantastic. She’s somebody I’ve admired. For photojournalists today, they’re obviously working in a challenging environment, and a changed one as far as the media goes. In the heyday, you had vehicles like LIFE or LOOK, where that work was published, the photographer became known, and the public saw the work. In today’s media world, getting images shown is very challenging.
JB: You mean getting images seen?
SM: Yes, getting images seen.
JB: It’s a distinction we could probably talk about for an hour, but I think most people reading this will probably know the difference.
SM: Of course. The visual clutter that’s prevalent today. And the change of the economy of scale of the media. So Nina is one of the many contemporary photojournalists that I’ve known about, followed and admired. I wasn’t sure how we could show her work and do it justice, but in the context of this exhibit, I felt that we’ve got to have it. She was so gracious and accommodating, and it was an honor to have five of her photographs in the exhibit. We’ve got two from “Homeland Security” and three from the “Marine Wedding” series.
JB: Including the Ty Zeigler wedding portrait?
SM: Including the wedding portrait.
JB: Which I saw on the wall in New York last year, which led to the interview with Nina. So we’ve come full circle. That picture will now be on the wall here in Santa Fe all summer long.
SM: And I’m prepared. That picture’s going to elicit a lot of, I don’t know if controversy is the right word. But in the context of a public exhibition, in summer, which is high traffic tourist season in Santa Fe, the good side is obviously this show will get a lot of exposure. And the other side is that there are some very difficult photographs in this exhibit. But that’s history. That’s reality.
JB: Sure. Well, I know that everyone hates to be asked what’s your favorite, or what’s the best, or this or that. But I thought maybe if I put you on the spot, you might be able to pull out some old-school war story from back in the day that somebody told you that you still tell at dinner parties when you’ve had four glasses of wine.
SM: There’s a few.
JB: I’m sure there are many. But can you give us one?
SM: One of my all time favorites happens to be about Eisenstadt. This was at an opening for one of Eisie’s shows. He was a small man, and he was very confident of his success, shall we say. So this was at a big opening, and lots of big collectors were invited. I had a collector who’d bought several of Eisie’s pictures, and he said he’d like to meet Eisie. I said absolutely, and he asked if his son could come too. I said “Sure,” and made the introduction. Eisie was always very gracious, but he didn’t like to hang out with people too much. So the man said, “Mr. Eisenstadt, I just bought my son a camera, and I told him, now you can take pictures like Eisenstadt.” And Eisenstadt just stopped and gave him this stare, and he said, “My dear sir, I have ten fingers, and I cannot play the piano like Horowitz.” At that point, I said thank you very much and escorted him away.
JB: It’s kind of dry.
SM: It’s very dry. There’s the face value that says anybody can take pictures. And it’s a very good point, especially nowadays, where everybody’s a photographer. It’s the topic du jour now. I’ve seen so many articles about it.
JB: Me too, so we don’t even have to go there. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask one more question. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into this part of the business? What do you think is the pathway into the gallery industry in 2011?
SM: First and foremost, it has to be your passion. Unfortunately in the world we’re in today, a lot of people glamorize the business. They think it would be so glamorous to have a fancy gallery, and it has to be your passion.
JB: So not everyone gets to blow lines with Naomi Campbell?
SM: No. But we had a great exhibit back in New York with a good friend of mine named Mick Rock, who’s really become quite successful now. He was known as the man who shot the 70′s. He did all the rock and roll photography. He was Bowie’s photographer and Lou Reed’s photographer. I got to know him, and I convinced him to do an exhibit. So when we did the show, we had Bowie, and Iman and Lou Reed hanging out. I would always say, “I’m never going to get rid of that desk chair,” because Bowie and Lou Reed sat in that chair.
But that’s not why you get into the business, is my point. If you’re passionate about the work, it will be rewarding no matter what, because you’re doing what you enjoy. And that’s the bottom line. It’s a job, and it’s work. It’s a fabulous job, and it’s fabulous work, but it’s a job.
If you’ve got the passion, the first step is to find your photographers. There’s a partnership between a gallery and the photographer/artist. You’re in it together. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. When I sell a print and call up the photographer to tell them, that’s a celebration we share. The next thing that follows is the relationships with your clients. And then you take it from there.