By YELENA FURMAN, FEB. 2015
Andrew Edlin is well known in the New York art scene as a dealer of Outsider Art. Manhattan born and raised in the Bronx, Andrew earned a B.A. in English Literature from University of Vermont. His passion has always been music, playing guitar since he was six years old and performing with his band until about two years ago, which, as he states, “is coincidentally when I bought the Outsider Art Fair.”
Yelena Furman: I understand your motivation for getting into art dealing was your uncle?
Andrew Edlin: It was through helping my Uncle Paul that I got a glimpse of the commercial art world and the outsider art world. I had never heard the term ‘outsider art’ until I tried to help him get his work into galleries. He was almost completely deaf, so he didn’t really have the skills to do it. When I showed his work around, people exclaimed, “This is outsider art,” which lead me to get his work into American Primitive Gallery.
YF: How did you transition to opening a gallery?
AE: When my uncle was starting to get shown I started looking at art more and going on studio visits. I developed an eclectic mix of artists happy to at least let me see what I could do with their work. In 1999, I started hosting shows in my Hoboken brownstone. From there, some real serendipitous events occurred that lead me to Chelsea in 2001.
A friend of mine was in a commercial space, living there on the sly, and he let me curate shows there. We were partners - I wouldn’t pay rent, and he would get half the sales. It worked out, and about a year later, I was able to move into a bona fide gallery space in a building on 20th Street. That was when I really started being in the public eye.
YF: So I assume you did well to open a gallery space within a year?
AE: Well, not nearly enough to make a living, but just enough to feel some validation that it was worth continuing along the path I was on.
YF: Was it all Outsider Art then?
AE: I had some different things, but I gravitated to Outsider Art. I felt like there was a correlation between what I was seeing in Outsider Art and my aesthetic values musically. I think there is a connection between the idiosyncratic sound of Bob Dylan and a Bill Traylor drawing, in the sense that when you hear or see it, whether you like it or not, there is no mistaking who it is. I have always been attracted to art, visual or audio, that is singular, where the artist creates a universe undeniably their own. I find that to be very compelling and probably the tallest order in art.
YF: What lead to you purchasing the Outsider Art Fair?
AE: In 2012, I agreed to help Sandy Smith, who founded the fair, make it a little more dynamic. I had been having some success as a dealer, and together with my wife, Valérie Rousseau (now the curator at American Folk Museum), we put a panel discussion together. It was the birth of the OAF Talks.
The exercise left me with a lot of ideas. I said to myself, why should I do this for someone else? I certainly knew a great deal about the fair from having participated and also from the fair paradigm. I have exhibited in probably 100 fairs by now.
YF: Was there something specific you wanted to change? A purpose you wanted to fulfill?
AE: Absolutely. Sandy Smith came from an antiques background. Part of the fun of the fair was that it felt almost like a flea market. I wanted to retain the everyday element to it, keep this feeling that anyone could come to the fair and find something, even for a few hundred dollars, and leave feeling like a collector.
The paradigm has shifted to the contemporary world in terms of where this art seems to belong, which is a much wider audience. Those are the values I’ve always used to position my gallery, so I was very enthusiastic about trying to transfer those values from the gallery to the fair. And I think it’s been very successful so far.
YF: Outsider Art Fair 2015 just ended; can you highlight your personal achievements?
AE: I give credit to the community, which are the dealers, my staff, our sponsors and the visitors. It just felt great this year. We had a terrific mix of dealers, and we’ve been openly trying to cultivate younger dealers by carving out more affordable spaces. It’s very important, and very successful in building for the future.
One of them, Jackie Klempay from Brooklyn, got tremendous press for the sculptor Jerry Torre, also known as the Marble Faun, who had been the gardener at Grey Gardens back in the 70’s. His work not only sold but The New York Times, in addition to reviewing the fair, did a special feature article just on him. That was incredibly exciting both for the artist and for the young dealer.
YF: How were the attendance and sales this year?
AE: Attendance numbers were great. It was definitely an increase over last year. The dealers seemed to do really well. Ultimately, the most important barometer for a successful fair is that the dealers have a profitable experience.
YF: How was media coverage this year?
AE: The press was off the charts. There were almost two-dozen articles. We didn’t miss a beat. A lot of them were straight reviews of the fair, mostly overwhelmingly positive. We also generated a lot of conversation about Outsider Art, what it is, and where it belongs.
YF: Do you think this will increase pricing of Outsider Art?
AE: Maybe. These are all baby steps, as the work spreads more and more into the mainstream institutions. On February 5th I was at the Brooklyn Museum for a panel discussion called “Insider Art: Recent Curatorial Approaches to Self-Taught Art” with a powerhouse lineup of curators, Matthew Higgs moderating and panelists Lynne Cooke, Massimiliano Gioni, Lawrence Rinder, who all have experience curating self taught into their contemporary platforms.
Being in the audience felt like being in the epicenter of the buzz that is going on. I haven’t been around long, but I know that these kinds of developments can be cyclical, and see my job to make sure it is also incremental, that this work finds its rightful place in the conversation.
YF: What is your take on participating in other fairs versus running your own?
AE: It is a lot easier to show up and hang something in your booth than run the whole thing. I just wear my art-dealing hat when exhibiting at a fair, and try to curate the best booth possible. I try not to look at it as real estate to maximize, and not think about how to sell the most work, of course we all want to do business but I try to think about it as how to curate the best show so that all the eyes, besides the collectors – the press, curators, museums directors, see what the gallery is about that helps to advance our goals as much, if not more so, then a few extra sales.
YF: The gallery’s next fair is The Armory Show. What can we expect?
AE: We are going to be showing drawings, focusing on works by Charles Steffen and Guo Fengyi. It will be the first time we will be showing Guo’s work in a fair. Guo was featured in both the Venice Biennale and the Carnegie International. Her large vertical drawings are quite intense.
YF: Can you discuss the growth in dealers representing Outsider Art?
AE: It’s been a natural development. More and more people are becoming aware of this material, so more people are getting enthusiastic and want to jump in. And we are doing everything we can to make it happen.
YF: How has this changed the landscape for the artists? Are more artists reaching out to you for representation?
AE: I think like anything else, people want to grab onto something that’s cool. Those of us who have been doing this for a while are highly sensitized to what the real thing is. There are more people coming to us, submitting material. We try to be as open minded as we can, but it is rare that something results from it. I’m sure it’s the same with all galleries.
YF: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
AE: The day after the first Outsider Art Fair was one of the highest points. We had such an incredible response. The fair had been losing steam, and I realized I might be the guy to turn it around. Another major high point was being awarded the Henry Darger estate.
YF: What are the best and worst things about this profession?
AE: One of the best things is when you call an artist and tell them you sold something. I don’t want to harp on the worst – it’s like any business, it is tough and relationship-oriented – and sometimes the dynamics of the interaction can be difficult. But overall, I don’t focus on that.
YF: What is your biggest challenge?
AE: With the fair, it’s the crowded environment. Even choosing a date is not that simple; there’s literally a fair every weekend. What we have going for us is that our fair is radically different then any other. When you come to the Outsider Fair, you see works by artists that you won’t see at any other fair.
The curators at the Brooklyn museum panel are really visionary in this sense. They have been open to including these artists in their shows. That’s not always the case with art fairs. At Basel Miami, I was the only dealer with Outsider Art. I was happy to be there and it was a terrific fair for us. But when I applied in 2009 or 2010 with a solo booth of drop-dead masterpieces of Henry Darger, I didn’t get in.
There’s a lot of work to be done, the art world itself, the visionary curatorial side has opened their doors to Outsider Art.
On the dealer side of things, David Zwirner is opening a show System and Vision. I find this highly interesting that David Zwirner is doing a show of outsider art – its great for everyone. A rising tide floats all boats.
YF: Are the reasons you started your gallery in 2001 the same that motivate you today? If not, how have they changed?
AE: Certainly, experience makes everything better. At the Brooklyn museum, Lynne Cooke was trying to say, “they look like they belong a museum.” I take some issue with that. She mentioned James Castle, whose work we’ve seen in museums for years now, but I remember the moment when I first saw the work at the Outsider Fair. Believe me, they looked so strange, so unlike anything I’d ever seen, and they would have never been shown in a museum then. Now we have the benefit of being accustomed to seeing this work in institutions. But it doesn’t take away from that singular moment when we first saw it, and how different it seemed to us, how special and twisted and strange.
I would still say the best part of our business is the magic of discovering something new. There’s nothing like it - that moment when you discover a new body of work - discovery, that’s really the magic. WM
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Yelena Furman is an art consultant and dealer in New York City.