This year marks the 35th anniversary of 303 Gallery in New York. With Lisa Spellman at its helm, the gallery has moved from presenting group shows on Park Avenue South and East Sixth Street to representing artists via expansive installations and exhibitions in Chelsea. Artists like Karen Kilimnik, Sue Williams, and Collier Schorr have shown with 303 for decades–a testament to Spellman’s ability to champion those on her roster. Over the summer, she celebrated the milestone with a group show including works by Doug Aitken, Rodney Graham, Mary Heilmann, and more. That coincided with a hardcover book designed by Common Name and published by 303inPrint.
Whitewall spoke with Spellman about how the role of the dealer has evolved and how she continues to show up for her artists.
WHITEWALL: You’ve said that you always wanted to have a New York gallery—that running a gallery is an obsession. What drove that obsession for you in the beginning? What drives it now?
LISA SPELLMAN: The idea to start a gallery came out of frustration with art school. Making the transition from studying photography to putting together exhibitions made sense to me. The excitement of showing the artist’s work was the driving force, and that remains.
WW: Can you tell us about what you remember from the first show you staged at 303 Gallery?
LS: I remember installing one of the early shows—back then the gallery was just me. Friends would come by and help me with lighting and hanging the works. We all worked so hard to get the show up. Ashton Hawkins from The Met came by and told me it was a great show. I thought to myself, “Okay, I can do this.”
WW: The gallery began on Park Avenue South, then moved to the East Village, and was then one of the first to move to Chelsea. How has the location of the gallery impacted the evolution of its program?
LS: At Park Avenue South, and then East Sixth Street, I programmed many group shows and events. Once I began representing artists, the schedule shifted to more one-person exhibitions. It’s very different having a gallery in an existing storefront than to be in a converted warehouse. Moving to Chelsea made bigger installations possible. The current space is 12,000 square feet of column-free exhibition space, which is important for artists like Doug Aitken, Rodney Graham, and Alicja Kwade, who work on a monumental scale.
WW: What makes Chelsea still the best location for the gallery? Why not expand to other locations or cities?
LS: The gallery has been in Chelsea since 1996. It still felt pretty abandoned then, only a handful of galleries and nowhere to eat. Now it’s filled with galleries, the Whitney Museum, the High Line. People say they think the foot traffic is slowing, but I don’t find that to be the case.
The gallery does about nine fairs a year in cities across the world. I wouldn’t rule out another city, but for now, New York is home.
WW: What exhibitions stand out in the past 35 years as major moments for you?
LS: Larry Johnson in 1986, John Dogg in 1987, and in 1988, the two-person show of Bob Gober and Christopher Wool at East Sixth Street.
My first solo shows with Doug Aitken, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Rodney Graham, Karen Kilimnik, Collier Schorr, and Sue Williams all happened at Greene Street. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibition “Untitled (Free)” in 1992, where he took over the gallery and made curry. Stephen Shore’s first solo exhibition with the gallery in 2000, Mike Nelson’s Airstream trailer installation Quiver of Arrows in 2010. Doug Aitken closed out our 547 21st Street space in 2013 by digging a “Sonic Fountain” built directly into the concrete floor. The final week was a demolition- performance, with musicians tearing the walls apart. Our first show with Alicja Kwade, the inaugural exhibition of our current location 555 W 21st Street.
WW: What is the role of the gallerist today? How has that changed since you began?
LS: In the early days, things were more direct, whether it was setting up a studio visit or talking to a writer. Everything was on a more intimate scale. And you had to work on Sundays! The business side of things has shifted to a larger, international scale, and the role of the gallery has broadened. There’s much more travel, art fairs throughout the year, and the added dimension of supporting the production of artworks and patronage of exhibitions.
WW: Who are some of the more recent additions to your roster, and what makes an artist a good fit for the gallery?
LS: Alicja Kwade, Marina Pinsky, Tala Madani, and most recently, Sam Falls, who joined last year. It’s important to grow the roster in a way that feels natural and intuitive. The work has to converse with that of the other artists, connecting the dots across generations and practices.
WW: Many artists have shown with the gallery for decades. What is the key to maintaining a strong relationship with the artists you represent?
LS: Champion the artists—show up for them, fight for them. Find new markets to support them, find creative approaches to showing their work, and have amazing directors who work closely with them.