Monday, March 10, 2014

Susan Spiritus

The Kiernan Gallery is pleased to have Susan Spiritus as juror for our upcoming exhibition, In the Abstract. Susan is the Owner and Director of Susan Spiritus Gallery in Newport Beach, CA. Here she speaks about her gallery and vision in her own words.

Lilac, 2013 by Cara Barer 

"I never had a set plan or any interest or intent to open an art gallery and my interest in the arts did not evolve from my undergraduate or graduate training in school. With an undergraduate degree in speech pathology and audiology from the University of Buffalo and a Master's in Special Education from Boston University, I was not leaning towards a life which revolved around the arts, but, my life took an unexpected turn in the spring of 1974 when I came down with Menniere's Disease. Recuperation was slow and the effects of the illness were such that I had to make new choices in life that were more in line with my taking on a more passive lifestyle. It was suggested that I get involved in the arts because it did not involve much "activity" and so in spite of my admittance not to know anything about art; I gave this suggestion serious consideration."

How were you first introduced to photography? What made you fall in love with it?

My husband and I developed our interest in the arts after we moved to Newport Beach and befriended Jack Glenn of the Jack Glenn Gallery (early 1970's), and with whom we not only started making purchases from, but with whom I eventually started to work with in his gallery. It was Jack Glenn who subsequently introduced us to John Berggruen, Margo Leavin and Joni Gordon of Newspace Gallery as well as others in the art world. We bought early work by Laddie John Dill, Paul Dillon, and Tony Delap as well as works on paper by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, David Hockney and Sam Francis.   

 In 1975 Jack Glenn decided to expand his gallery to include fine art photography and asked me to work with him as his assistant. I told him that I had no knowledge of photography and he assured me that not only was that okay, but he would serve as my mentor and educate me. I jumped in and learned on the job and this was the start of my love affair with photography. However, my job as Jack's gallery assistant lasted about one year, if that, before he announced that he was going to be moving and closing the doors. I asked what I should do next and his immediate reply was, "Open your own gallery, you know how and can do it!"  That's all that was needed and I began to look for a suitable space. 

The Lovely Monster Over the Farm, 19:25CDT, Lodgepole, NE 2008 by Camille Seaman

Susan Spiritus has been a leading art gallery for 38 years. How has the gallery evolved since it first opened? How has it impacted and influenced the community?

The doors to the new Susan Spiritus Gallery opened in Newport Beach in June 1976, which was located in a refurbished two-story house of 600 square feet. The two upstairs bedrooms were used to exhibit two concurrent artist's shows and the large living room downstairs always had selections of each of the artist's works who were represented by the gallery at the time-- beginning with George Tice, Cole Weston, Ansel Adams, Linda Connor, Robert Heinecken, Marsha & Michael Burns, Harry Callahan, Eikoh Hosoe along with many others. 

When the gallery opened in 1976, there was only a very small art community to speak of in Newport Beach and none were collectors of photographic art. It was my mission to introduce fine art photography to Southern California and to slowly begin educating the public. I capitalized on everyone that I knew including friends, acquaintances and colleagues and put the word out about photography.  We mounted one-person exhibitions each month and coordinated them with an opening reception to which we invited everyone. Gallery announcement cards were printed and mailed out.  We also offered artist talks and discussions, and I started writing a newsletter, which was mailed out to our clients on a monthly basis as well. Of course, life in the gallery became much easier with the introduction of computers and the World Wide Web! It was goodbye to the IBM Selectric. 

With my gallery entering into its 39th year of operation, much has changed. What was during the first 20 years is no longer, for instance I no longer actively seek portfolio submissions because I have a long-standing selection of photographers with whom I work on a regular basis. This does not mean that I am not looking for new photographers, but I am much more selective as I look for work that is different from anything that I already have. The work of Korean artist, Seung Hoon Park is a perfect example. I found this artist on Facebook two years ago and actively tracked him down, which was no easy feat.  We've been working together since - overcoming the language barrier that we initially incurred. 

I also no longer do portfolio reviews in the gallery, which were done on a regular basis during those early years as it was more of a necessity then to do and to give the artist direction. That is not to say that many of the emerging artists do not need that direction and advice today, but it is so much easier for them to find it on-line or from the wealth of artists who are out there in the art market today. 

Textus #165, St. Stephenson, Vienna, Austria by Seung Hoon Park

What is your pet peeve when an artist contacts you looking for representation?

The personal pet peeve that I have always had and remains true today is when an artist allows someone else, 'an agent', a friend, his or her mother or anyone else call (me) on their behalf to discuss their work!!  There is NO ONE better to talk about and discuss your work than YOU. I will not have this discussion with anyone but the artist himself.

As Owner of Susan Spiritus Gallery, you have worked with many different artists and collectors. What is your approach for finding the right piece of art for a specific collector?

My gallery has become known for representing fine art contemporary photography and of course today with an active website it is easy for clients and collectors to seek out which artists I represent. This makes it easy for them to search and shop for the exact piece(s) they are looking for.  

But, should a collector or new client come into the gallery in hopes to find a specific photograph for either a ‘space’ or a ‘collection’, the first thing I do is ask a few questions and then most importantly, I LISTEN TO THEIR ANSWERS. My expertise is working with people, one to one.  I listen to them and then search my inventory for pieces that might suit their needs/requirements and having such a large inventory at hand allows me to find multiple potential pieces — ones which would fit based on what they say they are looking for — and I especially keep in mind the price point that they have indicated they want to stay within. Sometimes I may have many to offer and consider; and other times there may only be one or two. I’ve said this before, but being a dealer in contemporary photography certainly offers the client many options from which to choose. 

Susan Spiritus Gallery has always carried a large collection of Japanese work. What draws you to those photographers’ work? What is different about them?

I was introduced to Eikoh Hosoe's work through Light Gallery during the early years of Susan Spiritus Gallery. With a move into a new larger gallery space scheduled in 1979, I offered Mr. Hosoe a retrospective exhibition (1960-1980) for the opening show for my new space. When Mr. Hosoe accepted I flew to Japan to meet him and to see more of his work.  I ended up purchasing a set of 100 (20x24") photographs, representing a large cross section of Mr. Hosoe's work at that time.  It was this initial introduction to Mr. Hosoe which was the beginning of my meeting other photographers from Japan - some as the result of introductions from Mr. Hosoe and other meetings along the way at portfolio reviews and through other photographers. There is really nothing specific which draws me to works by artists from Japan except perhaps the simplicity of composition. It was always my intent to be able to offer a wide range of work from different parts of the world.

Over the years, the gallery has opened its doors to private parties and events. In what ways do these events contribute to the gallery’s outreach? What sorts of functions take place in the gallery?

The gallery's doors have been open to receive private parties and events for many many years. These have included concerts, art auctions, insurance seminars and many student classroom visits set up by the teacher (high school) or professor (college). In addition, I have had private companies contact me and ask if they could have their company's party or event at the gallery.  Over the years, there have also been numerous photo shoots for magazine publications at the gallery. I also offered to host a private party for a non-profit that I support and offered them the use of my gallery space along with a commission from any sale that took place during that event. It was a win-win for everyone. 

From the Chrysler Building, NY by George Tice

You spend a great deal of time reviewing the work of emerging and mid-career artists. How do you think that impacts your approach as a juror?

When I am asked to jury a selection of photographs, I do so with an open mind. I do not believe that I am not influenced or impacted by other photographic works that I have previously seen and I jury an image on its own merit. In general each competition that I am asked to jury has a theme and the work has to be selected to fit within the stated parameters. For instance, you have asked me to jury your next competition, The Abstract, and I am looking forward to seeing the submissions and selecting those that ‘speak to me’ once I have viewed and reviewed them. I have no preconceived ideas as to what I will see - and I do not know anyone who has submitted work to this competition. Anyway, I’m certain that all of the submissions will be anonymous with only an I.D. number attached to them, so I won’t know them. Of course, there have been a few times when I have recognized an image, and I have always judged it amongst the others  — giving it no special attention.

A fun follow up to jurying a competition is to see the results and the names of the artists! Oftentimes, after the results have been published, I receive notes both in the mail and through email thanking me for selecting their work! That’s a great way to finish — and I do save them for my archive, which will be housed at the Center For Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.

And finally, how do you define success in art?

with regard to the word success, I think it has different meanings to everyone, especially those in the arts! I believe that an artist will measure his/her success just by accomplishing their goal to make art. If they make their art and are satisfied with it, then I am certain that they feel a sense of accomplishment - success! Of course, if it’s profitable for them, then it’s even more so, but many artists make their work - and do not think about selling it.  Of course, they say, if it sells, then they are doubly pleased! 

There are thousands and thousands of artists out there who are making art because that’s what they do - and most remain unknown in the art world. I would think that every artist would like to become more well known, or as we say, a household name, but that takes years and years of hard work and most do not achieve that status!  I think the most famous household name in the (photographic) art world is Ansel Adams thanks to the endless PR that his friend Bill Turnage did for him. I think an artist certainly achieves success when he/she becomes a household name, but success is not limited to that by any means.

With regard to the Susan Spiritus Gallery and the word, success, I have been asked, “to what do I attribute my success?” and my response has always been multi-fascited as it is tied closely to all of the wonderful artists with whom I work and to the loyal clients who have supported the gallery through sales during all these years! Without them, the Susan Spiritus Gallery would not be.

On the occasion of the gallery’s 30th anniversary, I decided to host a dinner party to say ‘thank you’ to all of those who had supported the gallery for all those years.  I did not tell anyone why they were being invited to my party — I was just hosting a party and hoped all would come. When they arrived, I greeted them with, "I’m sure you are all wondering why you are here…. to which I replied, “You are here because the Susan Spiritus Gallery is still here.  Thank you.”

So as I come upon the gallery’s 39th year in business, I am feeling pretty good about it.  I have achieved my dream, accomplished what I set out to do and had fun along the way! I’ve met great people and have wonderful stories to tell. 

My business has certainly been a success in my eyes;  I have become a household name and I’ve put my artists out there in the public eye by working very hard for all of them!  All of that to me equals success and a win-win for everyone.

The deadline to submit work for In the Abstract is March 21. Visit for more information.

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