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The Canvas is an in-depth artworld newsletter that takes readers inside the major galleries, auction houses, and art fairs, and interviews the power-brokers who run them. This interview originally appeared in the July/August issue. For the full edition, including interviews with Jeffrey Lawson, Founder and CEO of UNTITLED; Adrien Meyer, Global Head, Private Sales, at Christie’s; and Josh Baer of The Baer Faxt newsletter, we invite you to subscribe here.

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Jacob Robichaux, Frederick Weston, Sam Gordon at Visual AIDS VAVA VOOM Benefit Auction

Jacob Robichaux, Frederick Weston, Sam Gordon at Visual AIDS VAVA VOOM Benefit Auction in 2017. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux.

Located on the ninth floor of a building directly off Union Square with an entrance on East 17th Street directly abutting a Chopt salad outlet, Gordon Robichaux is by no means the most easily accessible gallery in the city. However, for those willing to eschew the rote uniformity of Chelsea and Tribeca, the destination is well worth the journey. Upon entering, co-founders Jacob Robichaux and Sam Gordon (and quite often, one of the artists they represent) can be found sitting around the intimate space which first opened its doors in 2017. There is no icy-cool receptionist glaring at you from behind an imposing desk, no giant crowd of people jostling for the best selfie angle, and decidedly no air of pretension. And because Jacob and Sam – themselves artists – aren’t sitting in a back office somewhere plotting global domination of the art market, but are instead, right out front and accessible to any and all who enter their gallery, the two co-founders are able to spend a significant amount of time talking to and learning about each person who takes the time to visit.

“An important part of the success of the gallery is the feeling of intimacy that I think most people experience when they step into our space,” explained Robichaux over Zoom from Los Angeles in mid-July, with a green polka dot bandana serving double duty as mask and scarf around his neck. “It’s the nature of the physical space, the artists and work we show, and the directness and accessibility of our approach, which is, quite frankly, missing in most of the artworld right now.”

It is this same sense of intimacy that has allowed the fledgling dealers to make an outsized impact with their three-year-old gallery. Succeeding where other upstart galleries have failed, Gordon Robichaux has created a culture that many in the New York artworld have claimed no longer exists, but which, in fact, still does, when undertaken with the level of seriousness and caring that Jacob and Sam evince in their roles as gallerists. When the gallery first opened, their initial collectors were other artists. However, through a combination of word of mouth, press, friends, and social media, the gallery now boasts a community of local collectors who acquire works from across its roster of artists and participate in the program in a deeply committed, sustained fashion.

“We really hit our stride in our third year,” added Gordon, participating in the Zoom interview from his apartment in New York. “It was very lucky, considering the timing of the pandemic.” Indeed, the gallery is poised for a breakout season with a just-opened, collaborative exhibition with Marc Selwyn Fine Art currently on view in Los Angeles through September 19th that features many of the gallery’s artists. A solo show of Leila Babirye, a lesbian artist who fled Uganda and came to the US to seek asylum (and whose market we expect to advance significantly over the coming years) is set to open at the gallery in October. And a collaborative show with Ortuzar Projects featuring Frederick Weston, the 74-year-old artist whose practice delves into queer subjects and the AIDS crisis, is set to open thereafter.

Speaking to The Canvas from their respective coronavirus-induced work-from-home setups, Gordon and Robichaux share the origins of their gallery and its artist-first approach to programming. They take us behind the scenes of their breakout Ken Tisa exhibition, glowingly reviewed by Holland Cotter in the New York Times when it first opened, and offer their perspective on which factors have contributed to their success in the gallery’s first three years. And the duo explains how their commitment to avoiding debt and their penchant for collaborative exhibitions have proven to be saving graces at a moment when larger galleries have been forced to confront harsh economic realities with layoffs during the pandemic.

Leilah Babirye "Prince Jjunju' [View 1], 2020, Glazed ceramic and found object, 24 x 16 x 12 in, Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY_Photo Paul Salveson

Leilah Babirye’s “Prince Jjunju’, 2020. Glazed ceramic and found object, 24 x 16 x 12 in. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo by Paul Salveson

The Canvas: I was hoping that we could start with you both just giving me a general sense of the gallery and how it began back in February of 2017.

Sam Gordon: Well, that’s a complex question, because it doesn’t really begin in 2017 when we moved into our physical gallery space. The gallery actually started around ’96, when we both moved to New York, and through all the friendships and relationships that grew out of our collaborations as artists.

We were including each other’s work in various curatorial projects, and a few years before 2017, we started working on projects together. So, the gallery grew organically from our twenty years living in New York as artists and our fifteen years of friendship.

The Canvas: Got it. So it was the physical space that started in 2017 and that was just the latest iteration of what you guys have been doing for the last 20 years or so...

Sam Gordon: Yes, we were collaborating for about five years prior to that. Jacob had private and corporate clients like the textile company Maharam, and he’d hire me to work with him to develop artist collaborations and exhibitions. All of a sudden, we found ourselves opening a gallery, which neither of us had ever planned or wanted to do before. At the time, though, it felt very urgent, as we were meeting and working with so many amazing artists who needed support. So it was a confluence of events that just sort of came together.

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Leilah Babirye’s ‘Bakalipo (Family of Sisters)’, 2020. Wood, wax, nails, metal, screws and found objects, 75 x 16 .5 x 10 in. Courtesy Gor- don Robichaux, NY. Photo by Paul Salveson

The Canvas: On your website, you describe the gallery as both a gallery and a “curatorial agency.” Can you walk me through what that means and perhaps talk to me about how you both approach the programing and one-off projects you present?

Jacob Robichaux: I can answer that by building on what Sam shared. We’re both artists, but throughout the years we’ve also had a great deal of experience in other roles within the artworld. I’d worked for an art advisor for almost 10 years, from the time I was an undergrad studying art at Parsons. So, I had this background and infrastructure already in place in terms of selling art.

As Sam mentioned, over the years we had a collaborative relationship as artists curating projects. Sam was also increasingly working with me as a consultant on commercial projects. Before we even had a gallery, we were already working on curatorial projects with many of the artists we now represent. So, some of the footprint and vision for the gallery was already in place. For example, we were working directly with artists to show their art; in some cases we supported creating their art; we were advocating for their art to be included in exhibitions; and we were even selling art. While all these elements technically predated the gallery itself, they fed into the creation of Gordon Robichaux and informed our vision and mission.

The Canvas: So, then what was the trigger or catalyst in 2017 that made you both decide to move into a physical space and officially launch the gallery?

Jacob Robichaux: The physical gallery space was a direct result of our work on a project with Ken Tisa, which evolved into Gordon Robichaux’s first exhibition. Ken was my professor at Parsons, and he’s one of these legendary teachers who has had an enormous impact on many different contemporary artists. He created an important body of work in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that hadn’t been shown since that time. It was this dense, immersive installation of cultural artifacts layered with his own paintings. It originally evolved over many years on a large wall in his Soho loft, and the installation served as a backdrop for ephemeral performances by Ethyl Eichelberger, Peter Hujar, and such. Embedded within Ken’s project were these histories of artists and a community lost to AIDS.

As the project snowballed, our close friend, artist Matt Connors, started a publishing imprint, Pre-Echo, and he was excited about working with us to create a book about Ken’s project. We commissioned writer and oral historian Svetlana Kitto to develop the text. Around that time, our friends who run KIOSK suggested we rent their space in Union Square for a few months to present the installation. We didn’t think we were opening a commercial gallery. We just thought we’d present the Tisa project and a few shows with the artists we were working with. Once Ken’s exhibition opened, though, we felt a surge of grassroots community support. In addition, we got great press, including a New York Times review by Holland Cotter, and it became clear we needed to continue.

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The Canvas: Got it. Okay, I now have a much better idea for how this started and what the thinking was. I’m wondering, from both of your perspectives, is there a through-line or an overarching ethos with which you’d describe the gallery. The artists you officially represent on the roster – Otis Houston Jr., Reverend Joyce McDonald, Tabboo! – are all very different. Is there a unifying thread that joins the program together or do you view each artist’s practice almost in a vacuum?

Sam Gordon: One thing I would point to that actually connects back to the curatorial agency is our work developing shows for other galleries. I’d worked with a range of organizations like Visual AIDS and galleries like Andrew Edlin Gallery to develop a number of shows, and I’m a person who’s invested in outsider art, self-taught art and bringing these artists from the periphery to the center of the conversation. This informs our approach to the artists we work with. We represent two artists from Africa who are seeking asylum in the U.S., artists who are HIV positive and who face tremendous obstacles due to health issues and lack of resources, others who are self-taught and come to artmaking and the artworld in completely different ways. Many of these artists might not otherwise have consistent or typical gallery representation. It’s also been important to us to center and amplify lesbian and queer voices. Some of our artists have graduate degrees in art while others are self-taught. Our gallery creates a context through which these artists and their work are both part of a community and in the conversation.

Jacob Robichaux: We believe it’s our mission and focus to devote our energy and resources towards helping these kinds of artists and to foster a community of artists who we feel we’re best suited to support and represent. Artists whose work is urgent, because it’s created from lived experience. For example, Tabboo! is an amazingly talented and important painter who also has a history as a drag performer. He had these knockout painting exhibitions in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and thanks to other great artists who champion his work, he was included in shows at Mathew Marks, Paul Kasmin, and an important show at Participant Inc. His work has been collected by artists and great collectors, but for many years he had no consistent representation or help archiving and bringing his work to the market with any regularity.

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The Canvas: I’m wondering how you both describe yourselves to other people. Do you refer to yourselves as dealers? Do you refer to yourselves as gallerists? Do you make a differentiation between the two?

Sam Gordon: Well, that’s really interesting, and many people actually have a lot to say about this. In the press – and we always appreciate it – we’re generally referred to as artists who founded a commercial space. But I sat at a gallery dinner with collectors who told me straight to my face, “You can’t be an artist and have a gallery. It just doesn’t work.” Marcel Duchamp was a dealer for a number of European artists. Betty Parsons, CANADA – there are many precedents. So, when people ask me, I say I’m an artist and I co-own a gallery, and it’s all part of my art. It’s a mouthful but it’s the truth.

The Canvas: You both have mentioned this idea of a gallery as a community. At a time when many people in the artworld claim that such a model no longer exists, you guys have a reputation for fostering, cultivating, and actively growing a local community of artists and collectors and getting them to participate in your program in a committed, ongoing way. Can you help me get a sense of the elements you would point to that have helped you achieve that success when so many others have failed at that?

Sam Gordon: On the one hand, we are artists and have the sensitivity, intuition, and the community networks that go along with that. But at the same time, we bring a level of experience and knowledge to creating exhibition opportunities and building markets for our artists by creating safe spaces for them to work, and actively supporting their visions in any way we can.

Jacob Robichaux: From a business perspective, we’ve been clear from the beginning that we’re not going to borrow money or use credit cards. We agreed that we’d operate with no debt, pay our artists immediately when we’re paid by a collector, and only continue as long as we could work in this way. It’s difficult and there are a lot of challenges in operating a gallery in New York City, but it has actually proven to be a great asset during this time of the pandemic. And we’re certainly operating from positions of privilege in terms of our backgrounds – being white men who had the opportunity to go to art school, live in New York for many years, and have the support of a creative community. But we want to use this privilege to support and nurture other artists.

Sam Gordon: We’re really very fortunate. When the gallery first opened, our initial collectors were other artists. But over the last couple years, we’ve met some wonderful, dedicated collectors who found us through word of mouth, press, friends, or social media. And we now have a base of collectors who are buying work by many of the artists in our program, and who are committed to our larger vision. We really hit our stride in our third year, which was very lucky considering the timing of the pandemic.

Jacob Robichaux: I’ll add that an important part of the success of the gallery is the feeling of intimacy that I think most people experience when they step into our space, whether they are other artists, critics, or collectors. It’s the nature of the physical space, the artists and work we show, and the directness and accessibility of our approach, which is, quite frankly, missing in most of the artworld right now.

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The Canvas: Clearly, the gallery is in a great place in terms of the attention it’s been getting and the success you’ve been engendering for your artists. Separate from that though, how has the pandemic affected business?

Jacob Robichaux: We’ve been careful about keeping our expenses low from the start. We’re also lucky in terms of timing because we’d planned an exchange from March through June with Parker Gallery in Los Angeles where it’s easier for people to move around. Collaboration is an important part of operating a successful gallery, with or without a pandemic.

And, we’re fortunate that the collectors who’ve gravitated to our program have stood by us during this time, checking in on us to ask how we’re doing and how they can help, and who’ve continued to buy art from us because they recognize the challenges the gallery and our artists face during this time. There are also a handful of wonderful collectors who have been buying more work during this moment because they want to see galleries and artists in whom they believe continue to make and show work.

Sam Gordon: I also think there’s a real excitement and demand for the art. Take Leilah Babirye, for example, who we represent. She’s a lesbian who fled Uganda and came to the US to seek asylum. She was expelled from art school there and her life was in danger because she is queer and an activist making political work about these experiences. She’s using traditional African carving, found objects, and a language that is distinctly her own, and it’s a direct response and manifestation of the most pressing political and social issues of our time.

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The Canvas: So, how do you plan to keep the momentum going? Many small or young galleries often end up failing to achieve that kind of committed community because they look to grow too fast, too soon. They try to compete with larger galleries, participate in as many fairs as they can, and take on too much debt to help them grow. How much growth do you see Gordon Robichaux achieving over the next five years? What goals do you have for the gallery within that timeframe?

Jacob Robichaux: For me, it’s very much a one day at a time approach. We’ve certainly made a business decision not to overextend through rapid expansion of the gallery or with too many fairs, however these strategies are also the core of our vision. We don’t want a giant gallery in a ground floor space just because we can afford to do it. We’re very deliberate in considering what we can do and offer that is distinct. We also want to strike the right life balance that allows us to best use our energy in the service of the artists and causes we believe in.

Sam Gordon: Certainly this year has proven you can’t ever really know what to expect. As things come up – should we expand into the space next door that may become available at some point down the line, should we get a smaller viewing space somewhere else in the building in the meantime – we can discuss them and go from there. As opportunities arise, we decide what’s best at that time. I’d love for us to get to a point where we’re producing five to seven excellent shows a year while also being able to do our other projects that don’t necessarily fit neatly into the box of having a gallery. And it’s an ongoing priority to help our artists get on a solid financial footing.

Looking back to 2017 when we first opened, I laugh at our former selves because it could’ve all ended very quickly. Starting a gallery is always a leap of faith, and we took that leap because we love the art and had total confidence in these artists, some whom we’d known for twenty years. So, when the pandemic first hit and people didn’t know what it would mean for their own personal lives, I was in a place where even if we had to close the gallery, I was proud and fulfilled with what we’d already achieved. I feel so fortunate for the last three years of my life. What a privilege it’s been to do this with all of these people. Everyone seems to have a love-hate relationship with the artworld. Sometimes, though, it’s just about love.