Lisa Spellman—a key figure in The Armory Show's founding—has spent over three decades cultivating one of the most cutting-edge gallery programs in New York. As her now-legendary 303 Gallery celebrates 35 years, she reflects on her most memorable exhibitions, what it means to support her artists, and why she's returning to the fair this year.
“Running a gallery is less a profession than it is an obsession.”
You were part of the fair’s very first edition in 1994, then known as the Gramercy International Art Fair and hosted at the Gramercy Hotel. Who did you present and what memories stand out from that time?
There were works by Sue Williams, Kristin Oppenheim and Collier Schorr. Hans-Peter Feldmann showed silver-plated bottle openers, and Rirkrit Tiravanija had a tea service. Karen Kilimnik’s installation was in the bathroom—the message Political Piggies Must Die written in blood-red paint on the mirror and sink.
What made you decide to return to The Armory Show this year, as we celebrate our 25th Anniversary?
Having served as a member on the fair’s selection committee for nearly a decade, in addition to being one of the fair’s founders, it felt fitting to have a homecoming in 2019 for the Armory Show’s 25th anniversary, which coincides with our own benchmark: 303 Gallery’s 35th anniversary.
Since its opening in 1984, 303 Gallery has operated in several different neighborhoods around New York, and was among the first to move to Chelsea in 1996. How has the gallery’s program evolved with each new location?
Over the years, the gallery has expanded and relocated. I did a lot of group shows and events in the beginning, at Park Avenue South and East 6th Street. Now the gallery represents thirty living artists. In between that time, the program has evolved in an intentional, yet very natural way.
Some of the artists have been with the gallery for decades, artists who have been widely influential on younger generations like Stephen Shore, Hans-Peter Feldmann, and Mary Heilmann. I’m also committed to showing younger artists that connect with our roster, to make connections across generations and to really develop a dialogue through the program.
As galleries become increasingly multinational, some expanding with locations across several continents, why have you chosen to remain in New York?
Running a gallery is less a profession than it is an obsession. I always wanted to have a New York gallery, and now I can’t stop.
“As for the role of the dealer, that never changes: support the artists, support the work.”
The gallery has changed a tremendous amount since its gritty beginnings in a 2,500-square-foot loft at 303 Park Avenue South. Was there an exhibition you look back on as being a watershed moment for the gallery? What has changed in your program, what has stayed the same?
A few moments stand out, more than can be listed here. There was a two person show of Bob Gober and Chris Wool in 1988 on East 6th Street; it was the first time Wool’s “Apocalypse Now” (1988) was shown. In 1989 the gallery moved to 89 Greene Street in Soho, and that’s where I first had solo exhibitions with Doug Aitken, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Rodney Graham, Karen Kilimnik, Collier Schorr and Sue Williams. That was also where Rirkrit Tiravanija created his exhibition, Untitled (Free), in 1992. By 1997, the gallery relocated to Chelsea; I first showed Stephen Shore in 2000, and Mike Nelson in 2010. Nelson exhibited “Quiver of arrows” (2010), a monumental, winding installation of connected airstream trailers. For his 2013 exhibition, 100 YRS, Doug Aitken dug a crater in the gallery floor to create a “Sonic Fountain”. The show culminated in a week-long demolition of the gallery building at 547 W 21st Street. Performers used power tools like instruments, rhythmically and literally tearing the place apart.
Many of the artists on your roster – Collier Schorr, Karen Kilmnik, Sue Williams, Mary Heilmann, have been with the gallery for quite a long time, and several since its inception. In the words of Klaus Biesenbach, you are both a “co-conspirator and a friend of the artist.” As the art world continues to rapidly change, what do you believe is the most important responsibility of an art dealer? How do you see things shifting and evolving in the future?
When I opened the gallery, there were only a handful of galleries and collectors. Now it’s much bigger, and more competitive; I imagine that will continue. As for the role of the dealer, that never changes: support the artists, support the work.