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Ever since Kayne Griffin Corcoran was formed in 2011, the Los Angeles-based gallery has been engaged in a seemingly unstoppable pace of growth. Borne out of a meeting Maggie Kayne, a young collector and independent advisor at the time, had scheduled with Bill Griffin and James Corcoran, veteran dealers with their own galleries, to discuss a James Turrell commission for a client, the gallery has quickly emerged as one of Southern California’s most important, representing key West Coast figures such as Turrell himself, Mary Corse, and David Lynch. 

The gallery – itself designed by Turrell – has become a must-stop destination on any gallery tour of the city. And since the gallery opened its doors, Kayne Griffin Corcoran has participated in a dizzying array of fairs to fuel its growth and gain maximum exposure for its artists. Meanwhile, the founders have expanded the team by bringing in eye-catching names. Sarah Watson, formerly of Sprüth Magers, L&M Arts, and Gagosian, joined in January 2019 as the gallery’s president; and Jamie Goldblatt Manné came over from the Marciano Foundation in July of the same year as a co-director, with the mandate to institute a culture at the gallery which, in terms of events and programming, lies outside the traditional gallery model. 

And yet, as Kayne and Griffin make abundantly clear in our discussion via phone, they harbor no aspirations of global dominance. (Corcoran, the elder statesman of the trio, being less involved in the day-to-day busi-ness, didn’t take part in the interview). Fervent believers in strategic partner-ships with other galleries – for instance, sharing representation of Turrell and Corse with Pace (with whom they co-hosted a much talk-ed-about party during Frieze LA to support Turrell’s on-going Roden Crater project) – the two insist that they won’t be opening far-flung gallery spaces in other cities. “We wanted to be defined as a quintessential South-ern California gallery. That’s who we are,” clarified Griffin. “We’re very comfortable here,” added Kayne. “The idea of taking on more overhead with uncertain returns is not particularly appealing.” 

Demonstrating the complementary skillsets, easy repartee, and single-minded creative vision that has made the gallery so successful and become a model for intergenerational gallery partnerships, Kayne and Griffin offer The Canvas their perspective on the unifying thread in the gallery’s program, chart the path of the LA arts scene through the decades, and discuss the gallery’s recent collaborative booth with Pace at Frieze LA, featuring James Turrell, and what makes the 76 year old artist’s work so appealing to mass audiences. We also analyze the gallery’s growth over the years, parsing where it goes from here and why they’ll be paring back their fair participation over the coming year, and how it’s “inevitable” that the “pendulum will swing the other way” in terms of artists flocking to the mega-galleries.

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The Canvas: In many ways – and this is true even to this day – the gallery has been built around this focus on contemporary artists from Southern California. But the program has evolved significantly as you’ve taken on the representation of more artists. To start off, how do you both view the gallery’s current programming? Is there a thread that weaves together the artists you represent? In other words, what makes a Kayne Griffin Corcoran artist? 

Bill Griffin: It really starts with the foundation of this Southern Californian aesthetic and the history we have working with artists like James Turrell, Mary Corse, and David Lynch. When you couple that with Jim’s history of working with classic California artists like Ruscha and Ken Price; and Maggie growing up in the city of LA and how that helped shape the way she thinks about art, I think you begin to get a sense of how we view our program. Look, from the very beginning, we wanted to be defined as a quintessential Southern California gallery. That’s who we are. And that philosophy ex-tends to the gallery’s physical space as well. Back in the 1940s, the building was a carport and when we took it over, James [Turrell] designed our space and courtyard and completely transformed the experience. 

The Canvas: I definitely hear what you’re saying about the essence of the program. But then how does that extend to working with an artist like Hank Willis Thomas? 

Maggie Kayne: I think the thread is sometimes hard to define. But every artist we work with has a voice and process that will last beyond just the here and now. There’s a timelessness to the ideas. When you work with an artist like Turrell, who’s really the cornerstone of the gallery, I think it’s important that any other artists we bring in have a certain level of substance underlying their practices. We’re never going to do some gimmicky show that looks great just for a moment. We really try to have a much slower, steadier approach with the artists we work with. 

The Canvas: In addition to taking on the representation of more artists, the gallery has also been bringing in new staff and participating in a dizzying array of fairs in recent years. From a strategic standpoint, in today’s market, do you believe that a gallery needs to be constantly growing in order to succeed? And you can interpret “grow” however you like – whether in terms of artists on roster, staff size, gallery spaces, etc. 

Bill Griffin: Growth in and of itself definitely isn’t our priority. It’s just the result of executing our own vision and supporting the visions of our artists and the collectors we work with. In a way, it’s kind of like physics; you’re either accelerating and moving forward or you’re regressing back. Our attitude is to be continuously improving, iterating, and moving forward. Growth is a component of that. Participating in fairs, our partnerships with other galleries, the staff we’ve brought into the gallery; all these things have helped us expand our vision to a wider, more global audience. But I think there’s apoint – and I imagine it’s in the not-too-distant future – where we’ll feel pretty comfortable with our vision and we won’t necessar-ily be in the same high growth mode of these last few years. 

Maggie Kayne: I agree. There’s definitely a sweet spot and one of our biggest strengths is that we’re somewhat lean and able to maneuver and operate the way we need to when necessary. We don’t have aspirations of being a massive gallery with a huge staff and a never-ending stable of artists. But we do have a responsibility to make sure that we can take care of our artists and give them the proper amount of attention and support they deserve. So, yes, there’s been growth. But there are boundaries to that growth. 

The Canvas: You mentioned your partnerships with other galleries. You share representation of a few of your artists with other galleries – including James Turrell and Mary Corse with Pace. Can you walk me through that relationship? Does it worry you at all that the largest galleries seemingly want to sign artists to these global representation deals?

Bill Griffin: Not really. I don’t think either Maggie or I have blinked an eye in terms of that particular relationship with Pace. We have a very close friendship with Marc [Glimcher] and we all believe in the same things. In the case of Mary Corse, we all agreed that this type of partnership would allow her work and her vision to spread out beyond Los Angeles to other places in the world where we don’t have a presence. And with her studio being here in Topanga Canyon, it really lets us manage and develop the studio, and pour our resources, time and commitment into that side of things. Marc is a specific individual in whom we really trust and believe; and I think the relationship has proven itself to be profoundly successful for all parties involved – most importantly for the artist. So, I think our attitude is less territorial and more open architecture in some ways. 

Maggie Kayne: In my opinion, strategic partnerships with other galleries are always going to be the most effective strategy to create a healthy market for an artist. We like having partners around the world. We have zero aspirations of expanding beyond Los Angeles. Every gallery has different clients and methods of selling. If each individual gallery can channel its energy and resources into building an artist’s market, then you’re going to have better results than one powerhouse gallery unilaterally setting prices. Honestly, longer term I don’t know how effective that model will be. I think there are many artists who appreciate a more old-school, high-touch point approach. Marc is an exception to most of the large galleries in the sense that he really does appreciate the value of strategic partnerships. There’s no ego there and Pace isn’t trying to dominate the market in the way that some of the other mega-galleries seem to be. 

The Canvas: Speaking of world domination… Have you guys identified at all with the sentiment that some medium-sized galleries have expressed in terms of the struggles they’ve faced as the mega-galleries continue to grow larger? 

Maggie Kayne: No, they haven’t really affected us. I mean, maybe there’s been an artist I’ve been excited about who ended up being swallowed by one of the mega-galleries. But for the most part, no. They haven’t affected our day-to-day business or changed the way in which we run the gallery. 

Bill Griffin: If anything, I think they help define us, because what we have to offer is very different from what they offer. I think that’s why an artist like Mary is with us; and why our relationship with James has endured for nearly two decades. The bottom line is that everything starts and ends with belief. Belief transcends all the other noise. And there’s a big difference between the kind of belief we have for our artists, and the kind of belief that a gallery with 140 artists on its roster has for theirs. 

A gallery’s relationship with its artists isn’t just about dollars and cents, it’s about how you talk about the work, it’s about how often you visit the studio, and it’s about what sacrifices you make to fulfill the visions of your artists. Maggie and I are doing all those things on a day-to-day basis as owners of the business with our names on the door. That makes a hell of a lot of difference to artists in practical, tangible terms. And I think time is our friend on this. Yes, there’s a consolidation that’s occurred. But you know what? There’s going to be an inverse effect and the pendulum will swing the other way. I think we’ll see a lot of artists begin to think, “You know what, I’m not the top dog here. I’m not the cash cow. I’m just sitting here biding my time and getting marginalized. There are other galleries out there that believe in, fight for, and champion the visions of their artists. I’m going to go talk to them.” It’s inevitable. 

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The Canvas: Fighting words. Love it. Let’s move the conversation back to the James Turrell collaboration you did with Pace for Frieze LA. First, from your own perspectives, what draws such large audiences to be attracted to his work? And second, can you speak a bit about the genesis of the idea for this collaboration. A collaborative presentation by two galleries at a fair isn’t particularly unprecedented; but an immersive work with both galleries sharing one booth is a bit rarer to find. What was the impetus to put this together? 

Bill Griffin: James’s work has a reach that’s far greater than just the four white walls of a contemporary gallery. His work is universal. It hits on the past, the present, and the future. What he’s doing with the Crater, how he’s been engaging with virtual reality; James has really been examining this idea of how people’s natural inclinations of how to perceive and experience the world is through culture which fills the role of spirituality in his work. So, in a way, James’s work is much bigger than a practice that focuses on very surgical points of contemporary art theory. His work is more expansive than that. And that’s why at the Guggenheim show a few years back, you had five-year-olds who’d never experienced the work come in and be mesmerized, and you also had 105-year-olds who’d never appreciated contemporary art before come in and be mesmerized by it. 

Maggie Kayne: Exactly. His practice touches on universal themes and the work is truly transcendent. You don’t need to know anything about art to have an appreciation for your experience when you’re in front of it. And the Crater elevates it to an entirely different level. So, the timing of our collaborative booth with Pace was timed to James’s big push to finish fundraising for the Crater. He has a partnership with Arizona State University that was just cemented last year. So, they’ll be the shepherds of the space, they’ve built curriculums around it, and they’ve set up a structure to maintain the Crater and facilitate more donations for it in the future. So, it was a particularly exciting time. There’s a lot going on. And we and Pace were very much in agreement that this was a smart thing to do, and that Frieze LA would be the perfect time to do it. 

The Canvas: Building out from Frieze LA, let’s talk about fairs a bit more generally. Kayne Griffin Corcoran has a reputation for participating in a high number of fairs. Walk me through how you both currently view fair participation. Which fairs do you participate in, why do you choose those particular fairs, and do you expect your approach will change in the short to medium term? 

Maggie Kayne: I definitely think it’s possible to do too many fairs. And we’re constantly considering whether our artists are being overexposed, so there’s definitely a push and pull. This coming year we’re going to be doing a lot fewer fairs than we did last year, but this may change again next year.  It’s an ongoing, organic conversation that ultimately depends on our artists and their studios.

Bill Griffin: In a way, we approach fairs backwards. We start with the artists and their studios and look at what their calendars are like in terms of institutional commitments, gallery commitments, and, of course, respecting the creative process; and then we examine what they can reasonably be expected to provide for fairs. First and foremost, it has to be beneficial to them in terms of the right mix of work we bring to a fair. This year, we looked at the rate of growth that the studios have been going through – both the emerging and the mid-career – and felt that we could probably take a breather and make sure we were focusing our energy and gearing up for next year, rather than feeling like were obligated to keep running on the hamster wheel and scurrying around the globe.

Maggie Kayne: Having substantial long-term relationships with a small number of truly engaged, passionate collectors is really at the heart of our business model. The art fairs are more transactional and not where we want the heart of our business to be, so yes, we’ll be doing fewer fairs this year. We’re doing Frieze LA, and then the ADAA Art Show, and then the Armory Show the week after. That’ll be it until Art Basel Miami Beach in December. We will reevaluate for 2021.

The Canvas: Speaking of the gallery’s business model, how important are secondary market sales to the gallery? I know Jim’s background is mostly in the secondary market… 

Maggie Kayne: Secondary market sales were an important piece of our gallery’s business, especially in the beginning. But I’d say that we relied on them more in the first couple of years than we do now that we have a more established stable of artists. Now, there’s more focus on building a stable primary market for artists like Mary Corse, Mika Tajima, or Hank Willis Thomas then there is on secondary market sales. We’ll continue to look at secondary market opportunities, and try to capitalize on them when appropriate, but as we’ve developed our roster, the secondary market sales are pretty surgical and need to fit into a more wholistic strategy. 

The Canvas: I’ve asked everyone participating in this issue the next question, but Maggie, I’m particularly interested in your answer since you grew up in LA. Walk me through how far the gallery scene has come in the past ten years or so. What’s day-to-day foot traffic like for galleries and specifically at Kayne Griffin Corcoran? Where do you see it going? And what’s still missing? 

Maggie Kayne: I think there’s always been amazing things happening here, but people weren’t necessarily paying attention. I mean, LA had the Ferus Gallery in the 60s. Traditionally though, the city was viewed as more of a production center for art while New York was the market capital. That attitude has definitely shifted over the years. There’s a lot more coordination between the institutions and the galleries and the timing of events. Frieze LA certainly helped catalyze that even more. 

But look, LA is never going to be New York. We’re never going to experience the kind of foot traffic that Chelsea gets. You can’t have a day like you could in Chelsea where you go and knock out 20 to 40 galleries within a couple of hours. Our galleries are always going to be ‘destinations,’ to a degree. So, foot traffic really varies depending on each show. Also, in the past, collectors would only want to buy from New York. That attitude completely doesn’t exist anymore. We have a lot of East Coast, international, and especially Pacific Rim clients who come to us first, even if they also do business elsewhere. It’s a global art market at this point and Los Angeles is the image capital of the world.  It’s definitely on the map and will continue to grow. I don’t see an end to that.