Back in 1984, you could actually start a gallery in Manhattan the way Lisa Spellman did: A photography student at the School of Visual Arts in the early eighties, she and a few friends rented a fifth-floor 2,500-square-foot loft at 303 Park Avenue South for $470 per month. “This was during the time of East Village angst and post-AbEx expressionism—artists like David Salle and Julian Schnabel,” says Spellman. “And I was more interested in Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. It was so frustrating—I was studying photography at SVA, and my teachers hadn’t even heard of those artists.” (Whereas she not only knew about Prince; she ended up married to him for a few years.)
Spellman also realized that she was more interested in talking about other people’s work than she was in making her own, which at the time was mostly photographs of decrepit Hudson River piers and Lower East Side junkies and immigrants. The loft was a live/work space—gallery in the front, residence/crash pad in the back—named both for its original location and in homage to Room 303, a project space Alfred Stieglitz ran at the famed Anderson Galleries. The neighborhood was utterly sleepy: “If we didn’t have an appointment on the books,” recalls Collier Schorr, her intern back then, “we could just listen to the Cocteau Twins, fall asleep, and talk about art.”
All of which is to say that Lisa Spellman, 51, is not what you’d call a newcomer; her 303 Gallery is now 26 years old. Once a renegade, she’s now Establishment, with celebrity clients (Leonardo DiCaprio, Courtney Love, Steve Martin) and an art-filled landmarked West Village townhouse (which served as the residence of Carey Mulligan’s character in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). So it’s a little late for a breakout moment, and yet that’s what 2010 is proving to be—one in which all those earlier years have dramatically borne fruit. Five artists from her large and highly respected roster—Hans-Peter Feldmann, Rodney Graham, Jeppe Hein, and the team of Jane and Louise Wilson—are the subjects of solo museum exhibitions this fall. Another, Doug Aitken, is spearheading L.A. MoCA’s annual gala in November.
Spellman has a nearly unsurpassed reputation based on long, tight relationships with her artists as well as her prescient eye. She showed Prince, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray, Laurie Simmons, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky in the eighties. Although she says she is wary of characterizing 303 as a “chick gallery” (“The ratio has fluctuated throughout the years,” she says, noting that right now it’s twelve men to thirteen women), she has been peerless in her support of strong, boundary-pushing female artists, like Sue Williams, the Wilson sisters, and Collier Schorr. On October 29, Spellman will open the Brooklyn photographer’s tenth solo show at the gallery in twenty years, which is only fitting, since Schorr has been with 303 for as long as almost anyone, graduating from intern to gallery director to full-time artist. (One of her first duties there was guarding a Jeff Koons Equilibrium basketball tank for the afternoon while the loft was rented out for a bar mitzvah.)
“I’ve always seen Lisa more as a co-conspirator and a friend of the artist,” says P.S. 1 director Klaus Biesenbach. He remembers the first 303 show that got his attention—Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 1992 (Free) installation, in which the artist took everything in the gallery’s kitchen, office, and storage room and set it all up smack in the middle of the space. Throughout the exhibition he cooked batches of Thai curry and doled out portions to gallerygoers for free. “It was an eye-opener and a pioneering piece,” says Biesenbach. “I was confused and disturbed, but I liked it. He made the gallery this object of contemplation, of participation, of wonder.” Adds Creative Time president and artistic director Anne Pasternak, “Going to Lisa’s gallery was always a revelation. You were always seeing things you’d never seen before. I really think she’s part of a legacy of women dealers that certainly don’t get the attention that they have deserved compared to their male counterparts. Lisa’s following in the footsteps of women like Ileana Sonnabend, Paula Cooper, and Marian Goodman. She’s their legacy.”
By the time Tiravanija was firing up his hot plate, Spellman had moved 303 to Greene Street in Soho, after a stretch in the East Village. Four years later, in 1996, she was one of the first dealers to migrate to Chelsea. In 2008, she moved into her current address on West 21st Street, which Spellman believes will be 303’s final home. “There are air rights involved,” she says with a laugh, indicating her level of financial commitment. She sometimes toys with the idea of opening another space in L.A. “I like to keep it a fantasy. I love our collectors in L.A., and the museums there are in flux, with exciting prospects.” And, of course, there are the waves: Spellman is an avid surfer. “But the truth is, I don’t know how much I could accomplish in another city, so I would have to really think about it.”
And maybe breaking new ground isn’t so appealing anymore. Spellman remembers the initial shock of moving to Chelsea. “In Soho, I was used to 600 people coming by on weekends. Chelsea was, like, mined and excavated from Taxi Kingdom. It was really cold and windy. These local newspapers were saying that it would never work—that the neighborhood had bats.” There’s a lot more than taxi garages now. And the bats turned out to be a myth. On the other hand, she says, there still isn’t anywhere to get a good cup of coffee.