There is no actual dealer named Reena Spaulings; “she” is a collective, founded in 2003 and helmed by artists John Kelsey and Emily Sundblad. The too-cool-for-school gallery occupies the second floor of a shoddy-looking structure on the fringes of Chinatown. There’s no sign out front, just a buzzer that reads GALLERY. “It was a practical situation: A group of artists didn’t have anywhere to show, so you open your own space,” says Kelsey.
But the original band of artists didn’t just want to open a place to exhibit. They wanted to make money—cutting out the galleries and selling directly. “In New York, it’s just so important,” says Kelsey. “Before we opened, we’d joke about modeling ourselves after certain evil figures in the art world—I won’t give names—and played with this idea of becoming a commercial threat. Then we opened, and neither of us had any experience running a gallery. We didn’t know how to sell anything.
“It was really easy to feel like an outsider back then,” says Kelsey. And today, when Reena Spaulings is a real, successful commercial gallery, selling real works to real collectors, and catapulting its artists into notoriety?
“There is no outside anymore. It’s one big expanding inside. The art world is a constant struggle over territory, and one strategy is to relocate or displace the inside, which involves some theatrics and resetting the frame. Maybe that’s what Reena has done. And someone else will do it again.”