Interview with Amanda Jiron-Murphy of the Hamiltonian Gallery by Joan Cox

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In mid-December I spoke with Amanda Jiron-Murphy about her role at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington DC and about the unique fellowship program that is supporting emerging artists in the DC metro area.

Joan Cox: How long have you been the Director at Hamiltonian Gallery and what is your background?

Amanda Jiron-Murphy: I’ve been Director for 5 months.

I came from a background in museums and I did a lot of talks in the galleries and was working more and more with adult audiences…but on the side I started curating shows and wanted to work more with contemporary artists. I think that’s always been my interest. I love working with creative people, so I started doing that on the side and that eventually became what kind of hooked me into Hamiltonian and how I became aware of them.

JC: Was your previous museum work in DC in somewhere else?

AJM: Yes, I was at the Phillips Collection. I think that, for me, one of the biggest learning experiences I had was watching Dorothy Kosinski, come in as the new director. I was there during the transition from the previous director, Jay Gates. Dorothy came in with a very specific vision and it was a real challenge. And I watched how she did things. She has really turned the museum around in a major way but it hasn’t been an easy ride. But she should be credited with really being persistent and working through many many challenges but exciting people about what they’re doing at the same time. I think a lot about the small lessons I learned here and there just by watching her and being a part of that transition as I am coming in to this job. She’s kind of been a mentor. I admire her a lot.

JC: Hamiltonian is a really unique gallery. Most of the world knows about retail galleries, non-profit galleries, co-op galleries—but they are a completely new ‘thing’ as far as I’m aware….can you tell me a little bit about the structure and the mission of the gallery?

AJM: The mission of the gallery is to be a support and a platform for emerging artists and specifically for their emerging artist fellows. The gallery takes on five fellows every year who are chosen by an external review panel. And the review panel is comprised of curators, artists and art professionals. The crop of artists was chosen from about 160 people who applied last year, so I think that the reputation of the gallery is growing. We aim to represent young emerging talent in the DC metro area although our definition of that is definitely growing too. We went to Virginia Commonwealth University this year to see their MFA program and we’re hoping to get some interested candidates from the Richmond area.

So the gallery’s mission is to serve as a platform for those emerging artist-fellows and to professionalize them, really. The fellowship program really aims to do that through professional development speaker series and through a mentorship that is naturally built into the mentor program that they have as part of the fellowship. We have a group of mentor-artists who are all established professional artists in the DC area. And we call on them whenever we an artist that we feel could benefit from some type of one-on-one time with that person. So that’s the fellowship component and then the gallery is really where we present them to the world…what I think of as a stage where they get to present themselves in the form of solo and group shows. My responsibility on the gallery side is to help the artists curate their shoes and put their best foot forward. We also represent them at art fairs so that’s why we were in Miami last week. We went to the Scope Art Fair for our 6th year!

JC: What really happens at the art fairs? Being an MFA student myself, it’s confusing—all the fair talk—from the outside it seems a little bit like a great big convention where either everything happens or maybe nothing happens. It seems like just a big mall of art—so what REALLY happens there?

AJM: Ahhh, it is (pause) it is really, really overwhelming for every artist involved and probably for every gallerist involved too. I went last year purely as a spectator and I got a feel for the vibe at the fair and really Miami in general. The whole thing is a gigantic party but it’s true that everybody wants a piece of the art-selling pie. So everybody wants to be in the right place at the right time and there’s sooo much going on at any given point that its impossible to be at the exact right place at the right time because there are probably five of those right places going on simultaneously. In a lot of ways it’s true that it feels like a great big art mall but it’s an opportunity for international visibility in a lot of cases. We encourage the artists that we are showing in the booth and even the ones who are really part of the fellowship to go down to see what other galleries do there and get a feel for the real market because I think that every artist has to know that that’s part of the puzzle.

It’s really kind of the engine that keeps the art world going…it’s commerce and that’s where it’s happening increasingly now. I think that some galleries know that at the fairs they are going to make their yearly or even a quarter of their sales if not more at an art fair—if they play their cards right. It is a high stakes environment for a lot of galleries, it’s very flashy, and it’s really overwhelming to the senses. There is so much to see and take in and at any given point something can happen so it’s exciting! But I think it’s also a double-edged sword. I was talking to a friend who said that they feel like art is equal parts religion and nuts and bolts commerce, and you really have to leave your heart at the door when you come to an art fair. And its true…you’re really there to sell and that’s really the bottom line.

JC: In terms of Hamiltonian and your role with the fellows, are you really there to sell as well and do you sell or is it more of the experience for the fellows and meeting other gallerists?

AJM: We do sell but its also about getting the fellows out there and having them exposed to that world and I have to say that some fellows have gone more than once and I think once is enough. Because I think you get a taste of it to understand that that’s what you have to do to be able to sell yourself as an artist. You have to understand that you have to present yourself a certain way and your work needs to be shown in a certain level of professionalism. So even just getting a sense of how other artists who work in similar disciplines may frame or mount or just present their work in that type of context is really helpful and so, thinking back to the mission of the gallery, I think the professionalization of the artist really comes through in an environment like that where you understand, “I need to present my photos in the best way that I can because if I am going to show them at an art fair, I’m competing with thousands of other people who may be doing similar things and how can I stand out and how can I present myself as someone who is serious about what I’m doing.”

JC: Are there bigger galleries, New York galleries, who are looking to the smaller galleries to see emerging artists that they might want to nab or talk to… Is that part of the game going on there?

AJM: Absolutely, yeah, that’s definitely part of it. I think that it depends on how the fair is doing—whether or not you’ll have that type of traffic coming through. I know that in previous years gallerists have found artists even in Hamiltonian’s booth and shown an interest in them and followed up with them after their time with us to see if they can represent them moving forward. That does happen. It’s a great opportunity. I’ve had a couple of conversations with curators and interested collectors because of the art fair and they are people that we would never have been able to meet or make those types of connections had we not gone to Miami so I think it is just an important part of being a gallery today in 2012… just to be there.

JC: Does Hamiltonian rely only on art sales to sustain itself?

AJM: The gallery does have a consulting service (we curate corporate spaces) that is very helpful to financially stabilizing the daily operations. That’s one thing we do in an effort to offset the costs, but we’re also selling work. I’m really hoping that in my time as a gallerist with Hamiltonian that I’ll be able to build a new client base who is willing to take risks on emerging artists — so far we’ve had quite a few successes that I’m really proud of. One of our artists has been asked to do a commission for the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico. There are little successes along the way with every single show that we’ve done so far sales-wise. I think that’s a good beginning.

JC: How do you determine the shows throughout the year, in terms of curating, at the Hamiltonian space? You have a certain number of fellows and they get to be in-group shows and in a solo show but how do you assemble those shows throughout the two-year period?

AJM: Well, I can only speak to my first go-round in doing it this year. I got to know the artists and their individual work and I got a sense of who seemed more ready… who had work more readily available, I mean that’s what it kind of boils down to. I think that a big part of this fellowship program is to encourage the artists to keep producing work which is a big challenge for any artist and I think especially when you come out of an MFA program where all you have to do is make work and then when you have to start paying your bills, sometimes the work can suffer as a result and life happens. When I met this year’s artists initially, it was about who was actively making work and what did their schedules look like moving forward… because some of them still have solo shows at other places and we encourage that.

We want the artist to show as much as they can wherever they can. In my decision-making this year, it was equal parts, who has work ready and will it work for them to show at this time of the year considering that I know that they’ve got a show later on. And then I also wanted to make sure that we staggered what we were showing in the gallery. We might have a more traditional show of photography and painting then we want to follow up with something like a performative work or perceptual so I wanted to make sure there was a changing roster so that’s what went into my thinking process, but you know I’m also thinking a lot about how would I do things differently next year because I’m learning a lot in the process of doing it (laughter) but it could be a totally different year next year.

JC: Obviously you do studio visits, but are studios provided to the fellows or do they have them wherever they have them?

AJM: Yes, they have them wherever they already have them and there are some artists, like photographers, who do most of their work in the field and then on their computers so I would go to their home. We do require that the artist have a practice—that’s the most important thing. Making the work is the most important thing but finding studios is their responsibility.

JC: You have a lot of talks at the gallery as well, and they are open to the public, aren’t they?

AJM: Yes, those are open to the public. We do also have artist critiques and those critiques are closed…that’s only for the fellows, staff, and any people that the artist feels comfortable admitting to that type of environment because it is a vulnerable thing, you know.

JC: How often are those crits?

AJM: There’s one for every show.

JC: So you hang and present the show and then the show is critiqued?

AJM: Yes. It tends to be internal but we do encourage the mentor artists to attend. So for example, Billy Friebele gave a talk yesterday. He’s got the show that’s up right now in the gallery and I know that Billy took the initiative to get in touch with Dan Steinhilber and Linn Myers. Myers is one of our mentor artists and I know that she wants to come to his crit if possible. We do have outside artists who come in too. I think, if Billy is ok with it, we can have them participate in the conversation too. It really just depends on the artist. This goes back to the mission of the gallery in some ways, too. We want our artists to take initiative to make this program theirs. We give them all the tools and it is up to them how they use them. So Billy is a great example of someone who is really taking it and running with it.

He’s put in a lot and I feel like he’s learning a lot and that’s really what the whole fellowship is about.

JC: How much do the fellows interact with one another outside of just that monthly critique?

AJM: Well they are expected to attend all of the artist talks, crits and openings and then there are activities planned in between. We just hang out with each other a lot and they all get to know each other really well. The fellows were actually asked to do a show at the Katzen Art Center at American University in January of 2012. In about a week’s time they put together an impromptu virtual studio visit. We brought all of their images together and we spent an entire Saturday in the gallery’s back office discussing each other’s work. Opportunities come up like that all the time. I think they are all equally challenged to do good work so it’s like a graduate or post-doc experience. That’s really what it was based on. The founder of the gallery did a post-doc in physics and he felt that the time and camaraderie that he felt with his fellow physicists was really formative for him and that’s what we’re trying to duplicate with the fellows program…a sense of community.

JC: The founder is Paul So, right? Is he involved in a daily way or did he set this up and you guys run the show?

AJM: That’s Paul So! Yes, we generally run with it. He comes in weekly, of course and we’re constantly in contact with him and I’ll go to him if I have questions about things but for the most part it’s me, Angie Goerner and Nathan Wallace running the show.

JC: In the interest of building that collector base, do you ever have an alumni show or something that bring back the previous fellow artist once a year or every other year?

AJM: We are hoping to do that in 2013 for the first time because the gallery will be celebrating its 5-year anniversary so we’re thinking about doing an alumni show to celebrate that. That will be the first time that I’m aware of, that we’ve brought alumni back. But it’s interesting to track the progress of the artists who have been a part of the program. I feel like Hamiltonian has yet to see the full extent of the successes of seeds it has sown…because that just takes time. I think that we are starting to see that and we’d like to acknowledge it.

JC: Are other DC organizations now taking notice of what’s going on at Hamiltonian after these five years?

AJM: Yeah, you know, it’s a really small community, which is great and I think that we naturally are tasked with being out there and being as visible as possible and just being part of the global art conversation in DC and beyond. We have friends at the Corcoran and I had lunch today with Kathryn Wat, the contemporary curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

JC: I am just looking at your website and I see photos going by that include my mentor from last summer, Zoe Charlton. She was on the review panel for new fellows last year, correct? How do you decide who should be on the review panel?

AJM: Perfect timing because I was having this conversation with Angie this morning about who would be on the panel this year. It has to be a mix of arts professionals in different capacities. We’re looking for gallerists, artists, upper level arts educators, and curators. It is just about finding the right mix of people. Without giving away any names, I know we want to have a healthy mix of people who have their foot in the DC and NY art worlds. I think that we want our fellows to really be viable beyond the DC area in terms of their aspirations and what their future prospects could be and I just think the more visibility that we get outside of DC, the better. The long-term goal I have is that the fellowship be looked at as a real resource for people throughout the MidAtlantic region. We also want to make sure that we get the people on the cutting edge of thought who have a keen eye and have their finger on the pulse of what is going on.

JC: Have you ever included critics on the review panel?

AJM: We were looking at some critics today actually.

JC: What is the best part of working with the fellows?

AJM: One of my favorite things so far about the job of Director is seeing someone take the bull by the horns. It is so gratifying. It makes me so happy.

Author Joan Cox is a Baltimore-based painter, currently enrolled in an MFA program at MassArts.

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