CHARLIE JAMES

Doubling Down on Chinatown

Charlie James is passionate about art. This becomes apparent when you speak to him; his speech becomes hurried with excitement as he talks about an artist or the latest developments with his Chinatown gallery. What he refers to as a “passion project,” the Charlie James Gallery opened in 2008 after James quit his job at Microsoft and moved to Los Angeles. This move proved to be a great decision, as Los Angeles embraced both James and his visual aesthetics.

Charlie James

Charlie and I spoke about the importance of cultivating a gallery’s identity, participating in art fairs, building relationships, and “sticky” artwork.

Andrew K. Thompson: You got into art dealing in a unique manner. Could you expand on your background history? Where did you come from? What got you into the art game?

Charlie James: Art kind of ran in my family, but two uncles in particular are to blame: one is a distinguished art historian who took me to shows that were formative for me as a kid, like the Rosenquist retrospective at the Denver Art Museum in the early ‘80s; another uncle is a maniac outsider artist whose work I love. Taken together they got art into my life early and kept it there. From these beginnings I pursued an academic track in literature and literary theory for a while in the early ‘90s until I was sidetracked by gainful employment. Fast forward twelve years and I was ready to disengage from what was a nice career in software and consulting and dedicate myself to creative projects, thus the gallery.

AKT: You said certain dealers were key to your development as a collector. Can you talk about one that inspired you to form your own gallery?

CJ: Lots of dealers were great to work with, but let me restrict my answer to Catharine Clark and her program in particular. I was engaged and excited by that program because I saw a union of form, commentary, and concept, supported by a dealer who was very generous and engaging in person. So once excited by the work I saw at Catharine’s, I was able to get even more into it resulting from her openness, even keenness, for dialogue with prospective collectors like me. In other words, there was no hazing, buy-your-way-in exclusivity that many people find so alienating (including me). Quite the contrary, really, and as a result I got hooked on collecting quickly. Without question I have tried to exhibit the same level of openness and engagement that Catharine extended to me as I’ve built my own gallery.

AKT: Talk about the process of cultivating your gallery’s aesthetics.

CJ: From an overarching perspective, a gallery’s aesthetic forms over the span of its exhibitions. It accretes as the shows build on one another. I think the gallery has exhibited a pretty strong focus over these first three years, while (I hope) not becoming repetitive or predictable. I spent the first year of the gallery putting on shows that I hoped would signal the aesthetic values of the gallery, showcasing a lot of artists that I had either collected or admired. We have to remember that I started the gallery from scratch. The only thing I’d done in the art world before opening a gallery was buy art, which as it happens is a good thing to have experience with, but it’s only one aspect of the business. I offered a lot of fairly established emerging artists from outside L.A. shows during that first year, and this helped us immeasurably I think. It allowed us to begin with a demonstrative level of quality and brought lots of people and energy toward the program.

AKT: Will you talk about art as a means of communication and a shared experience?

Charlie JamesCJ: A key formative experience for me was an aesthetic theory class I took with the philosophy chair at CU Boulder back in my undergraduate years. In that class I learned about the hilariously circular but authoritative institutional theory of art, and many other theories that sought to describe what art is or should do. Among these theories was Tolstoy’s theory of art. For Tolstoy, art was a means of congregation and edification for people. He was a pretty heavy moralist but I thought that if you just substituted less judgmental language, e.g. communication instead of congregation, experience instead of edification, then you’ve got a pretty fine set of values for what art should do or be. When I was younger in undergrad and grad school I loved all the abstruse theoretical stuff, I really did, but as I’ve gotten older I increasingly value access and experience, and I don’t have a lot of time (literally) for theoretical play — I look more for outcomes and lightbulbs turning on, etc. A concession to age or the beginnings of wisdom I don’t know, but I value work that engages and reveals. This is not to say that I value simplicity or demand immediacy, but I want a way in, you know? I’ll work for it, but I need to connect with the work.

AKT: What drew you to Chinatown in Los Angeles? Why not go to New York, Chicago, or San Francisco

CJ: Why L.A.? Well I guess I considered New York briefly, but really I knew it was going to be L.A. all the way. Despite being born in Manhattan I recoiled from the financial realities of starting from scratch in NYC, and I’ve been to some degree Westernized — meaning I like having a car, playing tennis, sunshine, etc. New York’s great but it’s a huge pain in the ass too. I tried transposing my life into New York terms and it looked like a quick financial bleedout with little personal peace. Meanwhile L.A. felt ascendant, which it certainly is. The contemporary art scene in this town is growing faster than anywhere else and it’s one of the big four cities along with New York, London, and Berlin. Net, net, it was kind of a no-brainer, and I couldn’t be happier to be here doing what I’m doing.

Why Chinatown? I’d been coming down to L.A. about three to four times a year for several years before I finally quit Miscrosoft and went for it with the gallery. I loved Chinatown — it was by far the most atmospheric gallery district and it was home to many of the best galleries in the city. It’s also inexpensive relative to other neighborhoods and very well covered by the press. I looked at other districts but nothing really challenged Chinatown.

AKT: You’ve moved into the space that Peres Projects was in. Could you talk about the importance of that space and the importance of staying in Chinatown?

CJ: On March 3, we opened our first show in our new space at 969 Chung King Road, the space formerly and famously occupied by Peres Projects. I love this new space. It’s a lot bigger than our first space, it’s got this fabulous exterior, and it’s been home to some absolutely legendary contemporary art shows over the past eight to ten years. I feel like I hit the jackpot really. I’m a big admirer of what Javier Peres achieved. I consider his program a fundamentally “activist” program, in that it directly reflected his values, making no pretenses to balance, and I think consequently it was very successful. Though aesthetically our values are distinct I feel a level of kinship . . . in that my gallery is basically an expression of what I consider important and beautiful, etc. I’m glad to be moving in there, that’s for sure.

AKT: A lot of people bemoan the art fair experience, but you have a different take on them. Can you explain why you like art fairs?

CJ: Art fairs! Well, for the dealer starting from scratch there can be no better friend than art fairs, as I see it. Art fairs have been absolutely key to the success we’ve enjoyed so far. If you think about it, art fairs are kind of meritocratic — it’s one of the few places where everyone’s programs are laid side by side for all to see at one time. Relationships are still key of course, but when people don’t know you but are attracted to the work in your booth, when they get stuck to work in your booth, this is a huge win for a young gallery. Transparently, a lot of our revenue comes from art fairs — more than brick and mortar for sure. Two decisions have helped my gallery a lot in its first three years: locating on Chung King Road in Chinatown and doing lots of art fairs. Chinatown brought us some great relationships and it definitely brought us a lot of press, which has been key to our development, and the art fairs deliver relationships and they deliver sales. No bucks? No Buck Rogers. This isn’t a vanity project, we have to sell work to stay vital and to keep moving forward, and art fairs have helped immeasurably with that. We do consistently well with them. One of the keys for us at fairs is to show work that stops people from moving past and that rewards their continued attention. I call this having work that’s “sticky.” Thinking back to your question about aesthetic values, we value accessibility, so it’s easy for our work to stop folks and engage them. Works out well. Additionally, we always try to curate our booths and I think we’re successful at this. Art fair booths are mini-shows and we rarely just do hodgepodge — we like to build a thread through the booth, even with multiple artists on show.

AKT: Will you discuss the importance of building relationships in the art world? With artists, with collectors.

CJ: Relationships are everything in the art world. It’s key to success in every pursuit, but in the art world it’s literally everything, I think. Artists come first; artists bring other artists and they bring collectors and curators as well. My gallery is the sum of the artists I show, and in our first three years it’s the artists who have really defined the gallery. I have a role too, but it’s the artists we’ve exhibited that have brought definition to the program and attention to the program. As a young gallery we definitely try to make sure that artists, writers, collectors, even browsers have a good experience working with us. We don’t do the exclusivity thing much, we like to be welcoming and make new friends. Part of this is personal. I didn’t start the gallery to freeze folks out, I want to be expansive and create positive stir. And have fun, of course. And I think it’s also good business.

AKT: Can you describe a real positive experience you had starting relationships? A time when you immediately hit it off with someone and it led to a strong working relationship?

CJ: William Powhida. I saw a small drawing at PULSE NY in 2009 at his New York gallery’s booth. I loved the work immediately, I saw real genius in the union of drawing and language, and it was super smart and funny too. After getting home to L.A. I reached out to Bill on Facebook and showed him who we were and that I wanted to show him in L.A. We had a phone call that went gangbusters and I agreed to fly him out for a getting-to-know-you thing. We did that, and the seeds for his 2009 show No One Here Gets Out Alive were born. Five months later I had a hit show with him and it felt great. The Los Angeles Times raved about it, Artforum covered it, and both Bill and I were delighted. We’re going to do it again October 2012.

CJ: I like what you said about being “all in” and that half-measures don’t cut it. Could you talk about commitment and how that influences the way you run your program?

AKT: Yeah, that’s one of the best things that happened on a personal level since I started the gallery. I had a fine corporate career, I had fun, I did a lot of things very well, but I never really wanted to do it forever. The older I got I kept asking myself pesky questions like “Is this the work of a lifetime?” And the answer was a resounding “no,” over and over again. I know that questions like that are fundamentally a luxury, but I couldn’t keep the misgivings at bay. I turned down the brass-ring route in corporate life, and after doing that I kinda knew I had to disengage, it was just when and how. It took a solid year for me to work up to it, but I resigned Microsoft in July 2008, moved to L.A. in August, got the space in October, and opened in November 2008. And since opening the gallery my approach to work is totally different. Whereas I used to be the king of the all-nighter, now I’m always asking myself if I am doing everything I can do, given my resources, expertise, and time, and this feels really good. When you do your very best you’re just like hey, come check it out, I hope you like it. I sure do.harlie James is passionate about art. This becomes apparent when you speak to him; his speech becomes hurried with excitement as he talks about an artist or the latest developments with his Chinatown gallery. What he refers to as a “passion project,” the Charlie James Gallery opened in 2008 after James quit his job at Microsoft and moved to Los Angeles. This move proved to be a great decision, as Los Angeles embraced both James and his visual aesthetics.

Charlie and I spoke about the importance of cultivating a gallery’s identity, participating in art fairs, building relationships, and “sticky” artwork.

Andrew K. Thompson: You got into art dealing in a unique manner. Could you expand on your background history? Where did you come from? What got you into the art game?

Charlie James: Art kind of ran in my family, but two uncles in particular are to blame: one is a distinguished art historian who took me to shows that were formative for me as a kid, like the Rosenquist retrospective at the Denver Art Museum in the early ‘80s; another uncle is a maniac outsider artist whose work I love. Taken together they got art into my life early and kept it there. From these beginnings I pursued an academic track in literature and literary theory for a while in the early ‘90s until I was sidetracked by gainful employment. Fast forward twelve years and I was ready to disengage from what was a nice career in software and consulting and dedicate myself to creative projects, thus the gallery.

AKT: You said certain dealers were key to your development as a collector. Can you talk about one that inspired you to form your own gallery?

CJ: Lots of dealers were great to work with, but let me restrict my answer to Catharine Clark and her program in particular. I was engaged and excited by that program because I saw a union of form, commentary, and concept, supported by a dealer who was very generous and engaging in person. So once excited by the work I saw at Catharine’s, I was able to get even more into it resulting from her openness, even keenness, for dialogue with prospective collectors like me. In other words, there was no hazing, buy-your-way-in exclusivity that many people find so alienating (including me). Quite the contrary, really, and as a result I got hooked on collecting quickly. Without question I have tried to exhibit the same level of openness and engagement that Catharine extended to me as I’ve built my own gallery.

AKT: Talk about the process of cultivating your gallery’s aesthetics.

CJ: From an overarching perspective, a gallery’s aesthetic forms over the span of its exhibitions. It accretes as the shows build on one another. I think the gallery has exhibited a pretty strong focus over these first three years, while (I hope) not becoming repetitive or predictable. I spent the first year of the gallery putting on shows that I hoped would signal the aesthetic values of the gallery, showcasing a lot of artists that I had either collected or admired. We have to remember that I started the gallery from scratch. The only thing I’d done in the art world before opening a gallery was buy art, which as it happens is a good thing to have experience with, but it’s only one aspect of the business. I offered a lot of fairly established emerging artists from outside L.A. shows during that first year, and this helped us immeasurably I think. It allowed us to begin with a demonstrative level of quality and brought lots of people and energy toward the program.

AKT: Will you talk about art as a means of communication and a shared experience?

CJ: A key formative experience for me was an aesthetic theory class I took with the philosophy chair at CU Boulder back in my undergraduate years. In that class I learned about the hilariously circular but authoritative institutional theory of art, and many other theories that sought to describe what art is or should do. Among these theories was Tolstoy’s theory of art. For Tolstoy, art was a means of congregation and edification for people. He was a pretty heavy moralist but I thought that if you just substituted less judgmental language, e.g. communication instead of congregation, experience instead of edification, then you’ve got a pretty fine set of values for what art should do or be. When I was younger in undergrad and grad school I loved all the abstruse theoretical stuff, I really did, but as I’ve gotten older I increasingly value access and experience, and I don’t have a lot of time (literally) for theoretical play — I look more for outcomes and lightbulbs turning on, etc. A concession to age or the beginnings of wisdom I don’t know, but I value work that engages and reveals. This is not to say that I value simplicity or demand immediacy, but I want a way in, you know? I’ll work for it, but I need to connect with the work.

AKT: What drew you to Chinatown in Los Angeles? Why not go to New York, Chicago, or San Francisco

CJ: Why L.A.? Well I guess I considered New York briefly, but really I knew it was going to be L.A. all the way. Despite being born in Manhattan I recoiled from the financial realities of starting from scratch in NYC, and I’ve been to some degree Westernized — meaning I like having a car, playing tennis, sunshine, etc. New York’s great but it’s a huge pain in the ass too. I tried transposing my life into New York terms and it looked like a quick financial bleedout with little personal peace. Meanwhile L.A. felt ascendant, which it certainly is. The contemporary art scene in this town is growing faster than anywhere else and it’s one of the big four cities along with New York, London, and Berlin. Net, net, it was kind of a no-brainer, and I couldn’t be happier to be here doing what I’m doing.

Why Chinatown? I’d been coming down to L.A. about three to four times a year for several years before I finally quit Miscrosoft and went for it with the gallery. I loved Chinatown — it was by far the most atmospheric gallery district and it was home to many of the best galleries in the city. It’s also inexpensive relative to other neighborhoods and very well covered by the press. I looked at other districts but nothing really challenged Chinatown.

AKT: You’ve moved into the space that Peres Projects was in. Could you talk about the importance of that space and the importance of staying in Chinatown?

CJ: On March 3, we opened our first show in our new space at 969 Chung King Road, the space formerly and famously occupied by Peres Projects. I love this new space. It’s a lot bigger than our first space, it’s got this fabulous exterior, and it’s been home to some absolutely legendary contemporary art shows over the past eight to ten years. I feel like I hit the jackpot really. I’m a big admirer of what Javier Peres achieved. I consider his program a fundamentally “activist” program, in that it directly reflected his values, making no pretenses to balance, and I think consequently it was very successful. Though aesthetically our values are distinct I feel a level of kinship . . . in that my gallery is basically an expression of what I consider important and beautiful, etc. I’m glad to be moving in there, that’s for sure.

AKT: A lot of people bemoan the art fair experience, but you have a different take on them. Can you explain why you like art fairs?

CJ: Art fairs! Well, for the dealer starting from scratch there can be no better friend than art fairs, as I see it. Art fairs have been absolutely key to the success we’ve enjoyed so far. If you think about it, art fairs are kind of meritocratic — it’s one of the few places where everyone’s programs are laid side by side for all to see at one time. Relationships are still key of course, but when people don’t know you but are attracted to the work in your booth, when they get stuck to work in your booth, this is a huge win for a young gallery. Transparently, a lot of our revenue comes from art fairs — more than brick and mortar for sure. Two decisions have helped my gallery a lot in its first three years: locating on Chung King Road in Chinatown and doing lots of art fairs. Chinatown brought us some great relationships and it definitely brought us a lot of press, which has been key to our development, and the art fairs deliver relationships and they deliver sales. No bucks? No Buck Rogers. This isn’t a vanity project, we have to sell work to stay vital and to keep moving forward, and art fairs have helped immeasurably with that. We do consistently well with them. One of the keys for us at fairs is to show work that stops people from moving past and that rewards their continued attention. I call this having work that’s “sticky.” Thinking back to your question about aesthetic values, we value accessibility, so it’s easy for our work to stop folks and engage them. Works out well. Additionally, we always try to curate our booths and I think we’re successful at this. Art fair booths are mini-shows and we rarely just do hodgepodge — we like to build a thread through the booth, even with multiple artists on show.

AKT: Will you discuss the importance of building relationships in the art world? With artists, with collectors.

CJ: Relationships are everything in the art world. It’s key to success in every pursuit, but in the art world it’s literally everything, I think. Artists come first; artists bring other artists and they bring collectors and curators as well. My gallery is the sum of the artists I show, and in our first three years it’s the artists who have really defined the gallery. I have a role too, but it’s the artists we’ve exhibited that have brought definition to the program and attention to the program. As a young gallery we definitely try to make sure that artists, writers, collectors, even browsers have a good experience working with us. We don’t do the exclusivity thing much, we like to be welcoming and make new friends. Part of this is personal. I didn’t start the gallery to freeze folks out, I want to be expansive and create positive stir. And have fun, of course. And I think it’s also good business.

AKT: Can you describe a real positive experience you had starting relationships? A time when you immediately hit it off with someone and it led to a strong working relationship?

CJ: William Powhida. I saw a small drawing at PULSE NY in 2009 at his New York gallery’s booth. I loved the work immediately, I saw real genius in the union of drawing and language, and it was super smart and funny too. After getting home to L.A. I reached out to Bill on Facebook and showed him who we were and that I wanted to show him in L.A. We had a phone call that went gangbusters and I agreed to fly him out for a getting-to-know-you thing. We did that, and the seeds for his 2009 show No One Here Gets Out Alive were born. Five months later I had a hit show with him and it felt great. The Los Angeles Times raved about it, Artforum covered it, and both Bill and I were delighted. We’re going to do it again October 2012.

CJ: I like what you said about being “all in” and that half-measures don’t cut it. Could you talk about commitment and how that influences the way you run your program?

AKT: Yeah, that’s one of the best things that happened on a personal level since I started the gallery. I had a fine corporate career, I had fun, I did a lot of things very well, but I never really wanted to do it forever. The older I got I kept asking myself pesky questions like “Is this the work of a lifetime?” And the answer was a resounding “no,” over and over again. I know that questions like that are fundamentally a luxury, but I couldn’t keep the misgivings at bay. I turned down the brass-ring route in corporate life, and after doing that I kinda knew I had to disengage, it was just when and how. It took a solid year for me to work up to it, but I resigned Microsoft in July 2008, moved to L.A. in August, got the space in October, and opened in November 2008. And since opening the gallery my approach to work is totally different. Whereas I used to be the king of the all-nighter, now I’m always asking myself if I am doing everything I can do, given my resources, expertise, and time, and this feels really good. When you do your very best you’re just like hey, come check it out, I hope you like it. I sure do.harlie James is passionate about art. This becomes apparent when you speak to him; his speech becomes hurried with excitement as he talks about an artist or the latest developments with his Chinatown gallery. What he refers to as a “passion project,” the Charlie James Gallery opened in 2008 after James quit his job at Microsoft and moved to Los Angeles. This move proved to be a great decision, as Los Angeles embraced both James and his visual aesthetics.

Charlie and I spoke about the importance of cultivating a gallery’s identity, participating in art fairs, building relationships, and “sticky” artwork.

Andrew K. Thompson: You got into art dealing in a unique manner. Could you expand on your background history? Where did you come from? What got you into the art game?

Charlie James: Art kind of ran in my family, but two uncles in particular are to blame: one is a distinguished art historian who took me to shows that were formative for me as a kid, like the Rosenquist retrospective at the Denver Art Museum in the early ‘80s; another uncle is a maniac outsider artist whose work I love. Taken together they got art into my life early and kept it there. From these beginnings I pursued an academic track in literature and literary theory for a while in the early ‘90s until I was sidetracked by gainful employment. Fast forward twelve years and I was ready to disengage from what was a nice career in software and consulting and dedicate myself to creative projects, thus the gallery.

AKT: You said certain dealers were key to your development as a collector. Can you talk about one that inspired you to form your own gallery?

CJ: Lots of dealers were great to work with, but let me restrict my answer to Catharine Clark and her program in particular. I was engaged and excited by that program because I saw a union of form, commentary, and concept, supported by a dealer who was very generous and engaging in person. So once excited by the work I saw at Catharine’s, I was able to get even more into it resulting from her openness, even keenness, for dialogue with prospective collectors like me. In other words, there was no hazing, buy-your-way-in exclusivity that many people find so alienating (including me). Quite the contrary, really, and as a result I got hooked on collecting quickly. Without question I have tried to exhibit the same level of openness and engagement that Catharine extended to me as I’ve built my own gallery.

AKT: Talk about the process of cultivating your gallery’s aesthetics.

CJ: From an overarching perspective, a gallery’s aesthetic forms over the span of its exhibitions. It accretes as the shows build on one another. I think the gallery has exhibited a pretty strong focus over these first three years, while (I hope) not becoming repetitive or predictable. I spent the first year of the gallery putting on shows that I hoped would signal the aesthetic values of the gallery, showcasing a lot of artists that I had either collected or admired. We have to remember that I started the gallery from scratch. The only thing I’d done in the art world before opening a gallery was buy art, which as it happens is a good thing to have experience with, but it’s only one aspect of the business. I offered a lot of fairly established emerging artists from outside L.A. shows during that first year, and this helped us immeasurably I think. It allowed us to begin with a demonstrative level of quality and brought lots of people and energy toward the program.

AKT: Will you talk about art as a means of communication and a shared experience?

CJ: A key formative experience for me was an aesthetic theory class I took with the philosophy chair at CU Boulder back in my undergraduate years. In that class I learned about the hilariously circular but authoritative institutional theory of art, and many other theories that sought to describe what art is or should do. Among these theories was Tolstoy’s theory of art. For Tolstoy, art was a means of congregation and edification for people. He was a pretty heavy moralist but I thought that if you just substituted less judgmental language, e.g. communication instead of congregation, experience instead of edification, then you’ve got a pretty fine set of values for what art should do or be. When I was younger in undergrad and grad school I loved all the abstruse theoretical stuff, I really did, but as I’ve gotten older I increasingly value access and experience, and I don’t have a lot of time (literally) for theoretical play — I look more for outcomes and lightbulbs turning on, etc. A concession to age or the beginnings of wisdom I don’t know, but I value work that engages and reveals. This is not to say that I value simplicity or demand immediacy, but I want a way in, you know? I’ll work for it, but I need to connect with the work.

AKT: What drew you to Chinatown in Los Angeles? Why not go to New York, Chicago, or San Francisco

CJ: Why L.A.? Well I guess I considered New York briefly, but really I knew it was going to be L.A. all the way. Despite being born in Manhattan I recoiled from the financial realities of starting from scratch in NYC, and I’ve been to some degree Westernized — meaning I like having a car, playing tennis, sunshine, etc. New York’s great but it’s a huge pain in the ass too. I tried transposing my life into New York terms and it looked like a quick financial bleedout with little personal peace. Meanwhile L.A. felt ascendant, which it certainly is. The contemporary art scene in this town is growing faster than anywhere else and it’s one of the big four cities along with New York, London, and Berlin. Net, net, it was kind of a no-brainer, and I couldn’t be happier to be here doing what I’m doing.

Why Chinatown? I’d been coming down to L.A. about three to four times a year for several years before I finally quit Miscrosoft and went for it with the gallery. I loved Chinatown — it was by far the most atmospheric gallery district and it was home to many of the best galleries in the city. It’s also inexpensive relative to other neighborhoods and very well covered by the press. I looked at other districts but nothing really challenged Chinatown.

AKT: You’ve moved into the space that Peres Projects was in. Could you talk about the importance of that space and the importance of staying in Chinatown?

CJ: On March 3, we opened our first show in our new space at 969 Chung King Road, the space formerly and famously occupied by Peres Projects. I love this new space. It’s a lot bigger than our first space, it’s got this fabulous exterior, and it’s been home to some absolutely legendary contemporary art shows over the past eight to ten years. I feel like I hit the jackpot really. I’m a big admirer of what Javier Peres achieved. I consider his program a fundamentally “activist” program, in that it directly reflected his values, making no pretenses to balance, and I think consequently it was very successful. Though aesthetically our values are distinct I feel a level of kinship . . . in that my gallery is basically an expression of what I consider important and beautiful, etc. I’m glad to be moving in there, that’s for sure.

AKT: A lot of people bemoan the art fair experience, but you have a different take on them. Can you explain why you like art fairs?

CJ: Art fairs! Well, for the dealer starting from scratch there can be no better friend than art fairs, as I see it. Art fairs have been absolutely key to the success we’ve enjoyed so far. If you think about it, art fairs are kind of meritocratic — it’s one of the few places where everyone’s programs are laid side by side for all to see at one time. Relationships are still key of course, but when people don’t know you but are attracted to the work in your booth, when they get stuck to work in your booth, this is a huge win for a young gallery. Transparently, a lot of our revenue comes from art fairs — more than brick and mortar for sure. Two decisions have helped my gallery a lot in its first three years: locating on Chung King Road in Chinatown and doing lots of art fairs. Chinatown brought us some great relationships and it definitely brought us a lot of press, which has been key to our development, and the art fairs deliver relationships and they deliver sales. No bucks? No Buck Rogers. This isn’t a vanity project, we have to sell work to stay vital and to keep moving forward, and art fairs have helped immeasurably with that. We do consistently well with them. One of the keys for us at fairs is to show work that stops people from moving past and that rewards their continued attention. I call this having work that’s “sticky.” Thinking back to your question about aesthetic values, we value accessibility, so it’s easy for our work to stop folks and engage them. Works out well. Additionally, we always try to curate our booths and I think we’re successful at this. Art fair booths are mini-shows and we rarely just do hodgepodge — we like to build a thread through the booth, even with multiple artists on show.

AKT: Will you discuss the importance of building relationships in the art world? With artists, with collectors.

CJ: Relationships are everything in the art world. It’s key to success in every pursuit, but in the art world it’s literally everything, I think. Artists come first; artists bring other artists and they bring collectors and curators as well. My gallery is the sum of the artists I show, and in our first three years it’s the artists who have really defined the gallery. I have a role too, but it’s the artists we’ve exhibited that have brought definition to the program and attention to the program. As a young gallery we definitely try to make sure that artists, writers, collectors, even browsers have a good experience working with us. We don’t do the exclusivity thing much, we like to be welcoming and make new friends. Part of this is personal. I didn’t start the gallery to freeze folks out, I want to be expansive and create positive stir. And have fun, of course. And I think it’s also good business.

AKT: Can you describe a real positive experience you had starting relationships? A time when you immediately hit it off with someone and it led to a strong working relationship?

CJ: William Powhida. I saw a small drawing at PULSE NY in 2009 at his New York gallery’s booth. I loved the work immediately, I saw real genius in the union of drawing and language, and it was super smart and funny too. After getting home to L.A. I reached out to Bill on Facebook and showed him who we were and that I wanted to show him in L.A. We had a phone call that went gangbusters and I agreed to fly him out for a getting-to-know-you thing. We did that, and the seeds for his 2009 show No One Here Gets Out Alive were born. Five months later I had a hit show with him and it felt great. The Los Angeles Times raved about it, Artforum covered it, and both Bill and I were delighted. We’re going to do it again October 2012.

CJ: I like what you said about being “all in” and that half-measures don’t cut it. Could you talk about commitment and how that influences the way you run your program?

AKT: Yeah, that’s one of the best things that happened on a personal level since I started the gallery. I had a fine corporate career, I had fun, I did a lot of things very well, but I never really wanted to do it forever. The older I got I kept asking myself pesky questions like “Is this the work of a lifetime?” And the answer was a resounding “no,” over and over again. I know that questions like that are fundamentally a luxury, but I couldn’t keep the misgivings at bay. I turned down the brass-ring route in corporate life, and after doing that I kinda knew I had to disengage, it was just when and how. It took a solid year for me to work up to it, but I resigned Microsoft in July 2008, moved to L.A. in August, got the space in October, and opened in November 2008. And since opening the gallery my approach to work is totally different. Whereas I used to be the king of the all-nighter, now I’m always asking myself if I am doing everything I can do, given my resources, expertise, and time, and this feels really good. When you do your very best you’re just like hey, come check it out, I hope you like it. I sure do.harlie James is passionate about art. This becomes apparent when you speak to him; his speech becomes hurried with excitement as he talks about an artist or the latest developments with his Chinatown gallery. What he refers to as a “passion project,” the Charlie James Gallery opened in 2008 after James quit his job at Microsoft and moved to Los Angeles. This move proved to be a great decision, as Los Angeles embraced both James and his visual aesthetics.

Charlie and I spoke about the importance of cultivating a gallery’s identity, participating in art fairs, building relationships, and “sticky” artwork.

Andrew K. Thompson: You got into art dealing in a unique manner. Could you expand on your background history? Where did you come from? What got you into the art game?

Charlie James: Art kind of ran in my family, but two uncles in particular are to blame: one is a distinguished art historian who took me to shows that were formative for me as a kid, like the Rosenquist retrospective at the Denver Art Museum in the early ‘80s; another uncle is a maniac outsider artist whose work I love. Taken together they got art into my life early and kept it there. From these beginnings I pursued an academic track in literature and literary theory for a while in the early ‘90s until I was sidetracked by gainful employment. Fast forward twelve years and I was ready to disengage from what was a nice career in software and consulting and dedicate myself to creative projects, thus the gallery.

AKT: You said certain dealers were key to your development as a collector. Can you talk about one that inspired you to form your own gallery?

CJ: Lots of dealers were great to work with, but let me restrict my answer to Catharine Clark and her program in particular. I was engaged and excited by that program because I saw a union of form, commentary, and concept, supported by a dealer who was very generous and engaging in person. So once excited by the work I saw at Catharine’s, I was able to get even more into it resulting from her openness, even keenness, for dialogue with prospective collectors like me. In other words, there was no hazing, buy-your-way-in exclusivity that many people find so alienating (including me). Quite the contrary, really, and as a result I got hooked on collecting quickly. Without question I have tried to exhibit the same level of openness and engagement that Catharine extended to me as I’ve built my own gallery.

AKT: Talk about the process of cultivating your gallery’s aesthetics.

CJ: From an overarching perspective, a gallery’s aesthetic forms over the span of its exhibitions. It accretes as the shows build on one another. I think the gallery has exhibited a pretty strong focus over these first three years, while (I hope) not becoming repetitive or predictable. I spent the first year of the gallery putting on shows that I hoped would signal the aesthetic values of the gallery, showcasing a lot of artists that I had either collected or admired. We have to remember that I started the gallery from scratch. The only thing I’d done in the art world before opening a gallery was buy art, which as it happens is a good thing to have experience with, but it’s only one aspect of the business. I offered a lot of fairly established emerging artists from outside L.A. shows during that first year, and this helped us immeasurably I think. It allowed us to begin with a demonstrative level of quality and brought lots of people and energy toward the program.

AKT: Will you talk about art as a means of communication and a shared experience?

CJ: A key formative experience for me was an aesthetic theory class I took with the philosophy chair at CU Boulder back in my undergraduate years. In that class I learned about the hilariously circular but authoritative institutional theory of art, and many other theories that sought to describe what art is or should do. Among these theories was Tolstoy’s theory of art. For Tolstoy, art was a means of congregation and edification for people. He was a pretty heavy moralist but I thought that if you just substituted less judgmental language, e.g. communication instead of congregation, experience instead of edification, then you’ve got a pretty fine set of values for what art should do or be. When I was younger in undergrad and grad school I loved all the abstruse theoretical stuff, I really did, but as I’ve gotten older I increasingly value access and experience, and I don’t have a lot of time (literally) for theoretical play — I look more for outcomes and lightbulbs turning on, etc. A concession to age or the beginnings of wisdom I don’t know, but I value work that engages and reveals. This is not to say that I value simplicity or demand immediacy, but I want a way in, you know? I’ll work for it, but I need to connect with the work.

AKT: What drew you to Chinatown in Los Angeles? Why not go to New York, Chicago, or San Francisco

CJ: Why L.A.? Well I guess I considered New York briefly, but really I knew it was going to be L.A. all the way. Despite being born in Manhattan I recoiled from the financial realities of starting from scratch in NYC, and I’ve been to some degree Westernized — meaning I like having a car, playing tennis, sunshine, etc. New York’s great but it’s a huge pain in the ass too. I tried transposing my life into New York terms and it looked like a quick financial bleedout with little personal peace. Meanwhile L.A. felt ascendant, which it certainly is. The contemporary art scene in this town is growing faster than anywhere else and it’s one of the big four cities along with New York, London, and Berlin. Net, net, it was kind of a no-brainer, and I couldn’t be happier to be here doing what I’m doing.

Why Chinatown? I’d been coming down to L.A. about three to four times a year for several years before I finally quit Miscrosoft and went for it with the gallery. I loved Chinatown — it was by far the most atmospheric gallery district and it was home to many of the best galleries in the city. It’s also inexpensive relative to other neighborhoods and very well covered by the press. I looked at other districts but nothing really challenged Chinatown.

AKT: You’ve moved into the space that Peres Projects was in. Could you talk about the importance of that space and the importance of staying in Chinatown?

CJ: On March 3, we opened our first show in our new space at 969 Chung King Road, the space formerly and famously occupied by Peres Projects. I love this new space. It’s a lot bigger than our first space, it’s got this fabulous exterior, and it’s been home to some absolutely legendary contemporary art shows over the past eight to ten years. I feel like I hit the jackpot really. I’m a big admirer of what Javier Peres achieved. I consider his program a fundamentally “activist” program, in that it directly reflected his values, making no pretenses to balance, and I think consequently it was very successful. Though aesthetically our values are distinct I feel a level of kinship . . . in that my gallery is basically an expression of what I consider important and beautiful, etc. I’m glad to be moving in there, that’s for sure.

AKT: A lot of people bemoan the art fair experience, but you have a different take on them. Can you explain why you like art fairs?

CJ: Art fairs! Well, for the dealer starting from scratch there can be no better friend than art fairs, as I see it. Art fairs have been absolutely key to the success we’ve enjoyed so far. If you think about it, art fairs are kind of meritocratic — it’s one of the few places where everyone’s programs are laid side by side for all to see at one time. Relationships are still key of course, but when people don’t know you but are attracted to the work in your booth, when they get stuck to work in your booth, this is a huge win for a young gallery. Transparently, a lot of our revenue comes from art fairs — more than brick and mortar for sure. Two decisions have helped my gallery a lot in its first three years: locating on Chung King Road in Chinatown and doing lots of art fairs. Chinatown brought us some great relationships and it definitely brought us a lot of press, which has been key to our development, and the art fairs deliver relationships and they deliver sales. No bucks? No Buck Rogers. This isn’t a vanity project, we have to sell work to stay vital and to keep moving forward, and art fairs have helped immeasurably with that. We do consistently well with them. One of the keys for us at fairs is to show work that stops people from moving past and that rewards their continued attention. I call this having work that’s “sticky.” Thinking back to your question about aesthetic values, we value accessibility, so it’s easy for our work to stop folks and engage them. Works out well. Additionally, we always try to curate our booths and I think we’re successful at this. Art fair booths are mini-shows and we rarely just do hodgepodge — we like to build a thread through the booth, even with multiple artists on show.

AKT: Will you discuss the importance of building relationships in the art world? With artists, with collectors.

CJ: Relationships are everything in the art world. It’s key to success in every pursuit, but in the art world it’s literally everything, I think. Artists come first; artists bring other artists and they bring collectors and curators as well. My gallery is the sum of the artists I show, and in our first three years it’s the artists who have really defined the gallery. I have a role too, but it’s the artists we’ve exhibited that have brought definition to the program and attention to the program. As a young gallery we definitely try to make sure that artists, writers, collectors, even browsers have a good experience working with us. We don’t do the exclusivity thing much, we like to be welcoming and make new friends. Part of this is personal. I didn’t start the gallery to freeze folks out, I want to be expansive and create positive stir. And have fun, of course. And I think it’s also good business.

AKT: Can you describe a real positive experience you had starting relationships? A time when you immediately hit it off with someone and it led to a strong working relationship?

CJ: William Powhida. I saw a small drawing at PULSE NY in 2009 at his New York gallery’s booth. I loved the work immediately, I saw real genius in the union of drawing and language, and it was super smart and funny too. After getting home to L.A. I reached out to Bill on Facebook and showed him who we were and that I wanted to show him in L.A. We had a phone call that went gangbusters and I agreed to fly him out for a getting-to-know-you thing. We did that, and the seeds for his 2009 show No One Here Gets Out Alive were born. Five months later I had a hit show with him and it felt great. The Los Angeles Times raved about it, Artforum covered it, and both Bill and I were delighted. We’re going to do it again October 2012.

CJ: I like what you said about being “all in” and that half-measures don’t cut it. Could you talk about commitment and how that influences the way you run your program?

AKT: Yeah, that’s one of the best things that happened on a personal level since I started the gallery. I had a fine corporate career, I had fun, I did a lot of things very well, but I never really wanted to do it forever. The older I got I kept asking myself pesky questions like “Is this the work of a lifetime?” And the answer was a resounding “no,” over and over again. I know that questions like that are fundamentally a luxury, but I couldn’t keep the misgivings at bay. I turned down the brass-ring route in corporate life, and after doing that I kinda knew I had to disengage, it was just when and how. It took a solid year for me to work up to it, but I resigned Microsoft in July 2008, moved to L.A. in August, got the space in October, and opened in November 2008. And since opening the gallery my approach to work is totally different. Whereas I used to be the king of the all-nighter, now I’m always asking myself if I am doing everything I can do, given my resources, expertise, and time, and this feels really good. When you do your very best you’re just like hey, come check it out, I hope you like it. I sure do.

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