Angry Art Dealer Schachter Builds West Village ‘Bilbao’

Forty-year-old art dealer Kenny Schachter took in the Spartan splendor of his new Greenwich Village art gallery and smiled an infectious smile. Uptown in Chelsea, and on the East Side, things were looking grim. From Mr. Schachter’s perspective, the mood reminded him of the early 90’s, when scores of galleries went bankrupt and hundreds of artists changed careers.

And yet, for a guy who just spent a few hundred thousand to build a custom-designed gallery space-in his home, no less-the clean-cut and bespectacled Mr. Schachter seemed energized by the bad juju he felt would soon hang over the art world.

“When there are no opportunities, that’s when all the great things happen,” he told The Observer .

Mr. Schachter spoke from experience: His first big hit of New York success came during the art market’s last belly flop, the early 90’s. While the much of the art establishment floundered, Mr. Schachter flourished on the fringes, curating roving shows of new talent in often-desolate spaces in Soho and Chelsea. He was one of the first to show Janine Antoni and Cecily Brown, and his unorthodox methods earned him a New York Times Magazine cover story about the “do-it-yourself” art world in 1996.

But with the art-market boom of the late 1990’s, Mr. Schachter’s contrarian ways became de rigueur in the mad, market-wide scramble to feed the sudden spike in demand for art. “When I first started, there were no galleries in Brooklyn, there were no galleries in Chelsea. It was a recession, and I was literally one of the only people looking at unsolicited material, because there was no way to get a foothold into the system,” he said. “What I realize now is that my shows and what I was doing became utterly indistinguishable from what 250 galleries in Chelsea were doing.”

Now that market conditions threaten to turn inclement, Mr. Schachter sees opportunity once more. But though he wore black track-suit pants and high-tech Nike trainers to his interview, his second act won’t be distinguished by the self-described “hit-and-run” strategy that dominated the first. For him, the future is a fixed point: his very first gallery space-designed in metal and concrete by the 70’s performance-artist-turned-architect Vito Acconci-located in the former playroom of his Charles Lane townhouse, where he lives with his wife, Ilona Rich, the designer daughter of songwriter Denise Rich, and his four children.

Grandiose Terms

Mr. Schachter calls the space conTEMPorary, because he’s agreed with his wife that it will only stay open a few years, until he finds the space for another, bigger project of his. Yet he clearly intends for it to make waves in the art world. “I’m speaking in grandiose terms but,” he said, “I think it will turn the gallery world upside down.”

The gallery opened in June, and in the spirit of his early art-world ventures, Mr. Schachter had the art/fashion collective As Four perform at the opening. Roughly 1,000 people came, including filmmaker Wes Anderson, “It girl” Chloë Sevigny and Whitney curator Lawrence Rinder. Soon afterward, W magazine wrote a piece about the opening, with a picture that made Mr. Schachter look grown-up and serious in a light-blue button-down shirt-a big change from the white T-shirt emblazoned with “Virgin Gorda” that he wore to this interview.

The show itself was a typical Schachter mix, from the dubious (blurry photographs from Imitation of Christ designer Tara Subkoff) to the edgy (videos by Bjørn Melhus, who plays all the roles in a mock talk-show video that’s dubbed with the actual voices from episodes of Maury Povich’s syndicated program) to the classic (architectural models and a 1935 lamp by Frederick Kiesler, whose design for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery inspired Mr. Schachter’s space). And as Mr. Schachter noted: “Everything’s for sale. Everything’s always for sale.”

Though the gallery space was still not finished on July 25, Mr. Schachter bounded around, pointing out its niftiest features. Toward the entrance, there was a gray desk made of rough steel that literally branched off from the entrance wall toward the inside, its various winding parts breaking into a bench and some storage space. The ceiling of the gallery, in the same omnipresent gray steel, curved toward the middle of the room to become a screen for video installations. Beneath it, vertical wall-sized panels of metal screens with eyelets could flip up, as Mr. Schachter eagerly demonstrated, and turn into seats or display shelves. Taking into account an upstairs office, the gallery amounted to 1,200 square feet of cramped contemporary space.

“This is like taking the outside of Bilbao and taking it inside,” he said.

‘A Dead Thing’

Mr. Schachter apparently intends for his gallery to have the same revolutionary effect on New York’s art world as the Guggenheim Bilbao has on the eyes. “I feel that the [Barbara] Gladstones of the world, even the Matthew Markses, that’s a dead thing,” he said, describing his own plans for a new type of gallery. “I feel like galleries in the future are going to be of a whole other shape and form …. I’m hoping that another generation sees [my space] and goes on to do things that I never could have thought of.”

How exactly Mr. Schachter intends to accomplish this, he didn’t say. Apart from the W piece, his latest effort has so far prompted a mixed review from The Times. “Whether such an aggressively sculptural environment will be good for displaying art is debatable,” the piece read. “But it is exciting to see someone dare to think differently.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Schachter certainly seems to know what he doesn’t want to be. Despite his hyperactive enthusiasm and omnipresent smile, he didn’t mince words when it came to other denizens of the art world. Whitney Museum director Maxwell Anderson? “He wouldn’t know a piece of contemporary art if it hit him over the head. He runs around with his wife squeezed like a sardine into these dresses with her boobs hanging out. It’s disgraceful.”

Gallery owner Barbara Gladstone? “She reminds me of that movie Michael Moore did, Roger & Me- it’s like you could spend three days trying to find her in her own gallery.”

Guggenheim Museum director Tom Krens? “I think he’s a genius. I only wish he liked art more.”

White Cube gallery owner Jay Joplin? “He’s the snobbiest of the snobs.”

Mr. Schachter also called painter Damian Loeb’s work “utter shit,” and lambasted Robert Ryman and Peter Halley for catering to collectors by painting in the same consistent style for the past 25 years, and knocked Gavin Brown (of the eponymously named gallery, Gavin Brown’s enterprise), for “priding himself on being some obnoxious, arrogant, condescending person.”

(Mr. Brown replied: “I don’t know what I could have done to offend him. We barely know each other.” But he added: “I hope everything goes well with his gallery.”)

Mr. Schachter’s readiness to take on the small, unforgiving universe of the New York art world might explain why, when things started to dry up after he hit a self-described “zenith” in the late 1990’s-nabbing a Rockefeller grant, money from the Dutch government, and a show of his own art at the Sandra Gering Gallery-he found few sympathetic shoulders to cry on. The Times piece had, after all, provided him a pulpit from which to scorch the city’s art scene. Among other things, he called it “small” and “provincial” and complained of its “exclusivity”-all the things he still harps on to this day.

Mini Midlife Crisis

So when the 90’s ended, Mr. Schachter found himself desperately trying to get his shows reviewed and find cheap spaces-to no avail. “It became such a huge market; everybody opened a gallery,” he said. The situation was such that he briefly toyed with the idea of moving to London and, in the spring of 2000, had a temporary show there entitled I Hate New York in a rented-out space.

The opening drew local rock stars and television personalities, but Mr. Schachter sold very few pieces. The experience culminated in his being violently robbed of his camera, computer equipment and phones while he was manning the show. He came back to New York in late 2000 and put together a show celebrating 10 years as a dealer. Ms. Antoni and Ms. Brown were among the artists featured, but still, he said, he got no reviews. Shortly afterwards, he had a crack-up. “At this point, I was having a mini midlife crisis,” he said. “I started drinking, and I was so depressed I was going to quit the art world all together.” By that time, the Williamsburg gallery scene was thriving, artist-run spaces had become commonplace, and Mr. Schachter started to feel the movement he’d helped create had been corrupted. It was emulating the four-white-walls model again, he felt, in another location, and trying to create another exclusive art bastion.

“I felt like what I was doing-the moving around the different locations-that was a novel thing in the beginning,” he said. “But now I felt, like, so stale.”

Attack of the Blob

So Mr. Schachter, who had worked briefly as a lawyer, stockbroker and traveling tie salesman for Nino Cerruti’s grandson-“the most degrading existential dilemma”-before becoming an art dealer, considered even more briefly a post-art career in real estate. Serendipitously, in January of 2001, he met German real-estate developers interested in setting up a real-estate venture around a gallery. Mr. Schachter decided to team up with them to create a large space that would be both gallery and restaurant-whose design quickly took the shape, in Mr. Schachter’s word, of “a blob.” When no space could be found for the blob, Mr. Schachter decided to convert his kids’ playroom, which also served as his study, while he kept looking.

“At first, [my wife] pretty much off-the-cuff agreed to it,” Mr. Schachter said of Ms. Rich. “Then, when I had to move my office and started to encroach the place, she became progressively less complacent until she was pretty much at my throat. Then I explained to her that Vito’s space was in steel, and she was like, ‘I hate that-I hate that sensibility.’ Now, of course, she loves it, but if she was ever in that space, it would be painted stripes.”

Asked how other dealers had responded to the space, he responded with a characteristic shrug.

“As long as they don’t feel economically threatened by what I’m doing, they won’t care,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Good, good,’ but they’ll go back to their little white thing and try to hawk the same paintings they’ve been trying to hawk to the same people over and over and over. But I don’t care. I’m not going to stop. I’m always yap-yap-yapping.