From Artists to Gallerists: How Jamian Juliano-Villani and Billy Grant are Challenging New York’s Art Scene

O'Flaherty's on Avenue A is part of an explosion of artist-led galleries popping up around the globe.

The need for alternatives to the traditional commercial gallery model has always been evident and has never been more obvious, given the emergence of the mega-galleries of the world. The New York art scene in the 1950s saw significant shifts brought about by artist-led co-op spaces that paved the way for installation and performance-based art forms in the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, these were often met with reluctance by well-connected commercial galleries, challenging the lastingness of certain forms and models. Rising rents and inflation have further endangered the survival of artist-led spaces, which historically have been culturally crucial—willing to push boundaries, challenge market forces and initiate critical discussions in the art community.

‘The Cafe’s main space. Courtesy O’Flaherty’s

O’Flaherty’s, an Avenue A art destination that’s equal parts gallery and experiment and meta art piece, is one of these spaces. Its mission is entirely uninterested in conforming to art market trends but is open to collaboration, dialogue and community building. Past initiatives included an open call that let anyone present their artwork in the gallery space, and the opening of the 1,100-work show was just as chaotic as you might imagine. Now on view at O’Flaherty’s is The Cafe, an exhibition/eatery mashup featuring a selection of works by George Segal, Brandon Ndife, Catherine Murphy and Cory Arcangel, among others.

Observer chatted with Jamian Juliano-Villani and Billy Grant, the artist co-founders of O’Flaherty’s, last month as they set up their latest show, The Cafe. The pair got the ball rolling.

Jamian Juliano-Villani: The menu is really, really good. Billy, tell them about your sandwich.

Billy Grant: It’s called the ‘Eye-Opener,’ and it’s got a slice of red onion, a slice of feta, a slice of heirloom tomato and it’s on a plain bagel.

That sounds delicious.

Jamian: The best one is the ‘Wake the Fuck Up Soup.’

Sofia: Chicken broth, hot chili oil, sesame oil and ginger hot shot, served in a teapot.

Billy: It’s on the menu all day.

I’m interested in O’Flaherty’s as an artist-run space that is challenging art-market forces and making things feel as though they are…

Jamian: Actually real art in real life.

You were evicted from the previous gallery space—is it increasingly difficult to find spaces in New York?

Jamian: We were opportunistic and found a cheap place during the pandemic; then we got priced out. Then we got a huge space we can barely afford, so it puts fire and ingenuity under our asses.

Billy: We wanted a place with character and weird charm. We’re still discovering its potential, but we envision it becoming a cafe. It feels like the right direction for us.

Jamian: It used to be a stand-up comedy club, so it was designed by comedians; which was a fucking nightmare. It was also an independent movie theatre. It’s incredibly choppy but cinematic.

Billy: There are exit signs every two feet. There are too many fire codes and there are sprinklers everywhere. The whole space doesn’t make sense, and we don’t know what we’re doing, so it’s perfect.

George Segal’s ‘Woman in a White Wicker Rocker’, 1984. Courtesy O’Flaherty’s

How do you program for space, and what are you looking for in each show that you put on?

Jamian: First and foremost, we are humans. We try to pretend not to look too much at what other artists are making, even though we do. We are highly critical. At the same time, we value collaborators who are open-minded and willing to work flexibly with us because collaboration is essential for us. We need people who are on board with whatever fabulous ideas we’re trying to bring to fruition because our ultimate goal is to put on an outstanding show.

Billy: We don’t want other artists to completely alter their style or vision. Instead, we try to find a balance where they are flexible enough to allow us some creative freedom and feel comfortable with what we come up with. However, until the opening of the show, we may feel a bit uneasy and constantly defend our choices. In the end, it becomes your responsibility to discuss and explain our artistic decisions to others, and over time, this constant pressure can drive you a little crazy.

Catherine Murphy’s ‘Cathy’, 2001. Courtesy O’Flaherty’s

You have known each other for a long time. What was the driving force that brought you to start O’Flaherty’s?

Jamian: We are both crazy, and we both like to work. He is the only other smart person I know. We try to pull bangers out of nowhere, and we like fear.  We both can drop everything and say “fuck it, let’s do something different.”

Billy: We often have to restrain ourselves when working with other people, but together we end up making something that we wouldn’t otherwise do.

Jamian: It would be really cool to do this full-time, but it’s a practice of restraint, too. It stems from our background in collaboration. In a way, all my paintings essentially embody a collaboration with various people.

SEE ALSO: New York Art Spaces Are Trying New Tactics to Get Visitors in the Door

How do you envision preserving spaces like yours—artist-run spaces that embrace risk-taking and experimentation? Looking ahead, what strategies do you believe can be implemented to safeguard these spaces for artists in urban centers?

Jamian: I’ve noticed in New York in a lot of galleries, that there seems to be a trend where traditional commercial galleries are starting to explore ideas and concepts similar to what we did with the Gelatin show or The Patriot show. It’s not that we were the first ones to ever do it, but we were some of the first people to do it in a big space, recently. People take risks and do these kinds of things all the time.

Billy: It’s important to consider the context of our previous work over the past 10 years. We have put in a lot of effort and dedication to experimenting with various artistic forms. If we were in a situation where we lacked resources to figure things out, we would still find a way to make it work, albeit in a more scrappy manner. It would probably be a bit crazier. You just need to really want to do something and find someone else a bit crazy who wants to do it with you, too.

Jamian: We’re new in this gallery game, but we’ve been doing shit in the art world together for probably 15 years. We can hate something and just look at each other and get it. When we work with artists, we have to make sure that they know they’re supposed to trip us up and vice versa. We’re like a monster truck, and we ask you if you want a ride.

Sven Sachsalber’s ‘Untitled (Schweiz)’, 2020 Courtesy O’Flaherty’s

It makes sense; you’ve got to be aligned with the artist.

Jamian: Totally. We just recently realized we don’t want to get to know artists we work with because we like people a lot. We found that by maintaining a professional boundary, we can navigate the challenging aspects of our work without personal emotions getting entangled.

Billy: It’s essential to maintain a level of professionalism and respect while valuing their artistry, recognizing that we are not family members but creative collaborators. Otherwise, we’d go crazy here. It’s fabulous. There has to be a little spark.

Jamian: The whole point is that we reinterpret. We’re not a platform; we’re like a picky orphanage.

Billy: No, we’re not here to make what they do make more sense. It’s like ‘Hey, you want to do something fucked up and get some attention?’ We’re not gonna give you much more, we’re not going to sell anything unless it’s good. The uglier it is, your eyes blur out and you take it all in a little bit softer. You’re like “I don’t wanna look at that floor,” so you look at the artwork and you’re like ‘I guess that’s okay.’

From Artists to Gallerists: How Jamian Juliano-Villani and Billy Grant are Challenging New York’s Art Scene