Dealer Spotlight: Cristin Tierney

Cristin Tierney talks art, artists, and toothpick sculptures.

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Cristin Tierney, owner and director of the Cristin Tierney Gallery.
Cristin Tierney, owner and director of the Cristin Tierney Gallery.
Cristin Tierney, owner and director of the Cristin Tierney Gallery. Photo: John Muggenborg.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery. Photo: John Muggenborg.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery. Photo: John Muggenborg.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery. Photo: John Muggenborg.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery. Photo: John Muggenborg.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery.
Installation view of Meet Me Halfway at Cristin Tierney Gallery. Photo: John Muggenborg.

When you meet Cristin Tierney, owner of the eponymous gallery, you can tell she is the real deal. She loves art and the intellectual rigor it inspires. It’s as simple as that and her sincerity is refreshing in an environment where sometimes authenticity is lacking. Talking to Tierney, reminds us that art, while it may not be essential to survival, it is absolutely essential to the human spirit.

How did you become interested in art? Did you study it in school?
I was always interested in art, and, in high school, I took some painting and drawing classes. Actually, I have a funny story. When I was in the second grade, they gave us a box of toothpicks and a little thing of glue and said, “Okay, everybody is going to make a sculpture,” and everybody was sort of following the square of this piece, putting one toothpick here and one toothpick there, and making little houses. I took all of the toothpicks, coated them with glue, and made this weird crazy mass thing of toothpicks and created this sort of abstract work. It completely freaked my second grade teacher out. I thought she would be very pleased, but she was not. I think she saw it as angry or something. She asked me about it and I said, “You asked me to make a sculpture, and this is what sculptures look like.” So, I guess I always had some of that in there.

When I was studying abroad in France, art and art history were very integrated into all of our classes. If you took an art history class,  you talked about it in every other class, too, and I really came back from there thinking, “I am not going to go to law school. I am going to go to a graduate program in art history.”

I think everybody who ends up in this world has some moment, some teacher, or some art program that enabled them to make [art]. Those stories are important because they do drive home that if you don’t have an art education at a young age and you don’t have exposure to art at a young age, you are far less likely to discover it as a grown up. You live a shallow life without it.

Why do you think that?
Because culture is important. Culture makes you a bigger, broader thinker. It gives you empathy. It creates the humanistic side of you, and all of those things contribute to a better world. Culture is what makes us civilized. It’s what develops us as higher beings on this planet for better or worse, and we need it. It’s important.

What were you doing before you opened your gallery, and what made you decide to open your own gallery?
I was doing advisory, and I still work with some of my clients doing advisory. I had been doing that since about 2000, and I enjoyed it. With certain clients, I enjoy it very much still. But you reach a certain point with an advisory firm, where in order to grow it and continue developing it from a strictly business standpoint, you have to expand the client base, you have to start expanding your staff and doing things differently.

In 2008, at the end of the year, I was looking at the profit and loss, and, out of four dozen clients, there were four or five I had never met, I had no relationship with them other than a transactional one. And I just thought, this is not interesting to me. By early 2009, my office was empty. It was depressing, but also there was this great old building with all of this empty space. So we had these pop-up shows as a morale booster, and I really liked it. Intellectually, it was a very different thing, and I started thinking about what it would be like to do this instead of just doing the advisory. And then in 2010, an opportunity arose: My first space was around the corner, and then, an amazing rental opportunity came up on the ground floor, and I took it.

How do you choose the artists that you work with?
There is no one way to do that. But a lot of the things that I look at or have shown have resulted from connections with other artists. I think artists are an incredible resource when it comes to forming a gallery program. I mean, it happens in a lot of other ways, too, but artists connecting me to other artists has been the biggest way.

What is your favorite part of working with artists, or is it very individual, differing from artist to artist?
Everybody is different. Some of it is the meaningful conversations. When you are really working with an artist, and really representing them in that sort of fuller sense, it’s not just about selling some stuff for them. It’s about putting together a plan. That strategic thinking and that level of development—I love that. I think that when we’re in sync and putting together a great plan and things are happening, that is pretty wonderful.

How did you become interested in video art and why do you think it is important?
I believe that the moving image is a quintessentially 21st-century medium in the same way that photography was incredibly important to the development of art in the 20th century. My husband and I have always collected a little, and we started buying video and film 15 years ago. Again, partly because I was looking at a lot of it, I felt like I understood it and had something to learn about it. It was very engaging to me on a purely intellectual level.

Then, when I was shaping and getting ready to open the gallery, I met Peter Campus, the grandfather of all video art. His video installations from the 1970s are amazing—Three Transitions is one of the most iconic works of the 20th century. So, I went out to Long Island, where he lives, and met with him, and we really clicked. I liked his work. I liked him. He liked me. We’ve had a good working relationship. That acts as a kind of anchor, and enables you to have a really good grounding.

Was there anything that Peter Campus said when you first met him that really got you hooked? Or an idea that he had that really struck you?
It wasn’t a specific phrase or anything, it was more the way that he spoke about his work. He is actually quite eloquent. He can be a rabble-rouser when he wants to, but he is a very intelligent man, and I was incredibly impressed by that. His new work is quite different [from the stuff he created in the 1970s], and I love the way he talked about it. Having grown older and developed as an artist, there was point at which, instead of always pointing the camera on himself, he started pointing the camera away from himself. The way he talks about his whole body of work is really quite wonderful because if you are a young artist today, I think there is so much pressure to be selling, and Peter’s trajectory is not at all like that. He is an artist who talks about it having taken decades to find his voice. To be that way as an artist, to have the degree of success he has had, by not doing it that other way, I hope other artists who are a generation younger look at that and are inspired to go their own way.

Did you ever have an existential crisis? Did you ever say, “Why am I doing art?”
Not really. I have had moments where I was like, “I don’t know if this is what I really want to do.” I miss teaching. I loved teaching, but I really didn’t want to be in academia, and I realized that early on. But it wasn’t a crisis. I knew I wanted to be in the art market and that meant giving up teaching. Somebody once asked me, “What about all of this keeps you up at night?” And I was like, “Nothing keep me up at night.” I guess that is how I know that I like what I do. I sleep pretty well even on a bad day. I can’t imaging leaving the art world.

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when you opened your gallery?
The best advice I got was not when I first opened my gallery, but when I had been in existence for a little longer and was talking to a fellow gallerist, somebody who I admire greatly and who I think has had an amazing career. She said to me, “Program: Really think about program, and it’s not going to happen instantly but you need to think curatorially, you need to think intellectually about those kinds of connections.” Although I had hosted some pretty great shows in the first couple of years, thinking about it in that integrated way, I had done it in the abstract, but it wasn’t something that I made part of the day to day. And now, we spend a lot more time talking about that.

I think that is one of the most important things that anyone ever brought me to was this idea of a holistic program, and don’t just assume that everyone will understand the themes. Have people curate shows that demonstrate these themes, and do things to constantly drive that home.

Do you feel that it is the duty of a gallerist to be reading critical materials, or do you think people get by without having an in-depth knowledge of the criticism and theory around art?
That’s a really good question. Some do, some don’t. With some people, I think that it is pretty apparent that they haven’t read almost anything ever. I read the stuff written about our artists. Some of it resonates and some of it doesn’t. But sometimes you reread something and you are looking at a different body of work and you go, “Oh, I didn’t get that five years ago, but now I totally get what he was saying. I totally misjudged that.” The old way of processing information, of doing art criticism, is slowly disappearing. Things like art news content are evolving. I tend to think that more reading is better, but you know, I am an intellectual snob.

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