New York’s Favorite Non-Gallery, Valentine’s Day With the Power Lesbians Playing Backgammon, and More Juicy Art World Gossip

Plus, which artist got kicked out of a party at Casino? And who threw the best party of the week?

James Cardoso Shaeffer. Photo by Annie Armstrong.

Every week, Artnet News brings you Wet Paint, a gossip column of original scoops. If you have a tip, email Annie Armstrong at [email protected].


Have you been hearing an awful lot about the non-gallery gallery that appears to have a death grip on the New York art scene’s attention lately? For several months now, art types all seem to have the same glimmer in their eyes when they ask me if I’ve stopped by Gems. I have, indeed. The next thing people will say, somewhat conspiratorially, is usually something along the lines of, “So… have you been able to figure out what Gems really even is?” 

I’ll back up. Situated on a corner in Chinatown near Chatham Square sits… something. And inside that art-filled something sits a bespectacled, mustachioed man named James Cardoso Shaeffer, who is likely listening to classical music on a vintage record player.

“I don’t even know what I am,” he joked over dumplings, across the street at DimSumGoGo, on a recent chilly afternoon. “I don’t say I’m an art advisor, I say I’m an art dealer. But I don’t have a gallery!” Gems does not represent artists, it does not take part in art fairs, and its shows tend to be unusual. While it does function as a commercial space, most of the work it presents seems more interested in being an idea than a commodity. “Showroom is how I say it on Instagram,” he continued. “I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too.”

Since he can’t quite explain his work, let’s see what Wet Paint can do.

Cardoso Shaeffer has held positions at many of the industry’s most respected galleries, including James Fuentes, Simon Lee, and Greene Naftali, but he really got into art at 16, when he left his hometown in rural North Dakota to visit the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and was mesmerized by Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual art behemoth, Fountain (1917)

“When I first saw that, I just thought it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen, because it made zero sense to me,” he said. “It sucked me in and made me want to know more about it. How do you justify this thing’s existence? Which was just how I felt. How do I justify my own existence?!” 

That sent him to art school, where he earned a degree in sculpture—an admittedly misguided move that at least allowed him to read a lot of art history. He caught the dealing bug during a brief stint living in Berlin and working for the gallery Croy Nielsen. “That’s when I realized I needed to become a dealer,” he said. “There was the fast pace of curation in a gallery, versus hitting all the roadblocks of academia.”

The interior of Gems at 2 East Broadway. Photo by Annie Armstrong.

He moved back to New York in 2014, cutting his teeth with Fuentes for two years before London dealer Simon Lee noticed his knack for curating scrappy shows that united up-and-coming artists with historical names. 

“Let me put it this way, the price point averaged around $50,000 at James Fuentes, and all the sudden I was looking at prices of, like, $2.5 million,” he said. “We were all surprised I was there, and I was expecting to be fired every day.” He survived, and at Lee’s now-defunct Upper East Side space paired, say, a Torbjørn Rødland photo with a Brancusi sculpture.

Next up was a short stop at the powerhouse Greene Naftali. “I wanted to know how to sell, like, a John Knight sculpture!” he said. And he did, but also learned his “blind spots.” He didn’t have a touch for the parental aspect of artist management, and parted ways with the gallery after about six months.

“It shook me up,” he explained. “But I had time to be like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ”

After nine months in that dark night of the soul, he decided to advise clients as his base income, with the more heady ambition being to curate shows with complete autonomy in an abandoned jewelry store on Canal Street. His wife, Danielle Cardoso Shaeffer (a director at Gagosian, who is currently responsible for organizing Jamian Juliano-Villani‘s upcoming solo show at the gallery), came up with the name Gems in honor of the space’s past. He kept it when he moved to his current location in October.


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Cardoso Shaeffer doesn’t rely on sales to support Gems, which was helpful when a (rather unsalable) massive plastic inflatable wave by Gedi Sibony occupied the space for a few months. In fact, he seems a little embarrassed about how successful his upcoming show of paintings by Edith Deyerling might be: “God, then I’d actually have to be a gallery!”

Why wouldn’t he want that? “I was thinking about this actually: It’s not that the gallery model is broken,” he said. “It just doesn’t work for people my size. Hauser & Wirth is still cleaning up, but it’s different for the little guys.”

In any case, Hauser & Wirth has certainly never done what he is doing this Saturday. As part of his current group show, “Landscapes,” pianist Beyza Yazgan will perform “In a Landscape,” a nine-minute epic by John Cage, on a rented stand-up piano in the gallery for six hours straight.

I’ll see you there. 


Photo by Annie Armstrong.

It delights me to report that, after eight years, the Lesbian and Bisexual Backgammon League is going strong. Last night, the venerable group of girls, gays, and theys congregated on the third floor of dealer Stefania Bortolami’s building on Walker Street in Tribeca to celebrate Valentine’s Day over white wine and a round or two of their game of choice.

Bortolami herself has been a regular champion over the years I’ve attended the league as a spectator, but was bested at last summer’s tournament by tech entrepreneur and fellow original member Nicole Ripka, who took home almost $1,000. This time, Ripka ceded the opportunity to defend her title and served as treasurer and gamekeeper, collecting the 40ish players’ $30 buy-in. “Alright settle down,” she silenced the congregation. “Get out your Venmos, the league is beginning!”

“And if you can’t afford it, Stefania will pay!” shouted dealer Ellie Rines, of the gallery 56 Henry, who was clad in Valentine’s red fluffy kitten heels.

The first game was played by Bortolami and Rines, with artist Kayode Ojo, collector Anastasiya Siro, and a handful of others in the audience.

“I’m delighted because Ellie and Stefania are some of the brightest human beings you can spend an evening with!” said artist Rachel Rossin, when I asked her about her decision to spend part of her Valentine’s Day with the league. “I mean, what’s more fun than hanging out with them?”

Agreed. And others apparently felt that way, too. The turnout seemed to be a bit quieter than that of previous editions, but many recurring competitors turned up like Art Intelligence Global director Rick Cappelazzo (nephew of the unfortunately absent Amy Cappelazzo, a recurring player), interior designer Hester Hodde, Alexander Gray director Lily Snyder, and painter Jenna Gribbon. Newcomers included painter Willa Wassermann, designer Elsa Nilert, and a plucky tech investor who confessed that she had consulted ChatGPT to give her playing strategies.

The original members of the crew were welcoming to the new faces, but you still have to be brave to go up against players who are so deeply involved in the game that they have their own bespoke tables. When Ellen Swieskowski, the founder of the app Seesaw, ambled up the steps, she flashed her spruce blue snakeskin piece. “My wife and I decided not to have a traditional Valentine’s Day dinner this year,” she said. “Instead of sharing the coq au vin, we’re sharing the experience of losing at backgammon to Stefania Bortolami.”



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Kiko Kostadinov’s fashion brand Otto958 is launching a collaboration with Levi’s during the Felix Art Fair in Los Angeles in a few weeks, and I can’t wait to spend the last of my hard-earned rubles on a new pair of jeans… I’ve yet to see a more concise indicator of the state of culture in New York than reading that you can order Grubhub from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s former studio in NoHo, now that it’s Angelina Jolie’s retail space… Artist Farah Al Qasimi‘s energetic and cheeky photograph Bird Market (The Blue One Escaped) has been acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art… Apparently artist Tony Cox got ousted from the Interview magazine party at Casino for a sudden performance, despite adulation from the party’s attendees…  Earl Cave, the burgeoning actor and progeny of musician Nick Cave, seems to be a big Alberto Giacometti fan, according to his Perfectly Imperfect essay


Today, just to keep you all on your toes, I am introducing a new section to the column. Each week, I will announce the one art world gathering that was the place to be in the last seven days. This could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps a drink was thrown! Perhaps an ugly run-in occurred! Or, for the inaugural pick, it could just be because it was well-attended and the snack choices were superb.

Thus, I’d like to award Gagosian’s Tom Lee, who threw his annual “Non-Denominational Holiday Invitational” on the Lunar New Year in New York, with succulent dumplings from the always fabulous North Dumpling. Artists like Josh Reames, Sam Jablon, Blair Whiteford, Cameron Welch, and Pablo Barba noshed as they ushered in the year of the dragon. In case you missed it: Lee’s party is one where you come to gossip around his working fireplace(!), and stay for his secret cookie recipe.

See you all next week.

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