Dealer Harper Levine Shares His Recipe for Building a Five-Gallery Empire. Step One: Go to the Hamptons. Step Two: Call Richard Prince
Levine helped pioneer the market for high-end photo books.
Twenty-five years ago, Harper Levine was a sales associate in a rare book store in St. Paul, Minnesota, who had an entrepreneurial bent.
First, thinking there might be some potential in the internet, he quit his job to start a mail-order business specializing in modern first editions. A few years later, he acquired a significant library of photography books, and discovered a whole new range of clients who collected photographic prints and artworks.
Today, Levine presides over a bookstore in East Hampton, as well as four separate art galleries in New York City and Los Angeles. He has staged exhibitions with photographers such as Martin Parr and Roe Ethridge, as well as the painter Genieve Figgis.
Artnet News sat down with Levine discusses his shape-shifting career, how he helped pioneer the market for photo books, and the big boost he got from Richard Prince.
You started your career working at a rare book store in Minneapolis. How did you get into the book-selling industry?
We’ll start with a very personal story. In 1994, I moved from New York to the twin cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis, to go to rehab. I was 26 years old and I was introduced to the bookstore through friends from rehab who found jobs there because the owner was somebody who liked to hire sober people. One of my friends was leaving for a different job and I needed work. I was a writer and the idea of working in a bookstore sounded amazing to me.
You ended up leaving that job in 1997 to open your own bookstore in Minneapolis. How were those early years as an entrepreneur?
I left the bookstore in 1997, but I didn’t open a shop right away. I had started in an M.F.A. program in creative writing, which I never finished, and was working out of a one-bedroom apartment in St. Paul that my wife and I shared before we were married. It was around the time that the internet began, and while working for the bookstore I saw how the internet completely revolutionized how rare books were bought and sold. I also figured out that I was pretty good at finding books, and that I really enjoyed that. So I left the bookstore and started my own online business with about 100 books on one bookshelf that I sold out of my living room.
And from there you opened your own store?
Maybe a year later, I think it was ’98 or ’99. I opened a small store in a little mall that was on a popular street in St. Paul called Grand Avenue. It was a very modest basement storefront.
It was pretty slow, but it was fun. I recognized, even at that early stage, that I really loved buying and selling rare books and that I had some acuity for it. I outgrew the apartment and needed a small space, but sales were still mostly online. Every now and then people came in, but since I was in the basement there was very little foot traffic. I enjoyed knowing that I was doing something different and that it might have a chance to grow, even though there were very few customers.
So you slowly started to inch your way into the art world by beginning to deal in fine art and photography books. What attracted you to this particular genre?
In 2001, after my daughter was born, my wife and I decided to move back to New York. I had become a little more established in the rare book world and there were just more opportunities. I had always been around photography because I studied art history a little in college, and my parents, especially my father and my stepmother were minor art and photography collectors. In the beginning I focused on modern first editions, mostly literary books, but I was always looking for photography and art books too. In 2003, I was offered an incredible photography book library from a private collector in Chicago, and that’s what really got me to make the transition from mostly a literary book dealer to more of a photography book dealer.
What drew you out to the Hamptons, and how did that move affect your business and clientele?
In the early years in the Hamptons, around 2001, the clientele still mostly grew through the online business and rare book fairs because I still worked from home. The exposure to a different kind of a clientele didn’t start until I moved into the space that I’m in now in East Hampton in 2005, which in the beginning I shared with the book dealer who was already there.
But because I had bought this great photo book library I was exposed to a whole different kind of clientele, people who were interested photo and art books. It was very fortuitous because that was around the time that photo books started gaining a lot of attention. I was in the right place at the right time, and I actually sort of helped make that market myself.
In general, rare books become more valuable and desirable if they’re in great condition and if they have historical significance. For instance, if they’re inscribed from one photographer to another, or from one author to another, and if they’re well preserved. For whatever reason, those rules had not yet been applied to photography books, but were well known in the rare book world and especially in the world of modern first editions. I took those lessons and applied them to photography books.
At the same time, some excellent reference books on photography books were published. There’s a book called the 101 Seminal Photo Books of the 20th Century by Andrew Roth. And then there were three volumes published by the great British photographer Martin Parr and the writer Gerry Badger.
Some of the dealers focusing on photo books reeducated rare book collectors to understand that, in photography, books are an object of record because the whole concept of a photographic print as a marketable object is relatively new. The sale of photographic prints and photography galleries didn’t start until the ’70s, and when a photographer used to set out to do a project it was almost always a book. I helped to solidify the idea that the book was the object, and helped apply the same criteria of condition and historical significance that we used for valuing modern first editions, which led to a very burgeoning photo book market of which I was right in the middle.
And that led to you start exhibiting photos yourself?
It took a little bit longer, because from 2005 to 2007 I shared the space that I’m in now with the bookstore that was here before me, Glenn Horowitz Bookseller. They already ran a rather robust gallery program, so I didn’t start exhibiting until I moved out of the space to another location in East Hampton. I believe our first show of photographs was either 2007 or 2008, and that was when my career as an art dealer started. When I moved back into the main space after Glenn Horowitz Bookseller left, in 2010, the more serious programming started.
Who were some of the artists and photographers that you were showing?
The first photographer I showed was a New York City street photographer named Matt Weber. He had been a taxi driver who always had his camera, and he took these incredible New York City pictures in the style of Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander, but he was unknown. I fell in love with his photographs and did a show. The first time I realized that showing photography or art might be interesting was when Richard Prince, who I had become friendly with, bought several photographs from that show.
After Matt Weber we did a show very early on with Martin Parr, who’s one of the most important living British photographers. Martin and I were friends because he co-wrote that book about photo books.
What were of the prices for the works in the early shows? And were they commercially viable? I suppose it must’ve been because you went on to open a gallery.
It was only marginally viable. Our main business at that time was still books by far. By 2007 we had established ourselves as probably the leading dealer of rare photo books in the United States, and the business was doing very well.
In contrast, those initial Matt Weber photographs were about $1,500 each. We sold a few to Richard [Prince] and a few other people, and I sold a handful of the Martin Parr prints. But the art side of the business didn’t really get rolling until I started showing art, as opposed to photography.
Your big break came when you were the first American dealer to show Genieve Figgis in 2014. How did that show come about?
I had a show planned with a different artist who canceled at the last minute, and I panicked and texted Richard [Prince] to ask him whether he had a suggestion. He just wrote back “Figgis,” whom he had discovered on Twitter. In my panic, I took his suggestion decided to show her. I knew I was on to something special when I put a painting in the window before we even hung the show, and somebody walked in off the street knowing absolutely nothing about her and just bought it on the spot. I began to understand that there was an interest and a dynamism in the art world that I had never experienced as a book dealer, or as a photo dealer. We sold out the show and had a very crowded opening, with a lot of buzz around her. That really got me thinking that I ought to shift focus and see what the art world is about.
Without extensive experience in art dealing at the time, how did you navigate building an artist’s career? Did you consciously try to avoid selling to flippers, and how did you match the works with buyers?
I was lucky that I met a lot of people in the Hamptons. I had mentors who were artists and collectors who bought books from me, but who also bought art, so I stepped into the art world with a little more knowledge than most new dealers.
I initially sold mostly to my friends. I was aware of resellers and flippers, but it didn’t feel as complicated then as it does now. I had a lot of help from artists with houses in the Hamptons who helped me understand how the art world works, I became friends with other dealers, and I had been around the block long enough that some of these abilities just rubbed off by osmosis. But I really didn’t think I would ever do anything like I’m doing now. We had one gallery in the countryside, we did shows in the summer that folks really liked, programming in the off season, and some pop-ups. But it was nothing like what it has grown into. I didn’t really have those aspirations.
In 2016, you opened a gallery in your pied-à-terre on the Upper East Side. Why did you decide to go to the city?
The gallery in the city opened in January 2016. My wife and I never planned to live in the Hamptons. We moved right after 9/11 because my family has a house here and decided it was safer with a newborn baby, and we just stayed. In the back of my mind I wanted to be in New York City because I’m a native New Yorker and it’s my home. With the business doing well and my daughter at boarding school I thought it would be nice to have a small space in New York. I just looked for an apartment space in a townhouse on the Upper East Side on StreetEasy, and the first thing I looked at was the space that’s now Harper’s Apartment, which we still operate. It was a perfect way to get my feet wet in the city without a lot of financial risk and without running a major commercial space, because I wasn’t ready for that.
How did you go from opening what was essentially a part-time live-work space in New York City to multiplying your footprint to five spaces in three cities? It strikes me as a pretty aggressive expansion plan.
The year we opened in the city, in 2016, we were really fortunate to do a show with Jennifer Guidi, who has also gone on to have a major career. After being in the book world for so long, I really loved interacting with artists and having deeper relationships, and I had a sense that I was onto something interesting and it just sort of happened organically.
Before we expanded we spent time developing a program, and thought about how to transition into become a gallery and discussed if we should represent artists or do more significant secondary market shows.
I found the space we have now in Chelsea at the start of the pandemic when I went to go see a show at Hauser and Wirth on 22nd Street and noticed a “for rent” sign in the space next door. I called the number on the sign and took it on the spot when the broker told me what the rent was. It had floor-to-ceiling windows, so people would still be able to see the art from the street if there was another pandemic-related shutdown.
I took the second Chelsea location in the winter of 2020 because its on the same block and I would walk past it every day, so I just asked my realtor to look into it and I was pleasantly surprised that it was at the very edge of being affordable.
The space in L.A. was recommended by a friend who told me that an L.A. collector who owned the building wanted to lease the storefront to a gallery. He really liked my program and he thought I would be great fit.
I’ve already decided to go all in on the art career, and I just want to give my artists a bigger platform.
How are you financing that expansion? Does the gallery have investors?
I have no investors and no backers. We have continually reinvested the money we earn to grow the business. We have been fortunate that business has been good, but I’ve done this all myself. I mean, I do come from what most people on the outside would call a pretty privileged background, as a white male who went to private school in New York City. My parents are well off, but I’ve had no help at all from anybody. I’ve done it all myself.
A number of the artists you work with have experienced considerable commercial success. How do you find artists and decide to show them?
My program never had an overarching theme. I’m interested in many different types of art and the program revolves around an organic vision that’s not premeditated. It’s just what I think is cool and what I like. Now that I’m working with a larger team, there’s also more of a consensus with what the team likes, and my directors also help me find new artists.
For example, I work with Spencer Lewis who is an abstract painter who’s flying against the craze of figuration, and I also work with Genieve Figgis who became popular in 2014, when the art world first started to look at figuration again.
What’s next for you? When can we expect Harper’s in Europe and Asia?
I do have my sights set on expanding to Europe or Asia, and I have been thinking about it, but there are no definitive plans. But if history holds true to how my career has unfolded I think it’s only a matter of time.
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