How an Upstart Magazine Grew Into One of This Century’s Best Talent-Spotting Galleries
Our columnist unwinds the tale of Loyal, the connoisseurial culture magazine that transformed into a tastemaking Swedish gallery.
Every week, Artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.
This week, navigating a road seldom traveled…
FROM MAGAZINE MASTHEAD TO GALLERY BEACHHEAD
By this point in art-market history, it’s not all that rare to hear the founders of a successful gallery say years after the fact that they never actually intended to open a gallery. What is much rarer, however, is to encounter a successful gallery that began as a separate business entirely. Rarer still—possibly to the level of uniqueness—is for the origin point of a gallery to have been a magazine.
Yet that has been the trajectory of Loyal gallery, the tastemaking Stockholm-based enterprise celebrating its eighteenth anniversary this year. Loyal’s unusual evolution tells us a lot about what matters most in a business where the standard playbook looks less and less useful by the day.
Today, in the early spring of 2023, Loyal’s home is a character-drenched former Brazilian embassy in an upscale district of Stockholm. Its neighbors include the current embassies of Estonia, Botswana, and Switzerland; two buildings owned by the Swedish-born mega-producer Max Martin; and a slew of townhomes belonging to some of Sweden’s quieter but no less elite residents.
If you had strictly acquired works by artists from the past 18 years of Loyal programming, you would not only have managed to get out ahead of a few market booms; you would also have managed to do it while looking like you had A-level taste. Some of Loyal’s longest-standing artistic collaborators include present-day stars Katherine Bernhardt and Eddie Martinez, both of whom began working with the gallery in the mid-aughts. Newer discoveries the gallery has teamed up with, including Los Angeles-based Mario Ayala and Lauren Quin, are well on their way to staking out promising careers.
With more than a hundred exhibitions under its belt post-launch, the gallery opened its first on U.S. soil during this February’s edition of Frieze Los Angeles. That said, Loyal has no plans to build out a globe-spanning megastructure. It also appears to have no plans to slow down.
So, how exactly did this happen? And what can we learn from it?
Before there was a Loyal gallery, and even before there was a Loyal magazine, there was a band. It started when Martin Lilja, a math student from the midsize Swedish city of Växjö, moved to London in 1995 with his then-girlfriend, Marilyn Petridean. Together, they aimed to make a mark as a lo-fi pop duo called By Coastal Cafe. During this phase, Lilja met a young photographer and fellow Swede named Kristian Bengtsson. They connected immediately on both personal and creative levels. “We’d edit his photos on coffee breaks,” Lilja said in a Zoom interview earlier this month.
These exchanges soon fermented into something more potent. In 2000, the trio set out to launch a magazine they dubbed Loyal. At first they had Bengtsson’s documentary photos, Petridean’s drawings, Lilja’s and Bengtsson’s self-taught design skills, and the combined will to create something new. Those turned out to be as many resources as they needed. Which was fortunate, because there weren’t many others available.
“We didn’t have a computer,” Lilja said. “But there was a free computer at this project for troubled teens nearby. We snuck in and befriended the guy who ran it, and he started letting us in to use it.”
The result synthesized the in-house visual content with writing straddling conceptualism and absurdist humor. One piece from the inaugural issue was an interview, wholly imagined, with nigh-indestructible Rolling Stone Keith Richards. “We just did funny things that made us excited,” Lilja said.
The cofounders printed 1,000 copies of the first magazine issue in Sweden using offset printing and thoughtful layouts. The goal was for Loyal to be sold in places like Magma in London and Spoonbill Books in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—proudly analog-first bookshops that specialized in rooting rich aesthetics in soft earth. They soon got their wish on a small scale, as they managed to start dropping off 10-packs of new issues on consignment at some of their dream sellers. “We didn’t care so much about the $4 we were making on commission. We just cared that we were there,” said Lilja.
Between 2000 and 2005, Loyal was released in two issues annually, good for 10 issues total. Yet both the end product and the behind-the-scenes personnel were in near-constant flux. Lilja eventually went to join Bengtsson in Stockholm. Petridean moved on from Loyal after the second issue. Then, in 2001 Lilja met Amy Giunta, a native New Yorker visiting Stockholm for the summer. She soon became a key part of Loyal’s development on multiple levels: first, by biking copies of Loyal #3 to specialty bookshops in Manhattan upon her return from Sweden; then as a contributor to the magazine’s fourth issue; and soon after, as a key member of its brain trust forevermore. (She moved to Sweden in December 2002 and married Lilja in 2004.)
The contents of Loyal evolved, moving beyond intuitive experimentation and, in Lilja’s words, “became more and more ‘art’ over time,” largely because of the magazine’s growing profile among a certain tranche of emerging artists in the early 2000s. Notable contributors included an international array of artists and members of the independent music and literary scenes: David Shrigley, Graham Coxon (of Brit-pop legends Blur), Daniel Johnston, Rita Ackermann, Will “Bonnie Prince Billy” Oldham, Billy Childish, and even the now-infamous JT LeRoy showed up in some form on its pages.
“We had one foot in the art world, or only a little toe. But some artists knew of us through that,” Lilja said. “These were artists who weren’t fully in the art world at the time. They were peripheral to it, trying to find an opening into it.”
One representative—and pivotal—early relationship formed by the Loyal squad was with Eddie Martinez. Lilja recalls meeting him through a friend at a pop-up exhibition in New York circa 2003–04. Martinez would have been no older than 27 at the time and, based on his current C.V., he hadn’t yet scored his first solo show at a commercial gallery. But Lilja and company immediately sparked to his riotous, largely self-developed collision of gestural abstraction and wigged-out representational imagery, and soon he was contributing artworks to the magazine.
Loyal’s collaboration with Martinez established a template that played out over and over again in the early years: meet an interesting artist who hadn’t quite pierced the veil of the art establishment; recognize and develop their practice through publishing; then imagine what more could be done together beyond the page. By the end of 2004, the process had repeated itself enough times with enough artistic contributors for Loyal to take the next logical step.
TURNING THE PAGE
In February 2005, Loyal debuted as a gallery in a storefront space in Stockholm, two blocks away from where the last issue of the magazine was produced.
By the summer, the gallery had staged solo shows of works by polymath Adam Green, a co-founder of influential New York “anti-folk” band the Moldy Peaches and an experimental filmmaker whose work would go on to be screened at venues as prestigious as the Fondation Beyeler in Basel; Wes Lang, whose vocabulary of tweaked Americana later won him representation at Almine Rech and space in the collection of MoMA and other top-flight museums; and Martinez, in his first one-person show on a resume that now includes solos at galleries as well-known as Blum and Poe, Mitchell-Innes and Nash, and Perrotin, as well as institutions as vaunted as the Drawing Center in New York and the Yuz Museum in Shanghai.
Although the transition from specialty publisher to talent-spotting emerging gallery came with its fair share of anxiety, it was also more natural than it might have appeared from afar. Every issue of Loyal was essentially a curated show in print. A tight budget and the rudimentary state of digital communication in the early 2000s meant that contributing artists were generally shipping physical works to Lilja and Giunta to scan and ship back. Most of all, though, the magazine and the gallery were both ultimately about forming, building, and maintaining relationships with artists who shared a perspective on their work and ambitions to do something bigger than they were otherwise being given the opportunity to do.
Just ask Daniel Heidkamp. Heidkamp, whose solo show “Tempo” is on view at Acquavella’s Palm Beach location through April 9, is best known for color-saturated landscape and architectural paintings of what may be the actual sites represented or reinterpreted in famous works of art history. He remembers attending the launch of the gallery’s first true book, a catalog for a 2005 group show titled “Loyal and His Band,” at Spoonbill. It would be a few more years before he actually met Lilja and Giunta at an art fair, a few more before they visited his studio, and still a few more until the duo included his work in a 2015 group show. But he stressed that timeline was a matter of circumstance and consideration, not attitude.
“They were some of the few gallerists who would show up to parties and just talk to artists as if there were no hierarchies,” Heidkamp said of Lilja and Giunta by phone from his studio in Brooklyn. “I think they’re definitely down to go to people’s studios who aren’t necessarily the hottest artists of the year, who may not even be known yet. Other galleries can be very pretentious about who they’ll talk to.”
Heidkamp credits Lilja and Giunta’s willingness to pound the global pavement and give artists a shot for their track record in identifying and helping to coach up so many eventual stars. And yet they are also the opposite of the type of quick-twitch opportunists ready to sign up any potential breakout artist at any ebullient moment in the art-market cycle.
Their relationship with Los Angeles-based figurative painter Michelle Blade reinforces the couple’s willingness to play the long game. She met them while at the California College of Art in San Francisco in 2008. “I was preparing for my thesis show at that time and starting to work with a handful of galleries in the city,” Blade wrote by email. “It wasn’t until last year, in 2022, that they reached back out and came to my studio in L.A. for another visit. It was then that they invited me to do a solo exhibition. The time was right and we all felt it.”
Still, prescience and follow-through only mean so much if a dealer can’t also speak an artist’s language and earn their trust. Heidkamp and Blade agree that Lilja and Giunta bring the whole package.
“It’s their instincts and honesty that I value most in our working relationship. It’s rare to be able to talk so deeply about one’s practice, and I’ve come to consider them both touchstones,” Blade wrote. “I can’t speak to this exactly, but I do feel it relates to how dedicated they are to becoming part of a community.”
No wonder Loyal has (fittingly) managed to keep a core group of artists devoted to the gallery for most of its lifespan, even as some of its longest-standing collaborators have become market supernovas. “As a gallery we’re pretty close with the people we show. You can’t get rid of us that easily,” Lilja joked.
BINDING PAST TO PRESENT
While Loyal has never maintained a permanent gallery space outside Sweden, its home has shifted several times over the years. The co-founders expanded to a second location in Stockholm for a brief period just before the advent of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008. “It was a tough time and you have to be insanely obsessed to make it work as a gallery, and Amy and I were that,” Lilja said. Bengtsson moved on from Loyal in 2009 to devote himself to his career as a commercial photographer and director, leaving Loyal entirely in Lilja and Giunta’s hands. They moved the gallery to Malmö for a time before returning to Stockholm in 2014. Four years later, they leased the former Brazilian embassy that still serves as their headquarters today.
Their Stockholm reprise isn’t the only way the gallery has come full circle. In 2017, Loyal returned to its publishing roots by committing to produce an in-house exhibition catalog for every new show. Each catalog follows a nearly unchanging design template: identical white paper stock, typeface printed in black, perfect binding bearing the artist’s name and exhibition title, and a text-free cover featuring a full-bleed image of a work in the exhibition.
This confluence of art and publishing has created fertile soil for at least a few other galleries to grow up strong in recent years. Brendan Dugan launched Karma in 2011 as a combination publishing house and exhibition space; the business now encompasses four year-round exhibition spaces in New York and Los Angeles, a seasonal space in Thomaston, Maine, and a standalone bookstore. Harper Levine began as a rare books dealer before the fateful acquisition of a first-rate library of photography books circa 2005 broadened his clientele to include art and photography collectors; today, his namesake business Harper’s counts five gallery spaces across greater New York and Los Angeles, as well as a dedicated bookstore in Chelsea.
That being said, Loyal pre-dated these galleries. It is also the only one that moved from being nothing but a publisher to nothing but a gallery for a time, and the only one that has not embarked on a multi-city bricks-and-mortar expansion.
None of this is to say that Lilja and Giunta are content to stand still, however. During Frieze L.A. 2023, they presented “Loyal @ El Royale,” their first standalone gallery exhibition in the U.S. It was a pop-up on the ground floor of the historic El Royale Apartments in Hancock Park where Giunta and Lilja began renting a second home post-Covid. It featured a blend of early discoveries (such as Blade, Heidkamp, and Martinez) alongside first-time collaborators recently ascendant on the international scene (such as Ross Caliendo, Emmanuel Louisnord Desir, and Hiejin Yoo).
It was also a testament to the strength of Lilja and Giunta’s relationships with talent new and known to the gallery alike. Most of the artists included in the show already had a dealer representing them in L.A. This meant that participating in “Loyal @ El Royale” was something the artists could only do if they were proactive about navigating the waters of territorial gallery rights—not necessarily a contentious process, but always one that requires time, headspace, and a certain level of insistence.
Lilja said that he and Giunta hope to program one or two shows a year in L.A. going forward to complement their six annual shows in Sweden. Temporary exhibitions elsewhere in Europe are also a possibility. But for now, the only sure thing is that the magazine-turned-gallery isn’t inclined to follow expectations of what a space with nearly two decades of experience should do next.
“It feels like the gallery started over a few times,” Lilja said. “So in that sense we still feel like a five-year-old gallery.”
That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: if you don’t like the standard layout, you can always design your own.
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