In the continuing series of interviews I'm conducting as part of my research for The Killing Jar, currently in workshop with Spare Stage, I spoke with Jen Tough, owner and director of Jen Tough Gallery in downtown Vallejo, about running a gallery and curating art. Tough opened her gallery at 336 Georgia Street in historic downtown Vallejo in March, 2016.
Tell us about your background and how you came to curating.
I have a degree in fine arts. Almost immediately after graduating, I moved to Los Angeles because my sister was there with her comedian boyfriend and I didn't want to stay in Ohio. My first job was as a maid, and I couch surfed for the first 6 months. I knew I had to pay rent, and didn't want to clean ovens the rest of my life, so I decided to pursue graphic design. I pawned some jewelry and bought a little Mac Classic and taught myself one of the first versions of Photoshop on it. During the day I cleaned houses and worked other weird jobs. From there I got a job working as a studio manager at what turned out to be a prestigious design firm (Margo Chase). Climbing the ladder with many setbacks along the way, I eventually ended up being the art director for Hollywood Records, numerous magazines, Urban Outfitters and Warner Bros. Records. The last few years of being an art director I was a creative consultant for Nike and commuted back and forth between LA and Portland. This was a great gig because they gave me a ton of creative freedom. I did a lot of campaigns for new products. I also taught design for a bit at FIDM. During this span I saw a lot of portfolios and put together a lot of projects with creative people. I never lost my love of fine art, and really always dreamed of going back in one form or another. The way back was opening this gallery.
Can you tell us about the role of a curator, specifically in an art gallery?
Well, it's a one woman shop so I am the curator for each show, but I like to return the favor I was sometimes given by giving the artists a lot of creative freedom in deciding what pieces to put in their show. They truly know best. For a group show I do the curating. Curating in my gallery is simply choosing the pieces to make up the whole. They must be cohesive in theme, but also visually. My background in retail taught me a great deal about the power of merchandising. The same holds true in a gallery space. So, I always keep the end result in mind when selecting work.
What brought you to opening your own gallery?
I opened the gallery because it seemed like a natural progression for me and my combined experiences and education. My heart has always been in contemporary art.
What has the response from the community been like?
The response has been very positive overall.
I've been to the gallery. It's stunning. I run into people all the time who talk excitedly about having it here. What made you choose Vallejo?
I have pretty much always lived in areas that are "up and coming" in LA, so it feels natural to be in Vallejo for the gallery. I love that energy of building and creating things and the "underdog" spirit, I guess. The gallery space itself is beautiful, the light is amazing and the high ceilings and Victorian elements are gorgeous. I love the history of the space, it used to be the Rialto Theater in 1870 and of course it's fun to imagine everything that this space has seen over the years.
What sort of work do you represent?
Contemporary art by emerging and mid-career artists. I have a love for unusual mediums or techniques, abstract expressionism, and narrative or humorous work.
How does your interaction with an artist evolve, from your initial encounter with their work, to studio visit, and then to the realization of a gallery show?
I think it's individual to each artist and their personality, and the relationship evolves and changes to some degree just as any other relationship changes. However, their level of commercial success would never cause me to treat them any differently from the day I met them, and I respect every artist I represent or work with no matter where they are in their career. In other words, their level of commercial success doesn't change how I value them as artists or their work. It's very important to me to work with good people who are straightforward and honest. A gallery-artist relationship is really a co-working partnership, we can help each other succeed and achieve goals if that stays at the forefront. If that gets lost, the relationship can go south pretty fast.
What is the process you go through in choosing artwork and building an exhibit?
I think that varies a lot depending on a group exhibition or if I'm looking to represent an artist. If it's a group exhibition with a theme, I will stick to those guidelines I've established surrounding that theme. If I'm looking at work by an artist I'm considering representing, there are a ton of factors that go into that decision process, because it's not just the work, it's the person behind the work who I'm looking at. An artist can have very interesting work, but if they are arrogant, don't want to work very hard, or are looking at our relationship as self promotion only, not sales, I don't want to work with them. As far as choosing art and art alone .... I could give a bunch of art speak, but that's gross. It really comes down to my gut if I'm honest, and there are a lot of moving parts with that I guess built on experience, taste, sale potential, marketability, or my just my "eye". It's always a tricky balance of showing work that will sell (otherwise I can't pay the rent and keep the gallery open), and strong contemporary (potentially historically significant) work. There's a sweet spot between those places I'm always looking for.
What are the strengths of your venue, visually or conceptually?
I think the strengths are the beautiful space and light and the up-and-coming vibe of Vallejo. I think art patrons for the most part like the "new." And Vallejo has that in spades.
What are some of the challenges you face in your job?
Money. Money. Money. Not enough money to do what I want to do to grow the business is a constant challenge.
And the usual challenges we women face in the world.
Can you speak further about what are some of these challenges are for women?
If you have an opinion, often it's attacked or you're called a bitch for being straightforward or standing your ground, whereas a man would be praised for being "strong." It's always a tightrope walk it seems, and every encounter has to be measured in a sense.... and we must tread carefully if we are going to disagree or say no to a man. We all know this "maneuvering," but at times it's so damn exhausting. Also, just not being taken seriously and generally disregarded as "less than." And being an older woman has its own set of challenges, we often become invisible, which can be good and bad. Some of that unwanted attention is gone, which is a relief, but it's often traded for total invisibility. We're just not as important or valuable in society as older women despite having more experience than others younger than us. I think the Bay Area is particularly plagued with ageism. Hopefully this will slowly change.
Hopefully not slowly.
What do you want people to know about your gallery?
That the gallery was created first and foremost as a way to honor the work and artists shown in it.
What work of art most affected you personally and why?
Wow... there's been so many I don't know if I could give a short answer. My favorite artists are probably a better way to answer this.... Off the top of my head (too many to list): Joseph Beuys, Jenny Holzer, Robert Gober, Franz Kline, Kiki Smith, Diane Arbus, Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Bradford... on and on....!
What new challenges do art galleries face and how do they maintain relevance in the new digital environment?
Art fairs and artist direct sales to collectors are I think are the biggest factors in causing upheaval and change in the traditional gallery business model. Really, the exhibition space is not the money-maker any longer for a lot of galleries. You have to branch out to other revenue streams to remain viable and keep doors open. I'm starting an art workshop side business in conjunction with the gallery that will have some of my artists as teachers (plug: It's called Zinc Art Workshops so go check it out!). I also am doing two art fairs this year.
Can galleries still compete with direct online sales from artists? How do you see the curator/gallery/artist relationship evolving?
As far as competing with artists for sales, some artists are capable of direct sales, but some aren't, or don't want to take that on. The gallery model is still the best model for a lot of artists. The downside of online sales only is the lack of in-person exhibitions and the social aspect of openings and events, which builds community. But I've seen some younger artists really do very, very well selling directly and cut out the gallery middleman. I think that's great, and there's room for everyone.
Can you tell us about the current exhibits and what’s coming up?
October is Jerry McLaughlin's solo show called "Savage Beauty" in the main gallery space. In the Inner Gallery in October it's Larry Mullins's "Paintings." November is a juried group show called "Guilty Pleasures" in the main gallery.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I'm so grateful for my artists trusting in this crazy start-up gallery in... Vallejo!
Thank you, Jen!