Interview by Dan Golden
Jack Hanley has been on my radar since the early 90’s when his gallery was located in San Francisco. Hanley was one of the first to show the work of artists such as Christopher Wool, Sue Williams, Jack Pierson, Alicia McCarthy and Chris Johanson, among many other notables. Now based in New York, Hanley continues to exhibit some of the most vital and original artists working today. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with Jack and ask him some questions.
Dan Golden (DG): Congratulations on the thirty year anniversary of Jack Hanley Gallery. We'd love to go back to before the gallery was started to put it in context: where did you grow up, go to school, and what were you doing before opening the gallery?
Jack Hanley (JH): Thanks—so I grew up in Washington Heights (Manhattan), and then, Central Islip and Montauk on Long Island. I went to college at Harpur College (Binghamton University) with a degree in Native American Studies, later went to Skowhegan in Maine, and then, University of California at Berkeley where I got an MA and MFA in Studio/Painting. I worked with Joan Brown and Elmer Bischoff. Then, I lived in Tuscany, Italy for a year and came back and taught painting at the University of Rhode Island and the University of Texas at Austin, and Princeton University. While in Austin, I opened a gallery (1987) named Trans Avant-Garde Gallery. I think the idea was not to use my name since I still painted myself and showed around.
DG: You relocated from Texas to San Francisco in 1990. What precipitated that move, and specifically to SF?
JH: I had lived in San Francisco and Marin County since the early ‘70s working for bands and so on, so I had a lot of connections and friends there, and also while I had been at grad school, met a woman and later married her and she was from SF. So later after teaching in Austin from ‘84-’90, and having two children, my wife lobbied to move back to be near her family. I stopped teaching and stopped painting for the most part and just did the gallery in downtown SF.
DG: Jack Hanley Gallery was instrumental in fostering The Mission School scene. How did you first meet and start working with artists like Alicia McCarthy and Chris Johanson?
JH: So when I first opened up downtown in SF, most of the artists from the area that I knew already had galleries. I initially showed lots of NY, LA, and European artists like John Currin, Zoe Leonard, Raymond Pettibon, Karen Kilimnik, Andrea Zittel, Catherine Opie, Erwin Wurm, Christian Marclay, Christopher Wool, Jack Pierson, Sue Williams, Rirkrit Tiravanija, on and on. Not many painters actually. I liked a more ephemeral-type work, usually somewhat humorous. And since there were few collectors of similar taste, I did art fairs like Liste in Basel, EXPO Chicago, Unfair in Cologne, Gramercy International Art Fair (later called The Armory Show). One show I did around this time was with Chris Johanson and Scott Hewicker. I had met Chris and liked his band, “Tina, Age 13,” and even though I was downtown (at the sketchy end of Grant Avenue and Market Street) these artists started to come around to the gallery and openings. I would also spend a lot of time in the Mission District and frequent Adobe Books and Kiki Gallery, Four Walls Gallery, etc. and various bars. Around 1996 I closed my space downtown and took off for around two years to play music and opened a guitar store, Flashback Guitars, with my brother from LA. I had co-organized an art fair at the Phoenix Hotel to coincide with the new SFMOMA opening and was getting a divorce and needed to step back from the gallery and do something else. So it wasn't until 1998 or ‘99 that I missed the gallery and decided to set up camp in the Mission on 15th and Valencia, right across from the Projects. Haha—a real Project gallery.
DG: In addition to running the gallery, you are also an artist and musician yourself. Can you tell us a bit about your own artistic endeavors and how they dovetail with the gallery?
JH: Well I think I approached the gallery more as a musician and painter in that I had no interest in being the band/artist manager but a bit more like the guy with the club. I have always collected posters and we have almost always done them for each of the 300+ shows at the gallery. Also I had no business sense nor any experience with working in a gallery. I had really little experience even going to them so I just made up the idea as it moved along. It certainly raised issues but also a more artist-oriented approach I think.
DG: You pressed pause on the gallery for a few years (1996-1999) to focus on your music. What was it like to step away like that, and how easy was it for you to restart?
It was great to step away. I didn't even look at an art mag. I was living in Berkeley and set up my living room often as a practice space, aside from the guitar shop that was a bit of a clubhouse. When I reopened I was naive about how all the artists had moved on to other spaces, etc. and so it was like starting over. I just tried to find people that currently interested me. I showed Jim Lambie and Chris Ware (a former student of mine) and Jonathan Monk, Scott Myles, Djordje Ozbolt, Tauba Auerbach, Anne Collier, and more SF peeps. Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy, Harold Fletcher, Xylor Jane, Frank Haines, Shaun O’Dell, and others.
DG: After being strongly associated with the west coast art scene, both in SF and LA, you closed down your spaces there, and relocated to New York in 2008. What inspired the move, and can you talk about the difference (for you) being based in New York as a gallery versus California?
JH: Well when I got divorced around 1996, I thought of moving to NYC for a change of scene, but I had two young children that I would miss too much and couldn't do it. I think the possibility though lingered in the back of my head and at some point, they were pretty much grown up and it seemed a possibility. Also, I had taken the second storefront in the Mission next to my gallery and then that seemed like it could be somewhere else and I found a space in Chinatown LA that a friend happened to be renting. He gave me three years of cheap rent and that was great fun and turned me on to playing music many nights down there. When he jacked the rent up three times I almost simultaneously heard from a friend in NYC that the ground floor space they had in Tribeca was available and they would give me a deal. So it seemed a good time to try it. I had thought I would keep SF and develop NY for a bit but it was hard to show artists in SF because I had a space in NYC and their NYC galleries didn't like the idea. I seemed a threat more, I'm guessing. Seemed weird since with the internet people could shop/compare prices worldwide. Anyway, the flying also was too much and so I sold my house in Berkeley (2008, the wrong time) and decided to do only NY. I love NY and it is more competitive but there are lots of great people doing all kinds of different things. I think the rents are way higher in NYC than SF. Perhaps the housing rents are comparable but the cost of my space is almost ten times what I paid in SF. So considering I mostly enjoy showing emerging artists, it is not an easy ride to cover the rent. But I still enjoy the LES a lot and play music in the basement of CANADA Gallery, my neighbors. So I have a bit of the same type scene I did in the Bay Area. I live in Red Hook, Brooklyn and have a farmhouse upstate, where I get my fix of gardening and greenery.
DG: Are there any identifiable characteristics that draw you to the artists you've shown/worked with over the years? (or is it more an instinctual draw/reaction?)
JH: I would say that I like working with people that do things that I don't quite understand, but feel there is something unusual, idiosyncratic, often humor is involved. And I like to then have four to five weeks to live with it and delve deeper into their world. Sometimes it keeps going for many years and shows and sometimes it is a one-show project. I often find artists from other artists, and also from music and jamming with different people. Seems like many of the artists I have shown have a strong music background.
DG: What's next for Jack Hanley?
JH: Would love to get a shack in a tropical spot to grow my orchids.
All images courtesy of Jack Hanley.