Ridgewood’s Valentine Gallery boasts a not-so-whopping 550 square feet of programmable space—not counting its tiny “gift shop.” But what’s on display there is choice: well-chosen fare by local artists you wish someone would have the balls to show more often. Thanks to Fred Valentine—its owner, curator, and man-about-studio—the married artists Lawrence Swan and Lori Ellison got to display their individually impressive artistic oeuvres in unison (they’re a local couple no one had thought to exhibit together before); Mike Ballou got to stack his papier maché animal heads (“Bitey” the shark, “Rickey” the rat) up to the ceiling like some colorful, shamanistic totem; and later this month, painter Andrew Moszinski exhibits wallpaper of people in mid-coitus and paintings in gouache.
Valentine forged his curatorial program in the school of hard knocks by way of pure insight. The former co-founder of The Mustard Factory and Galapagos’ Curator, he came to Ridgewood in 1999 long before it was on the greater artworld’s mental map. (He came to W’burg in 1984.) Along the way he’s set up studios, raised a family, and found ways to give back to his artistic community. Valentine, at 464 Seneca Avenue, began in July of 2011.
In person, he’s a charmingly gruff sweetheart-of-a-guy, with some honest and brave ideas about where things have been, and where, if anywhere, they might be going. P.S. His only request, when we scheduled the interview, was that we refer to him as “ruggedly handsome.” Happy to oblige.
SS—Fred, I just want to start out by saying how ruggedly handsome you look today. FV—Why thank you. But you didn’t have to say that. I was just kidding.
We’re standing here in your gift shop. Could you point out some of the objects for sale? Tote bags by Jane Dickson for $20. A book of photography by Chris Verene for $65. Original felt-tip pen sketchbook drawings by Lori Ellison for $200. A Tamara Gonzales spray-paint on canvas for $350. The gift shop is six by eight feet right now, but we’ll be expanding.
Those are some amazing bargains. It’s sort of my version of the Flat Files without being a flat file. “Art for under $500” or something like that. For my part, I take 25% off anything under a grand. A very compassionate profit ratio for artists; how do you pull that off? This way, an artist can easily walk away with $375 in their pocket, and that helps—buy materials, pay bills. On the buyer’s end, I’ve got a killer installment plan.
It’s called the Valentine Lay Away Plan. I have a number of people buying “on time,” and I’ll go up to three payments, so nobody’s hurting, everybody benefits. I learned that from Mary-Ann Monforton: if everyone involved is a winner and there are no losers, then it’s a perfect formula for success and everything’s right with the world.
Speaking of what’s “right” with the world, or just plain weird: what do you think of Williamsburg as a neighborhood lately? I walked down the waterfront, and I hadn’t been there in a while, and I didn’t even recognize it: glass towers, walkways, and people in their tennis whites. I don’t see a recession in Williamsburg. I mean it’s really nice and all. But, there’s a Rite Aid—on Kent Avenue. Before, I could never imagine anyone wanting to hang out there after dark.
How’s Ridgewood striking you of late? More of the same in store? I saw my first Trustafarian begging with one of those sad little pit bulls on Myrtle Avenue the other day. And I paid $10 for a pint of beer. So yeah, the same things are happening out here.
What made you start Valentine? After Galapagos I wanted to do something new. For my part, the way I see it is, on the one hand, there are so many artists out there that don’t deserve to be shown. There are so many art schools that just crank them out. Back when I was in school if you couldn’t cut the mustard you were asked to leave. They didn’t take your money. But that said, there are also so many artists that do deserve to be shown. So far my range of showing has been in the 30- to 60-year-old range. Older artists who still have a passion for making the work, but they have given up on pushing it, you know? Those are the people that I like to show—and maybe give then a little kick in the butt in the process.
Tell us about Williamsburg, c. 1990. We started Club Mustard. I had a studio on Lorimer and Richardson, and then on Metropolitan there was an old abandoned mustard factory. I had just returned from Dublin — a bunch of us had just gone to Ireland — to do a large brave performance called “Cat’s Head,” and we decided we wanted to do it here, do this art happening, not like a one weekend event, but permanently. It was at 60 Metropolitan, and at our first event we had over 2,500 people show up. It was called Organism. People from all over the world, mostly Europe, came. We charged ten bucks to enter. And then we gave it ALL to the artists, split it up. [laughs]
Money for artists. Wow. Do you feel it was a success? Yes, a huge success. We had anything from live bands to dance parties to raise money for the space. I did a thing along with Jessica Nissen called “Paintings and Unrelated Stories” and it was two weekends of painting and storytelling—Bruce Pearson, Laura Newman, Chris Martin. They started up around 3:00 in the afternoon. I made a stage and grew grass on it so the storytellers would have actual grass to sit in. People would tell stories for families in the afternoon, but then, as the night went on, it became more and and more adult, until 3 in the morning it became like Charles Bukowski on amphetamines.
It sounds like you’ve always come up with unique ways to show art and promote artists. What sort of art-show format might we have seen at Galapagos? I had this thing called “Pek” [“peek”] where we would give an artist the space at Galapagos one day a month, and it was like a big giant studio visit, you could invite anyone you wanted. The artist had access to our lighting, our sound. It was a way to make money for the bar on a Tuesday, which was a slow night. I wanted everyone to be a winner. The artists invited friends, collectors, anyone, and after a while we started to get our own group of collectors. It gave the artists visibility and a chance for interaction. I remember visiting a girl living in a railroad flat, where she’d take her paintings off the stretcher and tack them over each other, and when I wanted to look at the paintings she’d would have to peel them off in layers. That wasn’t one of the most effective ways of looking at art. I figured we can do something else, better.
Name another Galapagos-era alt-show format. “Familiar Strangers” was a salon-style open call to anyone in the neighborhood. They could bring in any artwork under two feet and we would hang it. It was called familiar strangers because once they did that they were no longer strangers; everyone got to meet each other.
What kind of changes have you seen in the last couple of decades in the art scene, both here in Williamsburg, and in general? I think I see a hell of a lot more artists that approach it like a path to fame rather than a passion for making art—a necessity, a need. I see a lot of kids who wind up owing 50–75 grand and they got a degree in painting from School of Visual Arts and they can’t afford to live the Boho life. So they just have to start making stuff that’s “acceptable.” I believe it was Barbara Kruger who said, “It all starts looking like homework” and I think that’s what it is. A lot of artists want, need, to be surrounded by people who give them only positive reinforcement, and not the real world, not the world at large. That’s why I originally moved to New York: for the diversity. That’s what makes Queens so special.
I don’t want to sound like too much of a curmudgeon, though. There truly are a number of really good, dedicated, passionate artists in this little scene here. Young kids, older people. Ethan Pettit is opening a gallery here. I like what Kevin Regan’s doing. I like a lot of the artists at English Kills. Meg Hitchcock, she’s fantastic. Matthew Miller. It’s really an exciting time.
Hey, do you want to hear a hipster joke? Okay.
How did the hipster burn his mouth? How?
He ate pizza before it was cool.
Andrew Moszinski, “Recent Work”
November 18–December 11, 2011
464 Seneca Avenue, Ridgewood