Interviews

Cleopatra’s

Cleopatra’s storefront window, New York.

The members of the creative and curatorial platform Cleopatra’s—Bridget Donahue, Bridget Finn, Colleen Grennan, and Erin Somerville (along with founding member Kate McNamara, who left the collective in 2011)—signed a ten-year lease on a narrow twenty-four-by-eight-foot street-level space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York, in 2008. From the project’s outset they were conscious of their long-term commitment to the space and of its mutability as a publishing house, a promotional structure, a means of archiving a local artistic community, and so much more. After a decade, the space closed this month. Below, the group discusses its legendary history.

CLEOPATRA’S WAS THE NAME OF THE DELI that had previously occupied our space. Our model wasn’t quite that of a nonprofit, but it was one that didn’t need to depend on selling the work we showed to survive. We’ve always felt more like the artists in the room. But we also observed that the alternative venues active around the same time as Cleopatra’s weren’t necessarily doing what we considered to be a fair share of work on the “gallery” side to warrant the cut of sales they were taking. By splitting the space’s monthly rent and removing the expectation of sales to offset that cost, we put ourselves in the same boat with the artists we worked with—almost all of whom paid for studios to work in after they’d finished at their day jobs—and this established a mutual understanding that was critical to our relationships with the artists with whom we collaborated. It’s pretty beautiful to think back on the fact that the space was really just an outcropping of our desire to engage directly with artists we admired. How better to include yourself in this conversation than by putting comparable skin in the game?

We all wanted something different from what we were then getting at the commercial galleries where we worked, where junior staff isn’t necessarily privy to insider conversations about whom and what to show. We wanted those conversations! We wanted to do studio visits! We did so many studio visits for Cleopatra’s over the past ten years. That collective engagement and the relationships that ultimately came of it continue to lift the tides of our respective galleries today.

The collaborative process of Cleopatra’s can be summed up as the experience of opening your phone and seeing eighty-seven new text messages in a group thread. There was a lot of back-and-forth. And in the beginning, there was also a little bit of ego at play in our internal conversations and programming decisions—as a result of inserting our own authorship. In our first year of operation we did three consecutive programs—“This is the Way the World Is” with Ruslan Trusewych, “Light On Light” with Andrés Laracuente, and “Night Moves” with Sam Moyer—all of which involved lighting elements interspersed with artworks. The resulting installations were just barely legible as art (to the few who saw them, since we weren’t yet keeping consistent gallery hours).


The members of Cleopatra’s talk about their space.

But over time we shifted to a more hands-off curatorial approach—a transition from us choosing specific works and projects to us saying to an artist, “We loved our visit with you. Do you want to do something in our space?” We slowly moved away from our initial impulse to structure shows around crafty, heavy-handed curatorial premises; we ultimately found that it’s really hard for viewers to absorb more knotty conceits on an ideological level. Art objects have to do a lot on their own, and we didn’t want to distract from that. You could maybe pinpoint the beginning of this shift in strategy to the “Trade Secrets” show in 2009, realized with John Connelly, for which we compiled a list of the thirty people Cleopatra’s had collaborated with to date—extending even to our graphic and web designers—and created a rotating display featuring their work. Each day, one artist would come to the gallery with a piece, select a work on view, erase the name of the artist whose work they had chosen on a chalkboard that functioned as an exhibition checklist, and replace it with their own. The show spoke to our ambitions and ideals at Cleopatra’s without overdetermining the reception of the work on view.

Installations were always crazy, especially if all four of us showed up. And then the openings were always so joyful, and we felt like we accomplished a true collaboration. Rob Hult from Klaus von Nichtssagend once described us as tribal connectors. That’s a cool role to play within a community. And we did whatever the fuck we wanted to. The gallery was a place where people could smoke inside. It was a venue that simultaneously fostered conversations about artists’ work and conversations about what was going on in visitors’ lives and in our own. That organic synergy didn’t happen at our day jobs. We could have strategically strung together a very different program, bolstered by known artists and saleable work, but we maintained our support of emerging artists whose work we believed more urgently needed to be seen. At Cleopatra’s, our championing of artists who were deeply dedicated to their practices mirrored our commitment to the space.

While our programming was never gender-based or exclusive, we wanted to provide our immediate community, which we felt was underserved, with a place to meet and experiment. As long as the work wasn’t already heavily represented elsewhere and we thought the ideas and intents were in line with our own we would try to fit it in somehow. We took a lot of chances and worked on good faith. So many aspects of the art world are so fickle, and yet you have to keep referencing your internal compass and keep going. But if someone texted “Stuck at work, can’t make it,” it was never an issue. That collective level of trust kept us going.

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