We sat down with Gallery Owner MK Semos for her take on making a living in the arts, developing an awesome gallery-program and why she chooses to take on an artist.
MK always knew what she wanted to be. That much had been clear since she was a child.
“I never considered a career in anything else. Thinking back to my younger self’s state of mind, there was no other option. In college, friends would vacillate on their major, but mine was long-ago decided.” Semos tells us.
Making a living as a creative though, that’s another story altogether; a journey full of twists and turns that’s taken many forms.
A Greek-American raised in Dallas, Semos attended the University of Texas at Austin where she earned a dual bachelor’s degree in photojournalism and photo illustration. After college, she spent a few years in Chicago before moving to New York City. There, she discovered a city brimming with creative energy that welcomed her with open arms. She lived a quintessentially bohemian life- rich in all the colorful characters and experiences NYC had to offer a young person making her way in the world. She spent her days taking photos of the gritty urban landscape with her SL 66 Rolleiflex, enamored with the strange images and poignant colors produced by her medium format camera. In the evenings, she bartended at a popular NYC night club on Avenue A called ‘Tapis Rouge’. It didn’t take long for the club owners to recognize her creative talents could be put to better use. A new endeavor was conceived: Tapis Rouge could infuse art and culture more strategically into their business model. Thus, a unique position was created, just for MK: curator and art consultant. With her new title, she began exhibiting photography in the basement of Tapis Rouge, coined the Red Room Gallery.
It was there at the Red Room where the rubber met the road- so to speak. Exhibiting works in an avant-garde space like The Red Room Gallery offered several major benefits, not the least of which was the opportunity to watch first-hand how found-audiences interact with art in a casual setting; what they like, what they hate, and what they’d want for their own apartments – if money allowed.
“Observational information like that provided a pretty great foundation for learning what a wide range of everyday people appreciate in art-work. Plus, it informed an acute awareness of how invaluable exposure is for the artists, in a myriad of forms. So what if it wasn’t a traditional gallery? The work was being seen by folks from all walks of life and that was really exciting.” Semos said of her experience at Red Room Gallery.
A quick study, MK took the opportunity and ran with it; she cultivated tons of artists to show. She had an exhibition-space (in New York City!) and with that, her network of talented artists to show spread like wildfire. Within no time, the Red Room Gallery’s reputation as an au courant art space permeated the underground scene. As it’s curator, she was solicited by well-known artists with big followings who wanted the opportunity to show. The works sold and just like that, MK was in the business of art.
Flash forward several years and MK found herself back in Dallas visiting family when she met Hugo Garcia Urrutia, an architect and entrepreneur, who’d recently opened an exhibition space in Dallas dedicated to design that was also showing the work of local artists. They connected immediately over their shared love of art.
“He needed a business partner and I needed a gallery,” MK says of her first meeting with now-husband Hugo Garcia Urrutia. Urrutia, a rising star in the Dallas art scene, anticipated the value of having a partner with a formal fine-art background to complement his design expertise and progress the gallery in the right direction. He’d found that in spades with MK, but was taken with more than just her curatorial prowess. The conversation came quick and Hugo asked her to dinner: a date she thought was a business meeting. Sometimes, MK learned, it’s both.
The year was 2004 when Hugo founded Decorazon Gallery. By the following year, MK was his full-time partner in life and business. Thus the two began a romance full of adventure and creative endeavors that’s lasted the better part of the past two decades. Hugo, who was born in Mexico, named the gallery ‘Decorazon’ from the Spanish ‘of the heart’ as though predicting their relationship; the couple’s love of art and for each other has been the life force of their business model since the beginning.
Although MK had sworn to never leave New York, as so many New Yorkers do, she eventually moved to Dallas full time for the gallery. To stave off Big-Apple-withdrawal, she continued to spend large chunks of time in NYC in the years to follow, working on creative projects with fellow artists and friends. MK still considers New York City home-base in many ways; the couple travels there multiple times a year for art fairs, exhibitions and en route to their next adventure in spots across the globe.
Decorazon’s original brick-and-mortar was located in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas. At the time, Dallas was fertile with opportunity and their gallery program thrived. They acquired amazing artists from all over the world, many of whom they still represent to this day. But, by 2010, the two self-proclaimed adventure junkies were ready for a change. After considering their options, they settled on London when Hugo was accepted to the AA School of Architecture, a prestigious master’s program that he’d long dreamt of attending. The move made professional sense for MK too, as she had several connections in the UK including her friend Susan Mumford, founder of the Association of Women Art Dealers. MK became a member of AWAD in 2011 and has served on its Board of Directors for the past 5 years. It was through AWAD that MK met fellow member, Eleanor Jordan (presently of Bleach Box Photography Gallery). Jordan offered Decorazon the opportunity to share her gallery space in the desirable Covent Garden district.
There, MK and Hugo continued their program, building up a strong network of British and European clients, and discovered fresh young artists like Guillaume Cornet. The two found Guillaume while touring an East London warehouse comprised of the studios of talented young artists honing their craft. The connection was instantaneous.
Cornet represents the caliber of art many galleries seek out.
Why? Because his work is both marketable and really good. Plus, he’s easy and fun to work with. Most gallery owners don’t have the time or energy to deal with divas.
But what makes his work so resonant is worth unpacking. Guillaume produces intricate and colorful illustrations of city-scapes full of characters, capturing the pulse of his city-subject in minute detail; the kind of drawings you could stare at for hours and still see something new. “We’ve got collectors who have had works for years and tell us they’re still discovering new characters or scenes they hadn’t noticed before,” MK tells us.
Not to mention, his execution is flawless- one could benefit from looking at the work under a magnifying glass. A look at his process in this short video demonstrates just how detailed these amazing works are.
“Finding Guillaume was a dream. Really all our artists are fantastic or else we wouldn’t have taken them on. But Guillaume’s a great representation of what Decorazon Gallery is all about. He sums up all those things we look for in artists: super-talented and producing high-quality art that’s engaging conceptually, good-energy, diligent in his practice, brimming with unique ideas and quirks. And of course, he’s kind.”
That’s the key: Cornet produces work that is conceptually interesting and stylistically captivating. His work fascinates children and adults alike, but it doesn’t come off as infantile- perhaps because it’s so well done. It doesn’t take an art expert to recognize the talent required to create these illustrations. They are playful and yet they command respect- the hard work put into them is quite obvious. Yet, they aren’t obtuse- their subject matter is relatable. When we gaze at the skylines of Cornet’s drawings, we recognize them as home or else places we’ve visited – or hope to. The characters sprinkled throughout feel accurate as well. It’s evident that the artist spends time residing in all the cities he depicts, from New York to Rome to Hong Kong.
It’s a good lesson: Find your Style. Keep it real, make what you know and do it well.
Since adding Cornet to their stable of artists, his career has continued to grow. His recent fully illustrated book, Elephants on Tour, put out by Laurence King Publishing, has received rave reviews. It’s now in circulation in 12 languages including Japanese, Catalan, and Portuguese. Currently, Cornet is producing a new body of work that will be unveiled in a solo exhibition in NYC later this year.
How DOES an Art Dealer Decide?
When MK finds a potential artist she asks herself several questions: Do I have chemistry with the art? Is there a good market for this kind of work right now? Will it sell? At the end of the day, she follows her gut.
“Selecting artists is intuitive. For me, when I discover a new artist, I’ll just know. Sometimes I even have dreams about their work. I can’t stop thinking about it, and that’s what seals the deal. It’s almost like a crush, the art fills up all the space in my brain and it’s all I can think about.”
When asked where they find their artists, who range from sculpture to painting to works on paper and everything in between (they even have an artist, Rosie Emerson, who works in the antique photo process of Cyanotypes), MK tells us their artists come from many avenues; word of mouth from friends, colleagues and fellow artists. “It’s all about your network, just like anything. But we are always open to new work that speaks to us and would appeal to our clients.”
“Somewhere in the middle of that Venn diagram of ‘will it sell’ and ‘do we love it’ is what we’re looking for. After all, a gallery has to be solvent. We can’t do any good for our artists if we don’t make enough money to sustain our business.”
It’s always a struggle to maintain a quality program with diverse work while also creating opportunities for those works to be seen. Which of course, costs money. Maximum exposure for their artists while staying solvent has been the focus for Decorazon Gallery these past six years. In 2013, the two embarked on a new gallery model: rather than maintain a physical gallery space, Decorazon would travel from art fair to art fair, presenting their program to the world.
“Travel has always been a driving factor in my life. Seeing the far-reaching corners of the world and experiencing new cultures is what inspires me and motivates me more than anything else,” says MK. “When we were burdened with maintaining a flagship gallery, we were always afraid we were missing out on whatever might be happening in other parts of the world. It made sense at the time and thus far has been the right move for us. Because our program is so full of artists with diverse backgrounds, and our collectors are from all over, the appeal for our artists has always been very international, not specific to any one location. It just made more sense to take that sensibility and apply it to our exhibition model.”
It’s a model that more and more dealers have shifted to in a progressively global economy. Real estate is expensive and permanent locations are much too localized- which is often limiting- with the artworld’s clientele increasingly international. Whereas technology allows for many transactions to happen online, initial exposure is still key and often the first step in building collector-relationships. Art fairs offer the chance to show work to large audiences and their transient nature allows the freedom to pack up and move onto the next thing. But the fairs present their own set of challenges.
“Everything has become more expensive- booth rental, promotion, shipping. The costs have all gone up a lot over the years. But Art Fairs are like an addiction— it’s a gamble, for good and for bad. You just never know: you may have a good return, or you may just break even. Sometimes you take a hit. Plus, they’re exhausting. But, most of the time it’s worth it. Even after all these years, they still excite me. You never know who will stumble into your booth. When a new person connects with the works we show, which we’re both so personally and financially invested it- I live for those moments. It’s through that mutual love of a piece of art that we feel connected to others.”
In March, sandwiched between Armoy Week and the Affordable Art Fair, Decorazon Gallery will exhibit a solo show of Guillaume’s new series at the Roger Smith Art Hotel.* MK sees this as an appropriate return following the start of her gallerist career back at the Red Room on Avenue A, to once again show work in innovative places like the Roger Smith, where art is shown in new contexts and for broader audiences. In addition to the exhibition’s attendees, the work will be seen by the hundreds of hotel guests and patrons that traffic the space daily.
*please note this event has been postponed until further notice due to concerns surrounding the Corona Virus.
As for what’s next for Decorazon Gallery, they’ve got another year jam-packed full of art fairs, exhibitions and projects. Beyond that, MK says, “ Who knows, the future is always on the horizon and change is the only constant. What that looks like exactly is hard to say, but we’re focused on the bend and invested in the future of our artists. Each artist has their own trajectory and we can’t wait to see through on their destinies and help in whatever way we can.”
When asked what advice MK would offer emerging artists:
“Perseverance is key: opportunity truly is talent meets preparedness. Work on your craft. Make goals and connect with people. Keep your mind clear. Stay focused. Be prepared, and get yourself out there where those opportunities are waiting for you.”
Edited after publication on 3/10. Please note this event has been postponed until further notice due to concerns surrounding the Corona Virus: If you’ll be in NYC, be sure to check out Decorazon at the Roger Smith Art Hotel GUILLAUME CORNET Les Éléphants á New York, March 18-24, and the Affordable Art Fair, booth D15, March 25- 29.
Artists, what goals do you have for 2020? Share your plans for preparedness and what opportunities you’re gunning for this year in the comments below.