In The Beginning…
One of the earliest indications of the importance art would play in my life dates back to my childhood. While other little girls my age were saving their allowance to buy Barbie dolls, I remember the excitement of my first art purchase…an original Indian bark painting! My parents were puzzled.
As Russian immigrants, oblivious to contemporary art, they had no connection to the art world in our house of blank walls. Instead of rock stars or movie stars, my room was adorned with museum posters. As a teenager, paychecks from my first part-time job were spent at the bookstore, scavenging the sale tables for expensive art books to bring home. But, I was well into my twenties before I discovered the real impact art would have on my life.
I got a glimpse of it at the home of a high school friend, whose mother was an amateur artist and had studied at UCLA with Richard Diebenkorn, Bill Brice, Jan Stussy and Elliott Elgart. Walking into their home, I was immediately enveloped in the huge abstractions of color; those were the paintings that made me aware of the powerful presence of art. I began to study art at UCLA, thinking becoming a painter was my life’s path. I graduated with a degree in art, but had no clue what it really meant to be an artist. My university education taught me everything I needed to know about the technical aspects of art-making-painting, photography, sculpture; but I was ill equipped to deal with the business aspects of an art career. My next realization came after I graduated. Although technically proficient at art making, the long hours of solitary studio time felt like a punishment to a socially driven woman. It was then that I discovered I was not temperamentally suited to being an artist. Art was alive; I needed to be engaging with people and their primary experience of art. I realized I’d spent six years of a college education pursuing the wrong end of the art world. I had the mind and soul of an artist, but not the passion…I was a “people person.” At the time, I had no idea how to put these skills to use…or if I ever would. Determined not to let my entire education go to waste, I started teaching art in the L.A. City Unified School District, as a way to not only put my art training to some use but also to be involved in a collaboration. It only took a few years before I became disenchanted with the bureaucracy of school system and began to assess the possibilities of using my skills to benefit others.
Soon after graduating college, I met an artist, John White, who would later become my husband. He had a fairly well established art career and was involved in the vibrant LA art scene. It was the early 70′s. Contemporary art in Los Angeles was exciting and explosive. John introduced me to the world of the professional artist. He had already had major museum exhibitions and had exhibited widely across the U.S. With him, I frequented galleries, museums and private art collections around the world. John was one of the seminal California performance artists; we were immersed in the cutting edge art world…history in the making. Our circle of friends consisted primarily of artists, writers and collectors. My days were consumed by conversations with artists in their studios, and nights spent at gallery openings or performances. I was getting educated about the inner workings of the contemporary art world, by osmosis.
Working with John and talking to artist friends confirmed my post-degree revelation that most artists, even those with professional reputations, not only had difficulty presenting their work, but also were incapable of and almost opposed to promoting it. I was ready, willing and able and found myself happily anticipating the responsibility of promoting John’s work. Excited about the idea of flying around the country presenting his work to galleries, applying for grants, sending out slides…I stumbled into a niche I loved. I quickly learned that as much as I loved assuming those responsibilities, artists relished relinquishing them. It didn’t take long for me to be approached by other artists for career advice and suggestions. There existed a real need for someone to help educate artists about the business aspects of being a professional. It was 1979, almost 15 years after my first encounter with the abstract art that had such a profound impact on me. I resigned from the school district, determined to figure out a way of helping artists, and thus contribute to the Los Angeles art scene in some meaningful way.
Contemporary Artists’ Services was developed to help artists acquire the skills they needed survive in the business world. I began by doing consultations from home-one on one meetings to go over artists work and offer advice from my marketing experience and awareness of the local art scene…suggesting galleries I felt might be receptive to their particular work. Using my teaching experience, I developed a packet of essential materials that artists could take away from the session and study. These packets were the first of their kind, containing information artists needed about gallery approach and presentation, how to write a cover letter, how to label their slides, how to write an effective resume and apply for grants. Most artists just needed the support of knowing there was an objective person, familiar with the art world, who could give them a sense of direction and a focus about their work.
At first, reactions to the business were mixed. Established artists were afraid that if someone was to help younger artists, who were undeserving, or hadn’t “paid their dues” – it would in some way upset the delicate Darwinian balance of the art world. Galleries were suspicious, was I going to be a competitor? But, no one could deny that I was helping great numbers of artists. By the mid-80′s, Contemporary Artists’ Services was firmly established in Los Angeles. I was invited to teach and give workshops around the country in an area of specialization I developed…career management for visual artists.|
By 1986, Contemporary Artists’ Services grew to the point where I was not only advising artists, but representing them, as well. It was time to move the business out of my house and into a professional space, where I could exhibit the work of the artists who had entrusted me to promote their work. The office was in Culver City, not close to any galleries, so not in direct competition with galleries, but close to other art related tenants. I saw myself as a very specialized public relations firm, familiarizing galleries, museums, writers, and independent curators with the work of emerging, mid-career and established artists. By being very selective about the artists I represented, and working with a very small group of quality artists who recognized the need for professional services, I began to build the foundation of career development for a handful of artists.
By the late 80′s, the art world started to experience a recession. Commercial galleries responded by making it more difficult for emerging artists to get representation. They were now only interested in showing very blue chip artists, or those artists with an established sales history. As it became increasingly more difficult to acquire galleries for artists, it became apparent that we needed to provide an alternative for our artists to get public exposure. By continuing to provide career development services, as well as functioning as a gallery, we were able to provide the best of both worlds for our artists.
In 1990, we moved into a public gallery space in the heart of the Santa Monica Gallery district. This broadened the audience my artists were exposed to. Rotating exhibitions gave artists the opportunity to show a range of work and gain the public exposure they all need and want. Unburdened with the responsibilities of a conventional gallery, we were able to exhibit work, promoting it to other galleries, critics, and curators without having to worry about sales. Since its inception, Contemporary Artists’ Services has scheduled hundreds of exhibitions for artists in galleries and major museums, including international exhibitions in Germany, Spain, Japan, Canada, Austria, and Korea.
Though extremely successful on the West Coast and abroad, the New York gallery scene remained elusive. By 1994, we responded by opening up a second gallery/office space in New York. Located in the prestigious 560 Broadway building, right next door to Dean and Deluca, in the heart of Soho, Sylvia White Gallery enabled our artists to target a New York audience for their work, while promoting our services to New York artists, who previously had no where to turn. The gallery remained open for five years. But, by 1999, Soho was going through much transition. Many of the galleries were moving to Chelsea, and I was confronted with having to make a decision which would impact the audience of my artists work. I decided the smarter choice for me, as the business moved into a new century was to close the New York gallery and focus on expanding our website.
The Internet was just starting to create new opportunities for artists, and I wanted to be sure we had the energy and resources to take advantage of it. www.ArtAdvice.com was launched in 1997. Although it didn’t seem like a pioneering effort at the time, use of the Internet was just a fraction of what it was to become. Hundreds of thousands of artists from all over the world have benefited from the information on the site. It has given Contemporary Artists’ Services and the artists I represent a level of recognition that was never before possible.
From 2002 to 2007, the gallery and offices were located in a quiet courtyard building in Santa Monica, just minutes away from Bergamot Station. But, there were still new challenges ahead. In 2008, as the first established art gallery to make the move from Santa Monica to Ventura, I opened Sylvia White Gallery, committed to bringing museum quality exhibitions to Ventura County. By continuing the role as a pioneer, I strive to be a reliable and giving source of energy to an art world that has given me so much. For more information, please visit my gallery website, www.sylviawhite.com