Interviews with Experts: Barbara Krakow and Andrew Witkin, Krakow Witkin Gallery
Barbara Krakow and Andrew Witkin jointly run the Krakow Witkin Gallery, a contemporary art space in Boston with a rare no-haggle pricing model. Barbara entered the art world in 1959 with a gallery space in her house and cycled through several outside partnerships before striking out on her own with the Barbara Krakow Gallery in 1983. Andrew entered her life in 1999 and became her partner in the mid-2000s. The gallery's name changed last summer to reflect their partnership. The duo eschews business titles in favor of a collaborative working environment for them and their five full-time staff members.
Q: Was the gallery name change a big deal for both of you?
Andrew: Yes, huge. Barbara had various partners over the years and then made this dramatic statement in 1983 by saying, “I'm going to go out on my own. I don't want to have to deal with the complications of partnership; I'm going to do my own thing.' So years later for her to say, ‘I'm willing to do that again’—that's an incredibly big deal and, I would say, a fairly rare thing for someone to hand over part of a gallery when it's still her time. A lot of people would be like, 'You can have this when I'm gone.' For Barbara to do it now, when we still have many years ahead, really is a very big deal from her end, and certainly from my end as well.
Barbara: It is actually gigantic. We have seen situations where the name of the gallery is the name of a person, and let's say I'm not here anymore—how does Andrew then establish his world identity? If he then changes the name of the gallery just to him, people will say, 'Well, I don't know that name.' This way, during all the building of relationships, his identity is there as a partner. It's extremely, extremely important for him and for his future.
Q: What does your working relationship look like?
Andrew: We collaborate on everything. And that’s been going on for many years, so the name change was kind of the final part of letting that be known publicly, so that there is no real change that occurs. Also, Barbara's not going anywhere anytime soon. We've had people ask if Barbara's not around as much and the answer is ‘Hell, no,’ she's around as much as ever. That's the way I want it and I know it's the way she wants it. It’s about continuity. We both know people, and obviously there’s always somebody that one of us knows that the other one doesn’t, but we really try to make it as open and seamless and collaborative as possible. That goes for the whole staff as well. It's no longer a forever changing group of people who are here two to five years. It’s a family, really. People have been here 10 years or more. That really makes it an institution with history and memory—not only for the artist, but for visitors and for us as a team.
Q: Why don't you have job titles?
Andrew: It used to be that Barbara was president and I was director and partner. We did the analysis of what titles we should have because we also wanted to make sure that everyone had titles they felt comfortable with and proud of. We started looking at galleries that had different titles for different people in different roles of partnership, and it just seemed that no matter how much people talk about being partners, the titles seemed to be about some sort of hierarchy. We wanted to eliminate titles. So our business cards just say our names and 'Krakow Witkin Gallery.' Which I think gets the point across. If you go to Exxon and you see Mr. Exxon, you understand that it's his business.
Q: What does your position entail? What does a normal day look like for you?
Andrew: It involves showering, and eating, and we do go to the bathroom … but more seriously, a day can involve travel, it can involve installing a show, it can involve putting together a show, it can involve meetings with clients, with artists, with curators. It can involve talking to school groups. It can involve doing paperwork, trying to come up with new ideas and strategize different things. It can be spent analyzing data. It can be spent reading reviews or books or statements or anything. It always involves time spent looking at art.
Q: How did you get your start in the art world?
Barbara: Mine was so just arbitrary that it doesn’t make sense. I was working in a furniture showroom on Newbury Street selling expensive Danish teak furniture. My husband and I had gone to Europe and we stopped at some galleries. In Europe the art was so much less expensive than at home, so I began to buy some things. Back home, somebody else said, 'Why don't you ask your boss if you can hang those in the showroom? You have clients coming in, they have walls. They have decorators.' So it was really somebody else's idea, which obviously I jumped on. It wasn’t a directed thing that I knew this is what I wanted to do and I had to find the ways to get there.
Andrew: That’s part of the beauty of Barbara, that intuitive ability. She didn’t necessarily set out to have a business selling art. She takes undergrad art classes, then she’s on Newbury Street where the galleries are. She's a 21-year-old going in and out of galleries. She goes to Paris and goes and looks at this stuff and can price-discern in the late '50s. And that’s awesome.
Barbara: I also hung artwork at a theater. I’d do every show. I lived in a carriage house, and one day somebody came knocking on the door looking to purchase some art. I have this 9-month-old son and he’s crying and they want to look at some art. It’s obviously not professional. Then I gave it some thought and said, 'What would happen if I moved it out of the house?'
Andrew: My story is a little different. I did my undergrad in Connecticut at Wesleyan, studying both math and art. The art people took more of an interest in me. I just found myself being taken more under their wing and being more excited for the open-ended possibilities for my own brain, and so I started getting jobs within the art world.
I worked for a couple galleries on 57th Street in New York, mostly in the education departments of museums, and then I had to move back to Boston to help take care of my mother as she was dying. It seems that everyone I had worked for previously had called Barbara. So … I got this email being like, 'I don't know who you are, but apparently everyone thinks that I need to talk to you. I don't have a job for you, but why don't you come in for an interview anyway?' So I had to go out and find a tie, and then I took a bus up to Boston and met with her and we had a great interview.
Barbara: After, I wrote Andrew the following: 'Based on your recommendations, you ought to run for president. If you're not going to be doing that, we can give you a job in the gallery.' Obviously by that I meant that I thought maybe we might have an ethical moral person in that presidential position, but it was really more an indication to him that whoever I spoke to obviously praised him so greatly. It was a communication to him to let him know what other people thought about him.
Q: How has your relationship evolved since then?
Barbara: Through all the years of working together, we're just so in sync with concepts—certainly moral and ethical, which we consider to be the prime thing. And when we have differences, we have conversations about it. We go back and forth. It's a very open situation here—everybody’s privy to every single decision that goes on. It’s a very unified staff. Everyone has been here a long time, and it just moves with such great accord. Everybody respects everybody, so it’s an incredible environment to be in.
Q: What kind of artists are you attracted to and what kind of artwork do you like to sell?
Barbara: We sell what we actually believe in and what we are committed to, so it has nothing to do with thinking, 'An audience might like to see this, they might like color, they might like pink sweaters.' That is not our position. Basically, it's Minimal/conceptually-driven work. It is tougher, but that’s what we believe in. Ultimately, people then know why they would want to come to this gallery or why they wouldn’t want to come to this gallery. It’s all about what we believe in, so it’s not like we’re ever showing something we don’t care about. I think that’s one of the keys to success internationally.
Q: Barbara, do you feel you've had any special challenges as a woman working in the art world?
Barbara: No—here’s the funny thing. When you’re in the ruling seat, you’re less inclined to really come across issues or major challenges. They obviously exist, there’s no question about it, but there’s a little cushion that one has when you can say, 'This is what I want to do,' and not have it be knocked down, or have someone say that’s not acceptable, or have someone taking advantage because you’re a woman with no power. It does relieve you from those situations and if there are any situations—difficult clients, or whatever—you know what? You just don’t deal with them. It’s as simple as that. When you're the boss, they don’t have the power to make you do anything you don’t want to do.
Q: Is there a disadvantage to having your gallery in Boston?
Barbara: By being in Boston, we have an extraordinary advantage that we would not have in New York. We can say, 'We'd like to show so-and-so’ and we can go to almost any gallery and be able to get work. By being here we can, and we do, represent every print publisher in the world who actually publishes prints in the arena of our interest. We are incredibly strong in Boston. We would be demolished in New York.
Andrew: One of the things to be wary of in our contemporary culture is how centrally focused many people are. I’m aware that making such a generalization is part of such a problem, but it does seem that many people are generally looking/listening/heading in the same directions/locations. There are a few popular things and people go there. I think one of the things that we would like to think that we do a pretty good job of is being outside of that, and touting the benefits of that in terms of, 'It's OK not to be in the center. It's OK not to be in London, Berlin, New York, what have you.' Boston’s one of the academic and intellectual centers of the world so every significant theoretician, art historian, writer, speaker comes through town, and all the universities have guest lectures with artists and there’s tons of exhibitions. It’s a fairly multi-faceted location. The idea of not being in New York—there is a stigma to it—but there are so many ways to turn that frown upside down. It’s quite exciting not to be doing the same thing everyone else is.
Q: If you could talk to yourself when you started your career (or a few years back, even), is there anything you would change or say to make your path easier?
Barbara: Absolutely not. Somebody once said to me, 'You don’t have to think up every idea yourself. It is really OK to ask your colleagues, “What do you think about this?"' It’s about a collegial thing and in truth, I don’t think we made any missteps along the way. Harvard Business School has done a case study on the gallery and the interesting thing is, they don’t criticize anything. When we first did it the professor said, 'For the first 50 minutes they’re going to really rip you apart and you have to remain silent and then you will have time to answer for some of the issues.' But neither Andrew nor I have found anything that they criticized. We have a no-discount policy which I don't think any other gallery in the world has, and everyone’s wondering how you can survive when everybody does something and you don’t. But then you listen to the students and they love it—it makes them equal, somebody isn’t more favored than they are. The sense of inclusion is psychologically very important. Interestingly, with this policy which should have closed our doors years ago, we've been incredibly successful.
Andrew: There are 1,001 things I would like to do differently. I feel like I make mistakes all the time, but one of the amazing things about mistakes is that if you’re willing and admit it you can learn from it. There’s a ton of things I’d like to go back and change, but if you did, would you be where you are now? We’ve all gone on our paths. There are things to do better. Just yesterday we had a two-hour meeting about what we need to do differently. One of the things Barbara taught me, and I think it’s business 101, is don’t rest on your laurels. Anytime you’re doing something well, think about what you’re not doing well and try to do that better. Always be changing. It sometimes gets exhausting but it’s beneficial in the long run, for you, your artists, and your visitors.
Q: What's the best part of your job?
Andrew: That the best part always changes, but always near the top is getting to work with artists and people who are interested in art, and who try to make the world more appreciative to creativity from all sorts of different angles.
Barbara: Also, we sometimes have hot dog contests.
Andrew: The way it’s supposed to run is that you're taste-testing two different types of hot dogs. There are Pearl Hot Dogs, which are definitively the greatest in the world. Then there’s whatever other brand somebody else thinks is as good. You cook them both, cut them up, and you're blindfolded, and you do a taste test to see which is better. To this day, Barbara thinks that I am full of shit because I couldn’t taste the difference, but she cheated! The hot dogs I like are really juicy, so she took her boring run-of-the-mill hot dogs, doused them in the Pearl juice and gave that to me. Her hot dogs are so dry and boring that they don’t have anything and they sponged up all that taste. So to this day she thinks she won the contest.
Barbara: I actually did. I’ll let him rant about it, but I guarantee you that I did win. As for the best part of the job, I have the task of answering requests that come from Google or wherever. There are about 1,000 a month. These are questions like, 'We're interested in this particular work, can you give us information about and the price?' I’ve said many times, it’s like getting valentines, but then you write them back and you never hear from them. So a joyous time is when you hear from them and they say thank you. I get very disappointed when people don’t answer. I think it's a lack of etiquette, but people on the internet, you know, they don't know you.
Q: How does a gallery survive a recession?
Andrew: The main thing is strength and experience. Barbara started in 1959, so if you say ‘the recession,’ it's not just one—there have been a few. Each time, she has really led the charge in saying, 'This is what’s going on, let’s make sure we keep our costs low. Let’s be honest about the situation.' We run our gallery out of a 2,000-square-foot space. We have five employees. The real idea is that you keep your costs as low as possible so you can keep going at all times. During the recession it was slower, but we were fine. We had no staff cuts. We weren’t bleeding like so many others do.
Q: How does ArtBase make your job easier?
Barbara: The question is not what ArtBase can do, but what does it not do? Well, it does not make coffee, it does not lick stamps, it does not frame. Other than that, every single job that needs to be tackled is accomplished, with perfection, with ArtBase's programs. Without ArtBase I would have to add 15 more people to my staff to do the job that ArtBase does in 1/100th of a second and with more accuracy. It does everything. That’s not an exaggeration—the programs, and they keep upgrading them, are so incredible that they absolutely do everything. If you said to me now, 'I’m interested in this particular artist, can you send me images and documentation?' In about two seconds, I can just find it, click on it and it just goes to you. I could go on and on and on. My gallery has used ArtBase since its inception, so my testament is based on years of use.
Q: Do you have an all-time favorite artist or piece of art?
Andrew: No way. The idea of a single greatest, or anything like that, is antithetical to the way that we both think. There isn’t one that’s like the masterpiece. It’s really just not the way either one of us thinks.
Q: Are you both collectors?
Andrew: Barbara has a wonderful, large house and has elegantly installed the work throughout the house and has a few other pieces in storage, but not much else. If it’s not up, it’s not in the collection. I would like to think that on a smaller scale my wife and I have done that—both our homes are minimally, tastefully installed with both discrete works and some site-responsive installations—but I also have a storage space full of things.
When I was a kid my father was a criminal defense lawyer, and when you're a defense lawyer you have to keep your files for a certain number of years after a case ends. He did beyond that—he kept his cases from the 1950s on (all in a storage space in Framingam). As a kid I would go out and help him move boxes and every month we'd go out and find files. So the idea of a storage space was always sort of a fun thing to me. The storage space I have now, I love going to. I’ll literally just go, pull up a chair, open up a portfolio box or unwrap a work and sit there looking. It’s totally isolated, it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s so far from anything, so I really just get to spend time with the work in a very different way. So I love it.
Thanks, Barbara and Andrew!