Cody Rae Knue sits down with Robert Walden and Henry Chung, owners and directors of Robert Henry Contemporary.
56B: How did you get started with the gallery? You also run a vintage store, Robert Henry Vintage.
RW: That’s actually how it started; we opened a vintage house ware store, mostly from the 60’s and 70’s, in 2008. Since we had wall space we started showing artwork, our own work and that of our friends’. It was a great way to get people into the store. Now five years later we’re doing this. It just became something else.
HC: Robert and I are both artists as well. Using the wall space in our store to show work was just a logical decision. But at some point it really took over and we had to move the house wares online. Our retail space became purely an art gallery.
56B: You use to be in South Slope, when you did you migrate to Bushwick?
RW: We opened here on June 1st of last year.
56B: What brought you to 56 Bogart?
RW: Oh well, the aura that is Bushwick. We were fairly isolated in South Slope and we needed to be in a place that had more foot traffic for art. Bushwick proved to be that place for us.
56B: What made it the perfect fit?
RW: A community of like-minded people and affordability.
HC: The lack of community over where we were before was really very difficult for us because we were so isolated. We were far. [Laughs] It made it difficult to see what else was going on. Here we have this huge community of peers that we can talk to, throw ideas around with and even have meetings with other gallerists in the neighborhood. Everything feeds off everything else. When we have openings the crowd is more than double [than the South Slope location], especially when our openings sync up. That would never happen at our old space. They would have their opening and we had ours; there was no cross over.
RW: There were four galleries, including us. Sometimes we would we have openings on the same night but galleries were fairly spread out, it lacked critical mass. It’s an analogous to an artist working in his or her studio and never showing beyond the studio. Some people are satisfied with that and that’s fine, but to me it fundamentally misses a huge part of what art is: the engagement with other people.
HC: We have a responsibility with the artists that we work with. Having a space where nothing happens is pointless; it’s kind of a disservice to us as a gallery and to the artists. In a community like this, when we have openings, people are actually seeing [the artwork]. We get people who are blogging and people who are writing in various publications.
56B: What would you like to see happen to this area? It’s getting really built up but still a small, intimate community.
HC: I hope to see it continue to organically grow. I think what often happens with neighborhoods like Williamsburg or Red Hook, and even Long Island City, is it gets to a point where we are now, then people try to make it more and pump in money but all too quickly. That has a potential to really stop a wonderful thing right in its track. Not to say that I don’t want to see it grow, we all want to see it grow.
RW: Change is inevitable. Once a neighborhood is “discovered”, real estate people move in and prices go up. That squelches the ability for things to happen organically and for people to experiment
HC: Exactly, but we don’t want to see it change so quickly or so drastically that it ruins the character. People begin to show safe stuff because they need to pay the bills.
56B: Most of the work you show are drawings and collages, why that focus?
HC: We started showing art that we liked at our original space and it just happen to be that kind of work: some what abstract, some what minimal, and very conceptual. It’s a personal preference and our programming reflects that.
RW: It’s extremely personal. We don’t show what we wouldn’t own.
56Bogart: That’s a good motto to go by.
RW: We know galleries that show works because they think they can sell them. I don’t want to show work that I’m not aesthetically and conceptually engaged with. Why should I promote something that is not of any interest to me? It’s a particular way to run a gallery and I don’t think it’s unusual. It’s just having a point of view. Clients go to galleries or specific gallerist for their point of view. The gallery is the liaison with the artist and to be someone the client can develop a relationship with. To me that becomes difficult if the works shown at a gallery have no relationship to each other whatsoever.
56B: Totally. I think it allows you to reach out to a specific audience, because you are just as involved as they are.
HC: Yeah and people comment sometimes that we talk so well about the artist that we show and about the artwork. The reason is we are very much engaged; we really, really love the work we show.
RW: Yeah, it’s another aspect of building community. We have a community with our artists, we’re friendly with all of them, and we don’t show anyone we don’t know. We very much like knowing whom we work with, because it builds trust. It’s just more enjoyable for us. It creates a micro community, as well as making our interactions with the broader community more interesting and more meaningful.
56B: How long have you been working together?
RW: Six years?
HC: Yeah. Wait, no, four years and we’ve been together for six years, or is it seven? Yeah, seven.
56B: It’s great to see a couple working together. What’s your favorite part about owning a gallery?
HC: Well part of it is being surrounded by art all the time. I hadn’t really thought about it until someone mentioned it to me and I though “Oh wow, yeah!” It’s very nice but also being social, especially in this neighborhood. There’s a lot people we know, even from before we moved here, that are a part of this community. On any given weekend they come in and just chat, even strangers. It’s very social, I enjoy that quite a bit.
56B: I’ve been wondering, how did you decide whose name goes first in your name?
RW: Well, that was a long process.
HC: Originally we were going to call it Waldung.
RW: It didn’t catch on as well. [We all laugh] It actually started with the vintage store and we wanted it to be the name of person. We wanted it to sound like a person’s store rather than a company store.
HC: Henry or Robert could be a last name but we decided that Robert Henry had a better flow.
RW: Consequently, I’m often called Mr. Henry.
Robert Henry Contemporary is currently exhibition Louise Dudis, Eye Level with the Smallest Leaf. They will be participating in Bushwick Basil and Bushwick Open Studios, as well as having a rare group exhibition.