Then She Did LIC Art Exhibition: Melissa McCaig-Welles and Lori Zimmer
I made my way to the swanky, LES based, The Ludlow House to interview Lori Zimmer and Melissa McCaig-Welles on their recent splash. The two are partners on a gallery project that has turned up a storm. Their most recent exhibit, Then She Did, a massive mixed-media, all-women show, drew strong reactions.
Hosted at Plaxall Gallery, I was among the Long Island City crowd. The energy was clearly perceptive even in that huge space. I rotated between the crackers and cheese in one room to the wine in the other. The art was diverse with a blend of styles depicting the many stories of female artists, exploring notions of gender, identity, self, love, and more. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. But there was also some nasty backlash.
Meeting the two women, I sensed their aura. Lori was energetic and upbeat, while Melissa was cool and collected. As the three of us sat down in the lounge, I asked about their own stories - how they came to the scene, their thoughts on the art market, and the power of women in the art world.
Get Knocked Down, Pick Yourself Up
Speaking about Then She Did: “we pulled together a really great group of artists.” Melissa said. Lori followed up, “we already had a lot of the artists in our wheelhouse, so it wasn’t hard to bring it together.”
Lori continued, “we’ve been working with [the artists] for a while, we have good relationships, people were excited for it.” Citing the reasons they were able to put together a big show so quickly and successfully. “It was easy to get people on board.” The positive energy carried itself.
Both Lori and Melissa have been in the art world for a few years, and experience has wizened them to the dos-and-don'ts of running the show. Although their careers have followed different trajectories, their paths brought them together.
Melissa came into the scene as an artist. She attended Hunter college for painting, and the plan was to pursue the brush. After graduating, she worked part time at a gallery, but it was not the experience she hoped it would be.
At the time, around 1999, Melissa had just moved to Williamsburg. These were the days before the gentrifying wave hit. After a rough day at the gallery, she was shambling through South Williamsburg, when she spotted a space for rent. Around 3000 sq/ft for $2000. Pretty cheap.
"In a fleeting moment, I was like, I’m gonna do it.” Melissa said.
Sometimes you just gotta say fuck it, and take the jump. She signed the lease that day, and things grew from there.
Melissa was introduced to the street world early on. The first feature of the McCaig-Welles Gallery was David Ortiz, a prominent street artist of Puerto Rican descent. From there, the ball got rolling. Her network was made of graffiti and street artists. She actually has known most of the artists she represents today since the early years. The roster on Melissa’s website features names like Shepard Fairey, Futura, and Swoon among others.
As Melissa passed the mic, Lori laughed. “Mine’s a more convoluted path.”
Lori studied photography in undergrad, down in Philly. She moved to New York and interned at Paper Mag. At the time, Paper Mag was well-regarded as being artsy, edgy, and cool. Being alone in the big city and Lori as an only child, her parents were quick to freak her out about New York life, which made her move back to Philly.
There, Lori worked at the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. While she liked working with classical music, she outgrew the job, and as her boss was leaving, he encouraged her to take a leap of faith into something new.
“He told me, 'look you’ve always talked about going to grad school for art history and art business, here’s your letter of recommendation.’ ”
She then packed up for NYC in 2006, and got a master’s degree.
Lori began working as sales director at a gallery. With her charismatic personality, she talked with all kinds of people at shows, enjoyed meeting and greeting creative minds, but unexpectedly got fired.
Put out, Lori decided not to get knocked down. She founded Art Nerd New York. With it, Lori researched and wrote about the history of art culture in the city. Her insightful and witty articles attracted attention, and helped Art Nerd grow. Since its 2010 inception on Tumblr, the page grew tremendously to become a ‘bonafide website’ in late 2011. In 2013, Art Nerd became partner with Google Field Trips. Over the years, Art Nerd has racked up an impressive array of relationships with magazines and organizations.
Many of the artists she had met in the art world reached out to her, "I never stole contacts… but everyone found me.” Lori explained, “so, it’s like ok, I did something right here.” She then wrote about artists, giving them exposure, and promotion.
Art Nerd was an integral turning point for Lori. It gave her focus, respect, and notoriety. In the beginning, she had to write for free. “You have to really love it, to do it.” She said. [As a writer, I’ve felt both that pain and joy.]
In the years since, Lori has authored two books with more to come. It was by way of reading that I first found Lori. While doing research on street art, I came across The Art of Spray Paint, and among the many books I’ve read on the subject, this was one of the most informative and opened my eyes to the possibilities of graffiti art.
Partners in Art
When I asked how they met, Lori and Melissa looked at each other and laughed. They’ve been acquaintances for a few years. Facebook-friends, but not friend-friends. One day, Melissa came across Lori’s page and was entertained by her posts. She realized they shared a lot of interests. Melissa thought: “jeez, we have so much in common. I feel like we need to meet.” So she reached out. “And the rest is history.”
Lori and Melissa each bring their own strengths to play. In creating Then She Did, they spoke about the process. Despite the epic scale of the show, it was put together last minute. What made it a success, was the two women’s talent and hustle.
“I’m used to throwing things together last minute, so it wasn’t a big deal.” Lori said. Melissa agreed, "most of these shows are last minute, you never have that year to plan.” Deadline panic is a powerful creative force.
I was curious to hear the perspective of gallery owners and art organizers on establishing relationships. Lori doesn’t like to be solicited via social media, as every day she gets the cut-and-paste "can-you-help-me-sell yadi-yadas" that people blast out on DMs. However, she is open to meet artists she finds interesting, if they are respectful. It comes down to “being treated like a human.”
Melissa will “meet people through an artist or a friend or at a fair,” and is always looking for new work. Still, Melissa has maintained relationships and a repertoire with many of the people she started out with. “A lot of the artists I work with, I’ve been working with for a long time.”
The McCaig-Welles & Zimmer partnership has no physical space — rather they operate freely, doing pop-up shows and big events in rented galleries. “It’s the way to be.” Lori said. “I need my freedom.” She joked, “it sucks sometimes. You give up a lot of things. End of day, co-workers, health insurance.”
But they both agreed it’s a better business decision. "Closing the gallery was the smartest thing I ever did.” Melissa said. The McCaig-Welles Gallery in South Williamsburg lasted ten years and closed down in 2009. For a short while, Melissa owned a space in San Francisco, but the call of the road led her to let it go.
I asked their thoughts on the art market.
“It is a fickle beast.” Lori said.
“It’s nonsensical.” added Melissa.
When the market crashed in 2008, the repercussions weren’t felt in the art world for almost a year. But when it hit, it hit hard. In the glory days, if a show had 20 pieces, there would be a 100 suitors. Shows would sell out before they opened. Credit cards ready at the door.
"New York has changed, the world has changed. [Galleries] aren’t financially unfeasible.” Lori explained. But, “there’s no guarantee it will do well.”
One of the opportunities the new found freedom has brought, is the power to travel. Lori spoke about her love for Paris and Berlin, where she wrote her book. She often travels with her boyfriend, renowned artist Logan Hicks. [She joked he’s her “beard-friend,” thanks to his impressive facial growth.] Melissa has done shows in Moscow and Beirut, and she’s been in contact with a gallery in Greece about an Athens show.
Gallery operators need a discerning eye. This is something learned in time. In the beginning, Melissa’s artistic sensibilities were still undefined. She experimented with showing a range of styles, before settling into street art. Over time, Melissa has cultivated her sense of aesthetic.
Lori had strong opinions. She and I had recently discussed the work of an artist I hold with high regard, but she didn’t care much for. “I know I’m highly opinionated, I’m not saying I’m right.” Still, if one is to represent art, perhaps one should have strong opinions.
As they explained to me, it is the curator’s job not to just show pretty work - it’s learning to tell a story with the artists you show. “[At first] it wasn’t evident to me. The curator’s job, is to bring what they think is the crème de la crème to an audience, to tell a narrative.” Lori said and Melissa nodded “that’s the creative part of it.”
Given both their backgrounds in street art, I asked their thoughts on the scene. “Thoughts on street artists? There’s too many.” Lori joked. The hype around street art has brought a lot of new faces. The result: much of the art is repetitive or redundant. But originality is key.
“The number one thing for me… is that I don’t want to think of someone else.” Lori said. She shrugged. Street art may be diluted by the flood of new artists, but the public loves it. “For the longest time, I felt like I was the champion of street art, but it doesn’t need me anymore.” Lori explained.
Melissa’s opinions have grown. In terms of curation, she played with different ways of creating distinction in the work she showed. Often, she would feature lesser known pieces next to blue-chip artists who were better established. She doesn’t like to always show the same work or stagnate her own creative process. Rather, she’s continued to grow her own aesthetic.
As Melissa put it: “I’m interested in things that make people think and talk.”
After the reactions to Then She Did, Melissa has once again been re-examining her thoughts on what art she wants to show.
“This show has taught me not to be afraid to step outside of my boundaries and push artwork that might be controversial, works that cause a stir, artwork that provokes discussion. I think this is important, especially now.”
Then She Did
Given the charged political climate in which our society now exists, Melissa and Lori were careful in how they presented Then She Did. They wanted it to be thoughtful. Here is the press release:
"The artists from Then She Did not only choose who they want to be but, how they want to think and how they want to influence others. They take us on a journey through the personal revolutions of everyday women in America, whose diverse methods and beliefs are only stronger when unified. The catalyst for change has become sidetracked with a judgmental wave, a seemingly widespread personal obsession with being “right” that has somehow taken precedence over working toward what’s right. Incessant attacks over doing too much or not enough, speaking or not speaking, forgetting to include a group or an issue, including too many groups or issues- we’ve begun to pick apart how we enact change, which deters change from happening itself. This distraction of in-fighting doesn’t get anyone anywhere, stalls progress, and creates enemies of allies. Then She Did presents various approaches and views on sexuality, strength, femininity, independence, support, societal norms, roles, methodology, art, and activism, which speak instead of shout, and invite discussion instead of criticism.”
Speaking as a writer, it is an incredibly articulate. It presents a nuanced view on art and society. Nonetheless, there were haters.
Melissa woke up early and checked her email. There, at the top of the pile, was an email sent around 4 AM. The message was an angry rant, denouncing Then She Did as being “bullshit feminism” and “post-Marxist.” Melissa was bewildered. "I thought, okay maybe this guy’s just been up all night on a bender or something.”
She sent him a polite response ending with a “wish you well.” She thought peace was made and whatever issued settled. But then, he responded later that afternoon with an even more aggressive, misogynistic message, going on about how “men build and rebuild the world and woman just respond.”
Melissa found the whole thing bizarre. She showed the emails to Lori, and they did some research on the man. As it turns out, he sits on the board for Friends of Marie Zimmermann - a decorative artist, and a groundbreaking female designer of jewelry and metalwork. That a man with such sour opinions of feminism sits among shareholders of a female artist would seem a conflict. Hate is not without its irony. Lori and Melissa forwarded the emails to his employer, so they could judge for themselves who they want associated with Marie’s legacy.
Although art often espouses an egalitarian ethos, real-world situations arise that often belittle women in galleries. “You had to be a total bitch to be taken seriously, or just like ‘hehehe’” Lori said, mocking the roles women are pushed to perform. But despite that, she never felt any direct prejudice.
“Honestly, I’ve been fortunate enough to be living in a bubble for the last 8 years. I haven’t really been treated unfairly for being a woman, until recently.” Lori said. “Like in the last year. It’s changing. It’s reverting to the 50s.” The backlash to Then She Did opened her eyes.
The experience made an impression on both Melissa and Lori. Rather than be intimidated by it, they intend to explore feminism more deeply. “Part of what kept me away from 'feminist art,’ for so long was that a lot of it seemed angry and preachy.” Lori explained.
With Then She Did, the intention hadn’t been an explicit feminist idea, but rather just to raise up female artists who deserved more exposure.
“[Now] we do want to be more involved. The goal is to — I don’t want to say empower, because that’s a tricky word — but validate female artists who should be validated anyway.” Lori explained.
Their recent successes should provide plenty of opportunity for that. A week after Then She Did, the two woman represented at Scope Art Fair, showcasing the proactive photography of Joanne Leah. Joanne’s work takes a playfully erotic approach to bondage, dazzled in neon colors. Her art served on the poster of Then She Did.
Both the Scope booth and Then She Did have earned Melissa and Lori acclaims. Several galleries have already reached out, wondering if they’d like to take Then She Did on the road.
What the future holds is uncertain. In addition to their work as a pair, each have their own solo projects. Melissa is in talks about a show in Greece, and Lori is working on her next book. Still, they’ve shown the art world what they can do when they work together.
Lori smiled at Melissa. “It’s a process of partnering with the wrong people, until you find the right people.”
Photo courtesy of Then She Did (Artists credit from top to bottom: Vahge, Marne Lucas, Elizabeth Winnel, Joanne Leah, and Rebecca Reeve)