Jen Bekman: Going on her nerve
By Kelly Kingman
In late 2002, unemployed and facing low demand for her Internet community development skills, Jen Bekman found herself contemplating what exactly she had to show for her hard-won earnings, besides a handful of vintage posters and mid-century pottery. “I went through this process of looking at things I had acquired that had lasting value,” said Bekman. She’s sitting in the office nook that overlooks her pocket-sized gallery space, currently filled with the candy hued work of Kate Bingaman-Burt. She looks slightly younger than her thirtysomething years, wearing a dark grey sheath and motorcycle boots. “I never acquired art and wished that I had because I knew that it would have been something that was enduringly important to me. I didn’t acquire art because I didn’t think that I could. I thought to myself ‘how come there are people like me, who work for their money, who don’t feel like they can do this?’”
Her résumé already included stints as a poetry major, switchboard operator, jewelry designer, jazz publisher and producer, and of course, online community developer. But in March of 2003, she added one more title gallerist and opened her gallery with a cashed out 401(K) in a former jewelry store in Nolita. “I read an article about the area a long time ago, about how the scale of the buildings would prevent them from becoming superstores. I didn’t want the Gap to move in across the street. I wanted to be in a neighborhood,” says Bekman. “And I love the layers of diversity it’s Little Italy that’s become Chinatown that’s become hipster. I wanted to be in a place where people were doing other things besides art, because I’m interested in other things besides art.”
Her goal was to curate interesting shows of emerging artists and appeal to both the established and the new collector, and hope for the best. “I’ve made significant personal sacrifices to stay open since I’m not on the beaten path in Chelsea and I’m showing emerging artists,” says Bekman. “I don’t come from this world. I came into it with no connections.” Through following her instinct for unique artists and unusual group shows, she’s gradually built a following, and used her Internet savvy to draw new people to the gallery.
Last month, the Jen Bekman Gallery launched its latest innovation, a twice-weekly edition of prints called 20x200 (www.20x200.com). Inspired by similar sites like TinyShowcase.com, the name refers to editions of 200 small prints that are available for $20 each. A medium-sized edition of 20 is offered at $200, as well as a large-sized edition of two for $2000 each. “My frustration all along has been having people come through and I see that they want to buy things but they can’t or they just weren’t ready,” says Bekman. “I really wanted to address a range of collectors existing collectors but also to give new collectors a path to follow. It’s been really fun.” Since the official launch of 20x200, word has spread quickly. Now some editions of the small prints sell out in a few hours after they go online. “I don’t think that something has to be expensive to be good. It’s a very personal experience,” says Bekman.
The personal experience of collecting, Bekman feels, is not a one-way street. “When a collector buys from me they’re having an impact on someone’s career, they’re making it possible for that person to continue to make art. There aren’t a lot of consumer behaviors that have that same kind of feel-good hit,” she says. “You can really have an impact on someone’s career and also get to enjoy the art, too.”
With four blogs one each for the gallery, the quarterly photo competition she runs, 20x200, and a personal blog she’s a self-proclaimed “poster child for digital media.” At the same time, she is aware of her role as a gallery owner. “It’s very important to me that while I do all this populist stuff, that my artists are doing work that is informed by a credible thesis,” says Bekman. “It’s a bit of a balancing act. I’m not interested in being the ‘affordable art gallery.’ ”
Jen Bekman is not one to sit still. She is working on developing her database “List of Women Speakers for Your Conference” and a website dedicated to a Bowery arts district. In the meantime, she hopes 20x200 will encourage people to consider themselves collectors. “Until you’ve actually bought something and understood the specialness of it, I think there’s big shift with that. With 20x200 it’s a way that anyone can try it.” She also continues to believe that anything is possible if she trusts her instincts. “My blog is called Personism from a poem by Frank O’Hara and one of the lines is you just go on your nerve,” Bekman tells me. “I’m definitely not always right and I’ve definitely made mistakes, but they’re my mistakes and not because I’m trying to listen to someone externally.”
“Kate Bingaman-Burt: Obsessive Consumption” runs through October 27 at Jen Bekman Gallery, 6 Spring Street, near Bowery, 212-219-0166, jenbekman.com.