Mirror Images
"Hit and Run/Kenny Schachter's Roving Gallery"
by Claude Solnik
September 10 - September 24, 1995
pg 17

For every curator, every show is different. For Kenny Schachter, a lot more than the art is new. So are the walls, the floors and usually the address. While other people have been busy wailing over the presence of empty storefronts in Soho, Schachter has been turning them into temporary galleries. One of a few independent curators not tied to a single space, he seizes on spaces from old toy factories, garages and jewelry stores and while they're vacant he turns them into exhibitions spaces.

Whether you call him an "independent curator", a thoughtful opportunist or just a guy with a roving gallery, he's onto something. The sites of his shows are as varied as the art and sometimes they're part of the art. In 1991, he did "Decorous Beliefs" in an abandoned factory at 89 Greene Street. Back in 1992, his "Unlearning" was in what he calls a "high flying extravagant gallery that went under after the recession." His "I Could Do That", in April, 1993, was in an abandoned jewelry store. And his most recent show, above Flamingo East in the East Village, was dubbed "Either/Or" about hermaphrodites through art, history and photography. He is an independent curator, a rebel with a cause (and a space that varies) and a Galahad of the gallery world, or even a guerrilla grabbing spaces (legally, of course) and turning them into exhibitions halls.

"It's been called guerrilla what I do. Or nomadic," he says. "In the mid-80's, there was the following situation: clubs popped up in one location and then moved to another. They had this transient structure. These clubs would unfold in one space and disappear without having a permanent location that tied them down. That was a model. I thought it would be great to have these hit and run shows. There are so many sites in Soho"

Possibly unfortunately, he's right. As rising rents have meant a shift from galleries to retail, Schachter has stepped in to fill the gap at some spaces. When the space is there, a realtor's credo might be, the retailer will arrive. But in the interim, Schachter shows up. He's found realtors who are sympathetic to his cause and see it as a way of bringing in some rent while still seeking a long-term tenant. And so Kenny Schachter, with a law degree that has come in handy in setting up this business, has become Soho's best-known, least-known curator.

"The fact is, for the first time in five years, I'm doing this full time," he says. "I slowly weaned myself off my legal practice. I always cover my expenses and make a small profit."

He's not the first wandering curator, but at the moment he's possibly the one at it in and near Soho the longest. Most independent curators are affiliated with an institution. In the mid 80's, Trisha Collins and Richard Millazo made a living independently curating at different galleries and museums. Ultimately, they went the way of many curators by opening their own gallery. It's something that seems like a next step, but one Schachter is in no hurry to take.

"It gets a lot easier," says Schachter. "However, it's hard work to be independently based."

Other "independent curators" have moved on to other things. Dan Cameron, a critic for Art & Auction magazine, curates large scale shows in Europe (now a curator with the New Museum). Jeffrey Deitch became a free roaming curator and consultant. He set up the art consulting department for Citi Bank and then went out on his own (and has now since opened a permanent gallery). But Schachter still sees these rent-and-run or hit-and-run shows as a viable alternative to the fixed stars of the art scene. Stubbornly, Schachter has stuck to this gypsy-like way of opening a new gallery with each show. He has been called an "art activist" trying to circumvent a hermetic system. And he amounts to a kind of wild card in Soho's deck of artistic cards.

"It was either you resign yourself and you don't do anything of substance. Or you make an effort," Schachter says. "People always say 'doesn't it frustrate you?' I try to have work that appeals to a broad audience on multiple levels."

He went to Cardozo School of Law, worked for Prudential Bache, wrote a manual on banking regulation and a chapter in a book on medical malpractice. But he eventually ended up doing all sorts of things. Other people talk about Picasso's blue period, but Schachter has what he calls his "Willie Lowman" period. He says he sold neckties "like Willie Lowman" for Nino Cerrutti's grandson, crisscrossing from Ohio to North Carolina on the East Coast. And he wrote appeals freelance, still hovering on the fringe of law.

"I really never wanted to practice," Schachter says. "I was always casting around for something in the arts field."

But he found it was almost impossible to break into the art world. Doors were glued shut. There was no welcome committee waiting for him. It probably would've been easier to break into a bank than into the art scene which he says was "a really exclusive kind of place" that was "hyper-competitive." Schachter found doors weren't magically opening and Soho was pretty much shut as far as he was concerned.

"If you're not in the know, it's a condescending place. There's a zero-sum mentality. One person does well at the expense of someone else," he says. "I was kind of shocked. I'd come from outside the system. I wanted to show my own work and work from emerging artists without gallery affiliation. I realized if I wanted to participate, I would have to invent a role for myself. I started to take over temporary spaces."

He began curating shows at other galleries, starting with one of German artists in 1990 at Sandra Gering Gallery, another in a not-for-profit space in Brooklyn, and then moved on to his own spaces. Some shows included work of artists who went on to wider recognition (three artists from the second and third show made it into the Whitney Biennial and two made it to the Museum of Modern Art). In "Decorous Beliefs," back in 1991, he showed Christian Schumann, whose work has since been exhibited in museums in New York, and Paris. Overall, he rented nine temporary spaces in Soho during the past 5 years including five on Greene Street, and one each on Spring, Broome, Crosby, and Mulberry.

The site sometimes becomes part of the show or at least gives the exhibition an added twist. He rented a garage space that formerly housed a kiln, buried in nearly two inches of silt from pottery, for a show entitled "I Was Born Like This." He presented "Unsuccess Story" in an old toy factory on Broome Street. A jewelry gallery on Spring St., now a Thai restaurant, became home for his "I Could Do That" show done as a reaction to the 60 Minutes tirade, talking about art as the emperor's clothes.

"I came from a very disparate background. I always made art my whole life. I was just feeling my way around," he says. "I always get ground floor spaces. So they're very accessible."

He has built up a system and a mailing list of about 2,500 names of people who sometimes follow him from show to show in this kind of Soho scavenger hunt. Certain obstacles such as insurance, he says, he has simply overcome. He changes the address on his $1,000-a-year insurance policy to cover each show.

"You need to get a liability insurance policy before a landlord will even negotiate with you," he says. "If you insure a show on a show-by-show basis, it's prohibitively expensive." He saves costs on printing by claiming not-for-profit status.

Soho rents would be prohibitive. But Schachter has built up a track record and found a broker (also an ex-lawyer) who's willing to do the deals without taking a commission. So when spaces are vacant, he's able to reel them in at a good rate.

"Because I've worked something out with the real-estate agent, I pay a fraction of what the monthly rent would be", he says. "When I rent a 5-7 thousand square foot space, it leases for anywhere from 10 - 20 thousand dollars plus. I get it for approximately $3,000.

He keeps his shows open at least ten hours a day for what he calls "Korean grocery store hours." And Schachter stays open both Sundays and Mondays, although every other Soho gallery shuts down on those days. He has built up a well of artists from which to draw, although he has lost some along the way. He curated a show at Postmasters Gallery in 1992 where the gallery owner liked one artist (Christian Schumann) a little too much. Schachter says the owner, Magda Swon, convinced the artist to agree not to give him any more work.

"I think the art world has painted itself into a corner. They cultivate this exclusivity," he says, "to the detriment of disseminating the work to the widest possible audience." "I get calls once a week from people around the world who want to do shows in a similar vein. They ask me how to do a show."

Many independent curators have, if not sold out, sold up, settled down and started their own galleries. Gavin Brown now has Gavin Brown's Enterprise, after doing temporary shows. Stephano Basilico now has a gallery named after him. And Momenta Art, curators from Philadelphia, opened a gallery in Brooklyn.

Next year, Schachter is curating a gallery show in London, a museum show in Texas, and he teaches art history, from time to time, at the New School. But at least for now, he isn't aiming at getting a fixed gallery space. Instead, Kenny Schachter is busy searching for the space to present his next show, on the theme of religion. And when it comes to that, in addition to a little help from brokers, he says nothing works like shoe leather.

"I just walk up and down the streets," he says, "and find spaces."

So while other people look for artists, Schachter rounds up space. And he's even building up a list of people who follow him from show to show. It's a great way to take the patchwork of vacant spaces and give them a new, if brief, life. His shows really are gallery "openings" and there's something exciting in treating the creation of the gallery as part of the art.