Spotlight Interview: Mary Leigh Cherry

Mary Leigh Cherry: Los Angeles Director, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

WFU Class of 1997

Major: Art History, Criticism & Conservation

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Mary Leigh Cherry serves as Director at the newly opened location of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Los Angeles. In July 2018, Mary Leigh spoke with us about job hunting, owning a gallery, the future of art and tech, and much more.

DeacLink: So I know you just made an exciting career transition - tell me more about it.

Mary Leigh Cherry: Yes, I am now the Los Angeles director for Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, which has always been one of my favorite programs in New York. In 1997, the first show I saw at her space was Charles Long. The show we just opened last week, was also Charles Long, and his 12th solo with the gallery. I have known him off and on through the years. It’s perfect timing to have this show up now as the inaugural exhibition in the LA space. It’s been great working with Tanya, who has had a slightly longer career than I have. The artists she represents are unbelievable and also international. I wasn’t planning on this as a path, but the timing and opportunity were right.

DL: Mind walking me through your career up until this point?

MLC: I have had three versions of the gallery over the years. It started as Cherry in a garage in Venice, CA. I started the next version with my husband, cherrydelosreyes. Then his career as an artist started taking off, and I took on a partner which became Cherry and Martin. It was a full fledged program for 12 years. It started with representing artists of our generation. Then we also moved into representing estates and established artists that were overlooked and underrecognized. We built markets for their careers by applying the same principles as we were for young artists. By the time I left, we had three estates, people in their 70s and 80s, and down to people in their 30s and 40s. Most of the artists were American, but our clients were from all over the world, and we showed international artists in group shows.

DL: What led to your transition?

MLC: In terms of stepping away from the partnership, I think that at one point I saw myself always running the gallery with my business partner or at least staying involved in some way. We were reaching the point where we needed to reinvest, such as acquire a building, and it required me to get even more involved with someone. Personality wise, I was always the person wanting to grow and take risks. I am very entrepreneurial, and I just felt like I was the one pushing, pushing, pushing. I don’t deny that the growth was stressful and risky. At every crucial moment, the growth was what made us successful and kept us from going under. In 2008, we moved to a bigger space in a better neighborhood. We wouldn’t have survived the downturn if we hadn’t moved.

My business partner wasn’t as keen on continuing to grow, and I personally wanted a change from that relationship dynamic. The art world is also changing, and I felt the need to investigate that. I took a sabbatical for 4 months, and was doing research and thinking about new ways to work in the art world, keeping technology in mind. It was definitely hard to leave the artists I represented, and I am still friends with so many of them, and we will stay in touch. My partnership was 50/50 and we really did split the work, but our goals weren’t matching up.

DL: Most people from Wake tend to think about a move to New York after graduation. Tell me a bit more about the art scene in LA.

MLC: In the art world I am in, there’s a mass-migration to LA. The New York art world is tough unless you have access to the top five or ten galleries. It is hard to work there, make art there, and live there. LA isn’t inexpensive, but we have space, artists, collectors, amazing museums, and great weather. Everyone is moving here. There are problems with traffic, making things a logistical nightmare. It’s not a perfect utopia but considering other places, it is the top coastal city to live in.

DL: What did you do right after graduating?

MLC: I went to Wake Forest’s Casa Artom in Venice, Italy as a sophomore. After graduation I was hired by Wake to go abroad as Tom Phillip’s student assistant for the semester at Casa Artom. I tried to stay on longer, but there was not a lot of work and I didn’t have a work visa. After my contract ended, I stayed in Venice teaching English as a second language and receiving pay under the table. I was essentially an illegal immigrant. However, I wasn’t making ends meet since it was not an above board job and I was fearful of getting caught without the correct visa. So I moved back to the states not knowing what I was going to do.

I had met Mercedes Teixido (Wake alum) at Casa Artom. She is an artist and professor at Pomona College. She visited Venice and in exchange for staying a couple of nights at Casa Artom, she took our students to see the Venice Biennale. When I came back to the US, I house sat for her in Venice Beach and applied for jobs all over San Francisco to try and stay in California. I knew Northern California pretty well because I had spent summers in Los Gatos and Santa Cruz during college. Back then, LA was where you went to do crazy things. In the 90s the migration wasn’t to live in LA, it was to live in San Francisco, but I fell in love with LA. So I started looking for jobs here, and I only had to temp for a few weeks before landing a job at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (now known as Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles). Within a year of being at the Museum, I started the garage gallery, Cherry.

DL: Tell me a bit more about some of the ideas you are working on.

MLC: One thing that I am curious about is how blockchain will affect the art world, and I am advising on how it could. Digital currency is big in LA, bigger than in Silicon Valley, so I find that fascinating. But blockchain is something different than currency, in terms of what you can do with regards to authenticating art. I'm doing this because I am interested in the topic, and I want to stay future thinking. In terms of a business model, I was looking into creating a bespoke shared-resources firm. It’s sort of like WeWork or The Wing where the offices are handpicked by me. This version would be for the art world where you are sharing administrative resources, and the services in the various offices are say an art attorney, advisor, philanthropic concierge, etc. It also could be an event space for exhibitions, fundraisers, or political events.

Another thing I am working on is for Wake. In 2011, I was in Aspen talking with clients and I hadn’t been to the Biennale that year, but I was hearing about this project that was at Casa Artom. However, it didn’t say Wake Forest anywhere in all of the press that the project received. I shot off an email to Professor Page Laughlin trying to figure out how that was happening. Cut to 2013- I ended up doing an event at the house with fellow alum Cristin Tierney, and they sent out the Dean, who was Jacquelyn Fetrow at the time. She did some research to find out what the event was, and now the school is more aware of the extreme importance and global reach of the Venice Biennale. Wake is now in its 3rd year of a Biennale program for students. The first trip was in 2015, and last year I went over with Page for the program. I set up a lot of meetings and took the students through the Biennale during the Vernissage week while there were many of my colleagues in attendance. The next Biennale will be in 2019, and Page will be teaching the course for it, and I will go again and offer my contacts to enrich the experience for the students.