Monday, July 20, 2015

Been Doing This Kind of Thing Since Before Christ: A Talk with Gus Kopriva

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

As juror of Archway Gallery’s Seventh Annual Juried Art Exhibition, Gus Kopriva discussed the process by which he selected 39 out of the 194 artworks submitted, and while he addressed the gallery crowd I wondered how long it would take him to realize he wouldn’t be able to hold his bottle of Shiner and the microphone at the same time that he handed out the awards. Not long—beer on floor. “Ah been doing this kind of thing since before Christ,” Kopriva said, “and if space had allowed, I would have chosen all of them.” But it was his job to choose, so he chose what “connected with him in that time and place.”

From years of paying attention, I can say unequivocally that Kopriva is the only Houston gallery guru who doesn’t look tense. So when I learned he would serve as Archway’s juror, I suggested we do an interview that would touch on his role as judge, and also inform readers about his other art-related “interests” - his collection, gallery, curatorial projects and lectures. “Let’s do it,” Gus said, which led to several visits during which we discussed the juries, art prizes, curating, dealing, collecting and more.

Gus Kopriva, Juror - Archway Gallery’s Seventh Annual Juried Art Exhibition (through July 29)

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: You awarded the jury prizes at Archway Gallery exactly one day after Lawndale Art Center’s guest juror broke tradition and divided their annual juried Big Show’s $3000 prize evenly among all of the participating artists, so that none of the kiddies would feel rejection and all would know how precious they are. But I’m not the only one to feel skeptical about the Lawndale juror’s decision, I saw an artist to whom you’ve given multiple exhibitions roll her eyes and say, “How democratic.”

Gus Kopriva: I agree with what that juror was doing, with his social concept. The jurying process is soooo subjective, it’s impossible for one’s choices not to be affected by what’s in one’s mind at that time and place, so if I could choose I would accept all, give everyone honorable mentions, and no prizes. But since Archway honored me with the invitation to judge, I followed the rules. There are millions of different criteria for selecting and hanging a show.

VBA: Patrick Palmer who preceded you as an Archway juror told me he selected works that appealed to him aesthetically, but also worked well collectively to make a strong show. Remember Patrick is a teacher. Should skill count for something?

GK: I believe skill is very important, but consider Outsider art where untrained artists assemble found objects into sculptural pieces that are pleasing to viewers. As you know, Lawndale’s guest curator did no different from the late Walter Hopps, who when he was invited to judge a San Francisco exhibition, insisted all the artists be included, and because Walter was a highly respected curator, the organizers reluctantly went along with his decision and were forced to show thousands of pieces of art. Of course Walter was never again asked to judge a show. In principal I agree with Walter, but there are practical considerations - space limitations, organization rules, and importantly the artists’ expectations. Artists entered the Lawndale show expecting certain protocol related to first, second and third place prizes, and I imagine some were annoyed by the outcome.

VBA: There’s irony in the fact that it was Walter Hopps’ directorial and curatorial decisiveness that was responsible for your wife Sharon’s solo exhibition at the Menil, which was a pivotal moment in her career. Did Sharon buy you that dancing Shiva t-shirt on one of her trips to India?

GK: Yea, when she had her Mumbai show. I have a large collection of t-shirts.

VBA: I’ve often wondered how actively you participate in helping Sharon manage her career.

GK: It would be a conflict of interest for me to represent Sharon, other dealers do that.

VBA: Sugar, that’s a half-baked answer, because I know you understand my question. You’re hardly ignorant of the benefits of expert strategy on commercial success, and my question takes nothing away from Sharon’s astounding skill and creativity. Do you guide Sharon in her decisions, give advice, unofficially, on such things as gallery negotiations, or pricing, or media interaction, or which essay to include in a catalog?

GP: I’m an unofficial advisor.

VBA: I saw a full page ad in Vogue that announced Sharon’s Monterrey museum exhibition. Did you do that?

GK: Uh, I did the logistics. Lynet and I went to Mexico to try to arrange a traveling show, and we visited three museums where I showed them what I had done with other shows, like Shanghai, and I also showed them some of Sharon’s work which resulted in the Museo Metropolitana de Monterrey wanting to do Sharon’s Gothic Exposure exhibition, but it was their idea. So yes I advise. But I didn’t have anything to do with the New Orleans Ogden Museum show, it was all Sharon.

VBA: Pop didn’t raise a fool, did he Gus? You have been having a blast playing the role of curator, and by now must have organized several hundred exhibitions, many of which put you in collaboration with leading curators and scholars. Your shows have been critically noted, and in fact President George Bush wrote a complimentary letter in praise of the show you brought to the Shanghai Art Museum. I’ll never forget Still Crazy after All These Years, the 2005 exhibition you did for Lawndale Art Center’s 25th anniversary. That crowd was nostalgic and drunk.

GP: Lawndale gave me full curatorial freedom.

VBA: Still Crazy at Lawndale must have been logistically simple compared to exhibits in other countries where there have been complications, such as the people in Athens disobligingly deciding to riot in the streets at the time you were trying to show them some art.

GK: That 2012 Athens show Western Sequels: Art from the Lone Star State was scheduled to open at the National Painting School, but the opening was delayed a couple of days by a transportation strike. Then riots broke out on the plaza by the capital building, near our hotel, with tear gas and flying pieces of marble, surprisingly when we finally opened there were a few hundred people who attended. You know we finance these shows ourselves with little sponsorship from the government. When we showed in Havana, we were not only unsponsored, but fairly illegal, because of the embargo. Unable to get passports stamped, we had to travel to Cuba by way of Mexico, and I shipped the art via Frankfurt, and when we arrived at the Museo de Humboldt in Havana we found the city had no nails and wires so we had to use fishing line to hang the art. Things got worse when Wayne Gilbert got himself interviewed by CNN because that made us conspicuous, so we made Wayne fly home on a separate flight. Then our non-sponsored, illegal group encountered a prestigious MFA Museum-sponsored group in the plaza, and that made things more uncomfortable. I have so many stories. Keep in mind I did the Leipzig show in the former German Democratic Republic, what used to be East Germany. For one of the shows in Peru the container arrived only one day before the show opened. Talk about stress! When we brought Western Sequels to Istanbul there were riots there too.

VBA: It seems Cuba wasn’t the only western-embargoed location you decided couldn’t do without seeing Texas art. Last year I met an Iranian-born artist who told me you asked her to help you arrange an exhibition in Tehran. I can just imagine those mullahs hissing that your art is Satanic.

GK: I wanted a show in Tehran. I like Persian, and Iranian contemporary art. The theme could be “Art by Republican Artists,” with horses, cowboys and Indians. What a show. The choice of art would not matter, what would be significant is that we would be the first to do such a thing since the time of the Shah. But the permits and government hassles would be unbearable. It needs to be done though. Maybe Israel could sponsor us. We actually had an exhibition planned for Cairo, but the new government installed by the Muslim brotherhood fired our museum director and curators, and then there were the Egyptian riots, and no one wanted to travel so we cancelled.

VBA: Gustav, you have a charming way of using the imperial “We” like the papacy and the queen of England when describing your projects.

GK: This is so fun. I still want to do the show in Egypt.

VBA: You opened Redbud Gallery in 1999, which is known for giving upstarts a chance, and taking less than the standard commission.

GK: We opened in 1999 and we’ve survived vice squad raids, censorship, and condescending critics. We show dead, live and just starting artists, all mediums, whatever I like and want to show. In the early years I only took 10% of the sale, but after about eight years I was losing too much money, so now it’s a 50-50 split. We don’t concentrate on sales, my goal is to show art, but the art sells itself. I keep the prices low, and there have been many times the shows sold out.

VBA: When you were working on the recent John Biggers exhibition you told me you thought it was one of Redbud Gallery’s most significant.

GK: Because it was a survey show with works that spanned from the beginning of his career in the 1940s to his death, and as far as I could tell, no Houston commercial gallery had done a solo Biggers show in twenty five years. I worked with curators and local collectors and researched him thoroughly, actually read six illustrated books to pull it together. I’m equally proud of some of my early shows like the inaugural exhibition that showed the 84 year old unknown sculptor Gladys Gostick. Gladys showed a collection of three dimensional birds in stone, wood and copper, and we sold out. That was one of my most satisfying shows. Know what that woman did? Sat on her welding torch and burned her ass. Another really satisfying show was the West Coast assemblage artist George Herms. He had showed at MOMA and done things in the early sixties, but had not had a show in years. We sold out, and a Philadelphia gallery picked him up. He’s big again.

VBA: Do you think your out-going personality helps with commercial gallery success? You are gracious to everyone, even non-art buying nobodies, unlike a few out there who won’t even bother to speak, not even to those of us who wrote newspaper or magazine articles about their stuff. I don’t understand how those people ever manage to sell a piece of art behaving like that.

GK: I’ve seen it. It’s possible they’re trying to act like art should be some elitist status, trying to emulate how things are in New York and Paris, playing that role. Being friendly is important. I’m nice to everyone. Look, I grew up in a trailer house. Virginia let me show you my beginning. You see these burned up buildings in this photograph. This is where I was born. It was destroyed by American bombs in the war, I played in that rubble. My grandmother was killed in this building, here near the church. She drowned trying to take sanctuary in the basement, the water pipes broke. My mother watched while they carried out the bodies, my grandmother was wearing a camel hair coat and opal jewelry. For years my mother hated camel coats and opals. My mother married my step father, Frank Kopriva, Pop, who she met after the Americans occupied Pirmasens in 1945. We left there in 1955.

VBA: There’s nothing elitist about your art collection. Nothing pretentious, you’ll purchase from artists nobody ever heard of if the art pleases you, and I’ve often admired the fact that you collect Durer, Rembrandt and other Old Master prints, even if some contemporary art-biased snobs sniff at that. Your prints are lovely and it shows you have taste.

GK: I’ve been collecting for 30 years, have over 1,850 pieces. The collection also includes German Expressionism, French Symbolism, American WPA, and of course contemporary. They are mostly works on paper. Basically I buy art that I believe is different, or extremely well crafted, and art history plays a large part in what I buy, but the collection is not heavy in abstraction, except for a few art historical abstract pieces. It includes Miro, de Kooning, and Guston. I purchase from individuals, auctions, galleries, estates, and also from the artists who show in my Redbud Gallery. Our German Expressionist works formed the exhibition Broken Brushes, and it has traveled to small museums and universities around the U.S. and to Berlin.

I want to talk about the museum in Germany. We are about to begin a ten year loan of eighty-seven of the German Expressionist pieces to a regional museum in Salzwedel. The collection will be housed in a renovated turn of the century school house, a magnificent building in a medieval town in the old East Germany, called Art House Salzwedel. I’m loaning works on paper by Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Paul Klee, Kokoschka, Kollwitz, Franz Marc, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, and many others, and the collection will form the core of the museum’s holdings. I partnered with Salzwedel’s mayor as a consultant, an idea guy, to help her promote tourism, and suggested she start the art museum. I helped her chose the building, it had been empty for 10 years, and she got it back from the city for back taxes. The site will include a restaurant, and archives and a tourist bureau. And it’s well funded. The German government gave us a million Euros and local banks contributed, so we began the nonprofit Foundation for Art House Salzwedel to handle renovation funding and operations funding. Kunsthaus Salzwedel opens this fall.

VBA: You lecture frequently about your collection.

GP: I lecture specifically on the business of collecting art, and I do it at universities. The business part is crucial, and it’s not being taught. Artists must deal in entirely different ways with collectors, curators, and galleries, and they need to know how, they need to know the business, public relations and marketing, the protocols and practices, and unwritten expectations. MFA should create courses on this.

VBA: Do you miss being an engineer?

GK: Well, not really. I’m still consulting some, very part time, for my Middle East clients.

VBA: A few years back I tried to pick your brain about energy stocks, wondered if you had held on to your Dow Chemical stock, and you told me you were only buying art.

GK: Art has a proven history. I’m buying art and real estate. It lets me control it. With real estate I’ve never gone wrong. If you can afford it, buy it.

VBA: The media reported you’re selling the 1923 Houston Heights Theater building for $1.9 million.

GK: After 30 years Sharon and I are hoping to sell the theater. If all goes well the new buyers will turn it into a top notch cultural center, with theater and music, and a bar. We’re passing the torch. When we bought it in the 80s it had been fire bombed, was a burned out hulk, sat vacant for 10 years. We renovated and saved it, and made it a historical landmark. We have a feasibility contract signed for it to be a regional art venue. Sharon and I went to school in the Heights. We started out with nothing. We had $500 between us when we got married, I thought she had money, but it turned out I was mistaken. We lived in run down areas in the Heights, and it all came back. We’ve made some wise decisions.

VBA: One of your tenants recently confirmed the rumor that he is exiting your 11th street building which holds Redbud Gallery and Sharon’s studio, which will leave you with a significant amount of additional space. When I asked you three weeks ago what you intended to do with that space you gave me a baloney answer that it would relate to art. Not talking! Are you ready to announce your plans for the space in your 11th street building?

GK: Can’t talk about, it will be related to the arts.

VBA: Last year when I wrote an article about Sharon she invited me to your home in Idaho.

GK: You should fly up with me on Thursday. Sharon told me to be there for my birthday.

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