Flash back to the early nineties. Just after the decade of greed had come to an end and the ramifications of consumer exuberance were catching up to us. A period during which the economy was stuck in a nasty recession and the country was fresh from the first war in Iraq. Now imagine being a young portfolio-wielding artist pounding the streets of SoHo trying desperately to get a gallery owner to take a chance on you. The picture at the time did not look very promising for the next generation of Picassos and Warhols. That is until Ian Gerard, Stefan Gerard, and Melissa Neumann decided to do something about it. The trio founded Gen Art in early 1993. Gen Art started out as an organization dedicated to showcasing emerging visual artists. Ten years later, the company has expanded and now also exposes emerging fashion designers, filmmakers, and musicians. From it’s film festival to working with The Apprentice, Gen Art is on the cutting edge of what’s hip and important to the 21- 39 year old crowd. I tracked down Gen Art’s coast-hopping founder Ian Gerard, to get the organization’s inside story.
The Harbus: So how did Gen Art come about?
Ian Gerard: The idea started when I was a second year law student at New York University. The company’s roots however stem from my years at Vassar College where I had been involved with a lot of people majoring in the fine arts. These were artists who graduated during the recession years of the early 90’s and who were confronting a contracted art world, where the last thing a dealer or gallery owner wanted to do was take a chance on an emerging artist. I saw first hand how a lot of young, visual artists were not getting any opportunities. At the same time, I was noticing a lot of young people who had disposable income and were interested in having art on their walls, but could not afford to go down to a gallery in SoHo because everything was over $10,000. While at NYU, I began to consider the possibility of bring young artist together with young people who had disposable income but thought that their only means of having art on the wall was through their local poster store. I came to the conclusion that young people would be interested in purchasing original art if they could get it at reasonable prices. So I decided to put the two groups together and started the organization on generational biases – a peer group of people supporting their peers by buying their art work.
The Harbus: How did three 20’ish art enthusiasts break into the art world?
Gerard: The early years were rough. We started the company in my law school dormroom. My roommates probably thought I was insane. Since we were a start-up, we knew that we had to start-off with credibility. The first thing we did was build an advisory board of blue chip artists that had had major successes in the 70’s & 80’s. The artists that we targeted – such as Christo, William Wegman, Ross Bleckner, Laurie Anderson, Donald Sultan and Andres Serrano – were at the points in their careers where they could give back to the art community and could help the next generation. We got close to twenty people, mostly artist and some gallery owners and dealers, to sit on our advisory board. The establishment of an advisory board with well-known members of the art community immediately got us over the hurdle of being a company run by three people between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four.
The Harbus: After you gained legitimacy, what was next?
Gerard: After we put together the advisory board, we asked ourselves how we were going to move forward considering we had these big name people but no money. We came up with the idea to do a fundraiser in conjunction with publicly announcing the organization of our advisory board. To get the word out, we tapped into the New York City social scene. My brother and I reached out to an old friend who helped us coordinate a benefit board and helped us reach young people in the city with money. Fortunately, the benefit ended up being a complete success. We drew over 500 people, showcased four emerging artists and the benefit was written up in the New York Times style section.
The Harbus: Explain Gen Art’s expansion into fashion.
Gerard: I got a chance call from a young emerging accessories designer who had attended one of our art exhibitions. She asked me if I had given any thought to doing something for emerging fashion designers. She pointed out that the in a lot of ways it’s much more difficult to make it in fashion than it is as an artist. She explained that if a young designer wants to produce a fashion show to get their name out they have to invest tens of thousands of dollars into producing it. I listened politely, but I was like, ‘that’s great but we are really focused on trying to help visual artists’. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I guess her call planted a seed in the back of my head. After I started talking to some people, I realized that there really wasn’t anyone out there helping young designers. While planning our next art exhibit, we decided to use excess gallery space to do a one night fashion show for emerging designers to see how things went.
The Harbus: How have some of the designers Gen Art has showcased faired?
Gerard: Zac Posen, who showed with Gen Art three years before his first major show, is now the wonder child of emerging designers and just won the Swarovski’s Perry Ellis Award for ‘Ready to Wear’ from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). While Zac Posen was able to achieve national notoriety very quickly, that’s not how it typically goes for most emerging fashion designers. It normally takes many more years for a designer to have national impact and not all the designers we show end up successful. Gen Art, however, can count Rebecca Taylor and Cloak among the dozens and dozens of designers we have helped introduce that have grown tremendously.
The Harbus: What was it like working with The Apprentice and Donald Trump?
Gerard: It was an interesting experience from the stand point of seeing what reality television is like backstage. We did a lot of work and they shot over 400 hours of tape that was edited down to 40 minutes. Disappointingly, a lot of our work did not make into the air. The best thing about the experience, however, is that they came to us over a lot of other people that they could have gone to help them create an episode around fashion and emerging designers. They looked at us as the experts, when they could have gone to a major magazine like Vogue or to a trade organization like the CDFA. The producers of the show felt like we had the inside knowledge of not only emerging designers but also of how to effectively produce a fashion show. We brought the designers to the show that The Apprentice teams chose from and then we produced the fashion show. In the end it was pretty gratifying.