A native Angeleno art collector and a Korean based-Montrealer art dealer walk into a bar and ask, “What if we started a gallery?” LA-based writer Spencer Walker has been a client and close friend of Juno Youn of Galerie Youn for a decade. They share a passion for emerging and established artists with distinctive points of view. And, Korean BBQ. Now, they are sharing their idiosyncratic multilingual mashup of style, culture, and art in LA with Mon Dieu Projects at the newly opened second location of the notorious Mohilef Studios.
“Mon Dieu” the French expression of “My god!” and surprise is the reaction the curators hope to inspire. It also represents Galerie Youn’s Montreal roots with its roster of eccentric artists, who are thrilled for their West Coast debut. Mon Dieu Projects aims to bring some irreverence to the LA art world with its provocative curatorial choices. And with that being said, here’s Part 1 of our Exclusive Interview with two mischievous Mon Dieu gallery owners, Juno Youn and Spencer Walker.
How did you get started in the art world, and what inspired you to open an art gallery?
Juno Youn: I come from an artistic family. Aesthetics and style are an essential part of our DNA. It’s in our bones. Like many South Korean kids, my tween years were spent taking classical piano lessons with grand ambitions of becoming a grand pianist playing the great halls of the world. But fate led me towards the visual arts when I attended OCA (now OCADU) in Toronto. I accidentally started my art gallerist career with a small brick and mortar just to show my art school thesis. That led to me becoming an accidental gallerist showing not just my work, but fellow classmates, professors, and eventually established artists. My passion for art, aesthetics, and style guide everything I do, both professionally and personally.
Spencer Walker: I am a rookie in the business of running an art gallery. Fortunately, I have a seasoned mentor in Juno in the business of art. But like Juno, I too come from an artistic family. My grandpa Top was in the art supply business manufacturing paint and clays that I was the guinea pig for. I also come from a long line of artists and collectors, myself being one of those collectors who bought art from Juno for years before ever considering jumping into the fire. But the timing was right, the LA art market has a gap that Mon Dieu Projects can fill, and I have the perfect partner in crime!
Without revealing any of your business secrets, what is the largest art sale you or your business were involved in?
Juno Youn: Ooh I would never tell ALL my secrets. I use benevolent Korean magic. Shhh. Kidding! I look at the largest art sales relative to a buyer’s bank account. On paper, you would not consider this a massive sale, but the largest art sale I ever made was to a 16-year-old Toronto boy. I was running my first gallery, SPIN, with a show featuring the sculptures of Catherine Heard when this young man walked in off the street. Nervous and soft-spoken, he had an incredible eye matched by his budding passion for art. He knew what he wanted, a small ceramic piece.
The price was reasonable for the scope of the work, not to mention today’s fair market value, but it was unattainable for a teenager. He offered me every last cent in his savings account earned from babysitting, but it wasn’t enough. Rather than reject his offer, and perhaps forever undermine his love of art, we created a payment plan. This plucky young man walked away that day with his very first piece of art. The look of joy on his face was priceless. And he honored our agreement, little by little, paying it off in full. That is why this remains my “largest art sale”. Collecting art should be a love affair, and we should all hope to fall in love over and over again. That is the essence of what we do at Galerie Youn and Mon Dieu Projects.
What is the most exotic or unique work of art that you had to work with?
Juno Youn: During my formative gallerist years running SPIN in Toronto, I curated a group exhibition called Monkey See Monkey Do. The exhibition included an enormous canvas from Atilla Richard Lukacs that inspired a world unto its own. Skin heads and homo erotica and nipple clamps, oh my! Right in front of the Lukacs painting, a performance artists dug hooks into the back of his skin and sprinklered his blood all over the gallery and onto the audience. This show helped put SPIN on the map, but some audience members were overwhelmed, storming out of the gallery to vomit. Gross, yes. This showed me the potency of art. And I knew I was in the right business!
Spencer Walker: Mon Dieu Projects’ inaugural group exhibition Intimate Exchanges is my first show. Amongst the eight artists we are showing, we shipped large 4×5’surrealist painting from University of Ottawa professor Andrew Morrow. We also featured in inventory Morrow’s ambitious 16’x 8’ “Transitional Device” with sexually charged images on a reflective beach scene of orgies, ballistic missiles, and an aerial goat. This inventory piece got so much early buzz, Andrew overnighted the canvas sans stretcher bars to Los Angeles in time for the show. We were faced with the issue of installing something that massive onto the walls. Stretched, it would not even fit through the gallery door. Luckily, our art installer Big Tim Stephenson knows framer extraordinaire Paul Sohn who built three separate stretchers they assembled inside the gallery, and stretching the canvas with some first aid to fit it. The first attempt to hang the painting nearly pulled out the drywall. Quick on their feet, Big Tim and Mr Sohn installed an 8-foot-long metal bracket into the wall that now holds up our improvised centerpiece.
How do you choose which artists to showcase in your gallery, and what criteria do you use to evaluate their work?
Juno Youn: Choosing an artist to showcase is not unlike a romantic relationship. It is essential the artist meets your high standards and has substance. Does their work make me feel something in the pit of our stomach? Can I help elevate their career and nurture their talents? If not, it was very nice to meet them and we wish them the best. Beyond the talent element, are we simpatico with mutual respect and healthy egos? When you know, you know. That’s what two decades in this business taught me. And I’m still learning!
Spencer Walker: Mon Dieu Projects breaks down our criteria for each artist’s work based on 3 elements:
- Personality: Do we click with the artist? Can we work together? It’s important to like each other, or it’s not going to be a pleasant working relationship.
- Identity: The work needs to be unique and singular only to that artist. And the artists should have something specific to say.
- Hustle: Work ethic is key in this business. Keep creating and innovating. But self-promotion and networking are a must. Help us, the gallery, help you, the artist.
In your experience, what are the biggest mistakes that artists and art collectors make?
Juno Youn: Artists are always their own worst critics and can be downright cruel to themselves. Some of the most talented artists I know can be the most destructive, prone to slashing, sometimes burning their mistakes. Please. Don’t. Do. That. I visit artist studios to see works in progress and notice that many hide their shameful abominations in dark corners or behind the minifridge. I’m Korean, so believe me, I get losing face. But I love looking at these oopies. There is often creative breakthroughs there, even if they are sort of hard to read after it’s crumpled up in an overflowing trashcan.
Spencer Walker: Speaking from the experience as a collector, don’t just go for shiny objects without substance. What I mean is don’t just buy pretty art that doesn’t challenge you, just so you can have something on an empty wall. Removing the concept of an appreciating asset for a second, that decorative painting will eventually bore you and become clutter destined for an estate sale by an annoyed descendent. Save room on your walls and money for a real good work that gets better with age and becomes a precious family heirloom. Who knows? Maybe it will put your grandkids through college someday.
What do you think sets your gallery apart from others in the area, and how do you attract visitors and customers?
Juno Youn: Mon Dieu Projects takes an irreverent approach to art that feels lost in today’s art market laser-focused on profit margins and work that is so deadly serious. We respect serious art and the collectors that buy it, but we feel there is still room to have a little fun in this business. The work Mon Dieu shows is playful and pushes boundaries that some critics might call controversial or polarizing. We pride ourselves in not getting lost in the minutiae of “artistic intent” that requires reading a 20-page position paper before you can begin to understand the work. You have permission to have a good time and, god forbid, even laugh out loud when you come into our gallery.
Spencer Walker: Marketing the art is just as important as curation. Word of mouth is never enough on its own, nor is foot traffic in a car-city like LA. Getting feet walking through the gallery and eyeballs on our website/social media is a full-time job. Writing emails and Instragram DMs and newsletters hyping the artists eats up a large chunk of each day. We obsess over details documenting the art with photos, videos, and write so many words. Our mothership gallery Galerie Youn in Montreal is a known quantity with a solid contact list, which helps. And we are located in Mohilef Studios Washington Boulevard location, an old garment factory warehouse filled with working artists and top flight gallery neighbors Simchowitz, Jac Forbes Contemporary, and Sage Culture.
Do you compete with other art galleries, and is this a competitive business?
Spencer Walker: Competition is an element in any business, but being adversarial gets you nowhere. True, there is a limited amount of capital any collector can deploy at either Gallery A or Gallery B.
But every collector’s tastes and needs are different. It’s the gallery’s job to meet those tastes and needs. Say Gallery A shows watercolor landscapes and Gallery B sells Maplethorpe-adjacent photography. We are more than happy to send business to another gallery if we know they have something the collector might want. And we hope that will be reciprocal.
Juno Youn: We love collaborating with other galleries, even the ones we compete with. The artists win because their profiles get raised through association. Your people should meet our people. Mon Dieu Projects is already a collaboration with Galerie Youn promoting homegrown Canadian artists unknown in LA. And our LA artists will show in Montreal. A rising tide lifts all ships.
Interview organized by Maximus Communications. The World Art News (WAN) is not liable for the content of this publication. All statements and views expressed herein are only an opinion. Act at your own risk. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission. © The World Art News