As director of the Irvine Contemporary gallery, Lauren Gentile is truly in tune with the DC art scene. From rare books to Asian antiquities, and now emerging contemporary artists, she’s done it all, and learned a lot from it.
by Kate Morin
Sitting in the back of a coffee shop in Logan Circle, Lauren Gentile, clad in purple from head to toe (in a good way, not like a grape), laughs as a stack of boxes falls out of the closet behind her and directly into her head. Next, the lights above us go out. Again, she laughs, making a sarcastic comment about the day’s happenings. It’s not surprising she is not phased by this bizarre series of events—she’s truly experienced it all. After traveling, working, studying, and living from London and Florence to Chicago and northern Ohio, she may have seen it all, but she still has a drive to see more.
As the director of DC’s Irvine Contemporary gallery, she serves as a mentor, a dealer, a boss, an appraiser, and then some. For a girl who’s love of art was born sorting books in Shaker Heights, OH auction houses, she’s come far. Moving to Chicago, London, and now DC, Gentile has worked with everything from rare books and Asian antiquities, to works by Dutch and Flemish masters, and now with young and emerging contemporary artists. She has learned everything she knows from jumping in head-first, and has been successful. We sat down with this DC art maven to find out more about how she got where she is today, what she’s learned, and what advice she has for aspiring young collectors.
How did you become involved in the art world?
Growing up in Ohio, I would spend time hanging out at an auction house owned by a good friend’s family. One summer in high school I started working there as an intern. They had just acquired a huge library of rare art books, and I was tasked with organizing them in chronological order. Of course, I knew nothing about art, but I said I could do it. So, I took out this huge book, The History of Art, and started to organize the books according to the table of contents. That was really where my interest began.
Fast forwarding a bit, I went to college in Chicago and studied international studies and art history. I wanted to be an art academic, so I studied everything I was supposed to. I learned German, I was the art critic for the college newspaper– I did everything I could. Slowly, I realized I wasn’t going to be an academic, I would never write a book – and that I didn’t want to! When I graduated, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful mentor, Floyd Bucheit, who offered me a job.
I began to learn a lot about value and appraising, and I realized this is really my place in the business. Plus, this was the time when the internet was really becoming huge, and that was changing the way the whole art market worked.
Next, I went to the Sotheby’s institute in London to get a masters in Art Business. At this time, the art scene in London was booming. Through my experiences there, I found my niche in art finance and ended up writing my thesis at Sotheby’s on art funds. Because no one had really written about these before, my sources where the people themselves who were involved—the collectors, the gallery directors. I traveled around asking for interviews from all of these people, and I loved it. I was just calling all of these art world bigwigs I wanted to talk to, asking for interviews. Sometimes it’s good to be naive!
So, it was after writing your thesis that you came here to DC?
Yes, after writing my thesis—which was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done— I started looking for jobs. I came to Washington because of my boss, Martin Irvine. As I was interviewing for these jobs and getting offers, deciding where to go, I wanted to stay out of New York, and I felt that he was the only person I met outside of NYC that had a really good grasp on the art world as a whole. Coming into this job four years ago, I knew nothing about contemporary art, and he has taught me so much.
Was there one event or experience that cemented your passion for art?
My passions are really art and science. When I lived in Florence, I studied Leonardo Da Vinci and became fascinated by the way these two disciplines work together. I remember learning about Da Vinci’s method for painting curly hair (much like my own) by pouring water in between two glasses and observing the way the water swirled. That amazed me, as did all of his work and how he combined art and science in so much of what he did.
I can imagine that being surrounded by art everyday, your favorite artist must change a lot.
Yes, it changes often– usually after discovering new work. After visiting the 2008 Whitney Biennale, an event that takes place every two years to showcase new international contemporary artists, I became obsessed with video artist Omer Fast. I also like Candice Breitz’s video pieces.
What advice would you give to others who want to become involved in the art world?
It used to be that attending art parties was an easy way to get in and meet people, but “West Egg” partying around art has become passé since the art market bubble burst with the recession last year. Nowadays, smaller, educational events are valuable resources. These new events are really getting back to where art came from. It’s more focused on the art itself than on what surrounds it. My personal technique though is good ol’ fashioned research. The art writing in the New York Times is phenomenal, and artforum.com and Art in America are great, too.
I know you’re involved in a few art-related organizations in the city. What would you say are some of the best organizations for people new to the art world to join?
The Corcoran Contemporaries are doing good things, like raising money for a new contemporary gallery called NOW. And you can always count on the Phillips and Hirshhorn for excellent exhibitions. My advice is to become a member of these galleries, that’s a really great first step.
What would you say is most important for young art collectors to consider when building their collections?
Buy what you can’t live without, and buy what you can afford. Don’t necessarily think you need to already know what the “mission” or “purpose” of your collection will be. Trying to figure out the purpose of your collection before you start it is a roadblock to collecting. I’ve been collecting for years and it was only after uploading images of my collection to a website that I realized I collect portraiture. It’s supposed to be a gradual and enjoyable practice. I always tell young collectors to save up a few of those $200-300 purchases to save for a larger purchase of $1000-3000. You will figure out what your collection is as you move along and let it grow. It’s a slow process, and you should enjoy it.
Is there a collector in DC whose collection you admire the most?
The Podesta’s. I Know I always say them when asked this question, but they do honestly have the best contemporary art collection in DC. A smaller collection I enjoy is Fred Ognibene’s works on paper collection.
How do you think contemporary art (like the pieces at the Irvine) fit into a city that is so rooted in history and more classic art and architecture?
Contemporary art is history recontextualized. It is a cool juxtaposition of the past and present. It’s an interesting way to monitor the pulse of what is happening right now, a reaction to real-time. What better place to enjoy viewing creative reactions than in a place like DC where our business is making history.
What would you say are some of the major trends in collecting right now?
Photography and video have become increasingly popular because of how technology is evolving. These mediums are also gaining popularity because they are more accessible physically and price wise. With a painting, there is only one, which makes it harder and more expensive to get. With photographs, there can be five or ten of one image.
Like there are many museums in DC, there are also many neighborhoods, restaurants, and places to be on Friday nights. Where are we most likely to find you?
First let me premise that all of these places are based on a heat index of 90 and below. Estadio, the new Spanish restaurant on 14th is excellent for a dinner with friends, the rooftop of the Donovan and the W are fun. I’m looking forward to checking out Eden, too. Basically, anywhere I can be outside.
Art is a hobby for most, but for you it’s a career. I’m sure it crosses professional and personal lines for you, but besides art, what are some of your hobbies and things you like to do?
I’ve always loved sports–playing and following them. I love to travel. I love history, and nature, and environmental issues too. Plus, I am a huge sci-fi fan. I love reading about UFOs, technology, conspiracy theories, that kind of stuff. If I had to choose something to watch on TV, I love the History Channel or Animal Planet.
Rumor has it you have an interesting sculpture of a ballerina in your apartment. Can you tell me the story behind that?
That is a sculpture by Corcoran College of Art and Design graduate Melissa Ichiuji. It was in one of our exhibitions and I knew if I sold it I would regret it. So, “Chorus Girl” is in my center hallway now. It is a ballerina in toe shoes, and there is what appears to be this red, meaty stuff coming out of one of her shoes. It’s sort of unclear what it is, some think it looks like a severed foot. The artist’s inspiration for the piece was her roommate, a Brazilian ballerina. When she danced with The Martha Graham School in NYC, she would pound out frozen raw meat to put in her toe shoes for extra cushioning. The story and sculpture are so sick and clever that I had to own it (and sympathize with those who have to wear uncomfortable shoes all day).