earning an innovator-of-the-year title from American Photo magazine.
Easing the Pain of Collecting
JEN BEKMAN’S apartment is hardly what you would expect from a woman who has made herself a force in the art world in the last five years, building a photography and fine arts Web site that draws international collectors and earning an innovator-of-the-year title from American Photo magazine.
Then again, her narrow studio in the East Village vividly reflects the many unusual twists in her life — a testament to a talent for reinvention.
There’s the storage closet in the middle of the apartment that replaced the loft-bed arrangement for two roommates who helped pay the rent in 1993, when Ms. Bekman, then 23 and a switchboard operator at the Paramount Hotel in Times Square, first moved in.
There’s the collection of midcentury Heywood-Wakefield furniture purchased in her late 20s, during her flush dot-com days in San Francisco.
There are the neo-Classical-style white marble lamps she bought on eBay when she returned to New York jobless after the bust and could barely afford the $90.
And there are the photographs, paintings and drawings that fill walls that were bare until recently, accumulated during her latest incarnation: as an increasingly influential art world insider.
Few people in that world had heard of Ms. Bekman five years ago, when she used credit cards and the $20,000 in her 401(k) to open Jen Bekman Gallery, on Spring Street near the Bowery.
She had no experience to speak of — she had never even bought a photograph or a painting — but she did have two clear goals: to help emerging artists become more appreciated, and to encourage a broader swath of people to feel comfortable buying art.
To further those aims, she initiated several online projects, including Hey, Hot Shot! (heyhotshot.com), a regular competition for emerging photographers that offers winners representation by the gallery; and personism.com, a blog about photography, design and current events.
In September Ms. Bekman introduced another Web site, 20x200.com, which sells limited-edition high-quality prints of photographs and fine art for as little as $20. Almost at once, the site was in the black and gaining attention.
Five and a half months later, it counts among its customers art collectors from around the world, dozens of magazine writers and editors, a MoMA executive and many artists, including well-established ones like Brian Ulrich and Alec Soth.
In May the Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester, Mass., will honor her with its Rising Star award, given, the museum says, to an emerging force that the photographic community is watching with great enthusiasm.
But unlike city dwellers who celebrate their success by moving to a nicer apartment or by upgrading their appliances, Ms. Bekman, now 38, is content to remain in her old space. She lives there with her dog, Ollie; a white vintage Chambers stove she bought at a thrift shop for $400 seven years ago; a goofy ceramic bulldog with glass eyes from Woolworth’s; and a few new inexpensive furnishings, like brightly colored striped sheets.
One reason for staying put, even though her first-floor apartment is off a noisy lobby and occasionally visited by centipedes, is that her success is so new and hard times so recent.
“I only started making money in September,” she said of her work at the gallery, and she is only now figuring out how to draw a regular salary.
On several occasions over the last five years the only way she could keep the gallery and her other projects afloat was to sublet her apartment and spend nights on an air mattress in her mother’s living room in Queens, where she grew up. “A lot of people, including myself at times, couldn’t help but wonder: when do you give up?” she said.
That question seemed particularly apt last spring, her lowest point, when she was eight months behind in rent at the gallery, four months behind in rent at home, and had tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. “The whole thing was crazy,” she said. Opening the gallery “was so impulsive,” she continued. “It was literally me sitting in my living room drinking Scotch with friends, and I was laughing — wouldn’t it be funny if someone picked up the phone and said Jen Bekman Gallery?”
But once the dream became a reality, the financial burden felt like a massive hangover. “I felt like the Willy Loman of the art world,” she said. “I was always about to get my big break.”
Ms. Bekman, who spent the ’90s riding the wave of the dot-com boom, had a hard time accepting the possibility that things would not eventually work out.
In 1994, seven years after graduating from Stuyvesant High School and three years after dropping out of Hunter College because she couldn’t stand writing papers, she began spending time with a friend who ran an early Internet bulletin board system out of his apartment, and was fascinated with the Web’s potential to connect people. She left a sales job at Ian Schrager’s hotel group to help the friend run his bulletin board and to develop commercial Web sites.
The knowledge gained from those experiences carried her into the executive suites of West Coast companies like Netscape and Disney as a highly paid consultant and later a high-level staff member.
By 2000, at 31, she was the chief creative officer at earthnoise.com, an early video-sharing Web site, earning six figures, overseeing a staff of 30 people and working toward the promise of a huge stock windfall. Then the bubble burst, and Ms. Bekman watched her stock options, her identity and her future plans disappear overnight.
“I thought I had it all figured out,” she said. “I thought I knew what my path was. But in January the company went out of business, owing me forty grand.”
For nearly two years Ms. Bekman felt aimless, unable to find another Internet staff job and living off savings and unemployment.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. She enrolled in a poetry class, went to the gym and considered becoming a real estate or stock broker.
Then, in late 2002, her friend Dana Miller, a photographer, invited her to an exhibition of her work and that of nine others put on by a women’s collective.
“It was a one-night show in somebody’s loft that they converted into gallery space,” Ms. Bekman said. “I walked into the event that night knowing what Dana put into it. I saw her spend a lot of money on printing and framing her work to get it ready. And when we walked in, there was a round table with plastic cups and big bottles of soda. I hated the way the show was produced.”
Ms. Bekman was even more irritated when her friend Spencer became interested in a photo and could not get information about it. She found the artist and made the introductions herself. “So suddenly I was brokering this conversation,” she said.
As the friend and the artist talked, Ms. Bekman observed what she considers a very meaningful interaction. “I saw Spencer,” who then owned two small paintings, “imagining himself as a collector,” she said. “And I saw how he had the potential to make a huge impact on this young artist. I just got a taste of how gratifying that process could be.”
Convinced she could do better at bringing young artists and potential buyers together, Ms. Bekman set out to produce another show. After briefly considering holding it in her apartment — the long white walls were bare, after all — she decided she needed more space, which led to the Scotch-fueled brainstorm a few weeks later.
But flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog, Ms. Bekman had another realization. Even though she had often longed to buy art, she had never bought anything from a gallery.
“I didn’t know how to, I was completely intimidated,” she said. “The only opportunities I saw for people like me,” she said, were the mass-produced stock pieces sold by places like Pottery Barn.
What she wanted, it turned out, was not just to produce a show but to change the way art is sold and collected.
Ms. Bekman immersed herself in the online world of art, did as much research as she could about the way traditional galleries functioned, and began reaching out to emerging photographers whose work caught her eye.
Today Ms. Bekman has relationships with hundreds of artists and photographers, represents 18 of them, employs a staff of four, and feels connected, she said, to every one of the 40 or so pieces on the walls in her apartment, like the large, provocative photograph of a woman brushing her hair given to her by Benjamin Donaldson, a photographer she represents. On March 15 her gallery will celebrate its fifth anniversary, and last week 20x200 shipped its 6,500th print.
As for finding a new apartment, Ms. Bekman said she has never really considered it. “I would love to be in a top-floor apartment with natural light,” she said, but “I definitely feel connected to my home — I made it a home.”