How to host an art show if you can’t afford gallery space

Fleetingly occupying sleazy motels and ATM lobbies, Hotel Art have found a curatorial solution to combat high rent and the orthodox ‘white cube’

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Hotel Art
Quintessa Matranga in “Overdraft” (exhibition view), The Bank Of America, Queens, New York, 2015Curated by Hotel Art (Loney Abrams and Johnny Stanish)

Facing impossible rents and seeking to exhibit beyond the white walls of conventional galleries, these days, curators host exhibitions just about anywhere – from lavatories (like east London’s White Cubicle Toilet Gallery), to car boots (the preferred site of south London curatorial collective Millington Marriot) and even to dinner tables (favoured by nomadic Girls Only curator, Antonia Marsh). Naturally, permission from the owners of the sites is first secured. But that's not the case for Hotel Art – the surreptitious curatorial project headed by New York-based artist couple Loney Abrams and Johnny Stanish. Their latest undertaking? A ten-minute exhibition in an ATM lobby of The Bank of America in Rockaway, Queens. Unsanctioned, yes, but not technically unlawful. As the duo explains in an email, “of course there isn’t any sort of legislation that makes setting something down and taking a picture of it illegal.”

“It’s not like we’re street artists or something, we don’t do this because we’re thrill seekers” – Loney Ambrams and Johnny Stanish

And that’s pretty much how their virtually budget-free operations run: 1. Arrive at an unsuspecting (non-art) space, with (uncumbersome) artwork in hand; 2. As slyly as possible, place the works around the room; 3. Take some phone pics and, maybe, video the scene; 4. “De-install” the show, leaving no trace of blutack. Then, for the crucial final step, the duo upload the jpegs onto their online platform – Hotel-art.us – the hub of the project, which gives what would otherwise be a fleeting IRL affair, a long-lasting URL life.

While skirting the rigid gallery system with their DIY approach, Hotel Art was born out of the simple reality that renting art space as grads in New York City was, and still, isn’t cheap. “Unless you’re selling a tonne of work, or have support from your parents, or run some sort of Airbnb mafia, it’s pretty tough to live and have a studio in NYC”. But more than that, the duo felt that “having a physical gallery space was no longer a pre-requisite for having a gallery.” Given that exhibitions are increasingly viewed online, they decided to ditch the orthodox white cube, opening up every street corner to a potential ephemeral art show that could be documented online and viewed in real time – thanks to livestreaming.

Unbound to any particular place, Hotel Art’s mobile model has annexed sites from a sleazy motel to a fancy hotel and a houseboat Airbnb. “Without the burden of a gallery space, we realised that so many of the rules no longer applied to us”, the duo explains. Consequently, the artists featured in the nine shows (and counting) can “react to a space and do something they wouldn’t normally do in a normal gallery setting.” For their most recent ATM exhibition, Overdraft, this included word-embroidered “draftstoppers” by Aude Pariset and an open peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich laden with mini brass cogs by Quintessa Matranga. “The cogs of the financial landscape churning the world’s sticky mess?”, I ask. “You might be onto something”, Abrams replies, adding, “like when you’re old enough to make your own lunch, but too young to know how to feed yourself.” We caught up with the cryptic curators to go behind the screen, and find out their entertaining guide on running unsanctioned (but legal) art shows.

IF IN DOUBT, BLAME IT ON ART SCHOOL

“Sometimes people question what we’re doing and we always say ‘we’re doing an art project for school’ because that sounds cute and innocent but it’s also vague and could mean anything. It’s not like we’re street artists or something, we don’t do this because we’re thrill seekers, looking for the rush of not getting caught. It’s not particularly important to us that the shows happen in places where art is unwelcome. That being said, we generally don’t tell ‘management’ what we’re doing because it causes confusion and suspicion and the project is hard to explain to people who have no interest in this sort of stuff.”

FAILING THAT, FIND A DODGY MOTEL AND SAY YOU WANT TO SHOOT PORN THERE

“Tru Romance, the first show we ever did, was in the Bushwick Hotel which is a sleazy rent-by-the-hour motel in Brooklyn. The room was $35 for three hours. The guys at the front desk (which is behind bullet proof glass) spoke Spanish and very little English. When they saw us loading in photo equipment and boxes (carrying the artwork), they got suspicious and told us that we needed to either leave or pay more money. With a mix of very broken Spanish and English we tried to use our ‘school art project’ excuse but that didn’t work. As a last resort we somehow intimated that we were shooting a porno, which ironically was more acceptable, and they let us stay.”

CHOOSE UNCUMBERSOME ARTWORKS

“One of the Airbnb shows we did was on a houseboat in Queens. We had a tonne of stuff to bring, including a huge flatscreen that we were using to show Bailey Scieszka’s video, and Mindy Rose Schwartz’s sculpture, which was packed in a box that was about six feet long. The day after shooting, when we were bringing everything back to the car, someone called the owner and told him he was being robbed. We got a phone call from the owner and he was like, ‘So-and-so saw you stealing my television, but I don’t have a television… what’s going on?’ Explaining Hotel Art would have just been too difficult, so we said something like ‘we were editing a video and needed to “get away from it all” in order to get a fresh perspective on our work, lol.’” 

NO SPACE? TRY CURATING ON YOUR OWN BODY (IN A SPA)

“In Queens there’s a place called Spa Castle – and it’s exactly what it sounds like, a modern-day castle filled with saunas, whirlpools, and steam rooms. It has a bar in the pool and a club vibe at night. We thought it’d be the perfect place to do a show with Debora Delmar, who was already working with spa/luxury aesthetics. Throughout the day of the shoot we’d Skype with Debora (who's based in Mexico City) and send her pictures to make sure we were on the right track. The Castle was packed and it was hard to find areas to set up that weren’t filled with people. Coincedently, Debora had been thinking about the Japanese practice of nyotaimori, or “body sushi.” At one point, Loney was laying on the floor of a sauna, completely naked, and covered in sushi from the sushi bar. There were people everywhere but nobody cared. We heard someone tell someone else we were ‘filming a rap video’. ” 

LAST MINUTE DROPOUT? REHASH SAID DROPOUT'S WORK

“For Cultural Affair at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Manhattan, Johnny asked Frances Bean Cobain (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter) to be in the show. She had been following his Instagram so we thought it was worth a shot. Shockingly, she replied and said she’d send us some work but at the last minute she backed out. We found some of her drawings on DeviantArt and printed them out on crappy computer paper, pierced them with belly buttons rings, and decorated them with fake, stick-on wounds you’d use for Halloween costumes. We put them in the show and didn’t attribute the work to anyone. They had been altered enough so that they weren’t technically hers.”

CAN'T DO GALLERY OPENINGS? HOST AFTERPARTIES INSTEAD

“Openings offer the chance to mingle, to be seen, to socialise, and of course, if you’re the artist or the gallery, to make money. So for our first four shows, we had IRL “openings” at various galleries in which we presented the documentation of the exhibitions. But we soon realised that working with galleries was too constricting. Galleries, understandably, need to plan their schedules very far in advance – usually a year. We like to work at a much faster rate of production, so we decided it didn’t really make sense to try to coordinate with galleries’ schedules. Now we generally don’t have IRL events that correspond with the exhibitions, though we do sometimes have ‘afterparties’. We’ll release the images online at say, five o’clock one day, and then announce an afterparty at Beverly’s in the LES, at say, seven.”

See more of Hotel Art and follow Loney Abrams and Johnny Stanish on Instagram

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