In Conversation With Alex Gilkes and Bill Powers​​​

Alexander Gilkes (left), cofounder of Paddle8, and Bill Powers, co-owner of Half Gallery and Exhibition A, talk art and tech at Margaux, the restaurant at the Marlton Hotel, in New York City

RL Magazine spends cocktail hour at the Marlton Hotel with two of the art world’s boldest names

hat the art world is splintering and expanding is no surprise, and that hasn’t made navigating it any easier. There are more fairs, more shows, more artists, more collectors, more ways to sell and buy—and far fewer opportunities for wild, all-encompassing success. That makes the achievements of Alexander Gilkes and Bill Powers all the more exceptional: They’ve managed to create their own thriving sphere within the increasingly challenging art world. Their success requires a sense of shrewdness and speaks to a sense of open-mindedness—not just toward emerging talents but also toward technology and potential collectors.

Fueled by his love of the art industry, British-born Gilkes cofounded the online auction house Paddle8 in 2011 at age 31 after stints at LVMH and auction powerhouse Phillips, where he still serves as an auctioneer. There was skepticism about whether people would buy art online, in some cases without ever having seen it in person, but Gilkes proved the naysayers wrong. Paddle8 quickly became a prosperous marketplace, one that’s served as a gateway for many young new collectors because of its inventory of original works priced from as little as $100.

Numerous works by Damien Hirst, including 1-Pentadecanol, 2008, have sold via Paddle8, the online auction house Gilkes cofounded in 2011

 

Powers is co-owner of Half Gallery, a gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, and Exhibition A, an online gallery that sells exclusive, limited-edition contemporary artwork. He is an instantly recognizable figure in Gotham’s art and media worlds, having edited BlackBook, published three books and appeared as a judge on Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.

Both men are very comfortable in the fashion industry as well: Gilkes is married to designer Misha Nonoo, and Powers is married to designer Cynthia Rowley. Although the two men have done deals with each other over email and text message, it is a wonder that they’d never met in person before. For their first meeting, we convened at the Marlton Hotel, ordered a round of gin and tonics, iced teas and Moscow mules and got right down to business.

RL Magazine: The Armory Show art fair took place in March 2014. How did it go for both of you? Do you look forward to it? Do you dread it?
Alexander Gilkes: This is actually, shamefully, the first year I didn’t make it to the Armory. There was such a multitude of individuals in town who wanted our time, wanted to come meet at the office. There just wasn’t time.

Bill Powers: And you also were an auctioneer for the Phillips sale.

Gilkes: Exactly. I had my Phillips duties. I was there for the contemporary [art] and design auction. I wish I’d been to ADAA [the Art Dealers Association of America’s annual art show] and to the Independent [art fair], which everyone always rhapsodizes about, but I sadly missed out.

Powers: Well, those were my two favorites. The ADAA is nice because it’s a little bit sleepier and more gentlemanly. There’s less of a crush and a rush there, and you get to see a mix. There’s everything from this outsider artist James Castle at the Peter Freeman booth to Egon Schiele. [Schiele’s] drawings are $225,000. Sometimes that makes me think the market can be a little bit crazy, when you can either get a Schiele drawing that’s 100 years old that’s $225,000 or a Sterling Ruby painting that’s from two years ago.

“I think the greatest advice was given by someone we both admire and work with, Simon de Pury: ‘The only way you learn about the art world is to see, see, see!’” Gilkes says.

All of these different things coming together—that’s what’s wonderful and a little exhausting.
Powers: Well, there are so many anomalies that they start to become normalized.

So you got to see everything from the up-and-coming to 100-year-old works. Do you like to see that range of things?
Gilkes: I think the galleries are increasingly using the pedestals of established artists to create context and validate the new breed of artists they want to display. I think those who are looking for slightly more esoteric access to the art world and an insider’s eye tend to veer off to the Independent, where you’re getting a more academic perspective on the market.

A limited edition of five framed C-prints of Elad Lassry’s Collie, Poodle, 2011, was also sold on Paddle8

 

I heard somebody say that they already had sold a few works over Instagram. Does that surprise you? Or is that just the way the world is?
Powers: It’s funny, at Gavin Brown’s booth at the Independent, he had an artist who was selling her printed-out Instagram photos.

Gilkes: You and I have done deals with each other, which have been over text messages. [But] there’s an established trust.

Powers: I think it can be a little bit tacky to go fishing by putting something out on Instagram. But as Alex was saying, context is everything, and context can be a form of content when you’re just scrolling through images and you see something that’s by a young artist. But if you saw a Justin Adian next to a Richard Tuttle, you could start to tease out a thread. I think technology is helpful in that way.

Gilkes: Absolutely. It’s inevitable. Three years ago, when we were launching Paddle8, there was a huge resistance to the online movement in the art world, and everyone always thought, “How can you provide context to a work? How can you really replace something so physical that needs that physical interaction?” We were never trying to do that. We were trying to enhance access.

From left, the limited-edition prints French Breakfast, 2014, by Anne-Lise Coste, and Superman, 2014, by Keith Mayerson, are both currently available on Exhibition A, the online gallery co-owned by Powers

 

Have you noticed a difference between the type of people who are comfortable buying art online and the type of people who insist on doing it in person? Is it just a generational shift?
Gilkes: I think it’s a trend that’s being bulldozed by the Millennials, who seek immediacy, who are digitally savvy, who crave 24/7 access. And technology plays so well into that need.

Powers: If you look at Paddle8 or Exhibition A today, we just launched a Joe Bradley print 45 minutes ago that has now sold out, but Alex has a drawing by Bradley up that I think is estimated at $7,000. The Bradley print we did is based on a drawing for $200. In that way, there can be a comfort level: If you can’t afford a $7,000 Bradley drawing but you love Bradley, you can [still] have something. That is, I don’t want to say it’s an impulse buy at $200, but you’re not as concerned about breaking the bank with this purchase. I think in terms of people’s comfort level [with] buying more expensive work, it depends on if you’re familiar with an artist and a particular series of their practice. Then you know what you’re getting, you’ve seen it in person before, so it’s less risky to buy off a JPEG. But if it’s someone who’s making a complicated sculptural work that you’ve never seen before, maybe you want to see that in person before you spend $50,000.

Gilkes: I think in terms of these shifting tectonic plates within the art market, what you’re seeing is a consolidation of these über-galleries at the top that are becoming more and more like museums. You’re seeing Gagosian opening a 30,000-square-foot premises in London. And brick and mortar is starting to become important for creating validity around a new breed of artists and also for establishing the demand for better-known artists. What we’re not trying to do online is validate or build the careers of these artists. We’re just trying to create a marketplace where collectors can come very easily and efficiently once they know about the artist and acquire without any of the pangs that might be assigned to the brick-and-mortar world.

Where do you go when you want to discover new artists? Is it studio visits? Word of mouth? Other countries?
Gilkes: It’s really about knowing the gatekeepers that you like and trust. As you develop your own taste for your life, you go to a certain friend who’s sartorially snappy to ask for advice on certain tailors, and you build a certain ecosystem of gatekeepers in the art world. I always find the New Art Dealers Alliance fair in Miami is a great highlight, and [Art] Basel in Switzerland. It’s always an amazing place to go and discover trends and artists who are breaking new boundaries.

Powers: You don’t really have to leave New York. If you can get in front of our radar, you have a shot at having some real traction.

Silkscreen prints of Invocations of Miles, 2000, by George Condo, appeared for auction on Paddle8

 

Where do you find the artists for Half Gallery, Bill? Do they find you somehow?
Powers: Hopefully if you’re doing your job right, people want to work with you, and if someone is doing a benefit auction, they want to come to Paddle8 to do that. The next show that I have is with Peter Coffin, whose last solo show in the States, I think, was at the Hirshhorn Museum [and Sculpture Garden], in Washington, DC. He had come to our very first show when we opened uptown, and I love when you have other artists who come to openings and who have some artist-to-artist or peer support. But I don’t really think there is a formula in terms of how you find somebody. I think you’re right in talking about it as an ecosystem. Sometimes if you find one artist, then there are all these different concentric circles, like what you would have in a trunk of a tree. If you just go out, you can find outliers within that, and you just keep in touch with people and things develop.

Gilkes: I think it depends really on the motivations of the collector and what they’re seeking. I think the greatest advice was given by someone we both admire and work with, Simon de Pury: “The only way you learn about the art world is to see, see, see!” When I look back on things I was collecting five years ago, before this very intense learning curve in the art world— My wife made me remove all of those artworks and hide them in the back of our new office. This is why your collection is such an amazing archive of your identity: because it really shows and charts the evolution of your taste.

As part of its contemporary artwork offerings, Exhibition A is selling 35 limited-edition, signed paper prints of Street Sweeper, 2013, by Blair Thurman

 

Can you both talk about your interest in fashion? What’s your relationship to fashion in general and to your style specifically?
Powers: I always like the John Currin quote, “Your style is who you are when you’re not trying to be clever or better than you actually are.” I usually just find something that I like and wear it into the ground.

Gilkes: I made a huge mistake once when asked about my style. I foolishly came out and said I describe myself as an urban farmer [laughs], and it literally came up again in my brother’s speech at my wedding. This is a question that I remain very nervous about. I think it’s that there’s a rustic edge to what I like. I like my tweeds and natural colors—nothing too forced. I’ve always been interested in more traditional forms of fashion, and when asked who my icons are, I hold the torch to the Duke of Windsor, who had this perennial style.

Powers: Usually auctioneers are known as being somewhat dapper, right? Like Tobias [Meyer] or Simon [de Pury].

Gilkes: That’s true. My parents remind me that even when I was a child, they used to put out shirts and shorts for me, which I would throw away, and then I would assemble my own outfits. What my wife certainly taught me was shape and tailoring, and that’s a signature of her own identity. The baggier trousers have been replaced with a pencil cut.

Exhibition A also currently offers a limited-edition print of Key Duck, 2013, by Daniel Heidkamp

 

Do you have favorite flea markets or stores that you go to in Los Angeles, Paris or New York that you won’t tell anyone about?
Powers: Honestly, my wife makes me stuff, like this jacket. I like Bob Melet of Melet Mercantile. He has a place in Soho and a place in Montauk [in New York] where he [sells] amazing vintage stuff. He had great vintage T-shirts, a quilted windbreaker, [a necklace with] painted wooden wedding Tahitian beads and some fringe stuff, too.

Who else do you think is particularly stylish these days? Are there artists or writers whose wardrobe choices you look forward to seeing?
Powers: [Writer] Glenn O’Brien has really good style. I feel like Glenn could look back at pictures from over the years, and there’s nothing too embarrassing.

Where do you guys hang out in New York? Where is a place you find yourself a lot?
Gilkes: [The Marlton Hotel] is a very appropriate spot. I live one block over, so this is a very convenient stomping ground. We just moved our offices to Cooper Square, so we have André [Balazs]’s hotel, the Standard, in the East Village. We’re there fairly regularly. Indochine is a great art world institution and remains very unpretentious.

Powers: It is funny how the art world will just find you in those places. Uptown I wind up just going to this diner Viand Café, at 78th and Madison. I think when [Michael] Bloomberg was mayor, every Saturday he would have breakfast there, and he would sit in the last booth with the wall behind him, facing the door, which is so mob style for a mayor to do. I’ll go to Tartine on West Fourth Street. I go there because I lived and went to high school on Bank Street in the ’80s. That’s one of the few places that’s still there that I can go back to with my kids, and I only live three blocks away. I still get my paper every morning at the same Korean deli where I used to buy my beer underage.

Gilkes and Powers outside the Marlton Hotel, where they met in person for the first time in March 2014

 

What are you looking forward to? You just wrote the book Boat People in April, Bill.
Powers: Richard Prince did the cover, and Fulton Ryder [published] it. Last year I did an interview book that Gagosian put out that was my collected artist interviews. And I put out a novella in 2012. I try to do a book a year right now, but I’m only on year three.

Gilkes: In Dallas in the beginning of April, I taped the MTV RE:DEFINE auction, which was cochaired by Kenny Goss, George Michael’s former partner, who is a major Dallas collector.

Powers: Exhibition A is going to be doing a print with one of the winning Biennial artists, which is pretty exciting because that just opened this week, and they’re more established works. One is with Ashley Bickerton, who’s now an exile in Bali, surfing.

Gilkes: And Exhibition A is really a perfect place to start acquiring works because of the accessible price points and insider’s eye on what to collect.

Powers: Thanks, Alex.

 

David Coggins is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Esquire, Interview and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He lives in New York.

  • Photograph by Weston Wells, shot on location at the Marlton Hotel, in New York City
  • © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.; Courtesy of Paddle8
  • © Elad Lassry; Courtesy of Paddle8
  • Courtesy of Exhibition A
  • © George Condo; Courtesy of Paddle8
  • Courtesy of Exhibition A
  • Courtesy of Exhibition A
  • Photograph by Weston Wells, shot on location at the Marlton Hotel, in New York City