Marc Straus, a "mostly retired" oncologist, collector and co-founder of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, N.Y., is returning to his Lower East Side roots to open his own gallery. The gallery is launching with a roster of 13 artists, mostly emerging, from eight countries. Opening Sept. 7 is a show of paintings by 23-year-old Leonardo Silaghi from Cluj, Romania.
Renovation on the building has just begun, and Straus anticipates it will be complete by Thanksgiving. In the meantime, he'll mount shows in a nearby temporary space at 132 Delancey, at Norfolk. Straus is still assembling his staff, and has hired James Cope, former head of the Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas, as his director.
While the gallery, located at 299 Grand Street (between Eldridge and Allen), will occupy an entire existing three-story building in a neighborhood of tiny retail and gallery spaces, Straus says he isn't interested in making a big statement.
"It's not about being fancy," he told A.i.A. The building has "a tacky aluminum brown facade," he says, "I think I'm going to leave it." But, he continued, "when you walk in the door it has to be about showing art well." Does that mean he's creating a stark white box? "Not at all," he responded. "I care deeply about good lighting. Very few museums and galleries have a clue how to light art well." And it will have wood floors, a warm alternative to the unforgiving cement floors in Chelsea.
Straus will gut most of the Grand Street building. The first floor gallery will be 71 feet long. The second floor will have a small gallery at the back and, at the front, he's removing part of the third floor to create a gallery with 21-foot-tall ceiling.
Straus and his wife Livia began collecting when they were 20, "the week I started medical school," he said. "Our third purchase was a 1970 Ellsworth Kelly painting, which was twice my internship salary. It took me three years to pay it off."
The couple was determined to do things their own way instead of relying on advisors. "We've done thousands of studio visits," he said, "A couple of years ago we did about 350 studio visits in Eastern Europe and the year before that we were in Holland." The extensive legwork has taught them that, on average, "we think that one artist out of several hundred has a fresh, original, important voice."
In 2004, he and Livia opened the nonprofit HVCCA in the Hudson Valley, which she largely runs. The center operates like a kunsthalle, organizing and mounting exhibitions of works from various sources, sometimes including pieces from the Strauses' collection. On Sept. 18, the HVCCA will open "Circa 1986," a show of artists who emerged from 1981–1991, a period that's near and dear to Straus's heart. "Some of the artists, like Jeff Koons and Robert Gober, are so well known today, but half the show will include artists who haven't maintained a market presence," which he feels will give a truer sense of what that vibrant decade was like.
This won't be Straus's first foray into the gallery business. He was a partner in Piezo Electric Gallery in the East Village in 1986, but he and the partners had different ideas about the future of the gallery, and his medical practice was all-consuming.
Straus considered opening a gallery three and a half years ago. He met with a "famous art dealer" he knows well, who told him, "Come on, you're Marc Straus, you have to be in Chelsea." Straus thought to himself, "What am I going to do, have the 12th biggest box in Chelsea. Who cares?"
The pull of his Lower East Side past took hold. It didn't hurt that the gallery scene there is booming and he had a building at his disposal, one of two that Straus's immigrant father, who came to the U.S. as an orphan at age 15, bought across the street from his textile store on Grand and Eldridge.
"Within two blocks are some of the best young galleries I've seen in a long time. I love Nicelle Beauchene's gallery and James Fuentes, Simon Preston, Untitled, Ramiken, Feature . . . ," he continues, "I'm happy to be with all those galleries."