In the Mix
Room to Grow
Salon 94 Design’s Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn on her new gallery space and championing joyful activism
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn is the powerhouse behind New York galleries Salon 94 and, as of 2017, Salon 94 Design. This past month, she and her team opened the doors to a fabulous new flagship building on the Upper East Side, just steps from the Guggenheim.
Salon 94's recently transformed townhouse—a five-story, historical landmark Beaux Arts building originally owned by arts philanthropist Archer Huntington and sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington—now hosts over 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, as well as offices and a new nonprofit initiative called S94+ that will realize performances, exhibitions, and educational projects. Newly commissioned design works—such as a multi-story glass chandelier by Philippe Malouin and limestone sconces by Max Lamb—engage with the architecture at multiple points.
Throughout her career, which kicked off in her own New York townhouse in 2002, Greenberg Rohatyn has championed art and design’s power to push boundaries and even bring about social change. As such, her roster includes groundbreakers like Laurie Simmons, Judy Chicago, and Gaetano Pesce alongside important emerging voices like Thomas Barger. And her new space has launched, fittingly, with three shows—featuring works by late French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams, and Japanese ceramicist Takuro Kuwata—that collectively “align activism as a point of joy,” as Greenberg Rohatyn says.
Read on for more in her own words.
First off, congratulations on your beautiful new space. This location marks a new chapter for Salon 94. What are your hopes and goals as this new phase begins?
Thank you! My biggest goals are to have an exhibition-making practice that is very full and diverse—traversing across centuries and different ethnicities and voices—and to present projects with intelligence and rigor and beauty and elegance.
What makes the new space so special for you?
The building has really redefined my vision, because it has its own ghosts and its own history. As a result, during renovation, we tried very much to reveal its bones. It was a process of excavation and making decisions about what to leave and what to update. In that process, we found beautiful gallery spaces, each with their own kind of attitude and feel, allowing for a variety of exhibition-making.
I never had the luxury of space before; the experience of moving from room to room allows a story to unfold that I did not have before. That is a rare art-looking experience, unless you’re in a large museum or gallery.
That’s really lovely. How does that play out with your debut shows? What do you hope audiences will take away from these exhibitions, as independent presentations and/or in conversation?
In conversation, the artists we opened with have a sense of optimism and joy, but as well there’s a sense of activism—at least with Niki de Saint Phalle and Derrick Adams. So to align activism as a point of joy; to be politically motivated or socially motivated and, at the same time, to use a positive attitude and feeling and aesthetic is something that binds the artists together.
Also that history repeats itself and requires us all to pay attention as a result. And to march in the streets and to activate and to pay attention to language. Especially this year, we have to rethink terms; we have to rethink language; we have to rethink gender pronouns; we have to rethink how people identify.
So I'm very interested in that, and I was struck by the fact that Niki de Saint Phalle was, even in the naming of her sculptures, interested in that. For instance, we have one bathing sculpture from 1969 that is called Yellow Peril. That name comes out of the racist propaganda against the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. The bather is holding a red ball to represent communism, and that to me is an indication that we have to pay attention to language. That’s important to me. Likewise, Derrick Adams speaks very openly about Black radical joy. And that term is one that perfectly describes his work.
It is an ongoing thread, really, as throughout your career, you’ve championed art and design’s power to bring about social change. Has the past year reinforced or shifted your perspective in any way?
It hasn’t shifted my perspective. I think other people's perspectives have moved towards what I’ve been practicing all along. It’s just now you can say it out loud more perhaps or identify it more.
When I opened up on the Bowery—my little Bowery gallery—over ten years ago, the first year I had an entirely female program. I didn’t say it aloud, but I did that to kind of say, you can support a gallery on an all-female program for a year, and there is no financial risk. In fact, it has rewards. But that was not something that was written about when I opened up the Bowery a decade ago.
Nobody asked that question; it just wasn’t spoken about. So I just did it. I don’t think we could find one piece of press that discusses that. So for me, it’s just that people are saying things more out loud now. And they should be. But that’s part of our gallery’s DNA, it’s part of our ethical practice as it were—and our interests.
And the design program is very much the same. So for example, Takuro Kuwata, who we also opened with, is a real punk ceramicist working within a very long Japanese tradition of making. [Kuwata is a student of chanoyu, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony; many of his coveted works playfully reinterpret the ancient tea bowl form and wabi-sabi aesthetic by taking traditional elements and techniques to their extremes.] And he has disrupted the whole system, but within traditional ceramics-making. And that’s interesting to me, these moments of disruption, but done with a sense of positivity, a sense of elegance, and humor and style and deep, deep respect for his craft and history.
In addition to the gallery’s new home, you’ve also launched S94+, a new nonprofit initiative. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Again, a lot of this is part of our history. I was the chair of Performa for many years and worked very closely with RoseLee [Goldberg] there and with other nonprofits as well. Out of that I have produced—alongside these amazing nonprofits—some pretty remarkable performances, films, and lectures. So we, as a team—including Alissa Friedman, our director, and our manager Andrew Blackley—felt as though the new building could support its own kind of programming. We hope to generate our own performances, poetry readings, lectures, and so on—complementary actions that go beyond the actual art and objects. It’s something we’ve been doing all along—as have many other galleries—but we’re giving it its own department.
Very importantly, though, this will all be activated by or started by the artists. It will be based on the artists’ visions; and we will help them produce initiatives and give them space. We hope to start that in the fall.
Finally, how do you see Salon 94’s place within its new neighborhood, particularly at this time?
It's so great to be around so many amazing museums and curators. One of the greatest feelings was we opened on a Wednesday to press and invited the museums and curators, including many from the neighborhood, and there was a real sense of community and camaraderie and a trading of ideas and energy.
It’s really about energy, giving energy, and the idea that we each give one another positive energy. It’s only good. I know that sounds a little rah-rah, but it’s true that these spaces give energy to people. There’s a generous spirit. The difference is of course that I sell art [laughing], and they do not.
But that energy is good, and coming out of the last year, we’re all hungry for it. It’s one of the things that’s keeping us moving forward.
Thank you, Jeanne! ♦
Salon 94 and S94 Design are now open Wednesday - Saturday from 11am to 6pm EST. Learn more about the new space’s inaugural exhibitions at Salon94.com. In compliance with city and state guidance, appointments are required. Visitors may make a reservation at salon94.com/visit.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.