The opening party for Sean-Kierre Lyons’ first solo show at Larrie last summer.
The Lower East Side gallery Larrie, which was dedicated to giving artists their first solo exhibitions in the city, closed its physical space earlier this month after being unable to negotiate rent with their landlord. Larrie follows Lesley Heller Gallery, also located on Orchard Street, which was reportedly the first gallery in the city to shut its doors permanently in late April. When I spoke with her, owner Becky Elmquist, 33, had just dropped off the keys.
“They’ll be another iteration,” she says. “We have to figure out a way to survive.” The way she had been running the gallery, Elmquist describes, had never been financially sustainable. “[I was] taking a chance on artists on the first part of their career.” Every show at Larrie was either the artists’ first solo show in the city, or a presentation of a completely new type of work.
Because value in the commercial art world is predicated on the clout of a gallery, or name recognition of an artist, Elmquist’s main obstacle was getting collectors to buy work. “It’s hard to get collectors to buy on, in the art world that we’re in,” she says. “They want to see a trajectory of what an artist does” before they buy work. For many, it’s a speculative sport.
Elmquist was putting everything from her consulting business into the gallery to finance the shows: eight a year each costing between $3,000 and $7,000, in addition to rent—$4,000 a month— and the cost of insurance. Sometimes, she says, not a single work was sold during an exhibition. “We always had trouble paying rent. It escalated really quickly with COVID.” When her landlord gave her the opportunity to terminate the lease early, she made the decision to close the gallery’s doors after four years and to “re-think” the space.
Eventually, Elmquist says she’d like to her consulting business and the gallery space to be combined. She continues to serve as a resource for her artists: selling their work, and advising them on communications and branding. “I’m always gonna work with Becky,” says the artist Sean-Kierre Lyons. “Having her around is really affirming for me.” Elmquist is determined to help artists advance their careers, and a crucial part of that is exposing them to the business itself. “A lot of galleries don’t teach so much about what they do,” says Lyons. “They don’t teach this information to weaponize it.” Elmquist gives her artists an internal view of the art world’s politics and bureaucracy. “When you go to work with the crooks it’s easier to get what you need,” says Lyons.
Lyons places Elmquist with two other curators in the city— Kenya Johnson–Freeman of HOUSING and Ebony L. Haynes of Shoot the Lobster— that put artists first, in earnest. “She asked me what I wanted to do in the space. No one had ever asked me that before,” Lyons says. Instead, gallerists or collectors would say: “I like this piece, can you make another one like this?”
The artist Alicia Mersy described a trip Elmquist organized to Miami, for the New Art Dealers Alliance Fair last year. In this intimidating environment there was “strong love” and mutual support among Larrie’s artists, who would take breaks from the booth and go on walks together. The gallery model is “a very white closed space,” says Mersy. “My work is almost the opposite of that.”
The future iteration of Larrie would continue to be responsive to artists’ needs. “We need to figure out how we can be more expansive, how we can help more,” says Elmquist. Instead of eight shows a year, there would be four. The space would be less centered on exhibitions, and more of a “presentation space,” where different types of projects can unfold. “Maybe its food, maybe we make microgreens in the space,” she says. “The possibilities are endless.”