The Big Leagues
From the dot-com world to David LaChapelle, Paul Kasmin Gallery's Nick Olney has always had his eye on the prize
by Paul Laster Photography Mike Vorrasi
Starting out with a job as an art handler at the seminal John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco back in 2001, there was little doubt that Nick Olney would work his way to the top of the contemporary art scene. A director at New York’s posh Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea for the past five years, Olney now handles a stable of talented artists from around the world, including Mattia Bonetti, Saint Clair Cemin, David LaChapelle, Ivan Navarro, Erik Parker and Makoto Saito.
The son of a schoolteacher and a city planner, Olney was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1976 and raised in the New England coastal village where artists Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko were inspired to paint. His father was an amateur painter, which helped shape Olney’s interest in art, while his grandfather was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which influenced his unconventional studies in college and started him on his adventurous path.
Attending the University of Colorado in Boulder, Olney designed his own major, which mixed anthropology, architecture, art history, philosophy and sociology into a degree plan that he called “Cognition, Culture and Change.” Once out of school, the new grad headed to Vietnam where he researched the rapidly changing cultural and economic environment of Saigon before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area with the hope of breaking into a booming Internet business before the bubble burst.
“I was hired full-time and threw myself into it. I became a sponge. I liked all aspects of what was going on at the gallery...”
Too late and with few dot-com prospects left, Olney contacted artist Kent Hendricksen, a college friend who was working at Berggruen Gallery. That led to a temp job that seemed to never end. “A day became a week, a week became a month and a month became a year. And then Kent left to move to New York,” says Olney. “I was hired full-time and threw myself into it. I became a sponge. I liked all aspects of what was going on at the gallery, but I also spent a lot of time with the artists in their studios.
“The gallery also acted as an art advisory service, which meant we spent a lot of time in our clients’ homes and the clients got to know me,” says Olney. “If you know all of the artists well and you know the work well and you know the clients well, you pretty much have it together.”
By paying close attention to everyone from the artist and collector to the conservator and framer, Olney soon rose through the ranks at the gallery to become a salesman and director. His nurturing boss, Nicolas Berggruen (son of the celebrated German art dealer and collector Heinz Berggruen) exhibited at the best international art fairs including Art Basel, the Armory Show and Art Basel Miami Beach and brought the young Olney into contact with the art world’s biggest players.
At 29, Olney decided to make the move to New York, landing a brief directorial position at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2006 before finally settling down at Kasmin. Since Berggruen had shared artists with Kasmin and done secondary market sales with the gallery, it seemed like a natural fit. “When I got to Kasmin in 2007, the gallery was in a period of transition and Paul was ready to grow,” says Olney. “He understood that the art bubble might burst, but saw that as a reason to expand.”
During the art market downturn, the gallery picked up several new artists, doubled down on its promotional activities and added new spaces — first in Istanbul, a booming new art capital, and then nearby, through turning the former Bungalow 8 nightclub in Chelsea into a stylish indoor sculpture garden. Today, the gallery has four directors and each one brings something special to the table. “We all have a different set of skills and interests,” says Olney, “and that ends up making for a really nice mix.”
“It’s not about following trends or fashion, and it almost always pays off.”
Olney starts his day early with emails to European clients and gets to the gallery before it opens. At the end of the day, he often goes to openings and dinners, but tries to balance a busy social schedule with time at home in Fort Greene with his family. “Socializing is integral to what we do,” says Olney. “To a great degree, that’s how the job works. You’re at your desk and on the phone every day, but it’s always the things that are a bit more tangential, either meeting someone at an opening or reconnecting with someone at an art fair that leads to something more.”
Paul Kasmin Gallery has a solid stable of artists that can stand the test of time. The strongest thread running through the gallery is originality, which includes the previously mentioned artists as well as Will Ryman, Erik Parker, Robert Indiana, Deborah Kass and Walton Ford. There’s also a strong strain of Pop Art (Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Kenny Scharf) and a strong Surrealist connection (William Copley, Les Lalanne, Mark Ryden) that makes for a lively combination of aesthetics and ideas. “I love working with artists that do their thing to the nth degree, no matter what,” says Olney. “It’s not about following trends or fashion, and it almost always pays off.”