Down East in Chelsea

Down East in Chelsea

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Nancy Margolis in her Chelsea gallery. Photo/Lauren Silberman.

Nancy Margolis Gallery
523 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001
(212) 242-3013

Nancy Margolis doesn’t remember a time when art didn’t play a significant role in her life. Her parents, both from Eastern Europe, instilled in her a love of art, music and literature at a very young age. An enlightening trip to Europe when she was 19 years old reinforced this passion. “It opened my eyes to another culture, its marvels, its history and its art. I have never lost my attraction to the world abroad and the arts,” she says. “It was a world I wanted and sought.” Margolis has continued this journey of discovery ever since, whether it be as a student, teacher, ceramist or gallery owner. It is through these experiences that Margolis has discovered why change isn’t just good—it’s necessary.

When did you first become involved with ceramics?
I went to Bates College in Maine, and that particular school didn’t have much of an art program so I majored in literature. I began taking clay courses from the wife of one of my professors, Fay Friedman, and really enjoyed it, but after I graduated, I had my kids and didn’t do anything else for a while. After my youngest was born, I looked into doing something more formal. There wasn’t anything going on in Lewiston, Maine, where I was living, but the University of New Hampshire, which was an hour and 45 minutes away, had developed quite a clay program and I was given permission to be a special student.

One thing led to another and I became more involved. For a number of years I would go to craft fairs and sell my work. Then I realized that I spent all my time either working in my studio or at home with my kids. I never left my house! I went to see the president of Bates, where the art department was just beginning to develop, and said I was interested in teaching. I taught there for 10 years and really loved it.

What prompted your decision to open a gallery?
The truth is I always wanted to. We lived about an hour and a half away from Ogunquit, Maine, where an artist colony had developed. We used to summer there and I knew that it was a good place to have a seasonal gallery. I found a great space and started selling my work. I realized the space was too big for just my work so I started carrying other crafts. This was during the late 70s when the craft movement was really burgeoning.

I eventually decided I wanted a year-round gallery, so my husband and I bought a firehouse from the city of Auburn, where we now lived. It was built in 1889 and it was an incredible building. I had an architect redesign the interior. There was a restaurant on two floors that took up one whole side, three stores on one floor and another three on the second, where I had my gallery. Un­fortunately, Auburn is an industrial city and it didn’t have much of a middle class or upper middle class. It was a risky endeavor and financially it didn’t pan out. I really loved that building because I’d developed it. I put my heart and soul in it. I believed I could never do that again, but I recovered and found a place in Portland—the best place to have a gallery. During that time I still had the summer gallery, but after a while it became very difficult to run and I closed it.

What made you decide to transition from Portland to New York City?
Even before I started the gallery in Ogunquit I had dreamed of owning one in New York. I really wanted to show more museum-type work. I knew I couldn’t do it successfully where I was. In the early 90s I started to reach the point where I had to move on and do something else. I had an apartment in a brownstone in Chelsea and it wasn’t a big risk, since I was paying the rent anyway. I decided to test out whether or not I could really do something in New York City.

So you were pretty far ahead of the game when you moved to Chelsea.
Yes. Chelsea hadn’t started yet and it felt very lonely. My third year there it began to develop, but I felt that I had to be in a place that was more visible and I decided to go down to SoHo. The action truly was there at that moment. In 2003 my lease was up and I decided to return to Chelsea, which by that time was the place to be. It’s interesting that it happened that way, but it was okay. I ended up in a good spot and maybe I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed in Chelsea from the outset.

You’ve begun showing paintings and works on paper. How did that come about?
One of the things that’s happened since I’ve been here is that the ceramics movement has changed. There aren’t the collectors that there used to be buying ceramics. There isn’t the creativity that used to go on. I’ve always been interested in painting and two-dimensional work. I’m not giving up on ceramics, but I’m trying to go in a slightly different direction. I still think there are some very exciting ceramists, such as Kim Simonsson and Eva Hild, who created Loop 390 . At one time this type of artist would have had to show in a craft gallery, but now painting galleries are showing ceramic artists. There aren’t the barriers there used to be. It’s a different world—a more open world. And that’s a good thing.