Gallerist Sara Kay Aims to Elevate Female Artists and Art Professionals

Sara Kay at Sara Kay Gallery
Sara Kay at Sara Kay Gallery. Photo by AWT.

Gallery owner Sara Kay is all about making connections: between artists, eras, and the women working in the art world today.

Sara Kay Gallery specializes in creating museum-type shows that transcend any singular artist or era. Kay calls it a dream realized. “This gives me all the freedom in the world,” she says, adding, “If you can stomach all the responsibility and overhead, it’s priceless.”

The gallery opened in September 2017 in a renovated 19th-century townhouse in New York’s East Village. Even the space seems to express the founder’s unique vision, with original brick and woodwork warmed by an abundance of natural light. (Not to mention the neighborhood, with its eclectic, downtown vibes.)

 
I loved working for the drawings department. I had a warehouse full of drawings.
 

Kay credits her diverse CV with readying her to venture out on her own. After studying conservation, she took her first job at the American Folk Art Museum in 1999. She then moved on to the Old Masters division of Christie’s, fulfilling a childhood dream and reconnecting with her love for works on paper.

“I loved working for the drawings department. I had a warehouse full of drawings. It was amazing,” Kay remembers.

But as that market dried up, Kay felt the need to broaden her range. So she went to work for Jan Krugier, a former Christie’s client. That role offered her unparalleled experience working both with Old Masters works and with artists’ estates, including Picasso’s. After that, she took a job in London with leading contemporary art gallery White Cube, checking yet another side of the art market off her professional bucket list. “It was the first time I was working with living artists in that way,” says Kay.

Audrey Heckler at Sara Kay Gallery.
A Limitless Vision: The Collection of Audrey B. Heckler. Photo courtesy of SK Gallery.
Picasso and Dubuffet at Sara Kay Gallery.
The show pairs Audrey B. Heckler’s collection with ceramics by Picasso and a large sculpture by Dubuffet from his “L’Hourloupe” series. Photo courtesy of SK Gallery.

With this range of experience up her sleeve, opening her own gallery was a natural next step. For her first exhibition, Kay selected works from the private collection of Audrey Heckler, a major champion of “outsider art” (or work by self-taught artists). “I chose things that were very iconic, and also very obscure,” says Kay, adding, “I also wanted to honor a female collector who built this on her own. It was purely her own vision.”

This was succeeded by an exhibition of 19th-century American quilts and Abstract Expressionist paintings by female artists, including Elaine de Kooning and Yayoi Kusama. The next show, opening in September, will examine the landscape as a genre across the centuries, showing works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Pablo Picasso and David Hockney, among others.

The “Function to Freedom: Quilts and Abstract Expressionists” show exemplified Kay’s vision to take genres out of their hemmed-in boxes. By showing quilts besides paintings, she hoped to encourage viewers to see the textiles as an art form in their own right—one that was both expressive and influential.

“I think that some of these artists were looking at quilts or even owned quilts,” Kay says. “I had a Grace Hartigan here next to a small Victorian quilt. The compositions were so interesting.” When the painter’s niece visited the gallery, she commented that her aunt was indeed looking at quilts, and even owned one.

 
The idea behind the programming was that most of us don’t have MBAs. We don’t have the business experience, and we’re learning on the job.
 

“In the 50s and 60s in New York, women were not playing in the boys club,” Kay remarks of the relative obscurity of female artists at the time, as compared to their male counterparts. She adds, “It’s still not the same today.”

One of Kay’s main areas of focus is trying to even this score, on both the creative and commercial sides of the art world. She’s the founder, and current chairperson, of POWarts, a 10-year-old nonprofit that helps equip female art professionals with business skills.

“The idea behind the programming was that most of us don’t have MBAs. We don’t have the business experience, and we’re learning on the job,” she explains. “The idea was not to talk about art … what we needed was discussion around business.” The group brings in outside experts to speak on topics ranging from creating a financial forecast to how to negotiate one’s salary.

POWarts also conducted the first industry-wide salary survey, which gathered thousands of responses by artists and art professionals across genders and levels. The results are due out soon.

Additionally, Kay started an annual working residency for female artists. The first featured Victoria Manganiello, a weaving artist, who created large-scale installations and taught workshops on her loom right in the gallery. From a small group nominated by Victoria will come next year’s artist-in-residence. This serves the double purpose of creating a sense of continuation, and exposing Kay to bright new talent.

Coming from a creative family herself, Kay recognizes the challenges that come with both sides of the art industry. “I felt a large responsibility to support other women. Because if we’re not going to, really, nobody is.”

Function to Freedom: Quilts and Abstract Expressions at Sara Kay Gallery.
Function to Freedom: Quilts and Abstract Expressions. Photo courtesy of SK Gallery.
Victoria Manganiello at Sara Kay Gallery.
Victoria Manganiello at Sara Kay Gallery. Photo courtesy of SK Gallery.

“Landscape: Divisions and Development, Works on Paper from Dürer to Hockney” will be on view from September 13 to November 17, 2018 at Sara Kay Gallery, 4 E. 2nd St., New York, NY 10003.