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Cynthia Rowley: "The Time Has Come to Make Art More Accessible"

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Racked's Chicago man about town Jared Hatch caught up with designer Cynthia Rowley last week to talk inspiration and her new online art endeavor, Exhibition A, a site which allows consumers to buy limited-edition affordable pieces of modern art.

Fun Fact: Did you know that Cynthia is the President of the Tom Sachs Fan Club?


Cynthia Rowley visits Chicago via Racked Chicago

Racked: From Chicago to Montauk and everywhere in between, all of your employees have been the nicest people.

Cynthia Rowley: Thank you, I know, everyone I work with is great—we have a lot of fun. You know what they say: "The rotting fish rots from the head? Wait, is that it? Did I use that right?

Racked: Last year you were asked to participate in PS1's MOVE! exhibition. Your collaborating partner was Olaf Breuning, one of our favorite artists. The performance looked fun. You had mentioned on your blog that it was your "Carrie Moment" of getting paint poured over your head.

Rowley: Yes, it was a blast. It was a true collaboration because Olaf and I were the only team where both parties were present for the entire time from planting the seed of the idea, communicating the evolution of our ideas, to how the project grew through execution. It was really like we were the glass and it was both half full and half empty. One made up for what the other lacked and we both enjoyed the process and performative aspects of crafting a piece like this.

Racked: Did you know each other before the collaboration and decide mutually to be partners or did the curators Cecilia Dean and David Colman choose to pair you two up?

Rowley: They paired us. I think it was perfect for us. I've been following his [Breuning's] career and look forward to collecting more of his work but he hasn't done much in the States. He really has a European mystique about him. Olaf is always at an arm's reach for me, I respect him and it was an interesting study of collaboration in the present art world and it was a timely thing to have a project like that.

Racked: There were 48 models wearing the clothing. Was there any significance to the number 48?

Rowley: No, not really, that was just the number of models we could gather, and it worked out great because it was almost the whole run.

Racked: The pieces were for sale online, right? Have all of them sold yet?

Rowley: Yes, we have a few pieces left—most were sold at the Gagosian in New York immediately after the show and we weren't sure whether people were going to try to wear them or keep them as artifacts. Constructurally, we were left removing and re-sewing many of the zippers because they were painted shut. Our garments were all one-of-a kind pieces of art.

Racked: Speaking of one-of-a-kind art, you support Mike Anderson, the "Yarnies" dolls creator who you now sell at your stores. We heard you first fell in love with the dolls at Quimby's on North Ave. We love that you love his work enough to commission him to make these dolls for you.

Rowley:Mikey! I love Mikey!, Yeah it was actually another Chicago Artist who discovered him for me. The doll was a gift—sort of a token—and I think they're so great we sell them at most of the stores.

Racked: Ah, we thought your youngest daughter discovered it at Quimby's. She's so cute—has she read your fantasy memoirs?

Rowley: I'm sure both have read most of Slim but they're just not interested, you know, they're into their own adventures right now. The cool thing is they like to draw and entertain themselves.

Racked: Your videos "Hide and Seek" and "Musical Chairs"—very youthful—what a great idea that was. On the same token as your Pampers diapers, do you think these are steps toward a more conceptual stance on promotion for your brand?

Rowley: Thanks, and well, that's the great thing about the world now is that art and design and fashion and consumerism are all so seamless. Everything is being blurred and I think that it's really an evolution—it's what we're seeing. Richard Phillips is progressive within the balance of art and commerce, then Yoshitomo Nara, [Damien] Hirst's cabinets, Murakami on everything. All of this commercialism becoming our identity. We'll definitely move with everyone else on this shift. In the most basic event its the same thing with designer collaborations with stores like Target.

Racked: So, any more super cute promo videos?

Rowley: No comment, you'll have to keep watching.

Racked: Being the art collector that you are, Who are some of your favorite artists? I read somewhere that you're president of the Tom Sachs Fan Club. Are you still the President and will you be partnering with him for any special or limited editions soon?

Rowley: (laughs) I hope so! Unless there has been a coup that has ousted me! Yes, I am the president of the Tom Sachs Fan Club we hung out a few days ago, we're tight. Favorite though? It's hard to narrow it down! I'm also fan of Ryan McGinness, Will Cotton, Elizabeth Peyton, and Rachel Feinstein. I also highly recommend seeing the Louise Bourgeois documentary. I saw it at Film Forum on Houston back in 2008. I love her and have admired her work for ages.

Racked: Great roster. Who else?

Rowley: Terrence Koh, we're friends, of course I like David LaChappelle, Josephine Meckseper—she was at the Biennial—loved that.

Racked: Since the launch of your new venture, Exhibition A, have you been spending more time on 24th Street in Chicago?

Rowley: Not really, I'm still visiting the power players like Mary Boone, and Boesky but really I go everywhere.

Racked: You run Exhibition A with your friends and husband Laura, Gabby, and Bill. Do you feel that the panel's curatorial process in choosing the artists for Exhibition A is beginning to show itself? Who among the members of the panel has the most input?

Rowley: Well, Laura is really the one in charge—she works in the office and last year she came up with an idea that seemed right. We have an in-house fund, the "Pretty Penny Fund," for entrepreneurial ideas and we all voted for her idea to be developed—it was the most exciting and timely idea so we gave the seed money to Laura, who brought in Gabby. We all work together as a team to choose who we show and we're trying to go outside of our comfort zone so it doesn't seem like we're a club, you know? In choosing the artists, we have no limits. The time has come to make art more accessible. Right now, everything we're offering is accessible and original with the artsy hand. It has to add value to our collection. We're doing a model based on "limited time, open edition" works—mostly limited time—and keep checking. We might be doing "limited signed" by the artists but right now most are not signed.

Racked: By doing "limited time, open edition" you're taking on the risk of the popularity or status of the artist and pitching it to a group of people with collective buying power. So you're kinda like Groupon meets Gilt?

Rowley: Well, a little more verified product and valuable idea. We started it as the most ideological way enlighten your life—we're hoping to create a new world of contemporary art collectors and appreciators. Buying art, like objects, is saying something about yourself and the values that you share with the artist—it's more social.

Racked: Who is coming up on Exhibition A?

Rowley: I don't know if I can reveal too much there—I'll have to conference and get back to you. Oh, but I can tell you one thing: we're doing
Ryan Macnamara starting February 11th. He was just named Rob Pruitt's best new artist and was actually a collaborator with Robert Geller at MOVE!

Racked: I'd like to ask you one of the questions asked to Pierre during his interview with Exhibition A: What advice would you have for a young collector?

Rowley: First and foremost, buy what you love. After that it's pretty easy to get info on artists' websites. This is a good framework to having names in your head or a base to work from. The art world is a very insular world made up of a lot of important collectors. Buying anything is a huge risk. Read a lot, I read a lot. It's more important you follow the trajectory of the artist and pay attention to their artistic endeavors.

Racked: Where are you buying your books?

Rowley: Gagosian's books are experimental and on the forefront of ephemeral. Usually I look for smaller edition. Maybe at Colette or through Olivier Zahm. Or at MOCA and MoMA but more with other criteria in mind.

Racked: You've worked with so many people. With whom would your dream collaboration be with?

Rowley: That is tough. That's a tough one. But my dream? That's too hard. I'll have to get back to you on that one too.

Well, Gagosian, Larry, I did have a partnership with him that was like photos of dresses on dresses for sale. He's like the creme de la creme. It was the Capsule Collection last fall—he really did an appropriation on my show and it brought something really visionary to the table. Oh, and I also helped Will Cotton. He's an old friend—we've known each other for some time now. You know he's at Mary Boone too. A while ago he was doing a project with Katy Perry and needed help on building a bra—you know the famous cupcake bra—and we ended up collaborating and designing a bunch for that project.

But my dream? I don't know.

· Exhibition A [Official Site]
· Cynthia Rowley [Official Site]
· All Cynthia Rowley coverage [Racked]