Jun 18, 2021
Now that the country is opening back up again, many people are excited to see their loved ones, eat at restaurants, go to shows, and live their lives in a more pre-pandemic way. But as excited as we all are, sadly, many of our favorite places to visit no longer exist. They shut down during the COVID-19 recession and couldn't survive. So today I am absolutely thrilled to welcome back my guest to the show. While others weren't so lucky, today's guest is excited to give us an update. I'm Hilary Topper and you are listening to Hilary Topper on Air. Joining me today on this episode is Jeff Jaffe. He's the founder and owner of Pop International Galleries. They are an art gallery on the Bowery at the junction of Spring Street in New York City. Welcome to the show, Jeff.
Jeff - Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here, given what we've all gone through this last year and a half or so.
Hilary - Gosh, it's been, it's been crazy. Um, well, I'm very happy to have you back on the show and I'm so glad that Pop International Galleries, which is one of my favorite in New York City, is still open and doing well. Can you remind our listeners about who you are and what Pop International Galleries is all about?
Jeff - Sure, The Pop Gallery started back, believe it or not, it's hard to even comprehend back in 1997 when I sort of came to realize that there was a need for an art gallery to focus on specific things. And in those days it happened to be pop art, which was Andy Warhol and Keith Haring and big names, John Michel, Basquiat, and Roy Lichtenstein and so on and so forth. And we did really well with that. But as things began to progress, it dawned on me that Pop International really meant focusing on pop culture more than pop art per se, that pop art fits into the realm and genre of, uh, what we're sort of interested in, but there were more things too, we were missing out on. And so we began to focus on sports, photography and rock and roll photography, and, more recently, street art and graffiti, and, as a consequence of which, Pop International Galleries has become this sort of iconic little center for focusing on anything that has to do with pop art and popular culture.
Hilary - So, as we were talking at the beginning of the show, I said that this year had been like no other, how was the gallery doing? And how did you fare during all of this? And how did you survive?
Jeff - It's funny. I was just going to say before you said the word survive that we dived into survival mode. There were choices that had to be made. And then there were decisions that were made for us that we had no power to overcome or resist or embrace. We just had to sort of take them on. And as a consequence of which, we sort of began to look at what the virtual world was going to offer us. What technology was going to offer us and help us with, that goes past the questions of having conversations with landlords and dealing with those kinds of things. And we were fortunate enough to have a lovely landlord who was willing to help work things out and help us through so that we could really remain in business.
And then the other thing is I made a very, very strong decision. Some people questioned me why, but I decided not to let a single staff person go. I was just sort of, of that mind where I felt a certain amount of responsibility. And so I took steps to enable remote working and remote selling, which was very difficult because selling art remotely is not something that we would ever have thought we would ever encounter. People like to come to an art gallery, they like to look at the art and smell it and touch it and look at the frame and we really had to come up with different sort of means and strategies to get people comfortable with the notion that they could buy a lot this way.
Hilary - So during this pandemic, you told me that you developed even stronger client relationships. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Jeff - Absolutely we, well, again, it sort of goes back to this notion of virtual business and sort of doing things with Zoom and Skype and all kinds of things. And what we discovered was that by actually picking up the telephone as opposed to sending emails, reaching out to people individually and touching base with people, especially regular collectors about us. And we have, we have a huge collectors base and I mean, people have been buying from us for 25 years. We have thousands of people that we've sold out to and we decided that one of the things that we would do is reach out to people individually. And so it began. And emails became phone calls, emails became texts, messages, and text messages, became phone calls. And then it sort of blossomed into this ongoing dialogue between our consultants and our collective base and which led into larger events using a Zoom to have virtual openings and that kind of thing, which had been very successful.
Hilary - So, can you tell us, or, share with us some of the interesting artists that you represent in your gallery today and why you represent them?
Jeff - Well, we represent roughly about 25 artists or so from around the world. And again, it goes back to what I said a little bit earlier in terms of representing art is certainly pop related, but it has much more to do with the notion of what popular culture is. And subsequently, we still do represent Andy Warhol and Keith Haring and John Michelle Buskey out and so on. But we've edged out into other realms, which focus on things.
Like, for example, we did a very, very special event with the godfather of street art, Ron English. And Ron was thrilled at the concept of making a type of work that he had never made before, which is paintings on paper in the manner he had never made them before. And so running this book has become a very important aspect of the pop gallery.
We represent a Danish artist whose name is Ola Olberg and Ola has taken the cartoon character Tintin, who many people know lots of American people don't know about Tintin, but put Tintin into different scenarios, sort of naughty sort of sexual scenarios, which is something that most people don't associate Tintin with. But the idea of Tintin and popular culture and cartoons and things, that many people and I grew up with Tintin comics. So, that's been truly successful.
We represent an artist by the name of Tony Ray Negro, who did all the backstage passes for the grateful dead. When, you know, from the age of 20 back in the eighties and nineties and so on. So the whole concept of rock and roll and music fits perfectly into this notion of pop culture. And then of course we represent two other artists that really fit into this concept so beautifully that I couldn't have even imagined it. It was just a natural thing.
We represent the art of Dr.Seuss, which besides all this sort of nonsense and drama that occurred with the audit Dr. Seuss recently, we represent the estate of. Dr. Seuss, which means all the illustration drawings and things that he made limited additions of and the estate represents and a very special what we call the secret audit Dr. Seuss, which has stuff that he made in his spare time or the midnight audit Dr. Seuss, along with what he called the unorthodox taxidermy, which are these really beautiful, funny sort of taxidermy heads, which are just hilarious.
And then we represent Tom Everhart, who was the protégé, if you will, of Charles Schultz of Peanuts and Snoopy fame. Tom was a young guy who saw Schultz Sparky as a mentor. And they had a really wonderful father, son type relationship. They and Tom started to interpret all the Snoopy characters and Schulz gave him permission before he died to be the only artist in the world to be able to make art using Snoopy and peanuts characters without a license. He has a lifetime license. They had a show together in the loop a number of years ago. So again, this whole notion of popular culture and pop, all these, The Seuss, the Tintin, the Snoopy Eberhardt pieces that all fit in really, really well.
And then of course we move into street art and graffiti. And I have some lovely stories to tell you about that when you're ready.
Hilary - Tell us we'd love to hear.
So the very first sort of graffiti street art experience happened with pop and about 12 years ago, actually I got a phone call from a collector, a good friend collector. They said Jeff, these two boys who live in Bushwick in Brooklyn, I've started to collect their art quite, quite seriously. And I think you should go and visit them in their studio. And I said, Mike, if you are sure that's what you suggest, I trust you and happy to do it. So Mike set up this little meeting and I drove out to Bushwick 12 years ago.
Bushwick wasn't what it is today, 12 years ago or so. And I arrived in this sort of funny little loft odd building where these two guys lived and worked. They had a studio together. Their names were, Mike Buck, Michael Bucca and, Fernando Romero, their street names, graffiti names were 2ESAE and Ski. So Fernando is Ski and Mike is a 2esae and I arrived at this place sort of not expecting a whole lot, but it was kind of exciting. And the first thing of course was they had a big pile of donuts and coffee for me on the table. And on the other side, they had a big bottle of Hennessy. They had no clue who I was going to be, and they were wondering what I was going to choose. It was really hilarious. And I meant, I went for the coffee and donuts just for the record, but, I'd forgotten to mention that they went by the name of a group that painted and work together. They went by the name of UR New York. And I saw their work around, you know, they used to sell this stuff on the street for a hundred bucks. And here I had this opportunity and as I went through the space studio, whatever you'd like to call it, I knew instantly that they belonged in the gallery. So I pulled him aside and I said, Fernando, Mike, we're definitely going to do something, but there are a few things that we have to deal with first.
And they said, yeah, sure. I mean, they were really, really excited. And I looked at them and I said, you know, the 37 indictments that you have against you and the five years probation that you're on. I mean, these guys were like, looking, how do you know? How do you know all this? I said, how do I know it? Mike told me, you know, Mike referred me to you. He told me all of this stuff, they said. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But how does Mike know? And I had to sort of at that moment in time, decide, should I say how Mike and I figured out what the heck? I said, well, I hate to break it to you but Mike is the undercover cop who arrested you guys.
It was always the uniform guys who took you in, but Mike was undercover. So you never knew who he was. And he developed a relationship with your love, of art and started collecting your art.
Hilary - That's so funny. That's a great story.
Jeff - There's a documentary in there somewhere. I'm sure. Mike, I'm telling you, they went bananas. These two guys jumping up and down hooting and hollering. It was just hilarious. And I said, and based on what. In order for me to put you in the gallery, we have to get rid of those issues that we just discussed and the way we're going to do it is by doing community work and getting involved with children in need and homelessness and whatnot. My attorney is a former judge. Mike, the undercover cop eventually became a DA. We're going to write letters. We're going to do all kinds of things that are going to sort of help mitigate this. And so the first thing we did was a big project in Chelsea in that there's a public housing center in Chelsea, on the west side of New York City.
And we arranged for the boys to do a big mural and to work with all the children, helping them draw and paint and do all that kind of stuff. Got a fair amount of press and coverage. And one thing led to another. And the boys started working with children everywhere working with charities and organizations that we were able to connect them with.
They went overseas, they went to Australia to work with Aboriginal children. When they went to South Africa to work with children in need, they went to Israel to work with Palestinian and Israeli children to show them how we're all the same. They really did some beautiful things and, as a consequence of all of this, all of those charges and probations were dropped and they have gone on to become two of the most important artists that we represent here. And my relationship with them is incredible. I mean, we are talking about a father-son relationship, and we've sold hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of their art since then.
Hilary - Two boys selling their art for 50 bucks on the street, wonderful story. That's awesome, that's awesome. Thank you for sharing those stories with me. So let's take this a step back. Someone walks into your gallery and they're looking to start a collection. How does that process work?
Jeff - So the one thing about Pop International Galleries, which I believe was a game-changer and for many reasons, was that we decided to break down that whole barrier. You often walk into these galleries where someone's sitting behind a desk and you can barely see them. It's a high sort of desk and it's just white walls and maybe three pieces of art on the wall and nobody even talks to you. And then they look at you and they want to know what shoes you're wearing or what handbag you're carrying or how big the diamond is, or the watch on your hand. You know, that kind of stuff. We broke that completely. We have a much more open, friendly, inviting, environment. And as a consequence of which people absolutely love coming into the gallery. And so we focus on people who have never bought a piece of art before and on people who have big collections. And so we don't differentiate. We just help people find all that they love. We've always had a policy not to sell art on the basis of investment, when people say to me, well, if I buy this print, you know, it's 3,000 bucks, what's it going to be worth in 10 years? And I say, well, I have a really good stockbroker who has an office down the road. If you'd like, I could send you there, but we try not to. If you came to me with 5 million bucks and said, hey, could you help me invest in art? That might be a different story, but we break down all those barriers.
Hilary - That's awesome. Let me ask you something. Do you have any exciting exhibits coming up that you want to share with us?
Jeff - I do. Actually. There are a few things that we're working on. I'll just tell you about two that we had that sort of part of what this conversation was about. Where these virtual exhibitions, the first one we did was with Ron English and it was a big test for us to see if we could sell art while the gallery was shut down, or while we have contracted hours or while there were rules and regulations about social distancing and so on and so forth. So we did a test actually with two artists, Ron English, and McKenzie Papa, British artists who I'd been working with for many, many years. And they were amazing, absolutely amazing. They were RSVP events only. So you couldn't come to the Zoom call if you didn't get, if you didn't RSVP, couldn't join the thing. The idea was to show some videos, moderate with questions. My team here had questions for Oscar, the artists, and then, we opened up some of the questions to collectors and again, moderated things well enough so that it didn't get drawn out in long, sort of like into a sort of drawn out thing.
And we sold a whole bunch of art. And so it opened up this idea for us. To do some more of them. And, we're now going to be working on a curated show of street art, that Ski from that team that I was just telling you about Fernando Romero is going to curate, that's going to be absolutely amazing, it's going to be a smash hit, no questions about it because he's going to, he has a lot of connections, obviously in the street art world and graffiti world. And he's going to bring in people who we've never represented, um, and curated in a way that will sort of open up art that had never been shown before in this manner. So we're very, very excited about that one.
The other one that I'm working on is an Australian couple, the names are Gillie and Mark a husband and wife team who make art together. And, they're actually very well known in New York City for their outdoor monumental bronze works. And, before the pandemic, they did this beautiful, beautiful exhibition of women of valor. They had come to realize that women bronze, sculptures and statues of women, we're sadly lacking female sculptures, and monumental sculptures of women. There were less of them than there were men and they were going to change that. So they did this really beautiful collection of sculptures of some fantastic women, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and so on and so forth, it was just really beautiful. And then they've done these large outdoor installations. People may have seen it up at Astor Place in Brooklyn, the big rhinos stacked on top of one another. Monumental pieces and part of what they do besides them tease and make fun of themselves. Gillie and Mark, Gillie is a bunny rabbit and Mark as a dog in their paintings and they sit on Vespas and bicycles and do all kinds of sweet, lovely things. We're going to do an event with them online and sort of tied in with the time zone with Australia. Those are two really great things that are coming up.
Hilary- So cool. How could our listeners get in touch and actually sign up for any of these events?
Jeff - Really easy. All you need to do is shoot us either an email, to, you could send it to me, email@example.com or just firstname.lastname@example.org. And just say, Hey, I heard the podcast, or you could, um, just call the gallery. And the number is (212) 533-4262. And we'll put you on the list and, and sort of begin to develop a relationship with you the way we have with our many, many thousands of collectors that we have over the years, we look so forward to it.
Hilary - This was really informative and congratulations on your successes. I really appreciate you being on the show.
I want to also thank our sponsors, the Russo law group, The Profit Express with Tim Healey, Pop international galleries. Thank you. Gold Benes LLP, and the Pegalis Law Group. And last but not least, I want to thank you our listeners for tuning in. If you want more information on this show or any other show you could visit our website at hillarytopperonair.com or you can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, apple podcasts, even Amazon Alexa, where out there you'll find you can find us have a great week and we'll see you next time.