Mike Weiss’ Right-Hand Woman
ABOVE: LILY FIERMAN. PHOTO BY ROBERT DUPREE
When commenting on Lee Krasner’s early neo-cubist abstraction pieces, Krasner’s mentor, Hans Hoffman, famously declared, “This is so good, you would not know it was painted by a woman.”
The circumstances surrounding this quote seem to have stayed with the young and highly ambitious new director at Mike Weiss Gallery, the razor-sharp, precocious, and playfully self-deprecating Lily Fierman. She often invokes the name Lenore (as Krasner was known) as a nod to Krasner, who is primarily remembered as Jackson Pollock’s wife, despite her considerable talent and impressive body of work. Fierman also cites the heroine of David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System‘s Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, as an inspiration for navigating and ultimately breaking through the glass ceiling, while continually exploring her own personal sense of self through a complex psychology of words, ideas, and principles worthy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Actually, Wallace’s first published collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, might be a more apt description of Fierman, whose unbridled, electric mane stands as a war cry to the gaggle of whispering art-world orderlies around her that she is not easily confined.
A former student of Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, Fierman studied with Janet Kaplan with a strong focus on women in contemporary art. She later moved onto a highly practical grad program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art under the stern eye of Jonathan T.D. Neil, before moving onto a fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Art, also in Philly. Only days before hiring the 25-year-old Fierman as the new director of his gallery, Mike Weiss signed a 10-year lease on his 24th Street space, which stands only four feet West of C24 Gallery, where Fierman served as sales associate the previous year. Weiss, who shares Fierman’s enthusiasm for incorporating more female artists onto his roster, appears to float through his gallery; it may be that his perspective towards art and the larger industry changed after losing millions in water damages caused by Hurricane Sandy. It’s more likely, however, that he may have finally met his match in Fierman, with whom he faces off throughout the day on the sidewalk in front of his gallery doors, brandished with a fresh new logo and a whole new devil-may-care attitude.
KURT MCVEY: I was speaking with Mike [Weiss] earlier. I asked him if there were anything he would ask you if he were in my shoes. He said, “I’d be curious to know what she heard about me before she took this position.”
LILY FIERMAN: [laughs] The desk next door at C24 Gallery used to face the windows, and when I was working there I would see Mike outside in his “office,” this four-by-six-foot block of cement, conducting business and having these super-intense phone conversations.
MCVEY: That’s where we spoke. It did have a certain office formality to it.
FIERMAN: It’s cozy. Anyway, there’s those two water things on opposite sides of the fire hydrant—one seat is mine and one is his. Mine is the one on the right. One day I saw one of Mike’s previous employees out there getting harassed and catcalled by construction workers, so I came out, interjected, and saved her.
MCVEY: Solidarity at its finest.
FIERMAN: I look out for my women. So I introduced myself and started going to their openings, and immediately I felt such a unique and palpable energy there.
MCVEY: Do you remember what opening that was?
FIERMAN: It was Thrush Holmes’ first solo show [“All Lit Up on Wine”, 2014]. He does paintings with neon. Some of them reference Matisse, others look like cave paintings—just fresh, exciting work. As far as Mike goes, I heard that he was tough, that turnover of employees was high, and that he was a real risk taker.
MCVEY: When did you finally meet in person? Was it at that show?
FIERMAN: It was at this year’s Volta Art Fair. People would talk about him, and it was always this weird mix of being scared, or intimidated while being highly interested in his program or his personal life, whether they subscribed to it or not. So I’m at Volta in C24’s booth and this couple comes over and I could tell they were serious buyers. They were interested in one of our pieces but said they wanted to consult a “longtime friend” about the work and our gallery first. Ten minutes later they came back downstairs and bought our most expensive piece. When I found out that it was Mike Weiss encouraging his friends to purchase a work from another gallery, I was truly surprised. So I walked upstairs and thanked him in person.
MCVEY: In that first conversation, did you have any inkling as to whether or not he was interested in bringing you onto his team?
FIERMAN: No, but I was taken aback by how forthcoming he was about the buyer’s history and his goals for the future. We started having more conversations in front of the gallery. I started coming to more of his openings and very quickly I realized that our artistic ideologies aligned. I also became apparent to me that I was at a professional standstill. Without any pretense—and I’m on point about these things—I found that Mike was not only interested in my opinions and ideas, but was vocal about his interest in implementing them, regardless of whether or not I worked for him… yet. [laughs]
MCVEY: You spent one year as a sales associate at C24 Gallery, and now at 25 years old, you’re the director of Mike Weiss Gallery. How would you explain the experience so far?
FIERMAN: It kind of evades definition, and that’s what I like about it. You never really know what to expect when you walk in the door. Mike takes a lot of risks, and that’s exactly what attracted me to the program in the first place.
MCVEY: How conscious are you of the fact that Mike may be taking a risk on you?
FIERMAN: I’m very aware. You get anxiety that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any moment, or that someone’s going to pinch me and I’m going to wake up. The truth of the matter is, I’m doing what I always wanted to do. I’m in a position where I’m able to advocate for myself and others, especially artists that I admire. Mike and I often discuss bringing more female artists onto the roster. This is something he’s been trying to do for a while and I’m thrilled that I can actually help him do it. It means everything to me that I’ll be able to give back to a community that gave me so much.
MCVEY: Joe Fleming’s “Sucker Punch” is up now. That was your first opening at the gallery. Next up is Jerry Kearns’ “RRRRHHHH!!”
FIERMAN: Not bad. [laughs]
MCVEY: Right now there is only one female artist on the roster; Stefanie Gutheil.
FIERMAN: Right, all too aware.
MCVEY: When can we expect a show that has your fingerprints all over it, and will that be a female artist?
FIERMAN: Well, of course, a lot of the calendar was booked when I came on, but toward the end of the year, my goal is to do a group show. I have some artists that I’m talking to.
MCVEY: Can you talk about any of them yet?
FIERMAN: I don’t know, I’m a little superstitious. [laughs]
MCVEY: Throw one out there for me. There has to be one that you’re really passionate about.
FIERMAN: There’s one artist that I’ve seen speak multiple times. I haven’t reached out to her yet, but I’m a really big fan of Kate Gilmore. She has a studio in DUMBO and her work is very much about being a woman and the confines that come with it.
MCVEY: I am always fascinated by the conflicting nature of identifiers. It inevitably comes down the concept of celebration versus disenfranchisement. Meaning, in the office, you’re not necessarily using your particular “sex” as an identifier—you’re simply the director of a major gallery, but at the same time you’re actively searching out “female artists.” Ageism may come into play as well; your age is certainly part of what makes this story interesting.
FIERMAN: It’s something I worked very hard on for a very long time. As far as ageism goes, I’ve always been a step ahead of my peers, and it’s something I’m rather used to now. I don’t like hearing that people think I got this job because I’m a young woman, and that I look, dress, or act a certain way.
MCVEY: You’re not the Sarah Palin of the art world.
FIERMAN: Absolutely not! I can’t believe you just said that. By the way, if Mike were anyone, he’d be Joe Biden. [both laugh]
MCVEY: We need to get over the fact that physical looks play an important role in certain jobs, especially here in New York City. Nobody wants a poorly groomed slob with meatball stains on their t-shirt selling them artwork that costs thousands of dollars. It often takes a little flirtation to sell some art. Like most sales situations, you’re selling yourself; man or woman.
FIERMAN: Presentation is key. When it comes down to it, art is a luxury good. When people buy art, they’re also buying into the experience. Outside of all that, what really made me risk jumping ship to come here was not only the fact that I can finally flex my muscles, but that Mike is giving me the opportunity to learn from him as well. Anyone who thinks they know everything about the art world is crazy. Things change and evolve too quickly to think you ever have a grasp of the bigger picture.
MCVEY: You were also given the chance to hire your own gallery manager. Tell me how you met Samantha Banks Schefman.
FIERMAN: I met Sam at an Art Production Fund after-party. I was having a rough day—I was going through a breakup—and she was very kind. The next day she sent me a really sweet follow-up email. We stayed in touch and she told me a lot about her involvement with Playground Detroit, and it really struck a chord with me. To operate in the non-profit sector, which promises little to no financial rewards, all within the difficult ecosystem that is Detroit, really commanded some respect and admiration from both Mike and me. She’s also just someone I enjoy being around.
MCVEY: What’s the dynamic like between the three of you?
FIERMAN: Sam has art in her blood—her parents are fixtures in the Detroit art world—but Chelsea is a brave new world for her. This is literally one of the greatest streets on the planet for art. Also, I always say, there’s no HR department in the art world, and that’s something you have to get used to. You have to stick up for yourself and fight your own battles. You have to be your own champion.
MCVEY: So are you still committed to helping her deal with the literal and figurative “construction workers” out on the street and in the larger art world?
FIERMAN: Here’s the thing; people are naturally terrified of me. I think it’s because my face doesn’t naturally look happy. I’m one of those people who consistently look miserable.
MCVEY: You do have these stark, almost antique features; like a woman in a sepia portrait taken on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s.
FIERMAN: Really? [laughs]
MCVEY: Well, the women in those photos, you can see the strength and resilience in their eyes, a reflection perhaps of the trials and tribulations both in front of and behind them. Also there’s these raw, undiluted European facial characteristics that seems even more pronounced in contrast to the early American landscape.
FIERMAN: Listen, every woman’s magazine I read growing up and for the rest of eternity will claim they’ve found the secret to female self-image. The secret is in yourself. I may not be the prettiest or smartest woman in the room, but I’m tough—I’ve definitely had to cope with some difficult things in my life, despite my age. It took me a while to find myself, and it took me even longer to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but now I can say with confidence that I’m finally doing it and it feels amazing.
MIKE WEISS GALLERY IS LOCATED AT 520 WEST 24TH STREET.