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Amy Adams. Courtesy Adams and Ollman.

Ryan McLaughlin

"Untitled", 2017

Oil on linen on MDF, framed

Courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman

Vaginal Davis

"Joanne Woodward Seven", 2012

Britney Spears eye shadow, Wet n Wild nail polish, Afro Sheen Hair Conditioner, Aqua Net Extra Hold Hair Spray, water color pencils, and glycerine on Cornflakes box

Courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman.

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Portland-based gallery Adams and Ollman was founded by Amy Adams in 2013. We spoke with Adams about the gallery’s “non-hierarchical” approach, rethinking the distinction between “outsider” and contemporary art, and the benefits to building a gallery outside of a traditional art capital.
 

How did you first become a dealer? What was your background prior to opening Adams and Ollman?

I started as an artist and went on to be a member and then the Director of the Philadelphia artist-run space Vox Populi, which was founded in 1988. During my time at Vox, we were a very small organization, but there was a tremendous amount of momentum and drive towards ambitious self-organization. We were doing so much wonderful programming—monthly exhibitions, exchange shows, lectures, film screenings and experimental music—while creating important networks to help grow and sustain careers. It was an exciting and formative time for me.

Many of the relationships that I began during this first part of my career continued and have become central to Adams and Ollman’s program. While I was studying painting, I met Katherine Bradford, who was hugely influential. Jonathan Berger, Paul Swenbeck and Joy Feasley are all artists that I met through my time at Vox. 

In 2008, I became the Director of Fleisher/Ollman in Philadelphia—one of the world’s leading galleries for self-taught art—and stopped making art. It was an intense period of significant change—going from being an artist to a non-profit gallery director to the commercial gallery world. Through John Ollman, who continues to be a close friend and collaborator, I was introduced to an expanded consideration of what art could be. My work with self-taught artists at Fleisher/Ollman has contributed greatly to the prismatic point of view that became fundamental to Adams and Ollman.

Your program includes a number of figures who are often described as "outsider" artists, like the anonymous sculptor the Philadelphia Wireman, alongside those with more conventional art-world backgrounds and training. How do you think about the relationship between the two? Is the category of "outsider" art one that you think is relevant or useful, or do you attempt to completely break down the barriers between them?

My own view, and subsequently the gallery’s stance, is distinctly non-hierarchical, and I believe deeply that democracy is essential to any understanding of art and art history. I think distinction is only really useful in terms of thoroughly understanding the factual and contextual information that enables one to engage with an artist’s work in a thoughtful way. It is important to understand what made a piece of art come into existence.

Many of the gallery’s artists, self-taught or otherwise, are working with techniques or approaches that aren't easily categorizable, or that reject certain canonical hierarchies: for instance, working with ceramics and craft techniques, or drawing inspiration from folk art. Is this something you've gone out of your way to cultivate at the gallery?

I look at a pot or painting with equal interest and want to promote an art world where everyone contributes to our culture, inclusive of varied forms, ideas, positions and experience. I don’t think any medium is inherently interesting. It’s the what, when, and why of how an artist employs them. I’m first and foremost interested in artists as people and how their lives are connected, intertwined, or inseparable from the work they do. And, because of this, I’m most interested in more idiosyncratic or iconoclastic artists.

Honestly, many of the artists I work with can only be who they are and make what they make—it's not a choice. And inevitably this means that they end up being marginal, in some way, because they're not involved in a contemporary discourse or scene, because of geography, because they're difficult to explain or work with, or because they don't have the interest in or patience for the career-related aspects of being in the art world.

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“As a dealer,  I believe that my job is to create a unique market for each artist I represent, and one which is true to the idiosyncratic nature of their work.”

–Amy Adams, founder of Adams and Ollman

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In some of the gallery's materials, you've mentioned focusing on contemporary artists whose work reflects an "intuitive influence": what does that mean to you? Is it artists who are explicitly taking cues from folk art or self-taught artists? Or is it more of an attitude or an approach to material and form that you sense in their work?

In terms of the artists I work with, I would say that I don't work with anyone who is "of" the art world. I work with artists who are "in" it, but ultimately I think that good art is the product of a kind of thinking and doing that exists entirely outside the confines of what we know.

The artists I work with generally don't have more interest in contemporary art than other forms of creative production. Jonathan Berger spends most of his time with non-fiction, Ellen Lesperance with the aesthetics of protest, and Vaginal Davis with the history of women in cinema. Part of what I love about the artists I work with is that together, both through their influences and their work, they form a radically alternative reading of what art history is and subsequently about what the future of art can be. So when I speak about intuition, I guess I feel the need to establish that many of the people I support locate themselves in an art historical trajectory that is deeply personal, largely marginal, and often related to artists who share their particular kind of lack of inhibition.

As a dealer, when you're thinking about exhibiting certain artist's work (or placing it in collections), do you approach the work of self-taught, or those with less traditional backgrounds, differently? Are there particular challenges that come up when you’re dealing with the work of figures like the Philadelphia Wireman or James Castle?

As a dealer, I believe that my job is to create a unique market for each artist I represent, and one which is true to the idiosyncratic nature of their work. This activity is inherently creative for me and motivated by a deep belief in the cultural value of an artist's work. For each artist, I try to build a specific ecosystem of collectors, curators, dealers, and journalists, who truly understand and appreciate the particulars of the work. And at the same time, in this case, I think as much about the collectors, curators, dealers, and journalists as I do about the artists. The artist’s work is what brings everyone together, but all these other people become stewards who care about it deeply and are essential to the work entering the art world, and the world at large. In the end, I believe that all of this work is creative—be it selling, collecting, analyzing, contextualizing, or presenting—it’s all about building a micro-culture around an artist.

What drew you to Portland? What’s unique about the art scene there?

My husband, the designer Keith Wilkins, took a position in Portland and so in 2012, we moved with our son from our home in Philadelphia. Portland continues to unfold for me and while small, the city has an incredible group of artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers that are here doing exceptional work, but often quietly and on their own terms. There’s an entrepreneurial, activist and quirky thread that runs through the city. The Portland Museum of Modern Art, a project by Libby Werbel, organizes inquisitive shows in the basement of Mississippi Records, an amazing record store and Upfor Gallery is run by Theo Downes-Le Guin whose rigorous program focuses on new media. The Lumber Room is the project of patron and contemporary art collector Sarah Miller Meigs who commissions new works by contemporary artists and creates exhibitions that often focus on outstanding works by female artists. Stand Up Comedy is a conceptual store with progressive fashion, printed material and objects and Yale Union creates a dialogue between Portland and our colleagues around the world.

What kinds of benefits—or difficulties—come with running a gallery outside a major art world center?

I think that the benefits of working here outweigh the challenges—there's lower overhead, freedom to experiment, time to think. It's somewhat of a remarkable incubator.

Your presentation for Independent will be a collaboration with Berlin-based gallery Dan Gunn, featuring works by Vaginal Davis and Ryan McLaughlin. How did the decision to collaborate with Dan Gunn come about?

I have respected Dan’s program for a long time and, presently, we both work with Vaginal Davis and Ryan McLaughlin. Working with other galleries on projects like the Independent is not only practical, but also rewarding in that the booth becomes a dialogue between our two programs, which differ aesthetically but are very related conceptually. I also don't want to be the only voice. Collaboration enables me to continue to learn.