A version of this article originally appeared in The Canvas's February issue. To read the full edition, you can subscribe here.
Greeting The Canvas at the entrance of Morán Morán is none other than Mills Morán, who co-owns the gallery with his brother, Al. It is rare to find dealers whose names are on the door personally welcoming visitors into their galleries. Al and Mills Morán, however, are no ordinary gallerists. Originally founded in 2008 as OHWOW and variously referred to in the art press at the time as an “artist clubhouse,” a “youth-cultural experiment,” and a “producer of special projects,” the Morán brothers’ gallery immediately drew attention from the traditionalists in the industry who looked down on the raucous parties thrown in their gallery spaces, and alternative creative projects such as ‘Know Wave,’ a radio platform that, according to its website, promotes “expression through music, interviews, publications, and happenings.”
But as the gallery evolved over the years and its program matured – first morphing to Morán Bondaro in 2015, and then simply Morán Morán in 2018 when former partner, Aaron Bondaro left the business amid accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior – the establishment began to come around. “At first, people just laughed at us,” Al Morán began, seated across from his brother and The Canvas in the gallery’s back room. “We just weren’t doing what they expected. Now though, it seems like everyone’s trying to jump into our lane.”
Born in El Salvador but having moved to the United States as children, both Al (short for Alberto) and Mills credit their immigrant experience with informing their approach to art. “We gravitate towards artists who are marginalized because that’s a shared experience for us,” emphasized Mills, as Al nodded in agreement with his brother. Not having grown up around the art world, the Moráns suddenly found themselves surrounded by a community of artists when Al lived in New York City in the early 2000s. “I just remember having this realization that while I’m not an artist, I’m now a part of this ecosystem where my role can be in providing a platform,” he explained.
Since then, the brothers Morán have come to represent an intriguing mix of young and emerging talent with a roster that now boasts twenty artists – including the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe – and includes on its list names such as Diana Al-Hadid, Keltie Ferris, and Eric N. Mack. Not known for sitting still, in 2019, Mills and Al – along with collector Dean Valentine – launched the much-ballyhooed Felix Art Fair in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel to critical and commercial suc-cess. They followed that up with an even stronger sophomore outing earlier this month, and the two make no secret about already exploring their options in taking the unusually structured fair – galleries rent out rooms in the hotel rather than peddling their wares at booths in a convention center or a tent – to other cities.
With the gallery a hive of activity as the Eric N. Mack show is being installed all around us, Al and Mills take The Canvas on their journey from art world interlopers in 2008 to art market insiders in 2020. Having allot- ted Mack – whose work was included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and was the subject of a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum the same year – the all-of-a-sudden coveted slot to open during Frieze LA, the duo explain how they counsel their artists not to fall prey to market forces or trends. We talk about the future of Morán Morán and the potential, and dare we say, even inevitable opening of a New York satellite space, why the Felix Art Fair model has prov-en so enticing to galleries of all sizes, and who makes up the bulk of their client base.
The Canvas: Let’s start by talking about the gallery’s roster because you work with a number of very different types of artists. Keltie Ferris, Diana Al-Hadid, and George Herms all come to mind. And then of course there’s also the Mapplethorpe estate. To begin with, is there an underlying theme that ties all the artists you work with together? What makes an artist a Morán Morán artist?
Al Morán: I don’t think there’s any theme. We never even really talked in a concerted kind of way about developing a program. But I do think that because we’re immigrants, we tend to naturally surround ourselves with other people who’ve been marginalized or share a similar immigrant experience. So, I think the artists on our roster all share a similar mentality in terms of their voices and having atypical backgrounds.
Mills Morán: That’s exactly it. The mix of artists we currently work with was never something we specically set out to look for. It just happened organically over time.
Al Morán: Well, that’s who we are. People just naturally surround themselves with like-minded people. There was no master plan where we thought, “Okay, we have to represent the queer community, or we have to work with artists of color.” This gallery grew out of our social circle and that’s who we were hanging out with. And now, a decade later, that’s the through line that can be identified. But it wasn’t by design.
The Canvas: When you firrst opened the original iteration of the gallery in Miami in 2008, OHWOW, neither of you had any kind of formal arts education or background in the art world, correct?
Al Morán: We had zero experience whatsoever in the art world. And I’m not just saying that we didn’t have experience running a gallery, we didn’t even have an understanding of what galleries did. I don’t think we had even physically visited a gallery before hand. Our parents didn’t take us to museums. We weren’t discussing the artists around the family dinner table. We didn’t even know that there was this whole separate thing referred to as ‘the art world.’ But what we did have was relationships with artists who were just beginning to knock on the door of this ecosystem. So, at the time, from my point of view, when the gallery first started it was just a fun space to do interesting projects without any kind of end game in sight. It was pure experimentation.
Mills Morán: We never had any kind of strategy in terms of planning to build this artist’s career or trying to get an institutional show for that artist, or exhibit at these fairs. We never approached it from that angle. Because we didn’t know any better, we didn’t feel the need for validation from those certain gatekeepers and ecosystems. That allowed us to just organize projects for a couple of years.
The Canvas: It’s funny to hear how you both now describe those years. Back at the time, you were running the annual “It Ain’t Fair” group shows during Art Basel Miami Beach from 2008 to 2011 and the art media didn’t really know what to make of you. The press variously referred to the gallery as “an artist clubhouse,” a “youth-cultural experiment,” and a “producer of special projects.” Al, in the past, you’ve said that vagueness a orded you both a lot of freedom to do whatever came your way. Looking back now, is there anything that either of you miss about that time and the way the gallery was able to operate?
Mills Morán: There was definitely less pressure. We had the ability to create those exhibitions and work with certain artists who, because of our current relationships with galleries, we probably wouldn’t be able to do now. It was a wide open world at the time.
Al Morán: That’s true, but I don’t miss it. Yes, 12 years ago, we were doing ‘It Ain’t Fair,’ which was this counter industry event. Now though, we’ve started a more traditional fair, but running it our way. 12 years ago, we were organizing musical performances in the space, but in 2012 we started ‘Know Wave,’ and that became its own animal. Those outlets are still there for us to play and experiment with, they’re just not all housed under the OHWOW name. Morán Morán is one thing. Felix Art Fair is something else. And Know Wave is entirely different. It’s become fragmented, which has allowed us to be more focused on each individual project. So, I don’t miss it, because it’s not gone.
The Canvas: That’s really interesting. I didn’t think about it like that. In a way, I think it speaks to the changing role of galleries especially over the past two decades in the art world ecosystem. From your own perspective, how would you describe what the gallerist’s mission and responsibility is for his or her artists in today’s art world?
Mills Morán: I think that’s super personal to every gallerist. Every artist is different and harbors distinct goals. Some artists want to be in museums, others are highly focused on sustaining the longevity of their careers. My goal in representing artists is to make sure that we can effectively market, sell, and promote their work for the duration of their careers as long as we are working with them. I know it sounds like a basic idea, but artists need to feed their creative insides in order to survive. Being able to help them in that sense is deeply important, in my opinion.
Al Morán: The brass tacks come down to helping them sustain their studios. That is the single most important thing for an artist. It may not be sexy, it may not be romantic, but that’s the ultimate responsibility for us on a day-to-day basis. On a more philosophical level, I think it should be the gallerist’s desire to provide a platform in which artists feel comfortable experimenting; where they can do whatever they want to do at that moment in time. If you can set up that scaffolding to support and nurture their creativity, that’s the romantic aspect of the gallerist’s role in artists’ careers. But 99% of the job comes down to supporting the studios.
The Canvas: Do you ever worry about becoming what you didn’t like about the art world in the rst place? Do you worry that now that you’re more a part of the system itself, that you’ll transition – either consciously or subconsciously – into a more traditional model and lose that spirit from those early years?
Mills Morán: Not at all. But I do think galleries need to evolve over time. They need to shift. You need to adapt to what the market is seeking, and people need to see that you’re doing interesting things. Otherwise, you risk becoming irrelevant. With so many galleries opening up these days, there’s so much competition that we’re always thinking about how to step up our game.
Al Morán: Any business needs to evolve in order to survive, but it’s interesting seeing how much things have changed since we rst started the gallery. Back then, the traditional art world looked at us as though we were crazy. We had this strange kind of energy around us and were hosting performances and throwing parties in the gallery space. No one understood what we were doing except for a few early collectors who literally kept the business going and the traditional gallery crowd all looked at us with raised eyebrows. We were complete outcasts. Now though, everyone in the traditional art world is like, “Wait, we’ve got to be doing more stuff like this in our galleries.”
The Canvas: It’s true. So many galleries are looking to use their spaces for alternative kinds of programming. Even the mega-galleries; look at what Pace is doing with its Pace Live initiative. At this point, Morán Morán is a mom and pop outfit. Do you guys have any ambitions to grow it, or do you want it to always remain young?
Mills Morán: It’s funny to hear us described as “young.” You’re not the only one – I hear it all the time. But we’ve been in business for 12 years at this point...
The Canvas: I hear you. This is always a struggle in terms of sketching out a taxonomy for galleries. I meant ‘young’ as in small.
Mills Morán: I got you. I think ‘young’ actually refers to the energy of the gallery. It’s not about size. I mean, we’ve definitely grown. Our business has grown exponentially over the years, but we continue to recycle the energy.
Al Morán: This is a weird example but look at Zwirner. His kids are involved in the gallery, and he’s still involved in the intimate details of the programming. It doesn’t feel like this gargantuan mega-gallery. So, I think it’s possible to grow without losing that element that makes us different.
Mills Morán: I think it’s also just the nature of the gallery business that you can do a lot with a small group of people. We don’t need 30 people to operate the type of gallery we want to run. So yes, the business – the revenue itself – has grown. But the number of people, the footprint, those are all pretty much the same and we don’t really expect it to change.
The Canvas: You guys used to live in Miami. You moved here to LA in 2011, but most of the gallery’s artists are based in New York. Could you see yourselves opening up a space in New York at any point in the future?
Al Morán: At our heart, Morán Morán is a New York gallery based in Los Angeles. My understanding is that the perception of us is that we’re a New York gallery that happens to exist in LA. A lot of people don’t really look at us like an LA gallery.
Mills Morán: We have a very New York sensibility, and that originated with the artists who we represented early on and the energy we continue to bring to this space. But to answer your question, we’ve been looking for a New York gallery space for the last four years. We’ve talked about it for a long time and go through the exercise every year.
Al Morán: It’s just never made sense, though. We’ve looked at spaces and we’ve looked at the dollars, and the pros don’t outweigh the cons just yet.
The Canvas: Mills, in a past interview you stated that “There’s so much more awareness now about artists, especially among people who would’ve normally never paid attention to what an artist was doing. So, that could be dangerous, and to fall into trends, or to fall into market forces, or to fall into what people expect you to make or expect you to say. That, to me, is a pitfall that any artist needs to try and avoid.” How do you actively counsel your artists against falling into those types of traps?
Mills Morán: A lot of it has to do with nding the right artists in the first place. You figure it out pretty quickly when you walk into an artist’s studio. I wouldn’t sign an artist if I thought that would be the inevitable path. The current generation of collectors, non-collectors, and media synthesizes art and artists so fast, it’s possible for an artist’s career to start and finish in less than three years. That’s not beneficial for anyone. It doesn’t help the gallery, it doesn’t help the artist, and it doesn’t help the collectors who own the work. It’s just dangerous. Artists need time. It’s unimaginable to me that a dealer can force out a show, a solo fair booth, and a public project all within one or two years, yet we see it happen all the time. It’s so important for artists to sit back and have a thoughtful dialogue in their heads about the amount of work coming out of their studios. And I don’t think that’s happening in many cases.
The Canvas: Talk to me, if you can, about who the gallery’s typical client is.
Al Morán: Everyone sells to the same people. There’s no magic bullet here. It’s just a matter of when you get to them and what dollar amount they trust you with. That’s it. The pool of collectors is pretty much the same from gallery to gallery.
Mills Morán: I definitely agree, but I also think that every show’s target demographic is different. We just did a show with Tommy Malekoff and it attracted a whole new set of people to the gallery. And while there’s certainly a lot of overlap from gallery to gallery, we’ll meet somebody at an art fair and think “I can’t believe I’ve never met this person before.” This is a very social business and you have to keep putting yourself out there, meeting people, and doing projects that will pique people’s interests.
Al Morán: It’s true. We might stretch the rubber band a little bit in terms of reaching a slightly different demographic, but not by much. I will say though, I think we’ve brought a lot of collectors into the market. There are a number of people who never bought anything before buying with us, and three or four years later, they’re suddenly buying from six other galleries.
The Canvas: You guys are like a gateway drug in a way. Let’s move the conversation to Felix, for a bit. Mills, you were quoted in a past interview – specifically regarding why you helped start Felix – saying that “the element of discovery is totally gone” at art fairs. Walk me through how you view the utility of Felix from both a collector’s and a dealer’s perspective.
Mills Morán: When you’re a dealer exhibiting at one of the larger fairs, your real estate costs on a square foot basis are incredibly high. That inhibits the type of art you’re willing to bring to the fair. At Felix, you can be a large gallery with a booth that costs under $10,000 and take more of a chance on whom you’re going to show. You can give exposure to parts of your program that might not otherwise get it because it would just be inconceivable for you to take that kind of chance in a booth when it’s costing so much.
Al Morán: Galleries that are paying $40,000 in rent in New York aren’t taking a lot of chances when it comes to fairs. They bring out their hits because they need to cover their overhead. So, if you’re a dealer that’s participating in the big fairs and spending $80,000 to $100,000 on booth costs alone, you’re not going to bring something that’s not a guaranteed home run. At Felix though, with the exception of two large rooms that cost $15,000 each, the rest of the booths are roughly $10,000. And when you think about the quality of galleries that are now participating in Felix, that’s a relatively small cost to them, so they’re able to experiment. They can bring an artist who has zero recognition and use the fair to begin building their exposure and market. And from the collector’s perspective, over half the galleries at Felix this year are also exhibitors in Art Basel. There’s an extraordinary level of quality and trust built into that.
The Canvas: Do you guys and Dean have any plans to expand Felix to other cities?
Mills Morán: We’ve talked about it but there’s nothing that’s planned imminently.
Al Morán: We’re all for it if we’re able to nd a venue in a city that makes sense but doesn’t skew this model in terms of the price point.
Mills Morán: We don’t want it to morph into something it’s not. We’ve been on the road a little and have looked around, but nothing has really matched so far.
The Canvas: I wanted to finish up by discussing the LA gallery scene. How does it compare to the other cities you’ve lived in? What’s day-to-day foot traffic like at the gallery? Do you even care about the gallery’s foot traffic at this point?
Al Morán: I personally care about foot traffic because I know the artists care about it. They want eyeballs on their work. So, I think it’s a little disappointing that galleries in LA don’t get more foot traffic because I know the energy and effort that the artists put into these shows. I certainly wish there were more people just coming in on a Tuesday afternoon to experience the art and engage in conversations with us.
The Canvas: And where do you see the city’s gallery scene going over the next few years?
Mills Morán: Our perspective is probably a bit different, because when we moved here in 2011, no one was really moving to LA. No galleries were opening up at the time. So, we saw the city before it had this current explosion of galleries. But between 2014 and now, seemingly every major gallery has an outpost here. And more and more people who worked at other galleries are now opening up their own spaces. It’s been a wild amount of growth.
Al Morán: What’s interesting to me is that opening all those galleries hasn’t really contributed to a bigger art ecosysystem. When we first opened, our crowds at openings were massive. Now, that audience has fragmented. On any given night there might be openings downtown, openings in Culver City, openings everywhere. And it is just too difficult for people to physically get to all of them. I do think it’s going to continue to grow, though. The market here feels like it’s just beginning to mature, and galleries will continue to play a critical role in that maturation process.
The Canvas: Do you think anything can be done to help ameliorate that?
Mills Morán: Honestly, attrition will take care of it. Galleries will close. Some galleries have already closed. We obviously don’t want that, but it’s inevitable, to a degree.
Al Morán: I don’t think foot traffic has a material effect on the operations of the business. It’s just about eyeballs. We’re a couple months shy of 10 years in this location, and maybe three or four walk-ins have ever actually come in and said, “I love this. Let me buy it.” But the people who are in a position to give projects and attention to artists – journalists, curators, etc. – all do a really great job of making sure they go around and see the shows.