Marsea Goldberg, renowned director of LA's visionary gallery New Image Art, was recently in San Francisco where she says she met God.
"First off, ever since I sat on Santa's lap at the Macy's department store in NYC at the age of five, I have had a Santa Clause-Moses-God thing. So I met this guy in San Francisco who looked like Santa Claus and he just starts praising me about the gallery and all I have done for California art and I reply, 'Yeah I should be a millionaire!' and he replies, 'No, Marsea, you have more than money, you have…' and while he punches his heart lightly, he says, '…you have this!' That was just the start but this Santa dude kept making me laugh. Everything he said was so insightful, so I started calling him GOD and asked if I could videotape him. Then he disappeared, just like GOD always does. So yeah, I met GOD and he loves the gallery and me!"
When you talk to Marsea Goldberg about art, you quickly realize what "God" was talking about.
"I really care about my artists and their art, but I don't care about the bullshit of the art world. I don't really play the game, and I'm succeeding on my own terms."
We chat in her busy office about the New Image Art space, surrounded by paintings, prints, photographs, bits of drawings, flyers and random postcards. Most of the art that surrounds us she has bought or been given and there's barely any space left on the walls. She says her home has the same visuals on every surface, art everywhere, admitting that sometimes she spends nights in moving art around just for fun or just sits on the couch looking at the art-covered walls. A fast talker and self-professed dreamer, gambler and hustler, who throws the kind of parties that should be in movies, the artist turned gallerist is someone that upon meeting, you immediately want to ply with drink in the hopes that she'll let slip some dirt.
Goldberg has arguably done more for emerging artists, especially those from the worlds of graffiti and the skate punk culture underbelly than any other gallerist in the U.S.
"The gallery is an expression of my own creativity. Even though I can't take responsibility for making the art, I support artists and I've had experience in a lot of different angles. I'm able to support them in their endeavors and help them with their art projects, advise them, direct them a little bit. So it's creative, and I'm around all of this all day, and it's totally beautiful. Of course I love art. I don't care if I made it or you made it or this guy down the street made it, if it's good or even not so good. As long as it has potential."
New Image Art has launched and mobilized the careers of some of art's newest crossover superstars including Shepard Fairey, Ed Templeton, Retna, Neck Face, Cleon Peterson, Faile, Tauba Auerback, The Date Farmers and Bäst. When she says in our interview,
"I have a really great eye. Maybe I'm cocky to say that, but I have a track record…"
It's impossible to disagree.
"I gamble with art. I like taking risks and I love giving out breaks. It feels good. I like the ups-and-downs. I'm an artist, so this is coming from an artist that's not so bad in business, enough to stay in business for 20 years."
When Marsea first showed work by Shepard Fairey, the skateboard kid turned graffiti artist was already making his name big on the streets with his infamous 'OBEY' poster campaign.
"The funny thing is that when [Fairey] had his first show here, I was selling his print for $35-a-piece in the garbage room. Now those pieces sell for thousands. I might have made $1500 at the opening and I was ready to faint."
Goldberg has always hung the art she wants to at New Image Art regardless of whether or not it sells, which she admits she tries really hard to do.
"I really want the ones that I believe in to make it."
You believe her completely when she says this and she makes money in other ways so she can keep the gallery going, whether it's designing textiles or acting in TV commercials, the current one being for AT&T.
"I was involved with the company RVCA for quite a while and I worked in the surf industry for many years before this. RVCA was my sponsor and I designed for them a bit, found them artists and curated art shows for them."
A lot has changed in the art world since New Image Art opened in 1994, just a few doors down from its current location on Fairfax Ave and Santa Monica Blvd.
"When I started, [the L.A. art scene] was innocent. It was pure. It was raw. New Image Art was a garage band. Nobody was really famous yet and it was alive. There was a buzz about it. It was exciting."
Marsea says of one of her very first openings,
"I was drunk in the corner. I didn't want to do it at all, and then Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman showed up, and I was like, 'WHAT?' I chased Robert De Niro, but I couldn't find him. I was so excited. This was 20 years ago. 'Yeah! My favorite movie star! Finally, he finds me!'"
She laughs, "But he ran away. I didn't get to jump him."
For years collectors have been buying street art for thousands, art on the outside of buildings is being protected by laws and plastic sheets and artists who were once gangsters are joining the elite of the art world.
"These guys were really the bottom. They were outlaws, they were graffiti kids, and they were breaking the law. It was just doing it to do it. Creativity was coming from being a gangster, or just being screwed up and wanting to do damage.
Retna came from the street. He was copying gang script; he was in a gang, he studied it and studied it and sat at his kitchen table and reinvade it, made it his own, made it English and Spanish, made it poetry. I think it has the potential to change art history, which is grand."
Retna, street artist turned superstar, is one of Marsea's biggest success stories as a gallerist and the pair have become close friends.
"Retna was here having a show with me and I said to him, 'You know, Marquis, you have everything, you have everything an artist could possibly have. But you know what you don't have? You don't have the museums yet. I'm gonna get you museums. That's what I'm going to do for you."
Marsea introduced Retna to long-time friend and newly appointed MOCA director, Jeffrey Deitch, who then put the artist in the ground-breaking show 'Art in the Streets,' the first major museum show in the U.S. to look at the history of graffiti and street art. The rest is art history. Now with MOCA once again in upheaval I hope things can stay supportive of L.A.'s brilliant painters…
"What I always want to say to artists is, don't give up. Young artists should show anywhere. You put it up in a restaurant, in a living room, anywhere where people can see it. Just keep it moving and don't give up unless it is so painful you want to die. Then maybe you need to take a little break for a while."
Talking to Marsea knowing how successful she is at finding and recognizing new talent in art, it’s impossible not to ask her what she thinks the next big thing will be. So I did and she told me,
"You'll just have to pry me with a good bottle of wine and hope I let it slip and tell you."
INTERVIEW BY SALLY BAXTER AND PORTRAIT BY © ED TEMPLETON COURTESY OF MARSEA GOLDBERG.THIS ARTICLE APPEARS AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 04 – BUY ONLINE