Community Profile: Glavé Kocen Gallery

On November 16th, E.A.T. sat down with BJ Kocen, a co-owner and operator of the Glavé Kocen Gallery along with his Partner Jennifer Glavé (and their poodle, Lucy).

BJ and Jennifer were kind enough to sit down with us and discuss their role in Richmond’s community, both as a gallery and as a community hub. The text of the interview can be found below.

And if you get some time while in Richmond, you should definitely consider coming through to the gallery. Speaking from experience, the warmth, depth of knowledge, and professionalism are unparalleled. And hey, you might even see a piece of art that you “just can’t live without…”

Thank you, BJ for agreeing to meet and talk with me – I think if it’s alright, I’ll just start by asking you to tell me a bit about yourself.

[Inhale] I’m BJ Kocen. I’m a Scorpio. I like long walks on the beach, and, uh, that special someone I’ve found — sorry ladies. [laughter]

[That’s me — Jennifer behind us working from her desk]

I’ve come to a place in my life where I’ve realized that my own art and the art that I represent doesn’t have to be separated, which is a really exciting thing. I always thought it was a conflict of interest, but now I define myself as a singer/songwriter and gallerist. And the worlds are coming together.

Events like [E.A.T.’s] are really fun for us. Bringing in different events into the gallery, helping with different cultural happenings: these are the things that define who I am and who Jennifer is. You know, we consider ourselves heavily involved in the community, and try to support as many people as we can.

I would also say, that we’re also an ally of a lot of non-profits in Richmond.

Um. I’m also a dog lover…

Would you say that being an ally to non-profits in Richmond was part of your idea in starting the gallery at the beginning, or was that just something that kind of developed organically as you grew into this new role as “gallerist?”

I’d say organically. We designed the gallery knowing that we wanted to have rentals, and that we wanted this to also be an event space. Then we realized what a gold mine we had to be able to open our space up to the community. So instead of writing checks to organizations, which is a very needed, but very passive way to support a group, we realized that to actively invite people into our space to utilize it for their goals and desires for their organization, that our reach can go even deeper. And [the gallery] is HERE. We have it.

So, we just found that it became a win-win-win, for the business, the organizations working with us, and for our spirits.

It’s good, because you’re getting people in your doors that might not necessarily have been in there before, and spirit-wise you know you’re doing something good for people in the community. And honestly, that’s a big part of why it’s easy for us to show up to work every day. 

So, I know that you write and perform music. I’m wondering if there was a point where music kind of helped you make a transition to these more physical arts that you now sell and represent.

Well, I was a theater performance major at VCU, and then I got into music, and at VCU I was also into dance. I tried to minor in modern dance. So, I had kind of hit all fronts except for the vis-arts. And the short story is that Jennifer and I met each other in Ashland working together on a project, and realized that we enjoyed working together. And Jen had already had about, a little under 15 years of experience in the gallery world at that point. An opportunity came up that Jen was going to be able to become a partner of a gallery called the Rentz Gallery with Robert Rentz Interiors. And this was our vehicle to work together, because we knew we enjoyed it, and we knew we made a great team, and it just happened to be in the vis-arts.

I didn’t know much about the visual arts other than what I loved about my art history class in school. Like it just all of a sudden, where most of my classes – even the theater classes are like – well it’s not like it’s calc…

“Act like a tree!… Good job!”

Some classes were not as fun, and you might skip a class here or there, but art history rolled around and my eyes and ears were just perked up. I loved looking at the slides; I loved the stories of the artists; I liked watching the art change through the centuries.

So, that was already kind of in me. Plus my folks had instilled in me at an early age the appreciation of art – in many different mediums.

So all that being said, from that day to this, I’ve educated myself on some of the contemporary masters. I can’t say that when someone comes in here and says, “this painting reminds me of de Flackteduhflickt,” that I can say who that is. But I know a lot of the major players and I understand a lot about technique, process, etc. And I definitely know all there is to know (as much as one can) about any artist that we represent.

So I’ve learned a lot just being baptized by fire in the art world. And now I’ve been at it for, well, coming up on ten years.

That’s actually a good segue to my next question — when you mention the artists you represent. Could you give me your understanding, or maybe “feel” is a better word, of Richmond’s art scene from an inside perspective? Like, how would you describe any vibrancy and creativeness and participation compared to other art scenes of which you’ve been a part? Is it inclusive, or… sorry, I’ll let you answer.

Yeah, it’s bigger than people realize, I think. And this first art fair we had, “Current,” was a little snapshot of how amazing our art scene here in Richmond really is. That was only a small group of galleries represented — about seven. But the support through that whole fair was BANGIN’! I mean there were people there from doors open to door close, and at many times the place was filled.

There are, I think at least close to, let’s say 60-70 art spaces in the greater Richmond area. That’s not small…

And the support is growing, because of the attention that VCU is getting, especially with the ICA on the way. And all of our national press for all of the other great things happening in Richmond. I mean, I don’t have to tell you about the food scene… Even in the past four years I don’t think it’s going to far to say that it’s sort of redefining the city.

So, to bring it back to your gallery and Richmond’s art — how do you measure your success and failure? What’s the measure of your success as a gallerist? 

That’s a really interesting question. I would say my gut reaction to that is how well I’m feeling about my performance and how well I feel about whether or not I’m being a good partner to my partner. Am I holding up everything that needs to be done?

Sales are an obvious marker on whether you’re having a good month or not, but to me being successful is getting a lot more on my “to do” list done than I normally do.

So, productivity and your conscience it sounds like too. Like whether or not you can feel good about the work that you’ve done. Correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

I think it’s so easy to get mired in a grind. Or to see things as an insurmountable amount of work to get through. Or really focusing on whatever it is that may or may not give you anxiety.

For me, an ultimate success would be qualified as enjoying the life you’re living. So, I like to get through to the end of the day and feel like “Jennifer and I kicked ass… high five.” That’s a success to me.

Like I said, sales are an obvious marker. But there have been times when we are on fire, but my mental attitude was such that I couldn’t enjoy it, which is a crime. So maintaining a positive mental outlook, and constantly remind myself why I signed up for this in the first place is what makes me feel like this is a successful venture.

Regarding people who come into the gallery to experience the art, who would be your ideal visitor to the gallery? Have they been here before? Are they a regular? Is it someone that’s never been here?

My ideal client is someone who can appreciate what we do. Someone who understands when coming to the gallery that we are working and they are working and that it is a choice to spend our time together here.

It’s always great to see our friends and kibitz a little bit, but I appreciate a client who understands that we are working, and that they appreciate our time and their own.

It’s really rewarding when either someone is buying from us for the first time, or has bought from us before, and again is just in full joy of being with us and in appreciation of one another. I guess when they are willing to share with us how happy our efforts make them – that’s my favorite type of client. It’s a very validating transaction. It fires me up to keep going.

Okay. Well, taking that to a sort of extreme — what is one of the most meaningful things for you personally that has happened in this space?

What do you want to make me cry here? [Laughter]

No. Okay, so just in terms of the art and reconnecting to the community then — what’s one of the more meaningful experiences you’ve had in this gallery?

Give me a second to think. We’ve had some moments here that have resonated deeply with me, so I need a moment to consider. 

Okay. This is an old one. It’s significant to me because it reminds me of the fact that we jumped into the fray here.

Jennifer and I didn’t have anybody bankrolling us. We had some experience, but nothing too extensive. So this whole thing was a very risky prospect for us, jumping in. And I remember the opening night, the grand opening, I remember that the contractor was even still here that night —

What year was that?

  1. And we’re opening at 6pm, and the contractor is still finishing up the punch list. So right up until the doors open, we are feeling pretty hectic. And the doors open at 6, and something like 300 people come through in the course of the evening. And sales were great for a first night. And people are having a great time, chatting, hanging out, you know.

And I remember as the crowd started dispersing this feeling of relief and joy washing over me. And I remember thinking to myself for the first time really, “this could actually work.” And this song came on the radio in the gallery, “The World Exploded Into Love All Around Me,” from the Ya Ya Sisterhood soundtrack. And the beginning verse starts and I swear I thought it was coming from inside my head.

I felt a lot of pride in that moment. Now, that was a personal experience that I’ll never forget.

But, I mean, so many amazing things have happened in this gallery. A few people have proposed, I’ve watched fundraising events have a tangible effect on the people in attendance, various celebrations, just so many things that act as a reminder of why we do what we do.

Alright. Well, I have a less heady and emotional question to kind of ease back out. What’s your approach to curating the art that you bring into the gallery? Like, how do you choose to work with artists? Do you research them and seek them out? Do they come to you? And how do you evaluate their work in a field dependent on something so subjective as an individual’s taste?

Here’s something that I always say, because there is so much more to us. Jennifer and I are husband and wife, so we go home together. We don’t want to go home and be upset about an artist that might make us frustrated maybe because of their personality, what have you. So to us, how we relate to the artist is even more important than how “talented” they are, because like you said that “talent” is extremely subjective.

We look at our business relationships much more in the light of a partnership than any form of patronage.

So, trust is crucial flowing both ways in that relationship.

We might see the artist online, they could come into the gallery, we could get a tip from an artist we are currently working with, but the selection process is really dependent on the conversation we have with them when we sit down and discuss their art, their philosophy, their intent, etc.

We want to work with people who are willing to share our sandbox, so to speak. I say that a lot, and it’s a little contrived, but the sense of play is important to us as well. You know, play has certain rules of engagement as well – don’t smash the sandcastle and throw sand at someone. Let’s build something we enjoy together.

So, don’t be a castle-smasher. Got it. [Laughter]

Exactly.  

Alright, well my last question is maybe a little difficult. Feel free to leave it open if you have to – If you had to pick a favorite artist or even piece of art that you’ve brought through the gallery, who or what would that be? Could you pick one?

[Loud Laughter]

I mean… no. Haha. We’ve had pieces of art come through that I couldn’t live without, and if no one takes them, we end up buying them and taking them home. But the greatest thing about being the gallery owner is that you get to live with a great collection of art work for two and a half, three weeks, and then another great collection comes in and you get to do the same thing.  

There are definitely key pieces by a lot of artists that we represent that we love. And sometimes they come home with us, sometimes they don’t, but there’s not one prized piece that I hold above all others. It really depends on your mood. Like, what’s your favorite record? Depends on what you’re feeling at the time.

That makes sense. Well, thank you BJ, for taking the time to talk to me. Can’t wait to come back and see what you’re doing next! Maybe an E.A.T. event sometime in the future? 

Oh, definitely man. Great talking to you. Say hi to the family for me.