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Douglas and Katya Heller – Art Professionals specializing in Glass

Douglas and Katya Heller - Art Professionals specializing in Glass
Douglas and Katya Heller - Art Professionals specializing in Glass

Douglas Heller, born in Manhattan and a life-long New Yorker, has been the co-owner and director of the Heller Gallery since 1973. He has organized hundreds of group and solo exhibitions, including the landmark show Glass America 1978 at Lever House in New York City. In the 1990s, he organized Glass Japan, the first major documented exhibition of Japanese Studio Glass presented in the United States. In 1991, he organized The Prague Glass Prize, the first major exhibition of Czech Studio Glass produced after the “Velvet Revolution” in the Czech Republic.

Heller is a founding board member of the Creative Glass Center of America and is on the Advisory Board of UrbanGlass. He is a former vice president of the Associates of the American Craft Museum and a Fellow of The Corning Museum of Glass. He has been honored as a Visionary by the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC and has been given Lifetime Achievement recognition by several glass organizations. 

Katya Heller was born and raised in Czechoslovakia by an American mother and Czech father. She started her career as an interpreter for personalities as diverse as the Czech President Vaclav Havel, Walter Cronkite, Frank Zappa, and the Dalai Lama. 

Heller started her career in the arts after moving the U.S. in 1987 and working with Dale Chihuly as the primary organizer of several of his international projects. She later worked at art galleries in Seattle and in 1998 spent a year working in the planning and development of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA. In 1999, she relocated to New York City and began work as associate director of Heller Gallery. Heller is currently the Chair of the Board of Directors of UrbanGlass. She also serves on the Advisory Board of the Czech Center – New York.

Together the Hellers bring approximately 80 years of professional experience and commitment to the international world of glass art.

What was your first job in the Arts and what was the most useful or important thing you learned in that experience?

Douglas Heller: My first job was part-time, assisting at lectures for collectors of Pre-Columbian art at the Kaplan Gallery in NYC. That was more than fifty years ago. I was in my early twenties and traded my worktime for gallery credits towards the purchase of modest artifacts and books about the field. It taught me humility in the face of the vast depth of knowledge that true experts bring to bear as well as respect for the role passionate collectors can play in supporting a field.

Katya Heller: I was the Coordinator for the Arts Festival of the Seattle Goodwill Games, conceived of by Ted Turner as a telegenic sporting event to rival the Olympic Games, which suffered through the fallout of politically motivated boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by the USA and Soviet teams respectively.  It was my first real job after immigrating to the United States and it taught me to always keep my eyes, ears and my mind open, because you never know who comes through the door next.

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

DH: From my youngest years I’ve been intrigued by artifacts and art.  The worlds of collecting and trading have always been comfortable terrain. Being human we are instinctive hunter gatherers and I believe the urge to collect is in our DNA as a rechanneled survival mechanism.  My childhood collections included anything from Roman coins and ancient Egyptian amulets to modest objects discovered in the ruins of old cabins.  Eventually my parents gave me small glass cabinets originally designed for the display of pies and cakes in diners, to house and organize my collection into my “museum”.

KH: Growing up in Communist Czechoslovakia, film, theater & the visual arts were a powerful voice of and for dissent.  Even though I knew from experience that there was a high price to pay in terms of personal freedom, I was drawn to the idea of being fearless in speaking one’s mind.  Art has always been that to me.  

What do you do now? 

DH: Since 1973, I have operated galleries, primarily focused on the works of artists whose practice incorporates glass as an essential medium. Over the past 48 years I’ve operated from eight successive locations — seven in Manhattan and, for two forgettable years, one in Palm Beach Florida. Now, with my wife and a small team, we pursue a long-held commitment to the alchemic medium that is glass.

KH: I am the Director at Heller Gallery, a commercial gallery in New York specializing in work by artists & designers working with glass as their creative medium.

Where are you from and what is the arts community like there? 

DH: As a native-born, life-time New Yorker, my hometown’s focus on the arts needs no explanation. Awesome in its scope, the New York artworld epitomizes the best and the worst the field has to offer.

KH: I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), the daughter of an American mother & Czech father.  The arts have always flourished in the Czech lands, in good times and bad.  Artists, architects, and art historians had a strong voice in forging a national identity, first in the founding of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918, and repeatedly afterwards, during the 20th and now the 21st centuries.

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

DH: Growing up in NYC I was immersed in the world of galleries and museums, from the Metropolitan Museum to MoMA, to the Museum of Natural History. As I teenager I could sit alone and contemplate Guernica for a half hour without another soul disturbing me, or visit the vast and mysterious Hall of the North-West Coast in the Museum of Natural History and experience artifacts as strange and potent as the mummified heads of powerful Shamans, on display in ritual tribal baskets. My early interests in dealing were focused on ethnographic art but shaped as much by people as by place. My first mentor was Al Ross, a 40+ year veteran New Yorker cartoonist and talented painter who was a passionate collector of African Art. Later, fortuitous meetings with other generous mentors eventually led me to glass, first antique, and then contemporary studio glass.

KH: I am sure it did. It made me understand that the arts can serve to raise and amplify the voices of the marginalized, oppressed, and persecuted. Arts are an intrinsic participant in creating a civic society and a catalyst in community building on all scales, from a family to a nation.

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

DH: Never confuse who you are with who your clients are unless you come from that sector of society. Be bold, but not pretentious and live within your means, financially and intellectually.   

KH: Find people you respect & a way to learn from & work with them. In most cases, you are not here for the money, so unless you love the work you do, it probably is not worth the energy & time you will have to put in.

What is one of the greatest accomplishments in your career so far? And what has been a challenge?

DH: Undoubtedly my greatest accomplishment has been paying the gallery’s bills for 48 years. The greatest challenge has been trying to convince critics and fine art collectors to look beyond glass as a medium linked exclusively to the decorative arts and to focus on what contemporary practitioners are doing with it. The historical association of glass with the decorative arts is a burden the medium bears. However, as is so often the case, artists lead the way, and as mainstream figures such as Christopher Wilmarth, Roni Horn, Rob Wynne, Fred Wilson, and others embrace the medium, prejudices begin to lessen. In addition, young curators graduating from programs at institutions like the Bard Graduate Center are more comfortable and open minded about materially-based work, and as they’ve entered the field old barriers have begun to crumble. 

KH: There are two achievements that come to mind. The first was playing a significant role in bringing together the Czech and American glass communities though my work with Dale Chihuly and Stanislav Libensky, and Jaroslava Brychtova. The second was being the personal assistant and advisor to George Russell as he developed the concept and bankrolled the building of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. My current challenge is being Chair of the Board of UrbanGlass, an open-access, non-profit arts organization in Brooklyn as we continue to struggle with the impact of the Pandemic.

How is your current job adapting to the ever-changing digital landscape? What do you think can be done better, if anything?

DH: I am a material person and uncomfortable in a virtual world. The quickly changing digital landscape holds little interest to me. I am as lost there as Hansel and Gretel in the deep woods. As a techo-saurus, I rely on my wife Katya and consultants to keep the business digitally relevant. During the Pandemic, so-called virtual art fairs emerged to fill the void of cancelled in-person events. They’ve become a pet peeve of mine – I consider them soulless ersatz experiences. Viewing art needs to be an actual, not virtual experience. Perhaps virtual fairs can be done better, but technical polish will not substitute for substance. Computer images of art do not capture the essence and spirit of an artwork and sitting passively in front of a computer is a pale experience compared to the excitement and energy of a hall crowded with fair goers opining on the art and interacting with each other.

KH: With difficulty…. I think that small galleries struggle to adequately convey the work they represent digitally.  What can be done better? While I think that the visual arts, especially three-dimensional work, is always better seen & experienced IRL and I am not certain that perfecting the digital/virtual can, will or should ever replace that, I do respect the way it expands and democratizes the reach.  So, I think that better access to the digital world/internet for more people would be a good direction. 

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job?

DH: Even though more than 30 years have passed, a period of fending off FBI accusations of collusion to defraud and embezzle remain memorable after an especially free spending client was found to have stolen millions of dollars from a small regional bank and spent a fair amount with me. A much fonder memory was hosting a shockingly serious Steve Martin and a charming Bernadette Peters in one of my early Madison Avenue spaces while a crowd of overly enthusiastic fans gathered outside yelling such things as “Hey Steve – you’re such a wild and crazy guy!!”.

KH: As the coordinator for the “Chihuly Over Finland” project in 1995, I was suddenly asked by Dale to procure a helicopter as the team worked on an installation in the small Finnish village of Nuutajarvi. Like many of his requests it was a spur-of-the-moment decision and I ended up calling the Finnish Army, who were surprisingly accommodating and provided the aircraft for the desired aerial shots.  It was intimidating, absurd and exhilarating all at once, and turned out to be one of my best lessons in cold calling. 

What do you think defines a good employee? And what defines a good boss?

DH: Honesty, intelligence, mutual respect, and a willingness to work together as colleagues goes a long way towards establishing a good working environment. 

KH: Openness, respect, hard work & being present is a great start for both.  Extra bonus for a good boss who can also be a clear communicator and a knowledgeable mentor

What is your advice for making yourself stand out in the workplace? Any good tips for giving a great interview?

DH: First and foremost, know what you are talking about. Share information but don’t pontificate and be yourself – hopefully you’ll be as interesting to others as you are to yourself.

KH: Work hard, find your own voice and use it to speak up. Advocate for work, artists & others in which you believe.  Be the one who makes the circle larger.  

 

What artwork is/was in your home office? 

 

DH: Katya and I have a small collection in our home, primarily pieces from artists who have personally impacted our lives. Most notable are sculptures from the protean Czech husband-and-wife team of Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova. Katya and I met through our work with the Libenskys and eventually married amid one of the gallery’s exhibitions for them, In the Presence of Angels.

KH: Also the work of Czech painter Josef Bolf, a founding member of the Headless Rider group and one of the most poignant voices of his generation, and a small work on paper by Kiki Smith.

What is/was your greatest WFH challenge? Or a WFH luxury you don’t want to lose ever again?

DH: One of the greatest luxuries of WFH was not being interrupted by people whose sole purpose in coming to the gallery seems to be to tell me as much as they can about themselves, rather than explore the gallery’s program. Poor home computer connections versus the gallery’s system remains a mundane but ongoing frustration.

KH: Keeping home distractions at a minimum (hello, #bananabreadbaking #sourdoughstarter #containergardening & #peloton) and keeping the Zoom setup from always cluttering my desk.

What about the art world in 2022 are you most excited about?

DH: The return of in-person viewing in galleries, museums, and fairs.

KH: Same! Seeing & being at more in-person exhibitions, performances & events (🤞🏻).

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

DH: Bring money and don’t be surprised when a lot of it mysteriously vanishes. Be alert to what is hot but know your own taste. Understand it and be prepared to defend it but remain open minded and never be too stubborn to learn.

KH: There is no such thing as an “art emergency”.

What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?

DH: I’m old school, it was People Come First, the Alice Neal retrospective at the Met

KH: Feedback organized & curated by Helen Molesworth at The School; Jack Shainman Gallery’s Kinderhook space; and the new Nick Cave mosaics in the 42nd Street subway station

How do you think the art world can become more transparent?

DH: Since so much of it is now about money, I doubt that it can or even wants to.

KH: Art world-wide transparency is a worthy goal but it may be slow to achieve and difficult to enforce.  In the meantime, building deep & trusting relationships is the most rewarding and common-sense way towards helping achieve some transparency, even if just for yourself & your network. 

How do you think art should be shared and/or experienced moving forward? 

DH: Freely and in-person

KH: Art should stimulate our senses and until we find digital ways to engage all seven of them – we’ve mastered the delivery of visual & auditory stimuli and only have tactile, olfactory, gustatory, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses to go!  We should continue to create, offer and seek as many opportunities for experiencing art “in real life” as possible.   

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection

DH: Chaim Soutine, Aleksander Mikhailovich Rodchenko, Hilma af Klint, Sonia Delaunay, Stanislav Libensky & Jaroslava Brychtova.

KH: Kathy Butterly, Nick Cave, Hilma af Klint, Eva Kotatkova, Art Smith, Petah Coyne.

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