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En route to the Pacific and eager to devise a guns-for-horses trade needed to complete his journey, Meriwether Lewis the ill-fated prospecting partner of William Clark mastered just one Shoshone phrase with which to greet the tribe should he stumble upon them. Although he believed it meant "white man," the declaration actually translated into "stranger" or "enemy." Foolishly, Lewis had left behind Sacagawea, who knew both their language and practices, and, after he spent days of fruitless searching, the first Shoshone he encountered fled, returning only with a grim-faced party.
Nowadays, such an expression often paints the features of a clan closer to home: the scores of gallery assistants whose reign stretches from Soho to Chelsea. Intimidated, many won't even dare set foot in their whitewashed territories without a guide. "They're frosty," admits Downtown Arts Projects director Simon Watson.
To help break the iciness, some well-versed scouts hailing from the city's ranks of curators, artists, and critics regularly escort the curious into the seemingly hostile lands. By emphasizing an informal, hands-on approach to arts education, these loosely organized groups are working to illustrate the movements, methods, and mechanics of emerging contemporary art to a growing public.
"We are often leading them into the unknown, literally," says Omar Lopez-Chahoud, an artist and curator who co-runs Access to Contemporary Art. Started just over a year ago with Amy Eshoo after friends unconnected with the art world complained about not knowing how to get involved, Access provides intimate and low-priced tours to those who want to find art made by their peers. With a group of 15 or less, they survey numerous exhibitions showcasing different media and visit artists and their work spaces. Afterward, they gather for drinks to discuss what they've seen in a more relaxed setting. Though the duo's services have been in great demand since they started, they refuse to hire others to run their tours.
"We can bring intriguing material to people in a comprehensible way, educate new collectors, and, at the same time, get young artists the purchases they desperately need," says Eshoo, who left a career as director of studies for Christie's to spend more time on her own art.
Although they're run to sell art, galleries provide an ideal classroom for learning regardless of a "student's" background. "Patronage, or participation, happens at all levels," explains Watson, "whether you're a serious collector or just someone visiting a gallery for the first time. You have to go back to the time of the Medicis to see truly expensive visual arts production, and that was for exclusive audiences. Today's galleries offer an education about contemporary culture that is for the public and free."
"There's no substitute for actually seeing the work and meeting the artists to make it seem like this isn't some scary thing," agrees Gregory Crewdson, a photographer who teaches and incorporates gallery and studio visits into his curriculum. "It's a very hermetic world, but it's smart for gallerists to make themselves available because this generation will eventually compose the community."
While there are very few tour groups that deal exclusively with rising artists, interest in such aided forays is on the upswing. Through its "Junior Associates," the Museum of Modern Art recently began to introduce young arts supporters to artists whose work may one day be shown at the museum.
In addition, Watson, whose free tours are organized through the not-for-profit Downtown Arts Projects, takes groups of 60 to 100 people into galleries as many as 100 times a year. During these excursions Watson seizes the opportunity to ask gallerists questions "that are impertinent, sometimes a little too impertinent" about what goes on in the back rooms. His goal is to illuminate their inner workings, such as the specifics of individual sales, and the nature of the relationship between the artist and the dealer.
"Usually I only go to museums because there are so many little galleries in New York and I don't know where to start," says Veronika Tuckerova after her first tour with Downtown Arts Projects' Franklin Sirmans. "But now, I will go back to the same galleries we visited to see the work." Though many art world professionals see the educational importance of their work, they try not to be teachers so much as bridge builders. "In informal walk-throughs we can function as a liaison for people who feel uncomfortable in this setting," says Jennie C. Jones of Apogee, a nonprofit arts organization that focuses on the concerns of African diasporic communities.
Because the art world isn't composed of natives, only pilgrims, the initiation process is a common and familiar bad memory. "For years, I was intimidated by galleries, and I try to break that barrier," says critic Peter Schjeldahl, who keeps his tours, most often for art students, as informal as possible. "Art should not require a lot of explanation. It's really just urban conversation. Galleries might look like stores, but they aren't. The gallery belongs to you. When I figured that out, I exhaled."
For more information on these tours and programs, call Access to Contemporary Art at 760-4992, the Downtown Arts Projects and Apogee at 243-5050, and the Junior Associates of MOMA at 708-9514.