Leah Dixon: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Interview / July 2022

Leah Dixon: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
By Jacob Barnes

Jacob Barnes: To begin, I'd just like to start from the top: What is Beverly's, in your words?

Leah Dixon: Beverly's is now ten years old, so it's become bigger than what it was initially conceived as, but to go back to the heart of it, Beverly's is a multidisciplinary space that functions as exhibition space for the visual arts predominantly, but also for other art forms, like DJing, other performance work, bigger parties, within the context of the service industry. So, as a location, it sits squarely within service, using service as a medium alongside the visual arts.

Jacob Barnes: That's a very succinct way of putting it – you've obviously spoken to a lot of people and gotten that explanation down to a science! I think one of the things that I quite like about Beverly's is that you're not a gallery, and very vocally so. You do something that is outside of that, incorporating visual arts while allowing the community-driven aspects of the service industry to create a melting pot that allows these two [gallery and bar identities] to coexist, rather comfortably, next to each other.

Leah Dixon: Yeah, absolutely. I'm an artist, but I had worked for so long in the service industry—specifically, in small dive bars in Lower Manhattan—and spending hours and hours and hours of my time in there, you start thinking like an artist. You think, "Okay, this is time I can't be at the studio, so I have to be learning as much here as I would be at the studio." You think, "This can't just be to make money, because I'm not making enough money to make that worth it." It was thinking along these lines that, ten years ago, I really wanted to embrace hybridity. Instead of being upset that I had to be at a job that's wasn't my studio, I wanted to turn that job into a new kind of studio. Asking, "What can I learn from this?"  The type of bars that I was working in, and now Beverly's, are ultimately performance spaces. They're theatrical spaces that are very much built and curated for the public to experience them, and to faciliate public engagement. And at the time—ten, fifteen years ago—institutional critique and social practice was like really blowing up. To be honest, I kind of thought [institutional critique] was a joke in the art world, because working through and facilitating critique and social practice through the service industry wasn't talking about [those art forms] as this abstract thing. It was doing it for real. As a sculptor, that's something that I'm always interested in—the medium is the message, right? And now, over many years and hundreds of parties and engagements and social activations, I still want to ask, "Why would I ever try to engage the art world as my medium for social practice?" It's a really bad medium for that, actually. It's horrible, as it's mostly talk. The service industry is inviting the public in off the street every day, and the amount of performance, coordination, engagement, and collaboration that requires is monstrous. It's such an undertaking, and it's beautiful, and it's happening; as a New Yorker, it's happening all around us. That is the core of Beverly's: Are we as artists in this community acting at a level of excellence that is as high as that of the service industry, which is around us dictating the landscape within which we live our lives? Because it needs to.  The level of artistic activation needs to live up to that; we aren't separate from it, and we need to hold ourselves to that level of dedication. That has become an ethos that drives our works: Do these artists put their money where their mouths are? Are they dedicated long term to facilitating engagement in this community as a practice?

Jacob Barnes: I want to point out that this moment of institutional critique ten, fifteen years ago also coincided with the movement downtown: a reimagination of Lower Manhattan and a localised art world. I'm interested in how Beverly's fit into that zeitgeist. While it is equally relevant today, it was a product of a certain time and movement that really did bring everything downtown and create a social focal point.

Leah Dixon: This is before Instagram, and you really had to show up to things in person in a way that is different now. Artists are always at the forefront of the conversations, and while we may not document everything, we were really interested in utlizing institutional critique to build communities downtown, and that's what we were talking about. But what was so pivotal was that it wasn't just a talking point, it was a "doing" point. We can talk all day about employment justice, et cetera, but what's really at the center of that? Making new jobs! Beverly's was born of a need to create alternative experiences, experiences that paid, because that was really the conversation that mattered to me as a maker. In the post-financial collapse [of 2008], lower Manhattan landscape, there were opportunities for people who didn't have a lot of money to do things.  Also, what we didn't realize at the time was there was this giant push towards imagery and social media, which, as free tools, we became really good at utilizing. That allowed this downtown emerging art world to explode, and for us to keep nurturing it.

Jacob Barnes: That correlation between emerging art and social media is still super strong! [Social media's] ability to gather communities— whether online or in person, or increasingly symbiotically—has made it key to any kind of communication, but particularly for young outfits. Whether you're a more traditional gallery or Beverly's, you learned very quickly, because that was how your formed an identity. But I liked what you said about doing something real—at the end of the day, rent has to get paid. However, the service industry is notoriously difficult to actually make a profit in: when you're in the business of giving people jobs, how difficult was it to supplement one difficult industry with another, equally difficult industry?

Leah Dixon: Maybe there's a different question in there: difficult for who, right? I think for someone who had not been working in the service industry for so long, it would have been impossible. My partners and I all did different jobs, too: some partners provided monetary capital, and others put in vision and physical labour. And when you're dealing with the public and you're committed to creating a space where EVERYBODY is welcome, you fight for that. It is work: it is not easy to create a safe, sustainable space that is truly open to actually everyone, and not just the word "everyone," the reality of everyone. Your sustainability is always vulnerable to that "everyone," and there is no amount of control and vision that any one behind the scenes can contribute that can secure it and make it not vulnerable to the public. But that's what's so beautiful about the service industry, especially places that aren't wildly expensive. You really have to believe in what you're doing.  But in the service industry, it is very hard to make money and to pay people properly. In New York, it's a hybrid pay: they get tipped on top of an hourly [wage]. You can make a lot of money that way, actually, especially in a scenario like Beverly's, where the people behind the bar are very clearly involved in the ecosystem that people are experiencing. That's really important for us: everyone who works there has a say in things and is helping program in some way. Not only does that keep it exciting and fresh, but having that kind of command of the space circles back to them, because the people experiencing the environment can perceive it, and they want to compensate them.

Jacob Barnes: Thinking about Beverly's operationally, service is both like your greatest ally and your greatest enemy. On its face, you have what every gallery wishes they had: consistent cash flow. On the flip side, that cashflow is not always going to be particularly substantial, and is subject to restocking and keeping supplies available, not only benefitting the art and other ancillary programming. How do you balance that out?

Leah Dixon: Everything inside of Beverly is a design question: whether it's experiential design, functional design, or the design of schedules and compensation. In this case, order of operations is huge. When it comes to stocking, for example, you can't open your doors if you don't have anything to sell. It's actually a very cool thing once you start getting really good at it: knowing how much of each thing you need, always anticipating your audience, imagining what the audience is about to do. I think that becomes really exciting about this service industry, especially in comparison to an art practice—you don't know what's going to happen when you make something, but you know something's going to happen, and it will likely be on a bigger scale than just a normal art event. So, even the cashflow is part of the program: it's all about reacting to and understanding your community and audience.

Jacob Barnes: But an incredibly high-stakes part, right? If you get it wrong, there not only can't be other programming, there can't be a Beverly's at all.

Leah Dixon: I mean, if the people who ran it did so to make a certain amount of money, we would have gone out of business in a year. The owners pay themselves last. It's always worth remembering, there are innumerable costs in any service industry, costs which are non-negotiable. The only negotiable cost is how much the owners make. I think that that's where it's very difficult, because I would honestly say that like if someone's needs to live a certain lifestyle—knowing how much money you're going to make every month, or knowing that you're going to be able to have a savings account, or take a vacation—it can't be done. You are really responsible for what you signed up for.

Jacob Barnes: I'm getting to the end of my questions here—I have two more things to ask. Well, one thing to add and another question. Something that you say very clearly is that the owner needs to get paid last. I think that's something worth talking about explicitly, bceause I think so much of the art world, as we know, is founded on these massive cults of personality around individuals, who are obsessed with aggrandizing their own importance in a system where that need not be the case. One of the things that feels so natural about Beverly's is that you can run a well-respected arts venue and not fall subject to that curse of ego. It also means that when things develop, there doesn't feel like there needs to be a single individual attached, but that it instead can run on an ethos and mission. I think that's actually a lot farther-sighted than anything that is relying on a single individual.

Leah Dixon: Definitely. I'm always in the background, directing and helping to build things. But that is one part of a giant ecosystem that requires so many people to do their part. And think about sustainability! I started this when I was in my late twenties, and I'm going to turn forty this summer. That's such a change in somebody's life, and while I haven't become less involved—I've become more involved—I now need to think about what's realistic for me to be doing ten years into the future. Also, I need to ask what I'll still be learning, and what things other people should have the opportunity to learn. The best moments at Beverly's throughout its ten years are, of course, when the team is bonded and we're sharing a vision, but also when I've been able to walk in and have no one recognize me. People outside of me are connecting and making memories and experiencing artwork all within a historical moment in Lower Manhattan. That's totally separate from me, and I get to be a spectator to the spectacle, esssentially. It makes it worth it when you aren't able to get paid. It's enjoying that influence; not one-to-one influence, but a triangulated influence that allows my work to create a space that's not for me, but for the people around me, that they can utilize. It extends well beyond just something one person could ever do. Just do the work and know that will be enough.

Jacob Barnes: So that was the statement; the question I had was, "What's next?"

Leah Dixon: We won't get into it too much now because it's just hours of a bogged down conversation, but really,  Beverly's is what's next! We're trying to reopen the bar [in addition to the 5 Eldridge St. space] and at that point, we will be both a for-profit LLC, while also having this non-profit component that we've built and have been facilitating through the pandemic, when service operations were not able to run in the way that they had been running. A big part of re-opening the bar now is creating growth in a better direction: not trying to recreate what we did before, but taking what we've learned and the best things from that, and then making it work in 2023 and beyond. We're also adding new partners to the team, while bringing artists into the fold of our non-profit work.  It's been 10 years of work, but in some other ways, it feels like we just blinked and Beverly's has gotten so big. I think we now need to honor that work in the past, but also the potential for what's to come in the future, and put together teams and sustainable systems to make sure we can function for a long time.

Image Credits:
1. Courtesy of Beverly’s