Who Is Will Brown? Meet the Team Behind an Experimental Gallery, Illegitimate Business, and Comedy Drawing School
Grace-Yvette Gemmell

Will Brown is something of an anomaly in the art world. The brainchild of artists Lindsey White, Jordan Stein, and David Kazprzak, Will Brown is difficult to define, which is one of the things that makes the collaborative project so appealing. The enigmatic space opened in January with an inaugural exhibition on illegitimacy in art and has since continued to serve up nonpareil shows and events that are not easily classified under the usual rubric of exhibition, gallery show, performance, action, or installation. A combination of these might best capture what Will Brown is all about, though it would be impossible to really pigeonhole this collective. The ongoing project currently takes the form of an experimental exhibition space in San Francisco’s Mission District, and its twitter feed has a life of its own. I talked shop with Will Brown on micro-institution curatorial practices, obsolete art collectives, illegitimate inventories, and comedy drawing schools.

So, who exactly IS Will Brown?

When the three of us get together we combine to form Will Brown, kind of like Voltron. This question has a few answers. First of all, Will Brown is a collaborative curatorial project made up of Lindsey White, Jordan Stein, and David Kazprzak, currently residing in a storefront space in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our main objective at the moment is to experiment with and push the boundaries of exhibition making. We see the format of the exhibition as a medium with rules and tropes to be played with and bent and broken like anything else. We try to be critical of the art world, as well as highlight the things we really respect about it. Will Brown is also a really good dude that used to run a small project space in the back of our current space before we moved in. He’s just one of those people you’re always happy to run into. So we decided to name our project after him, with his consent, of course! The decision was partially us playing with the gallery system hierarchy of naming the space after the owner and partially trying to come up with a sort of timeless and approachable name for the three of us to operate under. He’s the guy next door. Will Brown is also a basketball coach at the University of Albany, a central figure in the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, and a Scottish footballer.

Can you talk a little about how you got the idea to form Will Brown?

The idea to start Will Brown didn’t really come about until Lindsey was offered the space. In that way, I guess things kind of worked backwards. All of a sudden we had this space, and had to figure out what to do with it. So we formed our identity and concept as a reaction to what we didn’t want to be. We knew we didn’t want to represent artists or run a commercial gallery. Ultimately, we wanted to create a home for the types of events and exhibitions that don’t really fit into museums, galleries, music venues, etc. Running Will Brown is a group effort, and together we hack out every aspect of the programming and exhibition schedule. We all bring something different to the curatorial vision, from conceptualization to design. David works as a curator at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and puts together various other independent exhibitions. Lindsey makes videos, photos, and sculptures, while teaching photography and video at the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of the Arts. Jordan runs the Artist-in-Residence program at a uniquely San Franciscan institution called the Exploratorium and operates a production/think-tank called Glass, house.

Image courtesy Will Brown.

In which ways does Will Brown operate like a gallery and in which ways does it function as an exhibition space? You have neither inventory nor represented artists, correct?

No inventory, no artists, that’s right. And we feel funny about calling it a gallery. We feel funny about calling it anything, really, other than Will Brown. I guess the space is easiest to explain as a sort of micro institution. We put on one to two exhibitions at a time, with related lectures, screenings, and other programs. In this way we operate more like a museum than a gallery, but we definitely don’t identify as a museum either. I suppose our identity is in these contradictions. It’s probably time for some new language for what it is we and other similar projects are trying to do and hopefully that will come about as a result of these projects. There are several spaces operating in similar ways right now—Triple Candie, formerly in Harlem, and Machine Project in Los Angeles, just to name a few. The term “New Institutionalism” has become popular in curatorial discourse over the last several years, but somehow that doesn’t seem to fit either. As we mentioned earlier, the physical space is only the current form of Will Brown. Eventually we may seek other curatorial endeavours, such as publishing, product design, guided fishing trips, etc. There’s a lot to do!

The gallery’s first exhibition, Illegitimate Business, took as its theme the ways in which works of art are acquired outside of galleries and auction houses, without any monetary transaction and sometimes illicitly.

We were interested in illegitimacy as far as the art world was concerned. How do works take on value and meaning outside of galleries, auction houses, and art fairs? Instead of traditional wall labels, all works were accompanied by statements written by their anonymous lenders revealing the true stories of their acquisition. These personal narratives took center stage and “legitimized” these closeted works.

This sounds a lot like one of the main ideas behind Will Brown more generally. Did this inaugural exhibition come out of early talks about the gallery’s formation?

Sensing our own illegitimacy as a “neighborhood gallery” with no intention of showing or selling actual artworks, we thought it was a sensible inaugural exhibition. It was an idea that pre-dated Will Brown but hadn’t been realized; David and a few other artist/curators had kicked it around. At the first Will Brown meeting, before we had a name or a mission or a clue, it was decided that we’d never show art. Three of us around the table, artists/curators, taking over a gallery, committing never to show art. So yes, Illegitimate Business was an excellent template to begin with.

Image courtesy Will Brown.

How did you curate and obtain the works included in this show, especially given the fact that you presented them in a “gallery” setting that didn’t actually involve any works acquired by the gallery.

Snowball effect. We really just started by talking to friends and friends of friends at art openings and around town: “Hey, we’ve got this idea…” and it just took off. We really couldn’t believe how much illegitimate stuff was hanging out all over the Bay Area. We had a surreal time picking up most of the work on the same afternoon — a car filled up with Catherine Opie, Martin Kippenberger, Chuck Close, Andres Serrano. Not likely covered by our insurance.

Were there any reservations concerning risks and legalities for this show given the content? Each of the objects were accompanied by a short narrative about how they were obtained by their owners. Seems like this could be potentially incriminating evidence.

We were a bit split on that subject. One-third of us seemed hell bent on getting sued, whereas another third was terrified that an unnamed LA dealer would drive up the coast with a loaded weapon. The other third just thought the whole thing was hilarious. We knew that we couldn’t really stop people from taking photographs, but we only released two images and the works are blacked, well, pinked out, in both. We actually spoke to a lawyer who told us we only had to worry about the legitimately stolen works, of which there were two.

Were any of the objects included in the show actually stolen? Were there any interesting theft stories?

Yes, but we can only disclose one. The Chris Johanson prints were outright stolen from a gallery bathroom. Their lender contributed one of our favorite stories to the exhibition. She sort of shouted out from the page, “Hey! Don’t judge me! I love Chris Johanson and I feel terrible about this!” She turned it into an amazing love letter/mea culpa type of thing. We know Chris in passing, and figured — perhaps erroneously — that he’d be OK with the show. As far as his dealer goes, well, we weren’t so sure.

Image courtesy Will Brown.

What were people’s reactions to this show?

Pretty amused. The opening was amazing and hilarious; hordes of people waiting in line to get down into the basement to see the show. We only allowed about a dozen people down there at a time. The main gallery, I mean, the white walled, well-lit gallery space upstairs, was completely devoid of art. Will Brown Grand Opening! Only the main space was blank and people were waiting to walk through a trap door. It was kind of a dream come true for us. And the show seemed to act as a confessional for visitors to share stories behind their collections of illicit acquisitions we didn’t know about. We could have a second show!

The Daren Wilson show you put on in February entitled After Morandi draws on a similarly illicit theme dealing with theft of a different sort. Was it a logical progression to move to forgery as the next subject matter for a show?

Daren’s Morandi work intrigued us before Will Brown came around. Jordan had published a catalog of the work just a few months before under his Glass, house imprint. We decided to have a book launch in the back room at the grand opening, and the paintings looked so good on the wall that we decided to keep them up. It just felt silly to take them down. So we turned it into a show for the rest of the month, sensing that it was related but not realizing just how related. Fakes, but not forgeries. Or forgeries, but not fakes. Copies? Not to get too heavy, but Daren’s paintings hovered in this remarkable middle-ground between contemporary art and contemporary apprenticeship—a study not only of Morandi’s metaphysical realism, but also of the subjectivity of translation itself.

The current show at Will Brown is entitled Manitoba Museum of Finds Art. I can imagine from the show’s title that it too will draw on similar themes of art outside of the institution?

MMOFA is right where we want to be — simultaneously outside and inside the institution. I mean, we’re all weirdos, all three of us, but we have these formal art backgrounds in curation and practice. We hope to operate a space that remains in dialogue with broader and more “sanctioned” discussions in the art world while highlighting its shortcomings at the same time. But here’s the important thing: it’s not about getting away with anything — we don’t think Alberta necessarily felt as if she was getting away with something by having a museum inside a museum. She was just doing her job, making her work, exercising her mind and her physical space. We’re in it for the exercise.

Image courtesy Will Brown.

Can you talk a little about how the collaboration with SFMoMA and MMoFA came about in conjunction with this show?

Tanya Zimbardo, an SFMOMA curator particularly interested in institutional history, posted a great interview with Alberta a little while back. This was just as we were about to take over the gallery lease. Although our knowledge and friendship with Alberta existed before that interview, we thought it would be great to have Tanya as a moderator as her knowledge of California art history is pretty extensive. Additionally, we like the idea of displacing SFMOMA even further by bringing their history into ours.

I’m really curious. How does Will Brown stay afloat. Is it considered a nonprofit? Do you have any funding?

We’re a business. On paper. I think. But we don’t sell artworks or represent artists. You might say it’s something of a challenge. Or something of an impossibility. To raise money we asked four of our most talented up-and-coming artist friends if they’d be willing to contribute a photographic edition to Will Brown. Everyone kind of wants this thing to succeed — I mean, we’re really trying our best to do something interesting here and our friends know that. Graciously, they accepted. Four incredible photographers — Dru Donovan, Gregory Halpern, Sean McFarland, and Emily Prince — donated four images each to make an edition of ten. We call it the Supportfolio. And it’s an amazingly good deal! The price is $1,000 and these guys are selling their individual works for more than that! Thanks, friends!

We also hosted a Friday the 13th Goth Night Dance Party Fundraiser/Hellraiser in conjunction with our third exhibition, Untitled (Black Painting). It was a smash hit. Costumes, eyeliner, the whole schmear. We also know that no one has any money right now—it’s not like funding for the arts is just pouring in, so maybe we’ll just do it until we can’t anymore. I guess it’s a faith-based funding model! It works for missionaries right? The lack of funding is also part of the challenge for us. What can we make with almost no budget and no art? Surprisingly, quite a lot, but of course financial support is never turned away.

Image courtesy Will Brown.

What was the (Untitled) Black Painting show at Will Brown about?

The show was a history of black monochromatic painting in the form of a present tense negation; an absolute inversion of the white cube gallery. On the walls of our black, objectless installation we chalked outlines of the most important black monochromes since 1915. True to scale and too large to fit comfortably in the space, the edges of the original works overlapped, ultimately becoming engulfed by the edges of the physical exhibition space. It was primitive.

You’ve done some one-night only shows as well. How do these come about and why the short life?

Our one-night events work as an extension or discussion of our exhibitions. It’s a way to activate our shows and expand the perception of the ideas we’re trying to share.

Will Brown puts on a lot of interesting talks in conjunction with shows. How do you find and select the speakers and topics?

By day we all float around in different worlds, know different people, subscribe to different email lists. There never seems to be a shortage of interesting folks who know interesting things and want to share them in interesting ways. Not that we’re only concerned with interesting things—sometimes boring things are really great, too. And as we’re not limited to “art talks,” we cast a rather wide net. For example, a fascinating friend of ours, by the name of Paul Stepahin, gave a mind-melting talk/demo on card counting, its history, and applications.

Image courtesy Will Brown.

You also put on a lot of really unique events. Can you tell us a little about these?

Comedy Drawing School seems to be some sort of gravitational force. People ask us about it all the time! At our first meeting, Jordan announced that he really wanted to host figure drawing class. Lindsey wanted stand up comedy. Both seemed… boring in a certain way. So, Comedy Drawing School was born. A comedian making jokes, a group of artist/laughers making live drawings of them performing. It was funny for a number of reasons. It was not, amazingly, as existential as we feared.

There seem to be a mess of Will Brown impostors out there. I love reading your twitter feed.

It’s maybe our favorite thing to do in the whole world! We pick great tweets from OTHER Will Browns out there and unexpectedly retweet them. I assume they’re greatly confused by the whole mess. And there’s no shortage of Will Brown’s out there, so it’s not much of a challenge. Or tweets that contain the words “will brown.” That’s where the magic happens: “Mom said the eggs will brown if I cook them for too long.”

Are there any future exhibitions and collaborations already in the works for Will Brown?

So much! In June, we’re teaming up with Southern Exposure and Machine Project for a series of shows to take place in homes across San Francisco. We’re also applying to various residencies and there might be a Will Brown summer camp for kids starting soon. We might be collaborating with Michael Heizer and James Turrell, although they don’t know about it yet!