New York gallery co-owner Penny Pilkington is not one to admit defeat easily. When, in 2009, fire damaged her PPOW gallery just 36 hours before an opening, many would have forgiven her and co-owner Wendy Olsoff for calling the whole thing off. “Half of the exhibition was drawings. They were on the floor waiting to be installed and they were all destroyed,” says Pilkington. But because a lot of work survived, the pair decided to look for an alternative venue: “We went out, found another space, installed the show and opened 24 hours later, on time, as if nothing had happened. We had a phoenix thing, rising from the fire.”
Pilkington’s interest in art dealership goes back a long way. In 1953 her parents founded the Piccadilly Gallery, a small space on Cork Street in central London, which they ran together for more than 50 years. Pilkington grew up in Barons Court in Fulham, surrounded by an eclectic mix of artists, dealers and collectors. Her love for the US developed in the summer of 1975 when she toured the country by Greyhound, staying with friends and acquaintances.
A chance to return to the US came in 1981, when she managed to secure a job working in a small gallery on Madison Avenue. “My first day at work I met Wendy [Olsoff],” says Pilkington, “and we became friends.” They later became flatmates, sharing an apartment on the Upper East Side, where they spent much time talking about which artists they would represent given the chance.
Despite finding a friend in Olsoff, Pilkington found the initial move to New York challenging and lonely: “The first six months were hard,” she says. “New York is much more intense and frenetic than London.”
“It was only after six months that I felt comfortable [in New York] and after nine months I was fired. I thought, ‘now I have to leave and I’d only just gotten used to it.’”
Pilkington used the period of time that followed to travel between Europe and the US to gain more experience in the art world. While working at the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland in the summer of 1983, Pilkington read an article in the New York Times about the nascent art scene in the city’s East Village: “And then Wendy called me,” says Pilkington, “and said: ‘we have to find a space, you have to come and you have to come now’. So off I went.”
They found a place on East 10th Street, transforming a ground-floor shopfront into a gallery and a 6th floor apartment into their home. “The apartment had been lived in by a drug dealer. The ceilings were day-glow pink, the walls were black and there were 10 layers of linoleum on the floor – it was pretty sordid.”
The East Village was then best known for high crime and drug use, a far cry from the upmarket neighbourhood it is today. “I remember taxi drivers not wanting to take us down there. But the neighbourhood was changing, and we were part of that change.”
Last year, after several relocations, PPOW moved to its current premises on West 22nd Street in the heart of Chelsea. Though the art scene may have gradually shifted westward, Pilkington still lives just a short walk from her old place on East 10th Street.
“I live in this amazing, old building on Lafayette Street called the Colonnades,” says Pilkington. “It was built in the early 1830s and is a New York landmark. And it’s rent-controlled so the rent is very reasonable.” Though Pilkington spends her working week in the city, the noise and the energy can get a little overwhelming, so she spends her weekends with her partner Michael in a house on Shelter Island, 100 miles from New York between the north and south forks of Long Island. “I come out here every weekend to sleep and rest and recuperate,” says Pilkington.
Pilkington admits that she could not run the gallery without Olsoff. Now coming up to their 29th year working together, Pilkington thinks their ability to communicate is the secret to their success. “After all,” she adds, “it’s my longest relationship at this point.” She reflects for a second, “hers too.”
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