Chapter NY Founder Nicole Russo Looks Back on 10 Years at the Gallery and in the Art World

In 2013, Nicole Russo founded the gallery Chapter NY with one animating principle: a participatory mindset that values being able to help build an artist’s career, whether or not that artist chooses to be fully represented by the gallery.

That idea guided the gallery’s development, first as a weekend-only project space, that she and her husband helmed while she worked full time as a director at Mitchell-Innes and Nash. Now, ten years on, it continues to propel Chapter NY: encouraging artists to make work, in Russo’s words, that “asks you to really look and spend time with it, that does not automatically give you answers but rewards you over time.”

Since opening, Chapter has moved from a small space on Henry Street in the Lower East Side, to the primary floor of a brownstone on Houston. Two years ago, Russo joined the second wave of galleries that emigrated to Tribeca and, since, Chapter NY has become a mainstay of the art world’s most desirable six blocks. A decade in business is worth celebrating, but it comes at a time of great change, especially in Tribeca. As the new art neighborhood’s reputation grows, many of Russo’s peers have permanently shut their doors, including some galleries much younger than Chapter NY, and others who are well past the ten-year mark. 

ARTnews spoke to Russo about her pragmatic mind, Chapter NY’s raison d’etre, and what it costs to run a gallery.

(This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.)

How does one come to own a gallery? Tell me about your path in the art world and how Chapter NY came about.

My first job was I was working for Jack Tilton. I had done a bunch of sort of day jobs in New York City, and, through a friend, heard Jack Tilton needed some help. I was 24, the oldest intern there. Two months later Jack approached me and said, “Oh, you’re getting a job” because I am a hard worker. I guess it’s kind of old fashioned, but I look for that hard, physical work. I will if I see something that needs to be done, I’ll get up and do it. I think, unfortunately, that’s a rare trait. My parents owned a restaurant, and I grew up in that business and was taught, from an early age, if you want something done you just have to do it. You can’t just stand around and talk about it. 

You also spent time with Leo Koenig, and when you started Chapter NY you were a director at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. How does that work, opening your own gallery while working full time at another one.

While I was at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Gabrielle Giattino, who opened Bureau on Henry Street in 2007, offered me the space. She knew I’d always wanted to do projects with different artists. Of course, I couldn’t leave my day job, but Lucy Mitchell Innes said I could open the space as long as I kept up with my day job. And, I mean, I needed a day job. It was a pop-up space in a way in that we would do shows with artists that I ended up representing but also artists who maybe had work that didn’t make sense for their gallery to show. Keltie Ferris is a good example. I worked with him at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. At the time he’d just started his body prints, which didn’t fit with the gallery. So we did a fun, six-week, kind of pop-up where they were first shown. 

What precipitated the move from the Lower East Side to Tribeca in 2021?

I was doing a show with the artist Tourmaline, who’s now had a lot of success, and she needed the space that held the show to be accessible. It was very important to her. But my space on Houston was on the parlor level, there were stairs. So we started to look for temporary space. This was in 2021. We rented a space on Market Street for a two-month show, but while looking I started to realize that there are all these wonderful, affordable spaces in Tribeca. This is still prime Covid … I think there were conversations about a vaccine, but it hadn’t been released. Bortolami was there, and I think PPOW had just signed their lease. It was already happening in Tribeca, but not nearly at the level it is today. Finding this space was my first and only lucky real estate moment. 

And you’re still here, while many of your colleagues have had to close up shop. Queer Thoughts closed after being open for eight years; Denny Gallery closed after ten years in business; and Foxy Productions closed after 20 years in the business. How have you been able to stick around?

I think part of it is the fact that I’m very cautious. I believe that growth should be as organic as possible. It made sense for us to get into something bigger. It made sense for the program, which has expanded since we began. The move also made things much easier. I came from a house and a street [on Houston] where there wasn’t really a lot of foot traffic. Here [in Tribeca], there are always people coming through. You don’t always have somebody come in off the street and acquire something, but it is all of the collectors and all the curators. There’s less labor going into promotion because those people will already be in the neighborhood. It’s been a game changer, but I did it very cautiously. You know, I’m very pragmatic in that way.

Do you think that a lack of caution and pragmatism led to some of the recent closures? 

Well, I can’t speak to exactly why one gallery or another closed, but I will say that I know everyone has a different path. People close for different reasons. I do what works for me. I can say, without a doubt, that I think that there is a lot of emotional labor and physical labor that goes into owning a gallery. If you’re not in it, you don’t understand it. Everyone has different expectations and reasons for being in this business.

Sometimes it’s purely the finances that can lead to closing down, but sometimes it’s more, something deeper. Did you ever see The Bear? There’s a scene when Carmy’s cousin says, “You love all this, it’s fun for you,” while the restaurant is on the verge of another meltdown. Carmy responds, “This shit’s not fun for me. When you love something, it’s not always fun.” I can’t imagine doing anything else, but there is a lot, emotionally and physically, that goes in to owning a gallery.