Modern Micrographia: Think Like A Coach. (Ki Smith Gallery)
It was a rainy day in January, when my friend Katie and I hailed an Uber to Ki Smith Gallery in the Lower East Side. Rainy January days always fill me with a sense of gloom–not least because of the telltale sign of climate change, but also because of my somewhat seasonal sense of ennui ((let’s be honest and call that a bit of depression). But, tonight I was doing something different.
A few months earlier I had been listening to my favorite podcast, Ministry of Ideas, when I learned about a book from the 1600s called Micrographia. That book, by Robert Hawke, was the first time that many people saw what scientists could see when looking through a microscope. There were illustrations of bugs, bees and spiders and descriptions of what those animals looked like up close. It was a moment where a relatively normal thing became extraordinary both because it was novel but also because up close it was possible to see it as beautiful.
I found the podcast in a period of my life when I was considering applying to Harvard Divinity School. The podcast I found after reading Casper ter Kuile’s book about Modern day rituals. (All of which I recommend). Casper ter Kuile’s book taught me about a podcast he held where he and friends read Harry Potter in the same way that one reads the Torah: in small sections, with a lot of reflection. His point being that reading the Bible doesn’t help you get closer to a higher understanding of the world, but it is the close reading of the text that allows you to extrapolate learnings which help you to better understand yourself and the world. It’s not the reading which is sacred but the reflection. Anything can become sacred text. All of which is to say, that ter Kuile like Hawke found that looking closely at things could bring expansive and new understandings of the world around him.
I was testing this idea as Katie and I arrived at a gallery in the Lower East Side. I wondered what I would learn if I created an event series where we looked closely at something beautiful in a group. Could we take the idea of a “sermon” and find a new “church” where we could effectively reflect on questions about meaning, belonging and life? In this case, our church was a two room gallery off Forsyth street. As we stepped inside, Ki Smith Gallery was brightly lit with white walls and oak floors. Or, could we just learn something from the reflection of a beautiful thing that could change the way we think about something else? Arrayed around the space were paintings by a contemporary artist, two additional friends of mine and the gallery owner himself: Ki Smith. Dressed in head-to-toe cream with thick brown hair, and mischievous eyes, he introduced himself.
“Welcome to my gallery,” he said. Ki was younger than I think of when I imagine a gallery owner. Somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties, but already, we learned, he has owned galleries across the city. “Yeah, I started a gallery in Brooklyn that had a sort of underground party space. Then we moved to the Bronx. Jersey City and wound up here.”
“Wait,” I said. “You ran an underground club?”
“Yes. We had this cool space and we started throwing parties, having bands over and it just grew and grew from there.”
Ki was mischievous as he told us how he got the neighborhood police off his back (some secrets must remain secrets), and ultimately how he left that location and found others. This location meant something to him, it was right across the street from where he grew up. It was a homecoming. Interesting. Homecoming was also a prominent part of the show he had on display by artist Luke Ivy Price.
The Southern artist created a site specific piece that was nearly seventy feet long depicting a bear hunt. Ki walked us through how the artist painted the piece (like a scroll), and how he chose the colors (based on the feeling of being in that specific place), and then, this specific group of people started to ask questions about how you sell a piece of art so big. It was interesting because this audience included an art procurer, a vocal coach, and a writer-cum-technologist. They were interested in the business.
“It depends,” shared Ki. “Sometimes the works we hang aren’t for sale, as much as they are for exposure.”
And, then I learned something from Ki that I had never thought of before.
“You see, when I think of the artists that I represent, I think of myself like a coach. I’m trying to field the best team for my gallery. I am picking a great mix of artists that sell, artists that drive interest and artists that can lift up the team.”
The little group murmured along. We had never heard anything like that before and it helped me think not just about gallery ownership but begin to reflect on how I find and create the people around me in my business, as well. Sometimes we look at art to see art, and sometimes we look at art to see ourselves.
A gallery is a business and all businesses are, a bit, like sports teams. From Ki, I began to think about the concept of creating a team and where I sit on that team. You see, I have been working on a project called the Chunkos where I want to bring AR and VR characters to hospitals to help children navigate complicated hospital stays, thereby changing how they feel about the hospital and helping them spend less time there. More on that another time. However, I had been playing the role of CEO of the company but for some reason I just kept thinking it wasn’t the role for me.. I didn’t really know anything about med-tech and I wasn’t sure I was qualified to be there.
When I began to re-frame my thinking about building a business, at this stage, as building a team, I realized that I didn’t need to be the coach and the star player. In fact, I didn’t know that I wanted to be on the court at all. You see I felt like I was a great coach for a downhill ski team but didn’t really know the first thing about basketball. Or, to put it more clearly: I could probably run a number of companies but medtech, well, that’s started to feel pretty far out of my wheelhouse.
I needed to find a coach who wanted to build a medtech business and then the coach could decide if they had any more use for me at all. It took me a while to get to this point, because I hadn’t seen a model presented that allowed me to think about things in a different way.
As we walked out of the gallery and back into the rain I couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonder: a small close look at art allowed me to reframe an entire view of how I structure my company.