Burning Questions for New Orleans Gallery Owner Taylor Lyon

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Contemporary art dealer Taylor Lyon lives in a brick-walled home with a spiral staircase leading up to an open-walled library of nothing but shelves of books. It’s all polished wood and great paintings he has collected over the years as an art lover. He’s been running Graphite Galleries on Royal Street in the French Quarter for about five years and is looking to expand with a branch in Seattle. He’s originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

With Mardi Gras bearing down on New Orleans, I had some Burning Questions for Taylor about his gallery and his work with artists.

How did you come to open a gallery in New Orleans?

I started in the business in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was working for a multi-gallery system running several galleries. When the economic collapse happened in 2008 those galleries closed and I spent about two months on the couch staring off into space wondering what I was going to do. I spent the last 10 years of my life in the business. I decided I’m going to do what I know how to do. I opened this gallery with a very specific intent. New Orleans is a great market, my ties lie in the French Quarter, and I felt like we could have high art with low pretension.

Is it easy to run a gallery?

Short answer is no. The long answer is yes, it can be easy. It can be stressful, gotta navigate a lot of things. Clients’ personalities, artist personalities, you have to trust your instincts. Because it’s very personality driven, you have to be not sensitive. But again, there’s a lot of joy in it too. My creative juices get a flow every time I hang a show or meet an artist who needs a voice in the world.

You can come [to New Orleans] and be as strange as you wanna be and the idea of success here means at the end of the day after you’ve painted yourself gold and stood real still, you can get a beer.

Do you ever curate special shows with themes?

Yes. Twice a year I do a themed show. Generally in August I do an installation show; I let artists come in and do whatever they want to the walls and make the space directly represent them. Then I do a group show around jazz fest, whether based on color or tone, but it has more direction than usual. This year I think I’m going to do nudes. A nudes show.

How do you find your artists?

I’m not a regionalist gallery. There’s a lot of regionalism in New Orleans which is great, it’s just not what I do. I do have a few local artists but I have artists from all over the place.

What have you learned about the art world running galleries?

That’s a tough question. I guess if anything I’ve learned that perseverance will generally win out over pure talent. I’ve known plenty of very talented artists who just couldn’t get their careers going cause they weren’t willing to go down to the mines and dig it up. I know artists who had great ideas and stayed at it working tirelessly, making sure people understand their vision and their art is out in the world.

What’s the best thing about working with artists?

It’s a two-fold answer. The first part is I really love the idea that a human being can be handed a bunch of disparate items and they’re able to make a singular unique personal thing out of that, that expresses what they want to say. I also find that I’m surrounded by people who are dedicated to expressing something personal in an impersonal world.

What’s the worst thing about working with artists?

Let me think about how to word this without sounding ass-baggy. Because an artist has to be very confident in expressing themselves, it can be kind of an insular lifestyle. Sometimes it’s hard to prove to an artist I’m here working with them and I have their best interest at heart, and building that trust is key to having a good gallery-artist relationship.

As a local, is Mardi Gras annoying?

Yes. It’s also wonderful and magical but yes, it’s annoying.

There’s a lot a lot of drinking in this city so you have to be a little more vigilant about people coming in and being hammered.

Is Mardi Gras a good time for art sales?

No. It’s a good time for exposure, you see people from all over the world—but it’s hard to cut through the Ritalin energy in the city. But come Ash Wednesday, it’s an entirely different city.

You mean it’s all quiet?

Yeah, and people are actually walking around with the ash on their forehead. People here take it seriously. Even the guy you saw on Tuesday with no pants on, today he’s pious.

You once said that this town is not that much of a challenge. Can you elaborate a little on why you think so?

Up until the last few years it was very inexpensive to live here and this city has always venerated the misfits and dropouts and I say that with love. I’m here ’cause I’m a misfit and a dropout too. Because you can come here and be as strange as you wanna be and the idea of success here means at the end of the day after you’ve painted yourself gold and stood real still, you can get a beer. You’re doing real well.

Are there special concerns you have to deal with as a gallery owner that could only come with working in New Orleans

Because there’s so much art, so much free music, so many things going on, you have to make sure what you’re bringing out to the public is big and bold or it’ll just go away with the wash. There’s a lot a lot of drinking in this city so you have to be a little more vigilant about people coming in and being hammered basically.

Elvis Costello walked by your gallery last week. Did you go after him?

No, I didn’t. I see a lot of famous people all day long here and that’s one great thing about New Orleans. And New York, too. We protect our famous people—we want them to enjoy the city in the same way we do.

Photos by Amy Jett.

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