To Niche or Not To Niche: OHWOW Blurs the Lines Between Objects and Treasures

Established in 2008 by Al Moran and Aaron Bondaroff, OHWOW is a gallery, publisher, and special project with gallery and retail locations in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami. OHWOW is a proponent of collaborative and communal efforts that involves the production and organization of solo, collective, and group exhibitions.

IndieReader recently asked Al Moran, co-founder, OHWOW, what makes his gallery indie, why we should care about progressive art and niche publishing.

Loren Kleinman: OHWOW considers itself indie, however, this designation is not connected in any way to self-publishing. What makes OHWOW indie, and why?

Al Moran: I’m not sure that I’ve ever used the word indie to describe OHWOW but I guess it’s fitting. Ultimately, it comes down to an attitude. We’ve done things our way and not followed traditional modes in the gallery or in our publishing endeavors. We’ve always straddled a fine line to carve out our own niche and audience. It all stems from a DIY attitude. I’ve always felt that if we do things in a genuine manner and keep things interesting people would somehow find out about us and gravitate towards our projects and artists. It may not be the fastest route to success, but it’s definitely the most fulfilling.

LK: Talk about the differences or similarities between the OHWOW gallery and OHWOW Book Club?

AM: In the early years, there was very little separation between the entities. Admittedly, we were all over the place and experimenting back then.  It was cool to be able to mix the two in a fairly seamless manner simple under “OHWOW.” As the gallery took off, we began to separate the publishing, little by little. Some publishing projects that would have made sense a few years ago now didn’t really fit with what the gallery was doing at the time, so we chose to develop the Book Club as a platform for our publishing interests.  We no longer feel pressure to support a publishing project on the gallery side and vice-versa.

LK: How does providing a platform for progressive art contribute to the gallery’s vision and artist selection process?

AM: It’s really the backbone of the program. We’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed as this or that type of gallery. Some galleries specialize in photography. Some specialize in painting. Some in new media, etc. We specialize in what we feel is great art. This directly affects the selection of artists. We work with great people that are making great art regardless of commercial viability or critical reception. If we’re into what an artist is doing, then we’re going to push them with all of the resources at our disposal.

LK: Briefly talk about the OHWOW Book Club writer selection and publishing process.

AM: It’s all by referral. An artist will refer a friend to us and that will set it all off. Or, someone in our circle will bring somebody in and introduce us to interesting projects that we feel haven’t been explored before. For example, we’re in the process of publishing a book on Internet memes––something for a really niche demographic.  Our friend Matt Damhave introduced us to a collective that’s been archiving and cataloging memes for years, so we had them put together a comprehensive book with a selection of their greatest hits. It’s a cool project and one that can be released without a set schedule. We’re not fans of meeting deadlines on books. We publish books whenever they’re ready rather than on a set calendar schedule. The beautiful thing about books is that they’re timeless. They don’t revolve around seasonal deliveries, and I’ve always thought it strange that people rush to meet a spring or a fall deadline. We like to treat each book like an object that will carry its weight way past its release date.

LK: You mention your publishing process is very niche, and based on recommendations from artists and writers communities. Such recommendations make the publishing process organic, and fairly open. Why does the gallery prefer this type of submission process?

AM: It’s just how we operate, in general, whether it’s art or publishing. We feel that the people most qualified to give us opinions on art are artists. They’re the ones in the thick of it, creating contemporary work. OHWOW acts as a reflection of what’s happening in culture – we have somewhat of a hand in creating it – but the artists are the ones doing the real work. They’re the ones who we feel have their hand on the pulse of what’s interesting and what inspiring, and we trust them to lead us in the right direction.

LK: Why is OHWOW Book Club not genre specific? What does the audience gain from this preference?

AM: Again, it’s just a reflection of what’s interesting to us. Life isn’t genre specific nor should it try to be. Why limit ourselves to only a certain type of project? We’re about breaking down barriers not building walls. When things get specific, it’s usually a result of commercial considerations. We try to publish books that interest us regardless of our ability to recoup our investment. I think the genuine care and consideration put into each project comes through in the finished product, and our audience feels there’s a real commitment to quality regardless of subject matter.

LK: You mention that OHWOW collaborates with various creative sectors. What kinds of collaborations has OHWOW participated in? Any of these collaborations include working with publishers?

AM: Meaning that we’ve done books with a wide range of people and institutions. Projects have really run the gamut. From the memes book that I mentioned earlier, which was done with a collective of artists that is choosing to stay anonymous for fear of retribution from “the internet,” to a book co-published with MOCA Los Angeles. Yes, even our ventures working with larger publishers such as Rizzoli feel like collaborative projects in a sense. It’s all about community building and producing objects that are greater than the sum of their parts.

LK: What’s the benefit of partnering with publishers on outside projects?

AM: With projects that required broader distribution to be effective, we’ve partnered with larger publishers. Just last year, we partnered with Rizzoli and Damiani on two separate projects. We’re open to doing more of this because we’ve had such a great experience with it thus far––both publishers have been very good about respecting our process and goals. I think OHWOW comes with a built-in audience, so these larger publishers feel comfortable letting us control the project creatively. It’s an advantage we have, and it allows for a smooth process on the creative side.

LK: As a publisher, you “[provide] books that blur the line between objects and treasures.” What do you mean by this statement?

AM: Our goal is to make each book precious. For the most part, our books are only available in our stores. We control the way the books are displayed and how they’re perceived in relation to our complete body of work. Controlling the distribution so tightly creates a certain treasure hunt feel to finding these books. Plus, we’re producing these books in such small runs – usually 1,000 – that each one feels collectible. Ideally, we’re creating reference material for future generations of artists to look back on and be influenced by. Each book project is planned with this historical context in mind. I know that those are lofty aspirations, but that’s the driving force behind what we do.

LK: Can you talk about any upcoming books you are publishing in the New Year?

AM: Things are so fluid that I generally avoid any discussion about our books until they’re printed. The memes book I’ve already mentioned is currently at the printers. It’s called IMPACT.  Also in the works are a double-sided book of comics by the cartoonist Victor Kerlow and an exhibition catalog for Michael Genovese’s current exhibition at the gallery titled Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses. We’re also putting the finishing touches on a book by our newest gallery artist Nick van Woert that’s titled No Man’s Land, as well as a book with James Franco that chronicles all of his personal film projects over the last 4-5 years. All of those should be released in the first half of the year.

LK: Would OHWOW Book Club ever consider creating standard submission guidelines and opening up the process to writers outside of the community? Why or why not?

AM: I don’t think we’re there yet. I wouldn’t say that we’re not ever going to be open to this idea, but at the moment we’ve got our hands full with what’s in front of us. Our circle of friends is so incredibly active. We can barely keep up with them! I’d definitely love to go the route of open submissions when we’re ready to handle it. I know that there’s a kid somewhere in Middle America – that’s never been outside of his/her hometown – that has something important to say. I want to be able to find that kid, or I’d like that kid to be able to find us. It’s just a matter of time.


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