They've been a lot like floating rave parties without the thumping back beat,
as far as the energy and glow around them goes. A less ecstatic and more
aesthetic comparison would be to mushrooms popping up after a steady rain.
Yeah. The ad hoc group art exhibitions that the currently itinerant Gallery
Agniel has been putting up in vacant building spaces for the past year fit that
metaphor best. Creative mycelium of the Providence art scene spreading
underground, coming to light now and then in these opportune environments.
That's more like it.
The latest example was Body of Work, featuring 70 artists who
distributed more than 150 works over four stories of a former funeral home on
the West Side from September 21-29. By the last weekend, hundreds of art lovers
were streaming through, eyes darting about like flashlights in a search party.
They had only nine days, after all. You have to get to mushrooms quickly in the
"There's something very exciting about a temporary event," says Sara Agniel.
"There's a sense of urgency that you've got to go or you'll miss it.
"If you got a four-story building with 20 people on each floor, all excited
and looking at art, some of them coming back for the third and fourth time,"
she says about the September show, "you start to feel something that people
want, you know?"
Agniel is speaking in her recently occupied apartment on Providence's south
side, in one of a pair of former factory buildings long ago discovered by her
several artist neighbors but not yet -- shhh -- by the Volvo set. She is
seated in a fragile slat-back chair that has been resurrected and repainted for
nostalgic rather than supportive reasons. In black turtleneck and gray wool
skirt, she is chain-smoking filtered Merits that she taps into an
industrial-strength ashtray sprouting from an orange pillar. Genial in
conversation, with swept-back short blond hair, she is the picture of the
art-world sophisticate -- an impression underscored by her rapid-fire French
when she reluctantly interrupts an interview to take a phone call that on its
impatient third try demands answering.
Light floods into the generously windowed loft space as freely as drafts
come winter. But right now the leafy and apparently well-fertilized ficus looks
healthy. Agniel has had more experience cultivating young artists, though, and
while only 27, she has contributed more to the ferment of the arts scene in the
Renaissance City than many who have been trying to do so far longer. Although
Gallery Agniel has had physical homes in two commercial storefronts on
Wickenden Street, as well as earlier in two of her apartments, at the moment
the gallery exists only as darting electrons in cyberspace, on
Since October of last year, Agniel has organized four shows in various spaces
of opportunity around town. It all started when developer Arnold "Buff" Chace
approached her. As head of Cornish Associates, for years he has been
encouraging revitalization of the 53-acre downtown arts and entertainment
district. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was convening here in
October 2001, so he wanted participants to get a glimpse of the Providence arts
scene they had been reading about across the country. He provided spaces in
five buildings and one alley -- for film screenings -- and Agniel curated the
show. The main focus was on photographs of local architectural ebb and flow,
but a couple of sculptors and animation and film artists got some space. And
Agniel got some practice and encouragement for what else could be done. So,
that December, the high ceilings of the Chace buildings inspired Agniel to show
some large format paintings and tall sculptures by local artists.
"We really had an opportunity to be able to show work on a scale that I
been able to in the past," she says. "The public went crazy for it."
Next, in March of this year, 25 artists contributed prints for an ambitious
and quite successful AS220 benefit called Promassive. Those artists got
half the proceeds, the arts center got a fourth, and curator Agniel -- who gets
the customary 50 percent when her gallery director hat is on -- got 25
"I never, ever do fund-raisers where the artists don't get money," she
stresses. "Because I think that in a community like this everybody mines the
arts, whether it's real estate development using the arts as this sort of
prostitute to get people excited about going to an area, or whether it's an
auction where they're asked to donate something that's the most valuable object
they have so that somebody rich can buy it for less than its worth -- it just
doesn't work out."
Agniel's concern for artists traces back to when she got into the business,
developing an interest that was not initially entrepreneurial. But first things
first. Born in Washington, D.C., Agniel lived there until age 7. Her parents
had protean careers themselves -- her father as a microbiologist who became a
commodities trader and broker, and her mother as a teacher who decided to go to
law school. Agniel came to Brown in 1993, studying art history with a
concentration on early modern art. She also completed a second degree program
in comparative French and Italian literature, focusing on late 19th-century
narrative fiction of the same period when the aesthetics of the early Modernist
movement in visual arts was forming. Clearly, whether an artist is
rediscovering Fluxist sensibilities or sallying forth on a conceptual
departure, Agniel knows where they're coming from.
After graduation in 1997, she was working as gallery director of the Sarah
Doyle Women's Center at Brown when an artist board member asked her whether
she'd ever thought about being an artists' agent, because she'd be good at
"I think that she thought I could speak well about people's work in a
respectful way," Agniel recalls, "and that I could help them be organized on
the business side of things that nobody really wants to do."
The notion germinated through a nine-month stint as director of CenterCity
Artisans in the Arcade. Invaluably, she got to work with some 150 contributing
artists, learning who was who among Rhode Island arts advocates,
administrators, and politicians, as well as interested collectors. She
familiarized herself with everything from the arts granting process to art
festivals. Everything a working artist needed to know, and most don't have the
time to learn, she absorbed.
Before she left that job in March of 1998, Agniel experimented with a pair of
two-week solo shows in her cramped, two-room apartment on Gano Street, clearing
the "gallery" room by packing her living room into her bedroom until her
sleeping area was accessible only through a crawlspace. Work by Monica Shinn
and Katherine Lovell sold well, and Gallery Agniel was born three months later
in what today is a head shop with a bright pink door on Wickenden.
"My mission originally was to do solo shows," she says. "I felt that one of
the ways to turn around how people were represented and trying to sell
contemporary art in Providence was to mount solo exhibits, where a collector
and the public would have a real feeling for what an artist was doing. They
would come to understand a full body of work, where the artist was at in their
career at that point."
Sales were sufficient that in March of 1999, she moved the gallery to a
space up Wickenden, where Gallery Agniel remained until spring of last year.
Keeping an apartment in Providence, she then explored relocating the gallery to
New York City. But not only were rents in Manhattan out of the question, they
also were in Brooklyn, she found, where few galleries were selling enough to
make the rent. Then came the Chace offer, her reinvention as a gypsy curator of
art exhibitions, and her renewed interest in cultivating young, up-and-coming
Rhode Island artists. Those she has handled range from conceptualist sculptor
David Cole to landscape and seascape representational painter Conor Foy.
Agniel certainly is well-regarded among those who count. "She's the only one
on the Providence scene pushing for young, contemporary artists," remarks
photographer Denny Moers, whose work she had handled. "She's alive with it."
There's no disagreement from Anne Rocheleau of the Rhode Island Foundation
Gallery. "She has been fantastic for Providence," the gallery director says.
"She's brought in lots of emerging new artists, and she has brought a great
deal of attention to the downtown and its potential for greater development
through the arts."
In four short years, Agniel has developed a panoply of skills far beyond
of a gallery owner, who can get away with simply hanging what their artists
bring in. She has developed a client list of collectors from New York to
Boston, Seattle to L.A., who trust and rely on her judgment and
recommendations, taking them on studio tours where, as one artist pointed out,
she asks smart questions. For some of her artists, she has become their major
domo, from finding them an accountant to taking their work to be photographed,
concerned that they be free to create.
What about the Agniel eye, her raison d'être in her unique
amalgam of curator, agent, and gallery proprietor? Her aesthetic criteria, she
says, have evolved into three things she looks for. Does the artist have
technical command -- is the work skillfully executed? Consistency of
composition -- is the center of the work masterful while the background or
peripheral elements are neglected, losing energy and coherence? Lastly is the
artist's intention -- does the piece speak for itself and inspire intended
questions about it, or does the artist need to stand there and recite an
"With those three things, a strong combination of two of them makes a really
amazing work," Agniel says. "If you got all three there, you just stand in
front of it and you know."
And she doesn't have that experience every day. "When I went to Brown and I
studied art history, a lot of times I would look at these things that went into
the canon and I'd say, `Jesus, that's a crap painting -- I don't even like
that!' " she says. "I mean, if I go to a museum, I usually find one or two
pieces that I think are good."
So what's going to be next for this young woman who is as creative as the
artists she represents? Will we see her as director of an innovative
contemporary art museum? (One possibility she is exploring is to found such a
non-profit -- but one also designed to be a sales venue for local artists.)
Will she forgo the traveling gallery advantages -- no monthly rent, no "shop
girl" hours -- and get a permanent space again? Or will Gallery Agniel continue
as an occasional purveyor of moveable visual feasts, recurring reminders that
the contemporary Providence art scene is evanescent, as in flux as creation
"You never know," is all Agniel can say. "Everything is under consideration
right now. There are a lot of things in development. I love what I'm doing
right now. I love the idea of taking a forgotten, underused or abandoned piece
of architecture and getting people to walk through it. I love it when people
from Barrington drive to Olneyville, who have never been to Olneyville in their
"And I like that being temporary," she continues, "because if it's not you
into issues of gentrification, and you don't always want a white-hot spotlight
on a part of town that nobody with money knows about, you know?"
Issue Date: October 25 - 31, 2002