Ron Rivlin is, by his own admission, something of an unconventional gallerist.
“The museums don’t really like me,” says the Toronto-born Rivlin. “They work their way up the ladder, they got their PhDs, and here I am: this businessman who just came out guns blazing.”
Indeed, the 41-year-old entrepreneur and music industry veteran doesn’t have much of an art-world acumen: the one-time concert promoter, backpacker and, most recently, founder of talent agency Coast II Coast Entertainment never had aspirations of a foray into gallery ownership until 2012, when he bought his first Warhol.
“A friend of mine had one in his house,” Rivlin says. “I thought wow, that’s amazing, you actually own a Warhol. When he told me what he paid for it … I thought they cost millions of dollars, and he told me he paid $10K for a Mick Jagger. I went to look for one, and it was $60K. He had bought it 10 years ago. That’s a 600% return on investment. And he said, well, that’s Warhol. I just started buying up everything I liked.
“My rule was, if I would put it up behind my sofa, I would buy it.”
It wasn’t long after that Rivlin, who now lives in Los Angeles, opened Revolver Gallery, a space dedicated solely to Warhol. Rivlin himself now owns 140 pieces by the iconic pop artist, many of which have travelled to Toronto for Andy Warhol Revisited, the country’s largest exhibition of the artist’s work, which opened in July 1 at 77 Bloor Street West.
The location for the gallery show is itself unconventional — 77 Bloor isn’t a gallery or exhibition space, but rather, is the address formerly occupied by a Guess store in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville neighbourhood. Rivlin and a business partner scoped the space and designed it to their specifications; he says he can’t think of a better area in the city for the show.
“Yorkville is where Andy would’ve done it,” Rivlin, who in conversation refers to the iconic artist by his first name rather than his last, says. “It’s where fashion and finance intersect — at Bay and Bloor. (Warhol) was all about high society and money, but also fashion and pop culture. So you’ve got Bay street and Bloor, and then all the tourists. I don’t think there could’ve been a better place.”
Rivlin estimates that 97 per cent of the works on display for Andy Warhol Revisited are his own pieces, with several — including a series of Polaroids donated by the Andy Warhol Foundation — on loan from various collectors and museums. The show comprises 120 pieces in all, which will rotate; 77 Bloor will house the exhibition until December 31, and Rivlin is hoping for repeat visitors.
“I had a show in Vancouver before here (Warhol: A Different Idea of Love, which took place in the spring), and we had 50,000 people there in two months,” Rivlin says. “That show was free, but I also lost a lot of money. This one, I made it as low as possible. So if they have any interest, money isn’t going to be a deterrent, and that was my intention. This is an educational exhibit.”
When it opens, Andy Warhol Revisited will have some of the usual suspects on display — a couple Marilyns, a triptych of soup cans — but also some lesser known works, including the artist’s 1986 portrait of Sitting Bull, which Rivlin has hung beneath a Warhol print of General Custer. John Wayne is nearby; Tennessee Williams and Stalin hang across the room.
“There’s power behind each of these images,” Rivlin says. He points out a small framed painting, about the size of a piece of printer paper, that bears no resemblance to the big, bright Warhols that otherwise fill the room. It’s black and brown with nothing on it. “It’s a shadow piece. I like icons, so it doesn’t really speak to me at all. But on the back it says ‘Merry Christmas, Halston, love Andy.’ Halston, the designer, was as big as Calvin Klein, as big as Ralph Lauren in the 1980s. So the story behind it is the reason I bought it.”
Impressive though Rivlin’s Warhol collection and Toronto exhibition may be, he has, apparently, caught some flak for the show from the Art Gallery of Ontario, who Rivlin says recently turned down his offer of a monetary donation. “I didn’t know their reasoning,” he said Monday on Bloor Street, “but I heard through some sources that they felt like what I’m doing shouldn’t happen in a retail space.”
It does seem somewhat appropriate a setting, Rivlin agrees, given Warhol’s gleeful conflation of art and commerce. Besides that, Rivlin has hung a piece at the back of the gallery — under gigantic block letters that scream “SOCIALITES” — that pays homage to the address’ previous life: a screenprint of Georges Marciano, founder of Guess.
“Marciano has one, too,” Rivlin says. “But his is brown and it’s not as pretty. I’m trying to get him to buy this.”
Ever the businessman.