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Although some dealers seem to have adopted collaboration as merely their latest business strategy, it is an inherent practice for Micki Meng, the founder of what she calls her “gallery-cum-institution” Friends Indeed.

“Collaborating is just a natural extension of how I operate as a person,” Meng tells The Art Newspaper, adding that there is “no Machiavellian principle” guiding the gallery. “It was founded by artists and we carry that spirit.”

Nonetheless, Friends Indeed has launched the careers of some of today’s most in-demand artists, including the Los Angeles-based painter Lauren Quin, British abstractionist Francesca Mollett and painter of paradoxical interiors Anne Buckwalter. Meng operates two locations in San Francisco—a storefront downtown and a warehouse in the Bayview neighbourhood—as well as “a guerrilla apartment space in New York where I cook and host artists”, she says. The gallery also plans to open a location in Europe this autumn.

Collaboration for stewardship

Rather than money—Meng says she “would go insane” if she constantly kept the gallery’s financial side front of mind—stewardship and sustainability are what guides Friends Indeed. “This is a long game, right? Our collectors know that, and we tell the artists that we work with, as well, [that] it’s about longevity,” she says.

This quest for longevity has led Meng to go beyond prioritising placing her artists’ work with institutions and trustworthy collectors. She has also established ties with international tastemakers such as the curator Larry Ossei-Mensah (who organised Cross Currents, Friends Indeed’s current exhibition, until 16 February) and Kevin Poon, the Hong Kong-based cultural entrepreneur and owner of Woaw Gallery.

In San Francisco, you have the space to invent something, a model that works for yourself

Micki Meng, founder, Friends Indeed

Sharing artists, too, has been a key part of Meng’s collaborative approach “from the very beginning”, she says. According to Quin, Meng was the one “spearheading” the rising artist’s 2022 addition to the roster of Blum & Poe via conversations with co-founder Jeff Poe (who has since exited the gallery, now simply called Blum). Similarly, Meng introduced Quin to Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, who will programme a solo show of her work at his Tribeca project space, 125 Newbury, in April.

“Micki is doing things in a very different way,” says Jessica Silverman, whose eponymous blue-chip contemporary art gallery is around the corner from Friends Indeed’s downtown location. Jorg Grimm, the co-owner of Grimm Gallery in Amsterdam, London and New York, agrees; he shares artists Mollett and Gabriella Boyd with Meng, calling their collaborations “both a business strategy and a natural development of our gallery programme”.

Collaboration for protection

Lauren Quin’s career has also been a stress test for Meng’s model. Her first three paintings to reach auction, all in spring 2022, generated more than $1.4m combined at Sotheby’s in New York and Phillips in London and New York. The outsized results triggered even more auction consignments; among the sellers were multiple dealers whom, Quin says, “all promised they wouldn’t” flip her works but did anyway—possibly as retribution for Quin’s decision to continue working with Meng rather than join their own rosters.

“All of that is like, ‘fool me once’, right? But also, know your network,” Meng says. “We basically know who the bad actors are, and we’ve been incredibly vigilant, really careful [to avoid them].”

This vital knowledge is another aspect of Meng’s cooperative approach. “We talk a lot about collectors. That’s maybe more behind closed doors, but I think it is relevant,” Silverman says of her communication with Meng. “Just checking in about, like, ‘Do you know this person? Have you sold to them?’”

Another gallerist confidant, Rachel Uffner, whose eponymous gallery is in New York, says, “I think there is a certain level of trust between colleagues that are part of the very unique world that we operate in,” particularly among smaller galleries led by women.

She, Meng and San Francisco-based Rebecca Camacho co-represent the market-hot Anne Buckwalter, who has attracted her own flippers lately. Uffner adds that the “foundational trust” between the three women dealers “plays a vital role in protecting [Buckwalter] from the kind of unfortunate speculation one sees in the market”.

Two sides of San Francisco

Friends Indeed’s locale is “vital” to its character, Meng says: “In San Francisco, you have the space to invent something, a model that works for yourself.” This is partly to do with the city’s counterculture roots, which have enabled Friends Indeed to incorporate Meng’s training in “spaces organised around institutional critique or pushing limits in one way or another”.

The gallery’s origin story reinforces this legacy. Friends Indeed began in 2018 as a nonprofit publication and research centre. But after Meng accepted what she calls “a hand-me-down space [from] the artist community” in 2019, her project grew into a tiny avant-garde commercial gallery. The rest, as they say, is history.

Yet the city’s present reality is more defined by its standing as home to the planet’s highest concentration of billionaires. This gives Meng access to the best of both worlds: the freedom to run her shop without rules, plus the stability of a committed (and well-capitalised) collector community. Her success has come from both types of friends, indeed.

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