Earlier this month, Hilde Lynn Helphenstein, the gallerist and curator behind the extremely niche but hugely popular Instagram meme account @jerrygogosian, posted a video on Instagram announcing that Sotheby’s will now be known as Hildeby’s and that as that As the new auction house leader, she would implement a series of absurd new policies: every bottle of wine in the cellar would be free, every assistant would be hired purely on looks and family connections (the latter a stupid but outspoken critique of quintessential art-world machinations).
If you’ve been among @jerrygogosian’s 112,000+ followers at any point in the last four years, the video has come across as a classic: The Account (its name is a portmanteau of Larry Gagosian, the founder of the Gagosian gallery empire, and the new York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz) has become the catnip of the art world for playfully tricking the industry’s heady self-seriousness. And while there’s virtually no chance the blue-chip auction house will allow Helphenstein to carry out those plans, the fact that it’s partnered with Sotheby’s is no joke.
On September 23rd there will be a sale of works by emerging artists entitled Suggested Followers: How the Algorithm is Always Right, will go live on the Sotheby’s Buy Now digital platform. The artists curated by Helphenstein were pulled directly from @jerrygogosian’s Instagram network. The concept is a commentary on how social media algorithms influence taste and a testament to the combined power of a constituency of gallerists, curators, collectors and museum staff.
As Helphenstein finalized preparations for the sale and concurrent exhibition at Sotheby’s headquarters in New York City, we spoke to her about her journey from anonymous meme creator to guest curator at one of the world’s most powerful auction houses.
So how did @jerrygogosian come about?
I contracted an illness that kept me bedridden for a year. I didn’t even think about followers; I just thought they were inside jokes. Then it went from 100 people – which is about what I expected – to 18,000 in four months. In my opinion, before the pandemic, the art world was at a point where it both needed and wanted to laugh at itself, but there was no outlet for that yet. I think the account caught fire really quickly because people were like, oh my god, there’s someone who knows our secrets, and that’s hilarious. I still get messages every day from gallery managers and executive directors of big blue-chip galleries saying, “You keep us laughing and on our toes.” Sorry to brag a bit, but I’m proud of it: there was a few collectors who have told me that they have learned to collect art ethically by following my report – and how not to be assholes. I say, “Oh, I taught you not to be an asshole – that’s good!”
How did this whole thing with Sotheby’s come about?
First of all, I didn’t know if they were trying to implicate me, Hilde, or if it would just be Jerry Gogosian. I used to have a gallery, so I could curate an exhibition with a snap of my fingers. But I thought it would be a more interesting challenge for an avatar to curate the show. It’s crazy, but Jerry is four years old now. And because pretty much every gallery, major institution, major collector, etc. follows me, when I go to my Featured or Explore pages, Instagram shows me people who will be rising stars. So for the past four years I’ve been saving artists in an Instagram folder that’s literally called “Pictures I Like.” I realized that the algorithm recognized what I liked in terms of my suggested followers or the people who follow me, so I decided to reach out to artists who have appeared on this page. I had to make a judgment on whose followers were big enough for me to email them instead of DM, which I mostly did. You know, even Jerry Gogosian gets sent to that other inbox sometimes. [laughs] It’s fun to see the definitive artist checklist and how the internet really brought us together. As the show title suggests, the algorithm is always right.
Although I don’t think everyone would necessarily agree with that.
I tell you a story. I was in Maui with my friend Vajra Kingsley. We did yoga and I read a book of Rumi’s poetry and at one point I posted a photo of a white Persian cat I had as a kid on Instagram. After I returned to the mainland I went to my Explore page and there was a white Persian cat that was born from a litter named Maui. Her name was Rumi and she was available at this store just down the road called Kingsley Kittens. I said, “It’s God” – and my friend Olive Allen, a VR artist who is very outspoken and Russian, said, “What are you talking about? It was an algorithm.” I thought, “Fuck you!” [laughs]
What was it like working with Sotheby’s after you finalized the artist roster?
I’m so rowdy and bootleg-y. I’m used to doing everything: getting the artists into the show, finding the space, finding the collectors, finding the people who want to come to the opening. And I’ve worked with well-oiled galleries—in fact, I once quit a senior job to intern at a blue-chip gallery because I wanted to [to experience] that polished school style. But Sotheby’s? It’s an extremely well-oiled machine. It was so amazing how there was someone there to help every step of the way. Not just to assist, but to assist with professional finesse.
Did you participate in the pricing of the works?
It’s really up to the artists. Some of them work with galleries, some don’t. I study and write about the market, so I know how prices should be set. When an artist asks, “What do you think about it?” I can say with pretty decent certainty, “You should probably rate it at this point.” But some of their dealers say, “You know, there you are right now. Let’s not play around with it.”
You must have seen how Jerry’s episodes have changed quite a bit in the past four years.
When I started Jerry, they were hardcore art people who knew every joke. Now that it’s 112,000 followers, people will ask, “What is primary access?” Who are Zoe and Chloe?” [Ed. note: The pair is the account’s mascot “gallerinas” and a running gag.] I just say, “Scroll back.” It’s funny because I have a few random celebrities who follow me, like Katherine Heigl and Zoe Saldaña. Sometimes I’m just shocked. I wonder: how did you end up here?
Do you know what Larry Gagosian thinks of the account?
I have no idea.
Does his gallery follow you?
I do not think so. The Pace account follows, and all of Hauser & Wirth follow. Ditto for David Zwirner – her staff do, including Lucas [Zwirner, the founder’s son and the gallery’s head of content]. I think it’s very political, even if the jokes are relatively soft at this point. I don’t name names or throw hard balls. But I think there is still something political about following and especially commenting.
Aside from the following, how else has Jerry grown—especially in the time since you went public as the account’s creator?
I’ve started writing about my experiences with all these things in the art world and putting them on a private mailing list. Really, my bread and butter is my writing, which I can’t fucking believe. It’s only five dollars a month – as I always say, cheaper than a latte. And I’m in the process of doing a TV show with some support from [Pace CEO and president] Marc Glimmer. He helped me get the ball rolling in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to without him. Essentially, I want to be the female Anthony Bourdain of the art world.
So visit galleries and trade fairs instead of restaurants?
Yes, I want to make it global. As you know, the art world travels in packs. And it’s actually a very small amount. My partner, who was at Christie’s for a while and now runs an art capital firm, likes to do numbers. So he came up with a formula and we believe that in the “real” art world there is a maximum of 500 people who buy blue chip art and go to all fairs. It’s funny – I just got back from Frieze Seoul and people there kissed in the air and said, “Oh see you in London and then Paris and then Miami and then…”
The level of carbon emissions is so wild.
That will be built into the show. It’s about – and not negatively per se – revealing all the things that people want to know and understand about the art world. I always think of my mother-in-law. She says: “Explain it to me. Tell me about the artistic things.” And I’m like, “Okay, first of all, we don’t call them ‘artistic’.” [laughs] But she doesn’t mean it. Like so many others, she just wants to know.