Boston’s Panopticon Gallery might have an unusual, and unusually small, footprint – it’s little more than a hallway that connects the lobby of the stately Hotel Commonwealth to the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Eastern Standard. Within that lush carpeted expanse, however, you’ll find all the wall space you could want: four deep-set, well-lit bays housing an average of 30 works per show. (In the Garden, on view March 1 through April 30, includes work by seven contemporary photographers.) Kat Kiernan, Panopticon’s director since 2017, finds potential in that narrow footprint. “Hundreds of people come through every day. And when I’m not here there are bellhops, valets – a whole staff who are like my eyes and ears and love to talk about the work. A first-floor gallery space in Chelsea may seem accessible, but in reality there’s that mental lock on opening the door. Here, no one is talking in hushed tones. If you only want to reach people who already consider themselves collectors in this business, you’re going to be pretty lonely.”
Kiernan, 28, has had a career path characterized by her ability to see creative opportunities where others might see constraints. She was born and raised in Bath, Maine, the only child of her ship-captain father and health-care administrator mother. When she wasn’t performing in regional theater productions, Kiernan was taking photos and developing them in the darkroom at Morse High School. She majored in photography and minored in art history at Lesley University College of Art and Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For one assignment, Kiernan formulated a business plan to open a gallery. Upon graduation, her boyfriend said, “Well, now you’ve got to do it. After all, you got an A.” She saved up $4,000 and, when the couple moved to Lexington, Virginia, in 2011, Kiernan opened Kiernan Gallery. “My model was to serve people exactly like me,” she says: “recent graduates who didn’t have a clue how to start a career in the arts.” She hung the shows, promoted them, made sales, and started her own photo publication, Don’t Take Pictures.
Three years later, Kiernan took a job as assistant (and then assistant director) at Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York City’s SoHo. During her three years there, she learned the business and forged professional contacts. One day, an email in her inbox mentioned that Panopticon Gallery in Boston was undergoing some major changes: it would merge with its sister business, Panopticon Imaging, and continue under the lab’s longtime owner, Paul Sneyd. Kiernan sent Sneyd an email asking if she could be of help. The answer was an emphatic “Yes.” Now Kiernan divides her time between New York – where her boyfriend is a lawyer – and Boston, organizing six shows per year from a diverse selection of contemporary artists like Polish-born Icelandic artist Agnieszka Sosnowska, who makes haunting black-and-white self-portraits, and New York artist Andrew Seguin, who makes cyanotypes inspired by Moby Dick. This month, the gallery also begins offering a photo developing service. “We have a van running up to our lab in Rockland every Wednesday anyway,” says Kiernan. “It’s a pretty straight shot.”