Community is important to the success of any artistic venture, but what about the people who sustain it? Front Room Gallery was something of an upstart in Williamsburg’s burgeoning gallery scene when its founder, Daniel Aycock, opened its doors on Roebling Street in 1999. He was committed to showing new photographers as well as ambitious projects in diverse media. Today, long after many of those galleries have closed, Front Room is thriving. Aycock credits the gallery’s co-director (and his wife), Kathleen Vance, for shepherding the venture into its 20th year. They began working together in 2004 and married in 2010. “Kathleen knew how to navigate the business aspects of the art world in ways that I never really got,” says Aycock. “I always tried to show politically relevant work, but Kathleen convinced me to embrace even more new things. She brought in lots of environmentally conscious art. We started doing art fairs; she had us focus more on solo shows – all of which helped us get taken more seriously.”
One of the biggest changes came in 2017, when the couple moved the gallery to the Lower East Side. “After 17 years in Williamsburg, it’s quite the change,” says Vance, “but the neighborhood had gotten too big, too fast, and a lot of the unique qualities just got eaten up and the galleries burned up. Actually, the Lower East Side has a lot of the same energy that Williamsburg did in the early days.”
Vance hails from Long Green Valley, Maryland, where she grew up on a small farm with her parents (both educators in the local school system) and three siblings. Summers were spent planting, harvesting, bailing hay, and tending horses. Her paternal uncle is an artist, and her home was a gathering place for creative people. Vance pursued her own artistic career, first at Pratt and later at Hunter, where she got an MFA while working part time in an interior-design studio. After graduating with a degree in sculpture and a focus on environmental art, Vance got entrenched in the then-vibrant Williamsburg scene.
Aycock grew up in Lubbock, Texas, also the son of two educators, and spent his summers working on a much larger, industrial 500-acre farm. A photographer, he earned a BFA from Texas Tech in Lubbock, and an MFA in photography from New York City’s School of Visual Arts. Soon after graduating, he rented a studio in a former belt factory in Williamsburg, renting out the back rooms and keeping the 2,500-foot front room for himself. In addition to the “Front Room” gallery, he also published WAGMAG, Brooklyn’s guide to gallery openings and programming.
In 2004, Vance curated her first show at Front Room and over time became more involved in the running of the gallery. Today, artists who got their start at the gallery include Sean Hemmerle and Stephen Mallon, while a new generation of photographers are getting their debuts, like Jade Doskow, who documents the sites of former World’s Fairs, and Phillip Buehler, who is drawn to the now-decrepit sites of once-thriving shopping malls. “The mall was a big component of a lot of people’s childhoods,” says Vance. “It was what Buehler calls this important ‘third place’ that wasn’t home or work, but where people could interact in relative safety. We find that in NYC, a lot of people really miss that.”