Ben Lee Ritchie Handler is a cool librarian. Such a claim sounds impossible but Ben Lee really may be the world’s hippest bookman. He’s a gangly guy who is always suited in casually formal wear with a head of cleanly messy hair. He has a punk rock air to him and has the charm of a giggly muppet. He does a lot in Los Angeles, including DJing at Mandrake and stand-up comedy at art shows. He’s very smart and can speak to various movements of contemporary art. After all, his cool librarian credibility comes from his work with Gagosian Gallery; he is their embedded Los Angeles Librarian and Archivist.
Ben Lee has come a long way to become Gagosian’s librarian. A job like his takes a lot of skill. He grew up in the city of Orange. He was really into hardcore music, which comes into play at some point in his career. “I went to undergrad at UCLA and studied English Literature but didn’t really have any ambition of getting a real job,” he explains as we sit atop of Gagosian Gallery’s rooftop patio. “I ended up moving to San Francisco and then teaching English in Korea for two Summers.”
“After two and a half years in San Francisco, I moved back to LA. I started touring with a rock band called The Blood Arm as their master of ceremonies, telling stories before they came on. I started graduate school at UCLA for Library and Information Sciences in the middle of all of this. I took a leave of absence to tour with the band for a year and a half, returning to finish my education.”
Ben Lee eventually got married and moved with his wife down to San Diego where she attended graduate school at UCSD. “I worked at UCSD’s Special Collections library. After she finished, we moved back here–and I eventually got this job.”
Ben Lee has worked worked with books and archives at bookstores, galleries, museums, and libraries. He sold art books at Skylight in Los Feliz, he interned at the Hammer Museum and in LACMA’s library, he was a rare book cataloger at UCSD, and had a brief stint as head librarian at a stenography college before he was recommended for a position at Gagosian.
“I had four interviews with Gagosian and I could tell that they liked me,” he says. “I interviewed for a Registrar position, which is very similar to librarianship in terms of record keeping, and archives. They ended up hiring me as an Archivist and the first librarian for the Los Angeles gallery, which is awesome because that’s exactly what I wanted to be doing. It ended up working out perfectly.”
“They haven’t had anyone with my degree at the LA Gallery before, so I feel pretty special.”
Despite his varied background, Ben Lee has always wanted to work in a position like this. “At UCLA, I really wanted to work at a museum or arts library. I was a graduate student research assistant and did a social tagging project with young kids at LACMA, where I was also a cataloging intern. I had an internship at the Hammer, too. I always wanted to do something in association with the arts.”
“Or rare books. I like that a lot, which is what I was doing at UCSD.”
“The art world is definitely a lot more exciting than traditional library work for me,” Ben Lee notes, relating his work at Gagosian to the bigger community of library sciences. “There’s always a ton of work to do at public libraries–there’s a ton of work at libraries in general–but the deadlines are somewhat abstract. Here, if someone is trying to sell a painting or do something with it, the urgency is immediate and global. Gagosian has twelve galleries worldwide and we interact with each other on a daily basis, whereas most librarianship is locally focused. It’s exciting to work on such a global scale.”
In relationship to the other Gagosian Galleries, Ben Lee is one of a few archivists, and the only one with “Librarian” in his title. There are about nine archivists distributed throughout the Gagosian universe. “Not all of the galleries have an archivist as some are pretty small, and we all lean on each other for support.”
He finds Los Angeles is a great place to be doing the work he does, especially given his history. “I’ve travelled quite a bit and I feel like I could be happy living just about anywhere. At the same time, we have the best weather in Los Angeles.”
“In relationship to art, there’s a lot of good happening now and a lot of good that has happened in our city’s past. Gagosian Gallery is very much in tune with artists who have had a hand in shaping the art history of Los Angeles.
“The gallery has more internationally known Los Angeles artists on its roster than anywhere else, really. There’s Robert Therrien, Chris Burden, Ruscha and the late Mike Kelley…add Baldessari (he’s not a GoGo artist) and you have a list of guys who have more or less laid the groundwork for contemporary art in the city. It’s really special to work in this environment because you get to see how distinctly Angeleno their studios, and really all of their lifestyles are. I feel like the gallery itself is a good ambassador of Los Angeles as a serious art community. Gagosian started here, then went to New York, then he expanded back to Los Angeles. “
“Los Angeles museums are doing a great job displaying the best of the city right now, too. Look at LACMA, Chris Burden’s phenomenal Urban Light is a must-see, and then Metropolis II is right around the corner inside. They’re big, important pieces, and they wouldn’t be at home anywhere else.”
“The big artists are great for the younger generation, too. They’re art economies in and of themselves; the young folks that work for them, assisting them around the studios are typically art school grads. They get to work under these big names, gaining experience, insight, and some money to support themselves while they’re making art. Factor in all the galleries in Culver City and Chinatown and around the city, and it fosters a great post-graduate community for people involved in the arts.”
Ben Lee fits into his own artistic community too, one that represents the new Angeleno clique that is born from finding friends, working hard, and rising through the ranks together. This doesn’t mean you’re all from the same world, either.
“The ‘art scene’ is not so different from the ‘music scene’ or any other creative scene, really, it’s just amplified in Los Angeles because the creative economy is a driving force, here,” Ben Lee explains. “There are tons of groups of young people doing lots of creative things, and everyone interacts with one another. If someone has a bar and a gallery and venue, it all gets mashed together. You can be a librarian and have a DJ night and have a comedy night by virtue of asserting yourself long enough. Los Angeles is big and flexible enough to provide a home for everyone’s interests.”
Gagosian is an important part of the Los Angeles community, too. “Last year we had a Summer screening series with food trucks and No Age and Fool’s Gold played,” he says. “I feel more so in Los Angeles than other places (although I see more of this everywhere now) art galleries are not a place to see art but a place to hang out and maybe experience art. In LA, you get a mix. The people hanging out aren’t just art collectors but artists, musicians, actors–you get an interesting slice of personalities because the city makes this cross-section possible. There’s a gallery that supports every type of art and every type of person. There’s a place for just about everybody.”
“Speaking of ‘for everybody’, all Gagosian’s openings are free and anyone can come. Sometimes my friends are intimidated because of the Beverly Hills address, but we’re open to the public Tuesday through Saturday. Come by and say hello!”
Ben Lee plans to continue on with his work at the Los Angeles Gagosian and as a librarian. A lot of cool things are happening for him, too. “It’s really exciting that they haven’t really had a librarian at this location and we’re developing a private library–we’re even building new bookshelves to incorporate more books! I love cataloguing and books and art and I can’t think of a better place to work as a librarian who loves art.”