Hot Off the Press: Gallerist Tif Sigfrids Resurrects the Alt-Weekly

Photo by Daniel Dent

On a sunny day in 2010, I drove to the Trader Joe’s in quaint, sleepy Eagle Rock. Like many in LA, I worked odd jobs: video editor, TV show extra, the occasional goldmine of interviewing Hollywood stars at film junkets. In those days it wasn’t strange to find myself browsing the cheese aisle on a random weekday afternoon. As I was deciding between aged Gouda and a roll of Chèvre, a woman approached me. 

“You came to my variety show at Hop Louie,” she said, referring to the now-shuttered Chinatown dive that once was the heart of LA’s art world. We shook hands. “My name’s Tif.”

Photo by Daniel Dent

Tif lived in a Silver Lake studio. She had a cheap flip phone. She didn’t own a car. In addition to curating her surreal talent show, she also directed art films. Hits like 2011’s Waiting for Brainard, which was based on Eric Rohmer’s Bakery Girl of Monceau, but set in LA and starring Semiotext(e) ’s Hedi El Kholti and writer Kate Wolf. Or 2012’s Happy Birthday George, a short that follows underground Peruvian photographer George Pocari as he wanders through a May Day protest in downtown LA with a sign that reads: “HUMANITY WON’T BE HAPPY TILL THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG WITH THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST!” 

Echoes of these early projects—DIY in spirit but with a heady mix of curation and artistic expression—still reverberate throughout Tif Sigfrids’ legendary work as a gallerist and now publisher. To mark the gallery’s 10-year anniversary, Sigfrids is launching Umm…a paper modelled after the free alt-weeklies of days past. The inaugural issue is themed around food and includes interviews, recipes, and restaurant reviews written by gallery artists and friends such as Rhea Perlman, Adrianne Rubenstien, Mac McCaughan and more. Like so many of Sigfrids’ projects, Umm… is snowballing into something far more interesting and more expansive than a simple publication. It’s really a conceptual work of art, functioning as a paper but also as a space to gather the many artists and eccentrics, beatniks and stars whom Sigfrids has brought together over the course of her idiosyncratic career. Whether it’s directing films, debuting an exhibition of micro paintings in her ear, resurrecting the alt-weekly or even shopping at a Trader Joe’s, Sigfrids’ unique gift is for transforming seemingly mundane events into provocative, challenging and often very funny art.

At the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood during 2024’s Felix Art Fair, Sigfrids and I spoke about her wild youth as a teenage runaway, the charms of Athens, Georgia, and how ‘hanging out’ can sometimes lead to great art.

Sammy Loren: Start me off at the beginning.

Tif Sigfrids: I was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It used to have the highest percentage of Republicans of any place in the country. I was born into a religious extremist family. Nobody talks about these Christian extremists, but that’s where I come from. 

SL: When did you plan your first escape? 

TS: I have fantasized about running away from home since I was three years old. I was the weird kid who hated Christmas. I didn’t believe in Jesus or God. I hadn’t met a Jewish person yet, so my life had yet to change. 

SL: The Evangelicals must have talked about the Jews a lot, right? They do love them in this weird way.

TS: Well, when I became Jewish, I knew everything about the Torah already. 

SL: Probably more than most about Jews. 

TS: Yeah, that’s exactly right. 

SL: So you’re three years old, and you tried to escape from your family? 

TS: I didn’t try to escape yet. I had this classic kid vision where I was like, I’m gonna make a little trailer for my tricycle, and then I’m gonna put stuff in it and leave. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Three-year-olds don’t run away.

SL: Let’s fast forward a few years. You’re 12 years old, and your parents put you in therapy.

TS: My parents kept sending me to these Christian therapists. I was oppressed by this religion. Time went on, my parents kept sensing there was something wrong. They sent me on mission trips. Not only were they religious extremists, they were missionaries. They sent me to South Africa as apartheid was ending, to Australia, God knows why, maybe to learn how to drive on the other side of the street. They kept thinking that the solution was more Jesus. When I was 16, I ran away to Athens, Georgia. This kid at my lunch table was named John. I was like, I’m gonna run away. And he was like, I’ll take you to the bus station after this punk show tonight. So we went to this show, and then John said, “You know what? I don’t like this town either. I’ll just drive you to Athens.” 

SL: Just like that, you picked up and left? 

TS: Yeah, we just drove. We needed to save money because we didn’t know how long we’d be gone for so we bought a carton of Basic Lights 100’s because they’re longer and you get more for your money. Then we cruised down to Athens.

SL: Why Athens and not New York or LA?

TS: Athens is a special place. If you’re into music, it’s a really interesting town. The B-52s, REM, Pylon, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Elephant Six were all there in the 90s. It was this creative place where misfits like myself would land. In Athens, we lived in our car. We were gone a few weeks and decided to go back. 

SL: What happened when you went home?

TS: I didn’t go right home, but my parents found out I was back. They had me arrested and taken to a juvenile detention centre for three days, where I spent Thanksgiving. Then I got out, and my parents took me to this cabin a friend of theirs owned in Wisconsin, and I was cut off from all my friends. I wasn’t in school at that point. I worked at the Waffle House and spent all my money on CDs at the end of the week. I was really into beatnik literature, and they were like, You can’t read this stuff. They censored everything. My parents were CD breakers. The weirdest one that they kept breaking was the soundtrack to the movie Kids

SL: When did you make your final escape? 

TS: After the cabin, they let me get a job working at a shipping store. They thought I was under the supervision of this guy from their community. But every day, I would go get a soda and call my friend John, who I’d run away with the first time, and my friend Dana. Over several weeks of these daily phone calls, we hatched an escape plan. So, on Christmas Eve, I was like, I’m gonna go get a soda, and Dana pulls into the parking lot. I got in the car, she delivered me to John, and we were on our way to Athens again. In the pictures of my family from that Christmas, they’re all red-eyed, being like, we lost her again! 

SL: So you’re 16, and you’ve run away for the second time. You’re a high school dropout. America’s War on Drugs is happening…

TS: The war on drugs was happening, but I wasn’t into drugs; I was into personal freedom, and I felt oppressed by this religious upbringing. I stayed in Athens for five months before my mom decided to come look for me. I worked at a pizza place. I had an apartment. We were sort of living as adults. We’d go to the media studies library. It was my first exposure to art.

SL: Then your mom captures you, so to speak.

TS: Yes. Fast forward, I went back home, but I didn’t finish high school. I never got my GED. I was like, I’m gonna go to LA to make a movie. And a teacher of mine was from New Zealand and had a friend who, though I didn’t know it at the time, was this central figure in the emerging art world of Los Angeles, in this scene in Chinatown from the late 90s and early 2000s. The friend gave me an internship at China Art Objects. It was a lucky place to land because it was where everything was happening. I was really in the mix, and I was like, I can’t leave. It was like a utopia.

The social element has always been at the centre of my work. Ideas come from conversations with friends. Joe Sola did this show in my ear and I remember Gracie DeVito heard about it and just started coming by the gallery because she liked this show. Hanging out led to things. 

SL: Tell me about starting your own gallery.

TS: I had a job at Tom Solomon Gallery, and I had a desk called Tif’s Desk where I was doing exhibitions. I basically lost my job because these exhibitions in the desk were overshadowing the regular shows. I got along with artists, they were my friends. And I liked selling art, which was strange because I never knew I would like selling anything. I had only really worked at the Waffle House.

SL: In 2014 you opened your gallery in Hollywood and then moved it to Athens. Tell me about what motivated this move.

TS: When I left LA six years ago, the lustre was lost for me. LA had always been a place that was special because it was hospitable to artists. It was the unusual place where there were real galleries, real museums, good art schools and you could afford to live here and have a part-time job and maintain a studio practice. That’s completely gone now. It started to make the art world less creative.

Photo by Daniel Dent

SL: And now you’ve started your Alt Weekly Umm…

TS: It’s like a newspaper, which is interesting because they’re basically going extinct. I put ads from different restaurants and places that the gallery has been to: New York, Athens, and LA. You can weirdly bring people and ideas together in one thing.

SL: What inspired you to start Umm…?

TS: Umm… started as an idea for celebrating the ten year anniversary of my gallery. I thought of it as some way of bringing together all these disparate people into one place. Somehow it is the next best thing to throwing a party, which is probably a more traditional way of celebrating ten years of something. But I just had a wedding over the summer and this seemed like a more convenient way of rounding people up.

SL: What are your future plans for Umm…?

TS: The next issue of Umm… is going to be dedicated to fashion and is set to be released this spring at the Frieze Art Fair in New York.

SL: It’s not just a newspaper, though, right? It feels almost like a conceptual art project.

TS: It’s definitely an art project. Some of the ads are fake. The paper feels like some expressive object because it’s produced in this low-budget way, but the content is high-end. You have Mac McCallan and Mike Watt, who are punk legends, and Rhea Perlman, an important actress. An advice column by writer Kate Wolf and drawings by artist Joe Sola on the cover. It’s this counterintuitive

Written by Sammy Loren

Photo by Daniel Dent