Victoria Selbach | TRAILBLAZERS AND MAVERICKS | Season 1, Episode 1
TRAILBLAZERS and MAVERICKS
a series of conversations with art-world instigators
by Victoria Selbach
Across our socio-political landscape, women are standing up and igniting waves of progress. Waves that have the potential to instigate profound cultural shifts. Trailblazers, who have forged paths for decades, are joined by generations of women fueled by vision, innovative thinking, and focused determination. The art world is no exception. We see art advocates, mentors, community builders and leaders in the guise of collectors, curators, writers, artists and more. Each is creating opportunities for us to see our world reflected back through a new lens. Peppered across the art world are promising signs that there is often more progress than meets the eye.
Robin Pogrebin recently disclosed in a New York Times article the identity of the patron behind the Anonymous Was a Woman grant program. Susan Unterberg, over the last 22 years, quietly gave 5.5 million dollars in support to under-recognized female artists over forty. Her efforts bolster voices that need to be heard. Susan, herself once an under-recognized female artist, stepped from behind the curtain of anonymity to set an example and encourage other philanthropists to support women artists.
Heather Zises, a Brooklyn-based curator, writer and the founder of READart, a platform for contemporary art and culture, channeled her anger over the current state of affairs into a three-year project, co-authored with John Gosslee. Their informative tome, titled 50 Contemporary Women Artists, is published by Schiffer Publishing. In the words of Elizabeth A. Sackler, this compendium “creates a marker referencing women's artistic response to the current onslaught of national and global oppression, racism and abuse.”
Women are stepping forward in greater numbers than ever, outside their studios and offices, cutting new paths, building connections and igniting action. They encourage participation by leaving plenty of embers behind to guide and inspire others. Panel discussions, museum events, and networking opportunities are on the rise. Keep a close eye on the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. They are moving culture and society by offering exposure to important work by women artists and through robust intersectional activism and education. Their programming offers opportunities for interdisciplinary cross-pollination that serves as a catalyst for more connected, civic, and empathetic engagement. Not getting involved is no longer an option. The question is how. As Janice Sands at Pen+Brush encourages, “You have to tip the scales in your favor by doing. You must act.”
Successful efforts to bring about change are not simply self-serving but rather community building. Artists are contributing considerable time and talents to make a positive impact across their artistic circles. We see painters finding many diverse ways to engage a community, including curating. New York Academy of Art alumni set an excellent example; Melanie Vote, Kim Power, and Dina Brodsky, to name just a few. Their initiatives lean towards inclusion, contributing to the success of artists within a community based on work regardless of identity. When women ignite action it equalizes gender bias quite naturally. Each event starts a ripple that contributes to progress towards a balanced reflection of the population. That alone is culture shifting. Female innovators fuel a proliferation of social media strategies, art podcasts, blogs and digital publications, built primarily to connect and advance entire communities: @paint_anyway, @bluereview, PoetsArtists magazine and the remarkable Deanna Elaine Piowaty at Combustus to name a few.
painting by Kim Power
A great example of what three determined painters can do when joining forces is the Women Painting Women movement. Painters, Alia El-Bermani, Diane Feissel, and Sadie Valeri set out on a mission to elevate the visibility of traditional female painters. Women Painting Women launched in 2009 as an online resource. It grew to feature the work of over 400 international women figurative painters. They went on to coordinate a dozen commercial gallery shows including their most recent and ambitious project, the 2017 traveling museum exhibition, Women Painting Women: In Earnest.
If you are wondering how much impact one person can have, look no further than Didi Menendez. Didi is heralded in many realist painting circles as the matriarch of connection and community. An artist and poet herself, she has been publishing for decades and has grown a loyal community of writers, artists, poets, curators, collectors, and galleries. Menendez is the founder and editor of PoetsArtists magazine. The publication became her springboard for orchestrating renowned exhibitions across the country and serves as the central hub for her vibrant and inclusive community of international artists. She relentlessly brainstorms out-of-the-box approaches and is known for fearlessly launching new projects at the speed of light. She knocks on and opens doors for emerging creatives and coaches them on a path towards realizing their potential. Didi Menendez exemplifies the equation, that when someone is driven to surface the strongest work and most authentic voices, women will be represented equally.
This introduction barely offers a taste of what is happening across the art world; a random temperature reading of where we are and perhaps an indication of how much more we can do. From here we start a deeper dive into conversations with truly remarkable mavericks. Truth be told, I’m hoping that in outing these leaders, we can kick each other in the ass to stand up and act.
TRAILBLAZERS AND MAVERICKS | Season 1, Episode 1
For conversation one, I sat down with Natasha Schlesinger, founder of Artmuse inc. and Artmuse Interactive.
Right out of the box, my first in-depth conversation told me this series was going to satisfy more than a few of my wildest dreams. I have been cultivating a fantasy of a new breed of art collectors. Imagine a mounting wave of women making a mark that will shift the collective voice of what is recorded for the art historical canon. I envision a broad international web of women encouraging a wave of transformational collecting, women making decisions on what they want to bring into their lives and reflecting the world they know. When I met Natasha Schlesinger the trail guide for this Amazonian tribe was given a heroic face. Natasha Schlesinger; vibrant, energetic, knowledgeable and motivated, forging conduits to cultivate, educate, connect and inspire a new wave of collectors.
The contributions Natasha makes come after years of academic and real-world experience ranging from auction houses to an independent international advisory. A key component that sets Natasha apart is the years she has dedicated to cultivating and educating potential collectors. Her recipe is simple, ‘introduction, education, exposure’. Her client base, which has expanded to hundreds, meets in small groups monthly or bi-monthly for lectures, gallery and museum tours and events that infuse their passion for art with insights into the art world. Natasha offers her clients access to artists doing important work that may not be represented by galleries, work that will fit their lives and collections. Bringing collectors directly into the studio of the artist can enrich their emotional connection to the work and spark chemistry with the maker. The in-advance education and broad exposure prepare the client to augment their emotional connection to the work with an understanding of its place in the larger contemporary art world.
Natasha’s base is growing as she converts the energy of this current moment into fuel. A desire to reach more women has sent her on a mission. She is expanding her reach by establishing panels, projects, and lectures that reach women where they are. Natasha is connecting with groups of women in real estate, law, banking, and politics. Natasha has found that women are hungry for engagement in the arts. Natasha sees it as, “a grassroots movement where I need to reach out to you, rather than think somehow you're going to find me. When I talk to these bankers and lawyers they tell me ‘You need to do more reaching out because we aren’t going to art fairs.' And when the conversation addresses challenges for women in the arts these women actually say, ‘Gee, we didn't think you had these problems in the creative world. We thought the creative world was liberal and socially open to change. We didn't realize you're experiencing what we are experiencing. What can we do?’ Natasha’s answer, “What can you do? You hold the purse strings. What do you want to do? What do you want to support?”
The contributions of art agents and advisors have the unique potential to cultivate, within their communities, a new wave of collectors. While so many are talking about the momentum of babyboomer collectors coming to a halt, there is a rising sense that the untapped base of potential collectors is wide and varied. The future is a wave of animated and enthusiastic collectors rising up; young collectors, female collectors and collectors of color asserting their autonomy and voice. These collectors can shift culture as they capture a reflection of their times in the purchases they make. Natasha sees, ”an entire generation of people that need to be approached differently. Social media, art fairs and digital technology all come into play. Nothing is ever static. Change is inevitable.”
Another conversation Natasha is consciously putting herself in the middle of is the fallacy of the demise of the brick-and-mortar gallery, “brick-and-mortar galleries are so important. You need to see work in person.” She consistently brings clients to galleries for exhibits and connects gallery directors to collectors. Natasha recently launched, with a tech partner, a new segment to her multifaceted platform: Discover Galleries, an app that highlights the exhibitions she feels must be seen. Natasha sees the potential for the evolution of galleries as ripe, “the galleries that will thrive are either very large or elastic. Elastic in that they are able to think outside the white cube, beyond ‘walk-in, look, leave’. Mega gallery complexes are opening bookshops, cafes, and performance spaces. They're evolving the ways that art can be enjoyed, engaged with and purchased. It’s time to bring life into smaller spaces as well, to think about what can be brought into the box to drive energy and engagement around the art, to incorporate it into the social lives and experiences of potential collectors.”
Natasha explained her personal motivation, “My secret is that I am a ‘Yes’ person. Not yes to offers and opportunities that are proposed to me. I’m not waiting for a path or door to appear. My ‘Yes’ is a ‘Yes’ to my own ideas. ‘Yes’ to what I can create. ‘Yes’ is the jumping off point. It's realizing ‘Yes, that's my next idea and I need to follow that’. In fact, I can't say no to myself. I don't have to wait. I just do.” She encourages, “Say ‘Yes’ to your own ideas.”
Natasha's approach should be contagious. Sparking women to follow her lead could become a wave that brings change. Rather than butting your head against your studio wall or against the door of the men's room, the way Natasha connects women inspires a path forward together. We don't have to do it the old way. We need to realize our power and write new scripts.
Natasha level sets expectations, “Ours is a new path. What we need to realize is that what we are doing is very new and very young” That thought unrolled a perspective of how far women in the art world have come over the last fifty years. We are certainly in the dawning of a new age.
Talking with Natasha, it was clear to me that she gets off on making connections for people. Natasha works with artists to bring them outside their normal presentation modes; instigating collaborations with corporate sponsors, bringing art into non-traditional venues and onto commercial product categories. She gregariously connects diverse talent with opportunities in all facets of the art world. Natasha instigates an infectious circle of good karma. She has built an international web of creative leaders that spark collaborations not only back with her but across the lattice with each other. Imagine a network of ‘open source’ energy and talent, which happens to lean dramatically female.
Our conversation turned to the socio-political climate of our times and how we convert the energy of this moment into fuel. Natasha shared, “All that's going on politically since the presidency in 2016; the ‘me too’ and ‘time's up’ movements made me ask, ‘What's my contribution?' Natasha, who had successfully curated for years, said ‘Yes’ to her instinct on how to address these concerns, “I felt the need to express myself through the selection of art.” The driving impetus for curating her recent show was Natasha's assertion that, “the female body is central to all the current conversations.” She continues, “After a long history of the complete dominance of the male gaze, it is crucial to see through the female eye.” Natasha had no desire to curate an all-female show where the premise alone tends to say that the primary qualifier for inclusion is gender. She made clear, “I certainly wanted the men's view in there. I just didn't want them to be the majority. So for me, it was important to flip that ratio.“Natasha's curatorial endeavor, Ideal Feminine/Feminine Ideal?, brought a dynamic array of interpretations of the female form to the Winston Wachter Gallery in New York City. Natasha followed through using the exhibition as an opportunity to host multiple events where all facets of the art community; curators, gallery directors, writers, publishers, collectors, and artists, came together to connect and build momentum. The run included a Groundswell event to launch The Future Of Art Is Female, an innovative networking community for women in the arts. The event was hosted by Natasha Schlesinger and Vajra Kingsly, director of marketing and business development at ART MEDIA holdings. Groundswell is a platform Natasha co-created with Diana Dimenna and Jessica Lichtenstein with an overarching mission to create ways women can help each other and women-centric organizations.
If reading what Natasha is working on makes your head spin, turn that energy into an impetus to say ‘Yes’ to your own ideas and acts. Add to the momentum.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Coming up next: Season 1 Episode 2
Victoria Selbach talks with Janice Sands and Dawn Delikat at Pen+Brush