Check out this great story in the New York Times yesterday on an incredible talent in the NY Gallery scene Nicola Vassell. Nicola is a director at Dietch Projects in SoHo. She's smart, talented, accomplished, beautiful and doin her thing. I cannot claim Nicola as a friend, but we are friendly (having been introduced by my friend Malcolm Harris) and I am very happy for her.
For my info on me visit my official website
A Shaper of Talent for a Changing Art World
By FELICIA R. LEE (from the New York Times)
The wall labels were missing. The inventory needed to be finished. And where was the sign for the shuttle bus to the gallery, a former warehouse west of the Wynwood art district in Miami? Just hours before the opening party for “It Ain’t Fair,” an exhibition of more than 30 emerging artists on the fringe of Art Basel Miami Beach, the glamorous, outsize international art fair held every year in early December, the O.H.W.O.W. gallery (for Our House West of Wynwood) was still strewn with forlorn boxes, the wall stacked with cases of beer that only hinted at the festivities to come.
“No one will ever know,” Nicola Vassell, a director at the Deitch Projects gallery in Manhattan, said of the mess. Her comment was for Kathy Grayson, also a Deitch director and, like Ms. Vassell, one of several curators of “It Ain’t Fair.”
Ms. Vassell, 30, began working as an intern at Deitch in SoHo in 2005, when both optimism and price tags ran high. But by the time “It Ain’t Fair” was poised to open, on Dec. 2, the previous month had easily seen the worst two weeks in the art market in more than a decade. A tumbling stock market and cascading problems on Wall Street had made buyers scarce, as the contemporary art world pondered the impact of broader economic woes. Ms. Vassell, a former model and a Jamaican immigrant, found herself facing the question of how to build a career in a suddenly contracting industry.
There is no single tried-and-true path to the gallery door. In interviews, dealers, curators, museum directors and others say that many successful dealers have had a mentor, academic credentials, a passion for art, a head for business and high-gloss social skills for a world that marries the aesthetic and the commercial.
Many of the front-desk gallery faces in New York City have belonged to those with money and a family pedigree. They could afford low-paying entry-level positions, or were prized for their connections to wealthy collectors. While the art world has always been sprinkled with female dealers, it was for a long time dominated by white men.
The art world was democratized, in part, by the same social upheavals that hit the larger society in the 1960s. Women increasingly hung out their own gallery shingles. The Studio Museum in Harlem opened in 1968 to showcase and nurture black artists, and by the 1980s more of them gained prominence and were part of an infrastructure of black academics, dealers and curators. In a robust economy the art market embraced globalization and multiculturalism. For all the changes, Ms. Vassell is the rare black director in a successful mainstream gallery, simultaneously the product of a changing world and the symbol of it.
“It’s not a surprise that the director of a prominent, important gallery is black or is young or is a woman,” said Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, which has showed two of Ms. Vassell’s artists. “But when you run the three together, it sends a very important signal.”
Claude Grunitzky, the chairman and editor in chief of Trace, an arts and contemporary culture magazine, called Ms. Vassell “a new kind of art gallerina,” using the term with affectionate irony. Ms. Vassell, he said, “is as comfortable with hedge fund guys as the artists on the street,” and has the intellectual chops and the charm to weather a recession.
Synthesis of Many Worlds
“Even as a newbie, I knew the center couldn’t hold,” Ms. Vassell said in retrospect of the exuberant market. “I think I represent the future of contemporary art and the synthesis of so many worlds that include contemporary art, like fashion. We can try taking it into the wider reaches of our culture in general, making it more accessible.”
Still, Ms. Vassell said she was aware that the downturn had a grim side: sales will slow, prices will fall, jobs and galleries may vanish. She does not foresee herself going anywhere, she said, but believes she has options. She ticked off work in museums, as an art adviser, or for an arts lobbying group.
“I’ve never been in a recession market in this country before,” Ms. Vassell continued. “But I am from Jamaica, where the banks collapsed when there was a recession. So many things temper my reaction to what happens in this country. I am a survivor.”
On an early January morning just weeks after Art Basel, Ms. Vassell was sitting at her desk near her boss and mentor, Jeffrey Deitch, in their loft-space office (up a spiral staircase past the Shepard Fairey poster of Barack Obama) in the Deitch Projects gallery at 76 Grand Street, one of two in SoHo. (There is a third space in Long Island City, Queens.)
Ms. Vassell had gotten in at 9:30 a.m. to check the e-mail messages from Europe. She had been out until about 2 a.m. the night before for the opening of the Stephen Sprouse retrospective at the Deitch gallery at 18 Wooster Street. One of the most important things on her plate was coordinating a meeting between Kehinde Wiley, a Los Angeles-born artist now based in New York, and the creative team from Puma, the athletic goods company.
Mr. Wiley’s subversive paintings of young black men rendered in the style of classical portraits have made him hot in the current art world. By her count, Ms. Vassell has sold Mr. Wiley’s paintings, which have gone for as much as $250,000 on the primary market, to at least a dozen museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Last year he had major solo shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at 18 Wooster Street.
Mr. Wiley’s legal team had just sent Ms. Vassell the Puma contract, which calls for him to create a collection of clothing and accessories for the 2010 World Cup — to be held in Africa for the first time, in soccer stadiums in South Africa — the kind of deal that Ms. Vassell sees as essential to the economic future of the contemporary art world.
Ms. Vassell set up Mr. Wiley’s meeting while juggling projects for two other artists: Tauba Auerbach, a young abstract painter from San Francisco, and Nari Ward, who is from Jamaica and makes sculptures of found objects that are meant as social commentary. Ms. Vassell also works with the established Italian artist Francesco Clemente.
Her telephone conversations were short, mingling the art of the deal with the verbal air kiss. “We’ve never bloated anything,” she told someone calling about the price of a work. “This is where we win in this market. It’s beautiful. You have to come see it.”
When she was growing up in Kingston, Ms. Vassell said, “art was the kind of thing you do when you can’t become a doctor or lawyer.” Growing to be almost 5 foot 10, she first tried her hand at modeling, arriving in New York in the summer of 1996.
In her 10 years in the fashion world Ms. Vassell appeared in major women’s magazines, landed a contract with Cover Girl makeup and walked the runway for Calvin Klein. She made “a lot more money” than she does working for the gallery, Ms. Vassell said. But “I wanted to do more with my life,” she explained.
In 2002 she entered New York University to pursue a double major in art history and business. “I just had a passion for learning about art and business,” said Ms. Vassell, who is single, dates an artist and lives in a SoHo loft.
“Art was a synthesis of the things I loved,” she said. “I could write, I could sell, I could think, I could criticize.”
In 2004 she happened to run into Mr. Deitch at the Armory Show on the Hudson piers, which she was attending with fellow students. “I heard someone call his name,” Ms. Vassell recalled. ‘We had studied him in school.”
Mr. Deitch is a legendary 56-year-old SoHo art impresario, known not just for his roster of important contemporary artists — Vanessa Beecroft, Chris Johanson, Barry McGee — but also for provocative projects. The gallery’s installations have included a 1997 bit of art theater called “I Bite America and America Bites Me,” in which the Ukrainian-born performance artist Oleg Kulik lived in the gallery as a dog for a few days.
That day at the Armory Show, Mr. Deitch and Ms. Vassell began a conversation about art “that just continued,” he said.
“I’m looking for people with an artistic vision that’s embedded in their personality,” he said. “Nicky has that.”
Mr. Deitch put Ms. Vassell to work stocking auction catalogs, but she quickly began taking on artists. In 2007 she became a director.
In the idiosyncratic gallery world the title of director comes with varying job descriptions. At his gallery, Mr. Deitch said, four directors, all women (there will be five beginning some time this month), manage artists. They can write books, organize shows, sell art and are assigned to work with their own group of artists.
At this point in her career Ms. Vassell has yet to “discover” a major star, but she helps shape careers. In the constant search for talent, she attends the master’s thesis shows of art students at a variety of colleges and universities in the spring and the fall.
Finding artists who make art history as well as money is a dealer’s dream. Last March Ms. Vassell organized her own exhibition, “Substraction,” at the Deitch gallery on Wooster Street, to showcase some of her talent: abstract paintings by six young artists, including Kristin Baker, whose canvases explore automobile racing (and crashes), and Dan Colen, whose paintings were splattered with what looked like pigeon droppings.
The public and glamorous face of the job includes the hundreds of parties held each year — where Ms. Vassell, often in black and given to heels, is actually working — and travel to the major art exhibitions in Switzerland, London, Venice and Miami. No one sees detail-oriented tasks, like creating a budget and production schedule for a forthcoming project, or sending packages of images of artists’ work and their reviews off to museums to pique their interest. “I do A to Z for the artists: if they broke their leg or left their girlfriend or they want a show in London,” Ms. Vassell said.
‘A Nose for Really Great Art’
The artist Mr. Wiley said of Ms. Vassell: “In the last few years, it’s like somebody who abides with you. She’s got a nose for really great art. She comes by the studio, and we talk, and I can paint. It’s a conversation that turns into an ability to communicate to the public what I’m trying to do.”
There is no particular career trajectory for a gallery director. These uncertain times, Ms. Vassell said, make it far less likely that any director with an urge to see her own name on the door will take that step. In the last decade, though, for those with dreams of running their own galleries, the art market’s expanding possibilities could be seen literally in Chelsea. In 1994 Matthew Marks was the first major commercial gallery to move into the neighborhood. Now there are close to 330 active galleries there (more than in SoHo at its peak), according to a count by the Web site chelseaartgalleries.com.
“During the great expansion in the last five years, a lot of people from other worlds came in,” said Sarah Thornton, author of “Seven Days in the Art World,” published by W. W. Norton last year, referring to the crosscurrents that brought models and designers into galleries and helped create and support skateboard art, surfer art, designer art.
During the boom, Ms. Thornton said, the money flowing on Wall Street meant that banks lent money to all kinds of people aspiring to become dealers, who in turn could sell art to the young hedge fund millionaires and billionaires who became the collectors driving up the prices.
One rainy Friday, Ms. Vassell used a car service to visit the San Francisco artist Ms. Auerbach, who had just moved to New York and into a roughly 1,000-square-foot studio with many windows in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
“She has the discipline, which a lot of young artists are lacking these days,” Ms. Vassell said of Ms. Auerbach. “The thing is to get her work into all the important collections in the world.”
Ms. Auerbach told Ms. Vassell, as they looked at the paintings in her studio, “I’ve made all this work that is all half black and half white.” Some of her newer work uses spray paint on shards of glass. The painting “Shatter I,” which went to Art Basel, looked vaguely like a giant dark flower.
“I’ve made a lot of work that is about opposites,” Ms. Auerbach added. “Now I’m trying to tie the element of chaos into the work.”
Ms. Vassell said, “I’m going to have so much fun explaining this in Miami.”
In December at Art Basel Miami Beach, though, things were slow. At “It Ain’t Fair” in Miami, a few miles away, only about a dozen of the 40 works sold, although Ms. Vassell said she was happy that the right collectors saw the show.
“It was like an art fair a dozen years ago, ” Mr. Deitch said gamely of Art Basel Miami Beach, adding that he had survived previous downturns. During the boom years his inventory sold in a matter of hours on the first day, he said. This year he “covered our costs and a little more,” he said. Some people came back and canceled purchases after being warned to be careful in this market, Mr. Deitch confided.
The bubble might have burst, but Deitch Projects still threw its annual party on the beach at the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue in South Beach.
The sand was cool to the touch. Groups of grungy downtown kids and young couples in expensive jewelry danced, drank and sank into plush black sofas with oversize red pillows.
Ms. Vassell was surrounded by friends she considers her new family in the art world: artists like Mr. Wiley and Shinique Smith, who both live and work in Brooklyn; Franklin Sirmans, a curator at the Menil Collection in Houston; Emil Wilbekin, the editor in chief of Giant magazine. They gossiped, talked about their careers, about Barack Obama and the world of opportunities.
“There are so many possibilities,” Ms. Vassell said hopefully. “If you cut out the excess and extravagance, what you’ll have is a return to personal creativity, a rich creativity that has nothing to do with how much money you have. It’s what many of us came into this business for.”