Amanda Coulson unwraps the importance of artistic diversity and the behind-the-scenes of directing VOLTA NY art fair.
You’re Director of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (NAGB) as well as Artistic Director of VOLTA NY art fair. In the “About the Director” video on the NAGB website, you define the role of a gallery director as someone who sets “a vision for where you want to see that institution going...and to steer that course.” Do the visions of VOLTA and NAGB exist separately in your mind, or do they fuel each other?
That's a good question. On the one hand, they are extremely different enterprises: one is a commercial, international marketplace and the other a nonprofit national place of learning, so in that respect they are very separate and rarely intersect. However, certainly the one influences how I perceive and look at the other. Working in an international context inspires me to push the local institution outside of its national boundaries, to think about what I can do to support artists from an absurdly underrepresented country, to assist them in reaching such a global audience, and it certainly fuels my ambition to put The Bahamas and Bahamian artists on the map. I am extremely tired of being asked, “Oh, is there art there?”—where there are humans there is art!—but we are dealing with a very strong legacy of being branded by both colonialism and tourism, which has negatively impacted our identity. The assumption is we are lying around under a tree drinking cocktails all day, so how on earth could we be making conceptual art? It’s super condescending.
Conversely, doing profound work in a young nation such as this [that] has been scarred by its history, being closely involved in community-building, curriculum planning, playing an important role of nation-building and existing in my own country as a minority but still deeply privileged by my race, of course gives me a very different point of view on the New York art scene and the global art market, so that has definitely changed how I looked at what the fair could do or what it could be to a wider, more diverse group of people that reflect the city in which it’s located.
Along with your current roles at VOLTA and NAGB, you’ve written for multiple arts publications like Frieze and Modern Painters, and spent two years as the international editor of Tema Celeste out of Milan. Your background is in writing, and you’ve always worked in environments that foster and support that type of work. How have these past positions prepared you to be a director?
Interestingly, it’s been the combination of scholarship and research that comes out of writing, with the lessons learned from both the administrative and production end of the fair, that have helped me in this role. As a director you need to know your art history, you have to be able to speak about art intelligently, to engage audiences of all different types at all different levels, and to be able to support and foster the curators in their practice, but you also have to be able to handle a whole slew of issues [having] to do with managing a large staff and handling a facility, and all of that expertise came from running VOLTA.
At the NAGB, you wear a lot of hats: one day checking structural integrity of the building and picking up trash, the next writing text for artwork in the gallery or curating. At VOLTA, what sorts of tasks do you do as director that people simply viewing your LinkedIn wouldn’t see?
Well, for a long time in Basel I made a point of always cleaning out the garbage cans at the end of the fair, because it's a super nasty job and I think it’s very important as a leader to let your entire team know that you would never ask them to do a job that you wouldn’t do yourself. In New York I think the unions would go on strike if we did that, but the Basel fair—even today—is a bit more do-it-yourself, though not quite as much as when we started! We've been up all night screwing together IKEA furniture for the exhibitors, and I’ll actually still go and do an IKEA run to buy orchids for the front desk and things like that—small touches.
We use a lot of interns and they work crazy long hours and I think they need to see the management also working that hard and taking real care about everything, paying attention to the details. One time we had these very complicated die-cut and multi-folded Guests of Honor invitations that came from the printer folded incorrectly, so me, my husband, both my kids and my mother-in-law spent two afternoons re-folding 10,000 invitations...that was fun.
In an interview with art and signature, you talk about how VOLTA used to have a curating committee, but now you’ve built a reliable network that you [use to] ask for recommendations, and VOLTA does the approaching. What are the benefits of this route versus what VOLTA was doing in the past or what other art fairs are doing?
It's mostly just casting a wider net—you can ask for feedback from ten or fifteen different people instead of only five—and from very different parts of the world. Also there is a cost factor: when you have a committee, generally you all have to get into a room at some point. That takes time and planning and costs a lot of money—flying five curators or dealers to a given city to meet in a room for two days can cost upwards of $10,000—and all our expenditures are ultimately passed on to the exhibitor. As a satellite fair, our margins are much slimmer and we want to keep prices as low as possible for our galleries, so saving on that cost is an obvious benefit. What you lose, though, is having a think-tank in one room at a given time to bounce ideas off; you can do it over the phone but it's not quite the same...even with FaceTime.
VOLTA is incredibly and refreshingly inclusive of so many art styles and cultural backgrounds. Have there been any challenges with reaching out to such a wide variety of galleries and artists?
Yes, definitely. First of all, a lot of galleries from far-flung places can have real struggles economically, so that can create difficulties. It’s a Catch-22: they don't have [a] market where they are, but because they don't have a market they can’t always make it work to come to where there is a market. Then, when you do get a diverse group, there is the reaction from the audience who want to see a list of “known” galleries to make them feel safe. I get really tired of people judging a fair from a list of gallery names...I mean, how can you know it's a good fair until you’ve actually been [there] and looked at the work? There are also some galleries that are considered lower on the pecking order, [and] they might have a really great artist—maybe it’s really only the one—but the artist deserves consideration or the opportunity to make a broader network. I’ve also seen bad presentations at “good fairs” (this year in Miami there was one gallery [that] had a bronze sculpture of leaping dolphins—totally un-ironically!) and vice versa.
At every fair there are good and bad galleries, good and bad presentations, and I think if you're really committed you’ll actually go and really look and try to learn something new. I like to have a wide variety, to not have a series of booths that look all identical or selling the same genre of work, and that can be difficult for people. Visitors—and also exhibitors—want [the] comfort of known names, familiarity, dealer-colleagues they’ve heard of, and therefore taking the risk of being broadly inclusive and culturally diverse means you get a lot of people who are unnerved—at best cautious, at worst outright skeptical.
Let’s say there’s a gallery you really want to admit to participate in VOLTA, but for whatever reason there’s just a little voice in your mind holding you back. At what point do you finally make the decision to let go and say no to yourself?
Well, accepting galleries has so many variables: where the gallery is from, where the artist is from, what the media is...you might wonder why those things matter, but they do. In NY, for example, we have a lot of daylight at a certain point, so we can't have too much video or work that is light-sensitive. Or maybe we just have too much painting one year, so even something we like might get cut in order to diversify the lineup. Or perhaps there are just too many galleries from a certain country and it starts to feel like a national focus in a bad way. And then there are the booth sizes: galleries apply for a certain size and price range and it might really be the case that you just have too many applying for a size there are not that much of; of course you can re-draw the floor plan (and believe me, we do!), [but] at a certain point, you just can't make it work. So, really, we are weighing all kinds of considerations, and it’s by thinking through all those variables that you come to certain decisions.
Have you ever approached a gallery to participate in VOLTA and been refused? I’m sure you approach—and are approached by—hundreds of galleries hoping for a chance, but how does that feel to be on the reverse end—being told no, rather than telling others no? Has there been a situation where you were passionate about a gallery in particular, but were turned down?
Oh, for sure, and of course it’s very frustrating. We’ve also started a lot of galleries off at our fair that then leave for another fair very similar in model (so, not a main fair, which is to be expected), and that is also hard to take and can feel very personal. Also, if a gallery gets into a main fair (usually in a special “section,” which the main fairs use to keep their product “fresh”) and then does not the following year, they generally won't come back and would rather sit out for several years than return, as they perceive it as a “step back.”
One night at a dinner some very respected collectors asked a gallery why they would sit out from VOLTA and not have a platform, and the dealer explained all about the pecking order and the committees and how they would be judged, etc. The collectors said, “But you know we go to all the fairs and buy, right?” It was actually quite funny. But, at the same time, I can understand...colleagues can be ruthless! However, we can also look at the galleries that did start with us before they went to Frieze, Art Basel, Armory, and those that do remember to let us know how important a platform we were for them at a certain point in their career makes the difference and balances it all out.
Excluding VOLTA and NAGB, what creative spaces do you admire the most, and why? This can be a type of space in general or a specific place, from an upscale gallery to other art fairs to coffee shops. Have any aspects of these spaces influenced how you direct VOLTA and NAGB?
There was an upscale gallery—[that] will remain unnamed—[that is] now a fairly large multinational industry. Back in the day, when they were in SoHo (this was before Chelsea was even a glimmer in anybody’s eye!) and were a bit smaller but still pretty upscale, and I was a lot younger, I went in [to this gallery with a friend] on one of my trips to NYC. I had $500 to spend—which 30 years ago was certainly more than now, but was still not so much—and the person working there really took the time to show me drawings and take me through the flat files and treat me really well. Luckily for me, the drawing turned out to be by someone who would be extremely famous, so it was a great investment, but for me the point was that this person had treated us like future collectors even though we were a couple of fairly broke 20-year-olds.
This openness and proactivity is important, and in fact, the people who always do the best at our fairs are the galleries who choose to not have furniture and stay off their devices because it forces them to engage with every single person who comes in: student, artist, dealer, interested passerby, or high-end collector. Sure, we all know it’s important to “place” works at the best collections, and everybody is looking out for those key people, but if we’re too quick to size people up and write them off, I think that can be dangerous. What I learned from that, and what we definitely do at VOLTA and at the NAGB, is treat everybody equally well from bottom to top, and that pays off in a multitude of ways.
And my favorite ending question: what mistakes have you made, at any point in your career, that ended up helping you?
I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I think often it's the only way we really learn anything. Overconfidence can be a problem; I’ve found that when you are sure things are going well, there is bound to be something that comes to bite you in the ass, so staying humble and open to criticism is important.