Suzanne Sbarge unwraps lessons learned from balancing her art with running a "contemporary art space."
You were born in Connecticut, got your Bachelor’s in New York City, studied in France and Italy and a number of other places in the U.S., went to New Mexico for your Master’s, and never turned back. What about New Mexico stood out to you after traversing all these amazing places?
When I got here 28 years ago, I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t have any plans to spend the rest of my life here. But the place just got inside of me, and I feel more at home here than where I’m from or anywhere else I’ve lived. I feel planted on the earth here. It’s spectacularly beautiful. And it’s open-ended. I love the culture, landscape, food, and just the overall weirdness of Albuquerque in particular. It’s real, not fake. New Mexico is not generic or homogenous.
During a past interview in our sister series The Business of Art, Stacey Tyrell spoke about the vast majority of practicing artists needing full-time jobs in order to sustain their creative careers. You’re a creative business owner as well as a practicing artist, so how does owning and operating a nonprofit affect you creatively?
They feed each other. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Being an arts organizer and curator puts me in contact with incredible artists, scholars, and ideas, and I’m learning new things all the time from them. That feeds my own creative process and passion for art. Simultaneously, being an artist who works in the medium of collage gives me an ability to bring together disparate parts into something cohesive. So 516 ARTS is kind of like a mega collage project for me, made of lots of moving parts that I assemble and try to somehow harmonize. I like to be among artists, because I am one of them.
Your Bachelor’s is in Art History and Studio Arts. During your time in school, did you see yourself eventually being part of the professional art world like you are now?
During my undergraduate years, I was like a tiny speck in the vast world of New York City. It was just too big for me to imagine how I could find my place in it. I moved to New Mexico to study art therapy, but found I didn’t want to work in psych hospitals where the jobs were. I ultimately got into arts administration by accident, but I quickly realized I had a knack for it and I loved it. No more watching the clock. I was really invested in it. So it is like when I’m in the studio, time passes incredibly quickly and I just want to keep doing more.
On your website, you say you’re not only the founder of 516 ARTS, but a gallery director, curator, graphic designer, and arts consultant. Are all of these part of running the organization, or are they separate endeavors?
They are all things I do at 516 ARTS, although I have done them independently at times and before I started 516 ARTS. I wear many hats, but they’re all connected. To make 516 ARTS work and keep it afloat, I have developed my own particular way of working that doesn’t fit into traditional job categories. I‘m kind of a Frankensteined-together director that can do a little bit of a lot of things. I do the graphic design because my mind likes to organize information visually. I rarely curate exhibitions solo, but I curate the curators, and guide the process of collaborative curating with our staff and others. I like to invite artists to curate exhibitions, as I enjoy seeing how their creative process plays out in a different realm. It can make for especially imaginative exhibitions. Now we’re lucky to have a wonderful curator on staff at 516 ARTS, and we’re working on clarifying our staff members’ roles so we’re all not doing everything all the time. But some of that is the nature of the beast I’ve created. It’s a small artist-run organization, so we’re all very hands-on.
What past work position unrelated to your current career taught you the most to help you now? I know a lot of my older relatives told me to be a waitress because it teaches multitasking, and one of my mentors said working in construction before he started his career taught him patience.
That’s a great question. I worked on a kibbutz in Israel as a teenager, and that made me love working together with other people as part of a community. I worked in bookstores for 12 years, and that cemented my interest in working with people around ideas. Being an assistant to other artists did expose me to models for a strong work ethic, being driven and being organized. But it also taught me that working with a whole community was far more interesting than serving any one artist’s ego. Alas, none of my previous jobs taught me patience. I’m still very impatient and like to make everything happen fast. I also waitressed, cleaned houses, worked as a nanny, secretary, and picked strawberries and peapods, but none of those did much for me—except that sometimes a strawberry looks great on one side, but when you pick it, you find that it’s rotten on the other side and dissolves into dust that blows away.
What were some of the challenges you faced during the infancy of 516 ARTS?
I’ve always been scrambling to raise money to keep it going, but it was harder at the beginning. Now we have great relationships with our funders, so it’s not quite as scary as it was earlier on when we hadn’t earned the reputation we have now. In this business, we have to plan projects without knowing if we’ll get the funding to carry them out or even keep the doors open, so we always have to have a plan B, and be willing to adjust and be flexible based on how the fundraising goes, sometimes up to the last minute. Even though this work is still a juggling act of trying to balance so many unknowns, now I have a better sense of how far we can get with the resources we have or don’t have, how many grant applications we need to do to get a percentage of them, and how much time it takes to reach certain goals. Overall, I’d say the challenges stay the same over time. It’s more about how I learn to cope with them that changes. Early on, I was tempted to do too many big things at once, but a wise person told me that [having] staying power can be more impactful than making a big splash and disappearing. And this has proved to be true. Not that we haven’t done a lot of big projects over the years, but making staying power a priority has been key. We have the ability to expand and contract and that has helped us to stay afloat even though we have gone out on some pretty big limbs to do ambitious things. Another challenge has been the pressure to be everything to everyone. Being so agile means we can get pulled in many directions that aren’t necessarily what we’re about. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should. I have learned to try to stay focused on doing good work that sets the standards high and provides some level of consistency, particularly in this volatile time when people are so on edge in the current political environment.
You mention in your Artist’s Statement that a common theme throughout your work is “the duality of familiarity and otherworldliness, interior and exterior space, domesticity and freedom, sky and earth, real and imagined.” After browsing through the current exhibitions at 516 ARTS, they all seem to have a scientific, real-world feel to them that seems very in-line with how you approach your art. Does this influence your vision for exhibitions at 516 ARTS and can you explain how an exhibition is created in the first place?
Wow, that’s a hard question. I work very intuitively, but also practically. The exhibitions I choose for us to run with spark my own imagination, but I’m always thinking about the audience and how the exhibitions can help viewers and participants to reflect and open up their minds, [or] feel or communicate in new ways. We do have recurring subjects that seem like they’re continually at the forefront of people’s minds, like the environment, immigration, and social justice. I look for ways to speak to these issues repeatedly, but in a fresh way and from different angles. I also love to encourage collaborations between artists and people in different disciplines and fields to work together and challenge them to experiment. I do some risky matchmaking sometimes, but it usually works out and turns into an adventure for everyone involved. The bottom line questions I ask myself when making decisions about an exhibition topic are: is it high quality, is it relevant to our particular place and time, can I raise money for it, and will people come?
Onto my favorite question: what is one professional mistake you’ve made, at any point in your career, that ended up helping you?
I’ve taken on a few large-scale collaborations that were beyond our capacity. I let them get too big and unwieldy and they became overly draining. But ultimately, those experiences pushed us to do things we didn’t realize we could do, and they gave the organization an international reach and reputation that have propelled it forward. The biggest of those was ISEA2012, the International Symposium on Electronic Art, for which we ended up bringing people from 37 countries to Albuquerque, working across three states of programming over several months and coordinating close to 100 partners. Never again. But I’m glad we did it. We stretched ourselves to the max and came out the other side of it with more knowledge, skills, a bigger network of collaborators, and friends around the world.