This week, I sat down with Melinda Wang, a contemporary art curator, lawyer, entrepreneur, and startup advisor, to talk about her curatorial vision and what the future holds for the New York art world.
Audra Lambert: Melinda, thanks for chatting with me! I wanted to start by honing in on your vision: as a curator, you work on a wide range of projects, featuring work honoring the oeuvre of Louis Kahn and harnessing blockchain tech. How do you orient your vision and choose what projects to work on?
Melinda Wang: Entirely selfish reasons! I’m a voracious reader and I love taking deep dives into pretty random topics, but then I find myself connecting the dots across different subject areas and disciplines. On the art side, that translates into exhibitions on topics that I’ve become passionate about through my research and conversations with artists — always with the goal of shining light on topics that I feel have been overlooked and showing really great work. For “Inversions,” the group exhibition inspired by Louis Kahn’s work, I wanted to explore the idea of using materials to understand the immaterial and universal, an intrinsic part of Kahn’s conceptual framework, as well as how art and architecture inform each other. At the same time, I’m really interested in moving image works and digital works, especially blockchain art. For “Pure Form,” I wanted to draw connections between blockchain art and the history of geometric abstraction, while also exploring the idea of blockchain technology as an artistic medium rather than merely a tool for art commerce. I think of all of my exhibitions as multi-disciplinary — first, they usually stem from inspiration and research from different fields, and second, I like to include programming like music and dance performances, poetry readings, and film viewings that are in conversation with the visual artwork in the exhibition and emphasize the multiple layers of these topics.
AL: For many years you helmed Artists Equity and you also founded Equity Gallery. What were some of your highlights working with Equity, and what specific opportunities arose from working with the one of the oldest artist-founded organizations in the country?
MW: Revitalizing this historically important institution was an incredible opportunity. Artists Equity was started in 1947 by a group of over 100 artists with the goal of artists helping other artists, but faced many challenges over the years. When I became Executive Director in 2015, we were essentially starting from scratch. It was an organization with a fascinating history and archive, but needed a new vision and infrastructure. I approached the turnaround as going “back to basics,” refocusing the mission to provide artists what they needed the most — exhibition opportunities, professional support, and community. One highlight was launching Equity Gallery and creating a curatorial program of socially-engaged projects, especially risk-taking work by new voices. Exhibitions explored topics such as the refugee crisis, queer aesthetics, gentrification, humans in the digital age, Black history, selfie culture, and socio-political resistance. The other highlight was building a community. We relaunched the membership program (growing it from about 50 to over 250 paid members), created a monthly workshop on professional development skills, hosted several events a month for the arts community, and increased the organization’s reach to over 11,000 individuals. I loved getting to know so many artists, and also helping artists connect with one another and with curators, musicians, writers, and others in the NYC community.
Pure Form, installation view. © SuperRare.
AL: Talk to us about the ways you work to build an artistic community: has this always been integral to your work as a curator? I think of initiatives like Art Church, which you and Christopher Stout have been running for years, and workshops you’ve helmed in response to artist demand — how and why is community-building in the arts so critical now?
MW: When I moved back to NYC in 2006, one of my goals was to become more active in the arts community. I was fortunate to meet artists Patrick Meagher and Yunhee Min and get involved with their Chelsea artist-run space, Silvershed. Our discussions at Silvershed turned into Collective Show, a truly grassroots project where we brought together artist collectives for “group shows of group shows.” We worked with over 130 contemporary art collectives made up of over 1,100 individual artists for shows in NYC, LA, and Mexico City. Also at the time, I was on the board of Art in General, a nonprofit that has always been focused on the production and presentation of new works. Those experiences really shaped what an artistic community means to me. When given the opportunity to lead Artists Equity, I knew community-building would be the backbone of the organization.
Communities are of course important for sharing artwork and getting feedback, and also sharing information about galleries, opportunities, etc. But because art-making is often a solitary act, I think it’s important for artists — more so than anyone else perhaps — to have friends and colleagues to turn to who understand the high, lows, and those “meh” days. And those communities can be online or offline! (Although at Art Church, I love moments when I overhear, “it’s so good to finally meet you in person!”) One of my goals with respect to community-building is to help break down silos, whether it’s different groups of artists or different genres or different backgrounds. A sense of community is also what sparked the idea for Ninth Street Collective.
AL: Can you tell us more about your vision for identifying a need and providing resources to artists through the (nearly one-year-old) Ninth Street Collective?
MW: While at Artists Equity/Equity Gallery, our monthly workshop program focused on topics that came up over and over again in my conversations with artists showing at the gallery and in my community of artists and curators. I realized I could connect artists’ needs with my network of experts, so we organized workshops on everything from artist statements to social media strategy to contracts to choosing residencies. When I left Equity, I wanted to continue to help artists with “the business of art,” which unfortunately remains largely unaddressed in art school. After considering a number of organizational models, I felt a collective of contemporary art world professionals offering a diverse array of services would be the most beneficial for artists. Artists are able to choose which Ninth Street Collective member to work with based on their needs — whether it’s specifically to work on an artist statement or to have a brainstorming session for exhibition opportunities or anything in between. Many artists come to us because they feel stuck, and we help them get “unstuck.” The collective’s members have a combined 50 years of experience in the contemporary art world and we share resources, expertise, and opinions (!) to help our artist-clients.
Inversions, installation view. © Courtesy MW Projects LLC/Etienne Frossard.
AL: Your background is in law and startups along with your arts acumen: how do these different realms inform one another?
MW: I always say that the underlying thread of my projects is my love of creating and helping others create. Whether it’s working with legal clients on their IPOs or M&A deals, or advising startups on strategy, or working with artists to conceptualize and execute exhibitions, I’m passionate about bringing ideas to life. The skillsets are definitely transferable — project management, creating consensus, problem-solving, negotiations — and of course it’s great to be able to be my own lawyer for my entrepreneurial projects.
Taking a broader view, I also think that approaching each of these fields as a multi-hyphenate has allowed me to remain a generalist — both within that specific field and across fields — when the world is increasingly turning towards specialization. I’m really not sure what I would do if I had to choose only one lane! As you mentioned, these different realms inform one another, so I’m a strong proponent of generalists and multi-disciplinarians. In fact, many of the issues I learn about through one field inform the other fields. For example, I’ve learned so much about climate change research through my law clients in the social impact space, through startups building sustainability-focused products, and artists who are exploring these issues in their work. I’d like to think that this sort of broad and diverse perspective, with a bias toward action, is an asset to the individual creators and companies I work with.
AL: We’d love to get a sense of what trends you see emerging either in artistic styles or attitudes on the NY art scene specifically, since it is where you are based, what trends / predictions do you have for 2020?
MW: I think we’re going to see a lot of exciting projects in the realms of digital art, blockchain art, and AR/VR/MR, and perhaps more importantly, a breaking down of boundaries between those genres and “traditional” art. I would also like to see how artists making socially-engaged work can utilize new technologies. All of that being said, I still love an exuberant painting!
With respect to the art market, I’m really happy to see collectors using their buying power to elevate underrepresented voices and make an impact through collecting. I also see an increased focus on research-based works and renewed interest in works by mid-career artists.
On the art business side, I’m really tired of hearing the words “democratizing art”! We’re creating new access points for art-goers and new methods to purchase art, but are we really reaching new audiences or inspiring younger generations to understand the intrinsic value of art? I’ve been having conversations with artist and curator friends about how we engage what I call “emerging collectors,” so stay tuned!
AL: Thanks again for your time! Where can we look for your next art projects?
MW: It’s going to be a busy 2020! On the curatorial side, I’m working with artist Melissa Godoy Nieto on a solo exhibition about ocean climate change and organizing a second group exhibition of blockchain art. I’m also working on a whitepaper proposing a framework to understand art and blockchain. For Ninth Street Collective, we’ll be launching new workshops and providing more online resources for artists. And Art Church will be back in May! I’m always interested in hearing from artists creating socially-engaged work, experimenting with new technology, or exploring alternative business models, so I encourage artists to reach out to me.