Founder of Red Art Projects, curator, and art marketing expert.
Maureen Sullivan is the founder of Red Art Projects, an art consulting company that works with artists and organizations to promote their art projects and events, as well as independently curating and writing. Previous experiences include serving as the marketing, communications and events director for Creative Time and The New Museum of Contemporary Art, and consulting and producing limited editions for art organizations nationally and internationally.
Consultant, curator, writer—you inhabit many roles within the contemporary art world. Where did your professional journey begin, and how did you arrive where you are today?
My first art job was working for a group called Checkerboard that made documentary films on living artists. We produced one film a year, and I would also organize a film festival of shorts to kick off the premier. The first film I worked on was with Roy Lichtenstein, and it provided my first glimpse into the day-to-day life of a successful artist. But my real immersion into the art world came through my next job at The New Museum of Contemporary Art. I was hired as their events manager and later created their marketing department. Producing the annual auctions and limited editions involved working with collectors, artists, and all the contemporary NY galleries - I met everyone in the art world at once, baptism by fire. It opened my eyes to many facets of the art world that I hadn’t known before. Working in a smaller museum, as it was at that time, had the benefit of getting a broad base of knowledge by wearing many hats and working intimately on a daily basis with the Director, curators, educators and the Board – something not possible at a larger organization.
You run a private art consultancy, Red Art Projects, which has provided strategic planning, marketing, and communications expertise to a host of acclaimed artists and arts organizations. What advice would you give to an up-and-coming young artist looking to launch their career?
Engage. Engage with a positive network of friends and art world colleagues, and support each other to create opportunities. Learn how to show remotely (on an ipad or phone) as well as in the studio. Write and talk about your work clearly and /succinctly, and—this is important—not all the time! Protect your energy and time – you want to spend as much time creating your work as you can. That often means figuring out how to write grants or barter with someone who can write with you. If you’re working too many full or part-time jobs, it can drain your time and energy to create.
Want a gallery? Do your homework. Research which galleries you respect and what it is about their program and reputation that you admire. If it seems like a good fit, from the artists they show and audience they attract, think about who you know that could make an introduction: a collector, a curator, or an artist with a relationship to the gallery. Remember, there are opportunities outside the gallery system including artist organized group shows. Build your resume by saying “yes” to strategic opportunities.
Are there resources that you think young artists should be more aware of?
There are organizations like NYFA and Creative Capital that connect artists to resources and mentorships. There are numerous residencies that allow artists the time to focus on their work away from day-to-day distractions and they can provide good networking opportunities. Non-profit spaces like Equity and Howl provide access to information and talks targeted to help artists with experts in art law, low-income housing for artists, instruction on how to write an artist statement, and more. This is the kind of practical knowledge that often isn’t disseminated in art school but is an essential component of the artist’s survival kit.
In addition to Red Art Projects, you also curate exhibitions, produce editions, and write on contemporary art. Has your experience in marketing and communication influenced your approach to curation?
When I was with larger organizations, there was a significant divide between the curatorial and other departments; one was seen as the creative side, while the other was, respectively, the business side. With many new spaces opening up, a broader discourse has evolved outside the museum with projects and ideas directed by artists, curators, collectors, and writers – a range of people that are informed and creative thinkers who are deeply engaged with artists and the artworld. They bring together ideas from varying perspectives. My experience working directly with artists on projects and limited editions - including Jeff Koons, William Kentridge, Mona Hatoum, Barry McGee, Fred Tomaselli, and many more - I’ve been involved in the creative process from idea to production to sales. This inspired me to organize exhibitions and give exposure to artists that speak to interesting issues of our time, and provide exposure for artists that haven’t received exposure here.
What is the most exciting exhibition you’ve worked on recently?
It wasn’t an exhibition exactly, it was artist Jennifer Wen Ma’s first expansion from visual art to directing and co-producing a Chinese opera that opened at Spoleto Festival last year and then at Lincoln Center Festival this past summer before traveling worldwide. Major projects in which an artist pushes her boundaries, and breaks into another genre while building on and connecting ideas that have infused the work throughout her career, are the most exciting opportunities to support. It was important to strategically communicate and position the work to engage art, music, and performance writers that were being introduced to the artist’s work for the first time, in a short performance window of three days at the world famous venue.
You have worked for artists and institutions across the United States and internationally. Is there something unique about New York that keeps you here?
I was born in N.Y., and my family is all based around the northeast. So, as much as I fantasize about living somewhere else, somewhere quieter, somewhere saner, somewhere cheaper, I’m drawn back here all the time. I’m still intrigued by New York and buoyed by the energy of it. You’re never bored, and you never quite feel on top of things. As long as you keep a balance, get up to the mountains or get out to the ocean – or at least get into a sauna, you can quiet your mind. But … post election, I’m actively looking for opportunities to finally use my EU citizenship and escape America for a little while. I’ll be back, but the daily news and directions the country is going in under the GOP leadership, are taking a heavy toll my mind and soul.
What is it like working with an individual artist versus a large arts organization?
My preferred opportunities are working directly with artists on their dream projects - with an organization’s support and funding! I didn’t like the way many PR companies would come to a project and pitch without knowing the artist’s work intimately and understand how to present it. When you’re speaking on behalf of an artist, I believe it’s important to be as knowledgeable and immersed in their practice as possible. I enjoy applying my experience to help artists see a bigger picture and expand possibilities. For example, when the internationally acclaimed artists Eve Sussman and Simon Lee collaborated on “White on White Algorithmic Noir,” presenting it at an emerging gallery gave them the freedom to experiment, but it was too limiting to get the attention it deserved. So after brainstorming amongst ourselves and reaching out to mentors from Creative Capital, we were able to expand the scope of the presentation to include screenings at The Toronto Film Festival, Sundance, and SF MoMA. It’s about finding the best opportunities for the artist with each project.
With the Spring/Break Art Show, for 5 annual presentations, I’ve worked directly with artists who love the opportunity to get their hands dirty and take over a raw space with the challenge of having no funding and doing it all ourselves. I’ve had the pleasure of introducing artists for their first major art installations, such as Fall on Your Sword, and presenting new work by Eve Sussman, Simon Lee, Ghost of a Dream, Christian Jankowski, Yorgo Alexopoulos, and more. Curating shows for galleries have often been more theme oriented such as Fairy Tales or New Yorkers seeking calm but drawn to frenzy which have brought together major artists such as Ugo Rondinone, Sue De Beer, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Lorna Simpson with more emerging artists.
Do you make your own art? Did you ever consider a career as an artist?
When I was growing up, if you didn’t draw well, which apparently I didn’t and still don’t, you were told you weren’t going to be an artist. The door was closed. I performed in theater in high school, and I was always drawn to art, but I never thought of myself as an artist. If I grew up in the current creative environment, I probably would have been a multi-media artist, but I enjoy being an accomplice to artists I truly believe in, and my creative outlet is through curating. I’m constantly in awe of the courage it takes to put yourself out there as an artist.
What aspect of your work do you enjoy the most?
The conversations and exchange of ideas. We talk about the most absurd and interesting things, and my relationships with artists, and with the artistic community, is a constant inspiration for me. I pity people working in banking and insurance; though I envy their beach houses and retirement funds, I can’t imagine how dull the day-to-day conversations would be.
Which artist would you most like to work with in the future?
I have a fascination with artists who address big ideas, and I’d like to give exposure to artists who haven’t had as much of a presence in NY as in Europe. Bigert & Bergstrom are one example. They’re based in Sweden and explore issues of climate control and science, but their work is on such a large-scale that it requires major institutional support and financing. I’m also intrigued by a young Paris-based artist duo, None Futbol Club, who I met during their residency for Copenhagen Art Week this past August. We’re going to work together for their New York premier at Spring/Break Art Show this spring. And there is my ongoing obsession with film, video, and sound art – so I’m always looking for new discoveries at art fairs, galleries and Biennials. It is, of course, the most challenging art to sell.
What does an artistic community mean to you?
In New York, the art world has become very market-driven so it’s important to remind ourselves to focus on fostering creativity and idea driven art. When I was in Mexico City and San Francisco over a decade ago, I saw how community-oriented the art scene could be when it wasn’t as market focused. It’s a hard balance for New Yorkers to strike, when the cost of living forces artists further and further out, small and mid-sized galleries are being squeezed out, and the glamour side of the art world seems to often dominate. Having said that, we’re so fortunate to have so much cultural enrichment surrounding us with the museums, non-profit centers, galleries, and artist-run spaces. We have to strive to find funding models that can make creative life viable and less stressful here.
Interviewed by Benjamin Stolurow