Senior Marketing Coordinator at the Whitney Museum of Art
Shama Rahman is a Senior Marketing Coordinator at the Whitney Museum of Art. When beginning her career, she was guided by her interest in making art spaces more accessible to a wider, more diverse audience. As she has now settled into her second job after graduating from Smith College with a degree in Economics and minor in Art History, she has added the goal of helping her peers with what she has learned from her access to major institutions. She wants to give back to the art community by running workshops that help artists write artist statements, create press releases, find jobs, as well as organize cover letters and resumes. Rahman has conducted two such workshops at Artists Equity -- Press Releases for Beginners and Artist Statements 101.
It seems like your focus turned from art historical to the business side of marketing in museums. How did you become interested in art marketing?
It was an interesting transition. I majored in economics and halfway through my college career I decided that the path that most people were taking, whether it was in finance or academic research in economics, was not a fit for me. My sophomore year of college I started taking art history classes. I applied for a curatorial internship at the Smithsonian and for a job at the Smith College Museum of Art. I’ve always been interested in visual art and always made art, and wanted to infuse that with my interest in the qualitative and quantitative side of economics. I thought art marketing might be a great way to do that. My first internship for that was at a publishing house, Oxford University Press, and they had a lot of art and digital products. When I went to do my curatorial internship (at the Smithsonian), I loved doing the research and learned the valuable lesson that museums do not just run on curatorial and education departments alone. They need a team to advocate and spread the word about exhibitions.
When I worked at the Smith Museum, my job was to get a diverse student body, not just art history or studio art students, to come to the museum. I grappled with how to make the museum more approachable and accessible to more people, not just people who have backgrounds in visual art. Then I interned at MoMA, which had a global network where you could reach millions of people through marketing, all the while making it accessible, interesting, and approachable.
After graduation, I worked at the Guggenheim for two years, where I worked specifically with marketing for public programs and family programs. It was just getting the word out to the right audiences and making sure diverse groups were coming to the museum. I also got to work with other cultural organizations based on the shows we had at the time. Now I work at the Whitney and it's a bigger role. I work on supporting content creation, email marketing, print ads, and digital campaigns--thinking about where we want this content and what message we want to put out there. One of my favorite parts has been working on videos with artists.
One of the video projects I worked on that I really liked was for Open Plan, a show that gave five artists complete freedom with the 5th floor, which is the largest column-free gallery space in NYC. My job was to create a video series with an amazing video producter and translating the work to make it accessible and interesting. The focus was to get the word out about these 3-10 day long shows with 5 different artists, so each one presented a challenge and we molded the videos to fit their projects.
What is the biggest piece of advice you can give to a rising artist?
I think, this applies to artists and creatives in the field today, everyone should think about the content and artwork you're making and releasing into the world. Promoting your shows and applying for grants is very important, but secondary to your artistic process and the foundation of work you create. I think that in this day and age it's so easy to get caught up, distracted, and discouraged seeing your peers get so much press and attention while you’re working away from the limelight. It’s important to remember that your journey and timeline is your own and to not compare it with those of others around you. We don't have to create work in a silo, but we can create work that emphasizes content first, publicity second.
How important is “image” for the artist?
I think the image of an artist should just be authentic and relates to my earlier advice. An artist “image” and brand is important, but I don’t think that should be the primary goal. It's about how to use what is inherently true to yourself in order to create a “brand”, and not fitting into what is trending or in the news all the time. There are ways to make sure that you are included in the conversation. There are a lot of talented artists, and it's just the way that the art world and society are structured where certain people are going to get more attention than others; there are institutional barriers and one of my goals is to help all artists have the same tools of access, so that what's getting in between them and press attention is not the formatting of an artist statement. It’s really about the content and creating space for everyone at the table.
You seem to be passionate about creating accessibility to museums for all artists. How do you think the current relationship between contemporary artists and museums could change for the better?
One thing that I love about working at the Whitney is that there are shows and spaces dedicated to emerging and contemporary artists. There is a gallery on the ground floor that is free to the public, so it's not only accessible to visitors, but also to other artists. I think one way that artists can be more involved is to include artists in the curatorial process. One thing that I loved was when I first started working at the Whitney was that Frank Stella’s involvement in the process for his retrospective. I think that's awesome and promotes the Whitney being an artist's’ museum. On a smaller scale, not just museums but cultural organizations and gallery spaces in general, it’s really thinking about the artist’s goal and taking into consideration who the artist wants to reach. Of course the institution has its own goals of who they want to come, but they need to keep in mind the artist. For example, an artist who comes from a specific background may want the space to feel really open to people of their heritage. When I worked on shows highlighting South Asian artists, we worked hard to ensure members of the South Asian community at large felt welcome to the spaces. Audience is not about just the patrons, but also families of the artists. That's part of what I was doing with Transitions--it was about how to make the place comfortable for the Bangladeshi community that is local to the Bronx, and how to get them inside the museum. It was really exciting to see them in those spaces because they've never been there before.
You have said that there isn’t enough representation of people of color in the museum world. How do you think that might translate for the art world and for artists of color? What do you think needs to change, and how do you think we, as people in the art world, can go about supporting that change?
I think there are a lot of different things that need to happen for people of color to have representation in the art world on so many different levels. All organizations should be actively recruiting and hiring people of color for all departments, providing them with proper support, making sure that internships are accessible and paid, thinking about people who may not have access to certain things and giving everyone a fair shot. One of the things I have to say is that I chose art marketing in part because I didn’t know curatorial was a possible path for me and it didn’t feel like the “practical” thing to do. It felt out of reach, I didn’t feel smart enough to pursue it, and most of my classmates who were going down that road didn't look like me.
I am starting to dip into a bit of curatorial work now and I’m interested in South Asian artists not only because it's close to my heart and my roots, but also because they don't have representation around the world and there are incredible communities that deserve to be known. I want to be a force that promotes them and brings them to the surface.
Given that the vast majority of artists will never have gallery representation or a museum show, what can they do themselves to promote their art? Should every artist have a website? For artists who do many different things what is the best way to present their work?
If an artist doesn’t have gallery representation or a museum show, it’s important to keep in mind that those aren't the only markers of success. There are amazing artists who never achieve that in their lifetime and it is up to each artist to determine what they want. On a practical note, if you look at websites as an asset, for your own brand, there is no overhead or middleman between the people you are attracting and your work. Have a quality approach to your interactions with your world, especially with social media. Your press releases and newsletters should go to a targeted audience, as not everyone needs to get everything. I think with artists, it's about how to be your own advocate. If you have multiple projects, break it up into different sections and they can all represent you. Every person is made up of complex parts.
Why do you think community is important for artists?
So many reasons! One thing I talk about in writing artist statements and press releases is that you need to have second sets of eyes. You want feedback and places to bounce your ideas off of and what better way to do that than through the artist community. It’s such a tough industry to break into and so many people are scared to pursue their artistic vision because we are constantly being told that you can't make it as an artist because you can't be financially successful. The narrative is always that you have to be independently wealthy or have a background that supports that path and you can't do it unless you have a certain pedigree. That's just not true. It’s definitely a privilege that helps certain people succeed, but I don’t think it’s the only way. I think that there's so much out there that it is discouraging and that you have to keep your focus on your dream, and the community reminds you that you are not alone.
Do you make art yourself?
I used to love figure drawing. I haven't drawn in a while, for personal reasons and a fear of not being good enough. I think I haven’t made it because I’m surrounded by incredible artists and art at all times. What could I do with my paltry talent, why make my own art? But we shouldn't make art just so it could be lauded by other people. More important is the personal importance and self expression, which is why I’m returning to it at the moment. I think people are afraid to make art because they compare themselves, and in my case, don't practice.
What color are you most partial to these days?
Fun question! My usuals are black and white, but I really love hues on the cusp of yellow and orange. They are great for all seasons and feel underrated in a lot of ways. That yellow-orange pops up in marigolds, flowers I love, and is infused into this beautiful dress I have been eyeing from NorBlack NorWhite.
Interviewed by Sarah Cho