Thirteen years into her art career and Brigitte Mulholland is as excited and passionate about her work as ever. “Years in and my heart still flutters at the thought of what I get to do every day”, she posted on her Instagram feed ahead of the Richard Hughes exhibition that runs through November and December at Anton Kern Gallery, New York City, where she works as a director. She jokes with the gallery owner that she’s there for good, which says a lot for her dedication but also, and more importantly, her commitment to the artists she works with and her genuine investment in their work and careers.
Brigitte spends a lot of time traveling to do studio visits, speaking with artists and learning about their work. She understands her role and relationship with artists as advisory and enabling, never prescriptive or purely market-driven. She is quick to point out that while sales are important, they’re also not the be all and end all of an exhibition nor reflection of an artist’s worth. She is outspoken about predatory practices and operators in the industry that can damage an artist’s career. On her Instagram feed accompanying a humorous painting by David Shrigley of a crow momentarily pausing its squawking, Brigitte posted “Incredibly accurate portrait of me after I’ve exhausted myself ranting about (or at) flippers, auction vultures, and anyone who exploits artists or thinks of them as commodities.” By contrast, she is free and generous with her knowledge and advice, and endeavours to contribute towards a more transparent, accessible art industry for artists and buyers.
Alongside her work at the gallery Brigitte also pursues independent curatorial projects. She curated Fuzz at Spring/Break 2018, a two-artist installation with Ryan Michael Ford and Eliot Greenwald, which was well-received and reviewed. Her curatorial work is premised on understanding and integrity to the artists she is working with. “I don’t want to bring a preconceived notion or concept to anything, or to seek to find things that fit an idea I’ve already formed. I think that being open is really important, and that when you see work and you believe in it, you show it because it deserves to be seen.”
Brigitte received her BA History of Art from Manhattanville College in New York and her MA at Hunter College in New York City. She started her career from the bottom, working her way up from gallery assistant to director over many years. Despite her senior job profile, she remains humble, deeply interested and most importantly, in love with what she does. We were thrilled to be able to work with Brigitte on this anniversary edition of ArtMaze Mag. Brigitte lent her enthusiasm, keenness and exceptional expertise to the selection of artists in the Curatorial Selection of the publication.
AMM: Hi Brigitte! Have you always loved art? Are you from a creative background?
BM: Hi! Yes I’ve always loved art. I enjoyed art class of course as a kid, but I was actually more interested and involved in theatre for a long time, that was my creative outlet. The real defining moment for me with visual art was around age 11: I was on a school tour of a historic house, and in the gift shop I saw a Monet painting on the cover of a book and just thought, “Wow, this guy gets it”—got everything I had ever felt but couldn’t express, and he put it into a painting. I was in awe. I bought the book and pored over it. Monet was a gateway drug for me—from there I consumed books on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, went to the Met as much as possible, and during history classes always loved discussing the art of each period more than anything else. It wasn’t until late in high school that I learned art history was a thing you could study, so I figured that was what I would do when I got to college, and I did.
AMM: In Manhattanville College in 2007 you studied Italian Renaissance with Lisa Rafanelli in an Art History Department which made an impression on, and helped you to find your passion in life. Your MA History of Art thesis from Hunter College 2012 focused on spirituality in the works of Jackson Pollock. Can you tell us about what might appear to be a turning point for you?
BM: The first art history class I ever took was with Lisa, and it was on the Italian Renaissance. I adored her immediately and it was a no-brainer to keep taking classes with her, have her as my advisor, and declare a major of art history. My second year of college, Jeff Rosenheim from the Metropolitan Museum of Art did a lecture on Diane Arbus that completely changed what I understood about the power of art—and I was lucky enough to do an internship with him in the Department of Photographs my last year at Manhattanville. That was really transformative. Jeff is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and his approach to photography and looking at work was a major education. Apart from photography, it took me a while to “get” contemporary art, but I had a bit of a revelation on a trip to Dia:Beacon my last year of college as well: being so floored at how beautiful a Fred Sandback installation was that I was moved to tears. From there, I happened to get a job at a Modern Art gallery in New York—selling Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Leger, all those guys. I did my degree at Hunter slowly, while I was working full time, and all the while sort of educating myself in the contemporary world. Over the years Pollock became someone I loved, and while at Hunter I wrote a paper on him for a class with Max Weintraub that eventually transformed into my thesis. During grad school the professor I really liked and connected with the most was Max, so I took a lot of his classes, and it just organically evolved into him being my advisor and doing that thesis.
AMM: How important is a History of Art degree for one to gain success in your line of work?
BM: It’s pretty important. A foundational knowledge is great to have but I wouldn’t say it’s 100% necessary, a lot of your education can come from just teaching yourself, looking at art, going to museums and galleries. The history is part of it but not nearly the whole story. One thing that having a degree does help with though, is that it teaches you to have to think on your toes and know enough about a work of art to have an immediate and articulate response to any question. All those slide tests, or essay tests—well, I get quizzed every day at work with questions from clients or curators!
AMM: We’d love to hear about the journey that led eventually to your post as Director at Anton Kern Gallery. How was it?
BM: My journey was long and a little circuitous but unfolded pretty naturally. There was a time, basically my last year of college, that I thought I wanted a PhD in art history, and to be a professor. I was on track to do that, and had an advisor, PhD program, and paid fellowship lined up for right after graduation. A few months before graduating I realized that I actually didn’t want that, so I didn’t go into the program and decided to move to New York with some friends and I applied for gallery jobs. Eventually I was hired at a small Modern Art gallery. I started as a gallery assistant and over the course of the eight and a half years I was there, I worked my way up to Director. For a time I thought I might still want a PhD but gave up on the idea because I loved working so much and couldn’t do both. A Master’s seemed important though, so I did that at Hunter while working full time, over the course of a few years. After a while it started to feel stale at the Modern gallery, looking at all these works by dead guys. I wanted something more engaging and dynamic, to talk to the people that had made the work. And it felt like, if I could sell art, that skill would be so much more interesting and important to someone who actually made the work and could benefit from my ability to sell. So I started going to contemporary openings, meeting people and artists. I had curated one small show at the Modern gallery, and had always been interested in curating, so I started doing studio visits with artists in New York, putting things together on my own, where and when I could find a space. Eventually I left the Modern gallery and got a job with Jane Lombard, where I stayed for around a year and a half. Anton Kern Gallery was always one of my favorite galleries—in fact the first “contemporary” show I ever went to was one of David Shrigley’s in Chelsea—so when I saw the job at Anton Kern on NYFA I applied, and well, here I am!
AMM: What is your understanding of your role as Director and what skills does it take to do what you do?
BM: The directors at Anton Kern Gallery have two jobs—we are artist liaisons, and also sales directors. Most galleries separate out those roles, but why I love working here is that I get to do both. If I was only doing sales I wouldn’t be happy. That engagement with the artists is why we’re doing any of it—why the gallery exists! We are a gallery that always puts our artists first and that is one of the most important aspects of my role. I would do anything for them. Part of that is the selling too—finding good homes and context for the work. There are a lot of skills involved. Empathy, understanding—for both artists and clients. The ability to multi-task! Not having an ego is also really important—artists and clients come first.
AMM: How would you describe the space and atmosphere at the gallery? You certainly look as though you have a lot of fun in your Instagram posts.
BM: We do have fun, yes. But after the work is done! We have a great team and we’re all incredibly dedicated to the gallery and our jobs. We take what we do very seriously, but we also have a lot of fun because we absolutely love what we do. There’s joy in doing good work, and doing work that you believe in. We also love our artists and we really love each other too, which is super lucky. People are often surprised by the fact that we get together outside of work, or make it a point to get dinner together after fair days. It’s rare I guess, but I genuinely adore my colleagues and spending time with them. And Anton! He’s a great boss and someone who garners a lot of loyalty from his staff and artists because he’s got a genuinely good heart and cares so much about what he does. Even when it’s a stressful time, it’s a supportive environment. There’s no competition among the sales team, we truly just genuinely care and always want to do what is best for the gallery and our artists overall.
AMM: Can you tell us about a pivotal exhibition or event you’ve experienced in Anton Kern?
BM: They’re all somehow pivotal or important! Honestly every single one. Exhibitions take a ton of work from the artists, and then a ton of work from the gallery too. I throw myself into each and every one wholeheartedly. One that really meant a lot was Chris Martin’s show last year. I’ve been a huge fan of his work for a long time, and so to get to work with him, and watch and help him put together the show, was a huge privilege. Same goes for Jim Lambie—he’s such a great artist and watching him work is fascinating, he’s so sharp. Julie Curtiss’ first solo was really meaningful because I’ve known her for so long and was a part of getting her to the gallery. To see all of her, and our, hard work manifested in such an incredible way was one of those Life Moments, you know? I mean, Nicole Eisenman’s solo presentation at FIAC was also a huge privilege to be a part of. She’s a total genius, and watching her work is unreal. Nicole is on a different level and she’s also a wonderful person to be around, she makes you want to be better because she’s so good and awe-inspiring. Erik Van Lieshout’s show earlier this year was a ton of work and pivotal in a lot of ways because of how much we put into it—long days and nights, but then the reception was huge and the show looked incredible, and it was something we were all really proud of. I’m thrilled to be working with Richard Hughes right now, his show is coming up next at the gallery. I pinch myself constantly. Spending time with John Bock; laughing over a new batch of David Shrigley drawings; gushing over Bendix Harms or Brian Calvin paintings; getting to see Ellen Berkenblit’s work every day, marveling at how Robert Janitz’s paintings glow; helping Martino Gamper and Francis Upritchard move a table…I feel very very lucky to do what I do.
AMM: What does a working day look like; can you tell us about the most rewarding and toughest parts of the job?
BM: No two days are alike. Obviously I travel a lot, and we do a lot of art fairs, so that becomes a different sort of day. But if I’m going to the gallery, it’s a lot of phone calls and emails. We’re always working on the current shows, the upcoming shows, art fairs, the programming of the gallery, selling other work not on display…people drop by, artists drop by. Mostly it’s a lot of emails. And way too much coffee. It’s tough when an artist or a client is upset about something, I always really feel for them. Sometimes it is incredibly busy and for every email I answer it seems that ten more appear. Traveling so much can be tough, it’s hard to be away from home for long stretches and art fairs are like working with your hands tied behind your back in a lot of ways—you’re in another city, you don’t have your usual resources, things never quite work the way you need them to. But the most rewarding thing is when something I’ve worked on for an artist pays off, or when a client finds and buys something they really love. Making other people happy makes me happy. Sometimes it’s a sale, sometimes it’s when a show is finally hung, or a booth is finished, and it just looks fantastic. In the end the most rewarding thing is always knowing that you did something good for an artist.
AMM: In 2018 you spoke about invasiveness associated with Me Too, have things changed for the better?
BM: I’m not really sure. I spoke out about my own experiences on that podcast just because I felt like it was still so hidden and normalized—and it wasn’t even anything particularly bad that happened to me, but the indignity of it really affects you. As I get older I feel it’s important to be vocal about things that aren’t ok, that speaking up can show others the realities of what’s going on and perhaps affect change. It was a shock to me when a friend told me how normal my own experience was, and I didn’t want that to be a shock to anyone else who experienced something like it. Overall though I don’t really know. The dynamic is one that will take a long time to change I think, because it’s so ingrained in society.
AMM: How do you find the artists you want to work with? What qualities are needed to be noticed by your gallery? How should an emerging artist approach a gallery to show work?
BM: Anton’s been doing this for a long time and his eye is outstanding. A lot of it comes from his intuition and gut. We (the directors) and he are always chatting—casually and then sometimes more than casually—about artists we like, things we’ve seen. I also ask artists I like what artists they like. There’s no specific formula. And for Anton, adding an artist to the roster is a very serious commitment. He has never dropped an artist, which is pretty unheard of in the art world. If we consider adding someone, we’re thinking about the work but also how it fits in with the work of our other artists and our overall program, history, context, and community. The gallery is a community, and the art world is a larger community, so the way to get a gallery to notice you is to be a part of the community. Approaching a gallery cold is never going to work, and generally signals that you don’t understand it. You need to be involved and committed to the gallery, its program and exhibitions, if you want them to be committed to you.
AMM: We are very interested to learn about the growing relationship from first meeting with the artist to exhibition? How does the bond evolve and grow?
BM: Every artist is different, and I have very different relationships with each of the artists I work with. I’m fundamentally there to support them, and so it’s my job to understand them, and support them in the ways they each need. It’s a lot of studio visits, time spent. I really care, and so I’m the person that will show up to events and things and just generally be there for an artist. It’s really important to understand their practice—the scope of it, their history, how and why they make things. Listening is key; just having conversations. And again, I’m someone who would do anything for my artists, or any of the artists at the gallery, so making sure they know that is really important.
AMM: How would you characterize a successful show?
BM: A successful show is one that the artist feels proud of and happy about. Sales are always nice but it’s about way more than that. It’s about doing good work, and putting up exhibitions that mean something, and resonate on levels beyond “commercial” success.
AMM: What key pieces of advice do you share with your artists? There are always bumps along the road, how do you rally an artist to meet these challenges? What happens if you are not able to sell a work for instance?
BM: I wouldn’t say I give them advice, necessarily, but I share knowledge or information with them that they maybe don’t know. It’s their job to be an artist, it’s my job to know about things like the market, other galleries, museums, pricing, things like that. For instance, if another gallery is showing interest in them, I’ll give them information about that gallery, what their reputation is, how it might be a good fit or not. Careers are long, and trajectories never go in one direction. I’m there to keep them feeling good, and just being a support system. It’s hard when a work doesn’t sell, because whether or not a work sells has nothing to do with its quality. We’ve had some incredible pieces that don’t sell, and it’s got to do with the market, or timing, all sorts of crazy and indefinable factors. We take it hard ourselves when things don’t sell, but always keep the long term in mind, and continue to work on trying to make the sale. Sales are important but not necessarily indicative of the bigger picture, especially in the short term.
AMM: How do you continue to promote and support an artist? Is it a lifelong commitment?
BM: Absolutely, especially at Anton Kern. Museum exhibitions, sales, interesting projects, books; there’s always work to be done. I have a lot of friends who are artists that aren’t part of the gallery and I always support them as well, offering any insight or advice I can if they have questions. I’ve been in the art world for about 13 years now and have seen a lot; people taking advantage of artists is something that really upsets me, so I make sure that friends know that I am always an honest and open resource.
AMM: As Director of a gallery you are involved with artist liaison and the business angle; how would you advise and support both the inexperienced and more knowledgeable collectors? How do you grow your collector base?
BM: Collecting is a really personal thing, and every collector has different aims, interests, and intentions. I work with a really broad range of clients, from just starting to very old school, and at all price points. Art fairs, openings, events, even Instagram…there are a lot of ways to meet new collectors. My advice to anyone starting to collect is to look at a lot of things, and listen to your gut and your heart when you see something you love. Don’t listen to hype! The most important thing is to buy what you love, and buy things that you want to live with. I would never ever push someone to buy something they didn’t truly want. I’m here to educate, contextualize, answer questions, and create understanding. It’s a special kind of joy to live with art, and you should never ever buy for anything other than love.
AMM: Is it ever wise to buy simply as an investment? What currently influences buyers’ tastes the most?
BM: Anyone who tells you a piece of art is a good investment is not to be trusted. I would never tell someone that, it’s rule #1 in the art world. Art is not an investment. I’m extremely vocal about the dangers of flipping and the harm it does to artists. That’s not the art world I want to live in. The gallery is also very vigilant about selling to people whose intentions are pure and coming from the right place. There are plenty of speculators and people who listen and buy according to hype, and those are not the kind of people I choose to deal with. I only work with collectors who want to truly support artists, and buy work because they find it interesting, compelling, and creative.
AMM: What is the contemporary art scene like in New York right now?
BM: Wonderful! For me New York is still the most interesting city for art and galleries.
AMM: You are heavily involved in promoting the work of your artists in art fairs. We have heard it said that you love going to them even though when working you receive some rather odd questions and requests, which amused us when we spotted them in your Instagram stories! Can you take us through the preparation that takes place? How far ahead do you plan?
BM: I do love art fairs! As exhausting as they can be, they’re a real opportunity to meet people, show work to new collectors and curators, and also to see colleagues from around the world. I really love making sales, the adrenaline and rush of a fair. I also love the art world community and the chance to spend time with other dealers in that environment. Planning takes a long time, and often applications for fairs are open not long after the recent edition finishes. We plan our fair programming for the year ahead very well in advance; logistical preparations begin months in advance. There’s a lot that goes into it—designing the booth, asking artists for work, deciding what would make sense to bring. Travel arrangements, shipping, hiring an install and deinstall crew. We try and make our booths interesting and to have a curatorial angle to them; for us they’re not just a commercial thing, but an opportunity to really present the heart of the gallery and to do something intriguing—so there’s a lot of considered thought and planning that goes into that as well.
It’s funny, people really love that Instagram series that I do about dumb questions I get asked at art fairs. It actually started a few years ago when I was temporarily working the front desk of the gallery because we were understaffed before Christmas. I hadn’t done reception work in years and had forgotten the kinds of questions you get, so I thought it was funny to post some of them. That evolved to the art fairs. It’s always a joke among dealers that the fair is over when you get asked if you’re the artist, but there are a lot of other totally bizarre and unexpected questions that come too. I love what I do and I think it’s really important to show all aspects of it and create some levity and comradery.
AMM: Do you believe there are presently too many art fairs?
BM: Yes! We’ve had to cut back on how many we do per year, it’s too many and it exhausts both us and our artists.
AMM: Is there more pressure on artists in general to make what could be seen as more saleable work for art fairs, for example?
BM: That’s maybe a pressure they might feel themselves, or perceive that as something they should supposedly do, but I would never tell an artist what to make or not to make, or to do something because it would sell. That’s never the reason to make work! I actively discourage artists from feeling that pressure or catering to expectations to do something just for a commercial reason.
AMM: How important is social media in your work as Director?
BM: Social media is increasingly important in the art world. I’ve sold work over Instagram, but I generally, personally, like to use it as a way to connect with people. I like that it democratizes the art world in a way, and it can also be a tool to educate, and create interesting insights and conversations with people you might never otherwise meet. I enjoy posting about behind the scenes things, or different aspects of the gallery world. For a lot of people my life and work may seem impenetrable, or glamorous, or like something completely foreign. But I like to give a full picture because I really love what I do and I think that sharing multiple aspects makes everything more interesting, honest, and enjoyable for people. And more accessible too.
AMM: We are so delighted that you have been able to curate a selection for our Issue 15 of ArtMaze Mag. Thank you! Can you tell us about your approach to curating? How has it evolved over time?
BM: Thank you for having me! It was really fun, and I’ve never gone through an open call like that before, so it was also a really great learning experience for me, and a huge opportunity to see a broad range of work I never would have!
My approach to curating is always to just do good work. I try not to have specific parameters or ideas—I think that being open is really important, and that when you see work and you believe in it, you show it because it deserves to be seen. I don’t want to bring a preconceived notion or concept to anything, or to seek to find things that fit an idea I’ve already formed. I like to let ideas just come naturally and out of the art itself. I keep a running list of show titles or recurring themes I am interested in. I want to simply and honestly look at and understand an artist’s work. Then from there think about what it relates to, or what might make for an interesting concept or context in which to show it. It’s evolved as I see more work and go through different experiences with each show I do. I’ve learned to trust my gut a lot more, and to shut out the pressure to do something for reasons other than love of the work.
AMM: What advice would give to anyone hoping to work as a curator?
BM: You have to go on a lot of studio visits! Listen to the artists and to the work. Most importantly though I would say, only do work that you are proud to put your name on—and do it because you want to and truly believe in it. It’s not easy, especially when you’re starting out. You might feel obligated to do something, or pressured to do something that doesn’t quite feel right, because it seems like you should just be doing anything you can. You have to find your voice, and not follow trends. At the end of the day, the only thing you have is your name and your integrity, and you shouldn’t compromise that for anything. It took me a while to learn that.
AMM: You have a very busy schedule. When you manage to grab some down time what do you like to do?
BM: Down time? What’s down time?! Only kidding.
I like to do yoga, I try to do that once or twice a week. If and when I find free time, I honestly just like to spend it at home, spacing out, tidying up my apartment, cuddling out with my cat, watching movies. I have a few spots in my neighborhood that I like to hang out in and read. You’ll also catch me grabbing a drink, swapping stories about the art world and decompressing with some fellow art dealers. Nothing terribly exciting!
AMM: Do you have your own art collection? If so, we’d love to hear about your favourite piece.
BM: I do have my own art collection! I live in a really small apartment and it’s just about filled up now. I don’t think I could pick a favorite—that’s like picking a favorite kid or something! All of them are meaningful to me, and really special. I buy a lot from the gallery—I truly love the program, and even when I go home I’m still somehow at work! Collecting is really important to me, and I think it also informs my work because I know what it is to be a collector, and to have “skin in the game” as they say. I don’t come from money so every piece I’ve bought has been because I saved for it and really wanted it. I’m very lucky to own the things I do. Maybe some highlights? Julie Curtiss, Chris Martin, Ruby Neri, Loie Hollowell, Kathy Bradford, Arthur Peña, Wilhelm Sasnal, Cynthia Talmadge, Alice Tippit, David Byrd, Kari Cholnoky, David Shrigley, Nicole Eisenman, Antone Konst.
AMM: Are you able to share news of upcoming projects and events at Anton Kern, and in your own curatorial work?
BM: The next exhibitions at Anton Kern are Richard Hughes, “The Great Perhaps” and Chris Martin, “1979-1994”. I’m really excited for both of them. At some point next year my colleagues and I will curate a show at the gallery, but we’re still working on the schedule. In my own personal curatorial work, I’m hoping to do something with the artist Craig Drennen very soon. I think he’s an absolute genius and we’ve been trying to make a show happen for a while. It looks like 2020 will finally be the year.
AMM: What do you hope will be happening in your art life five years ahead?
BM: I hope and think I’ll still be working for Anton. I joke with him that he’s stuck with me for life. I’m very dedicated to him and to the program and the artists. I really could not ask for a better or more meaningful job. I hope in the next five years that I make great things happen for our artists and the gallery. I’d also like to keep growing my collection.
Find out more about Brigitte Mulholland: www.brigittemulholland.com
Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.