Interview conducted by Emily Tallo
Monika Proffitt doesn’t just speak quickly: she articulates. Even during the typical pre-interview chatter, her words possess the cosmopolitan confidence that summarizes New York. It surprises me to learn that she is from the other coast, Seattle to be precise, but everything makes sense again when she tells me that she is moving to the Big Apple in just a week. New York City, of course, contains the most visual artists in the United States, and it is where most of the major happenings in the North American art world take place. Ms. Proffitt is an artist herself, but her outlook on the art world is awfully business-like. Perhaps this is a necessity: she has become an advocate for that often-overlooked category of artist: the emerging artist. She is the director of two programs, an artist residency program called the Starry Night Retreat Program, and the new artist exposure program called the Starry Night Exposure program. She selected Anastas to be part of the exposure program, which in turn allowed him to participate in the Select Fairs New York and Miami—two huge steps forward for the US Project.
Read on to hear the story of the Starry Night Exposure program and her thoughts on how emerging artists like Anastas should market themselves.
Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do with the Starry Night Exposure Program.
The Starry Night Exposure Program really was born of my curiosity. I went to Art Basel Miami and I attended the main convention fair as well as a lot of satellite fairs. I went basically looking for examples of myself there—other emerging artists. I didn’t see them. I started to wonder why: it seemed like a no brainer that there would be really amazing cutting edge art happening by individual artists that are emerging or may be in emerging art markets, such as with Anastas. They’re not present in these large art fairs or they would really get the kind of exposure and views that they deserve. So I went around to all the fairs and I saw that the Select Fair was really showcasing the kind of work that I felt was a good fit for my aesthetic and also just a program that I saw really flourishing. So I approached them and I said, “Hey I see what you’re doing and I really want to be involved but I want to put a call out for artists basically and curate a show. Here is my catalogue of all the artists that have come to the residency. They’re fantastic. I run a really great program but I want to make this new exhibitions program. Will you work with me?” And they said yes! So we were able to partner with them and curate not one but two rooms in their fair. Anastas and Michelangelo essentially applied to my call for artists when I was looking for really top notch emerging artists who really would do the best getting this kind of exposure at such a huge international level within the United States. So I accepted Anastas, of course, and worked with the two of them to sort of put together a show of his work alongside many other artists. That’s sort of how the Starry Night Exposure program was born.
Why did you select Anastas to be part of your program?
I was looking for very engaging contemporary work and by emerging artists by that I don’t mean just young artists. I mean artists that haven’t necessarily gotten the attention that their work merits just yet but were on that cusp. His work definitely looked like it was part of a larger contemporary movement. The fact that he was geographically challenged in the sense that he was not in the states and networking in the states helped to explain why work of his caliber was not yet received and fully
integrated into the contemporary art dialogue within the US.
Can you elaborate on why Anastas hasn’t been received just yet?
I think it is just geography. Anastas hasn’t been in the states very long and it takes a long time to get the connections and to get the exposure and programs like mine are designed to open that door for artists and help to propel them forward faster. It is not uncommon for artists to look at the trajectory of their career and see that it’s going to be a marathon and not a sprint. Oftentimes that marathon is pretty local in the sense that if you’re working in New York and you’re running your marathon there then you’re going to make all your connections in that particular pool and that will go in one direction. That will be something that is pretty New York-referential, although New York is a pretty good springboard for beyond that, which is why I am excited that Anastas and Michelangelo chose to expand their engagement with the exposure program when we were in Frieze New York this last year because that’s a really important fair, especially considering the saturation of visual artists and people involved in contemporary art in New York. But the fact that the overwhelming majority of the “marathon” that Anastas has been running has been in Bulgaria means that he was not even engaged in the US market and so therefore the US market couldn’t have known about him. That marathon now has a different chapter, and that’s the American chapter, which is why the US Project is so exciting.
As you’ve said, Anastas isn’t the typical emerging artist. He’s unique in that he’s older, he has three decades of work behind him, and he is fairly successful already in Europe. How should an artist like Anastas try to build a reputation in the North American art market? Can we convey those things or is it a matter of starting over?
I don’t think it’s a matter of starting over. I think it’s a matter of packing everything he’s already done appropriately, leveraging it forward, continuing to engage in whatever way possible, and looking at how many people you can touch with each impression. So, for example, if Anastas had one solo show in Pittsburgh, that is definitely a good thing. It’s in the United States. Depending on who curated it and where it was located, there’s a lot to be had there. Depending on the marketing and the advertising that came along with that gallery affiliation, that’s a very powerful thing. But, looking at the number of impressions you can get and the number of people that will actually see the work, it is important for him to be in different geographies and different cities. We’re taking the exposure back to LA, we’re taking it back to Miami—these are important things because, like I said, most people run their marathons in their own city. That makes them locally relevant, and their career often has some resonance in that city after they’ve paid a lot of dues. But for Anastas, it’s especially important for him to move around and to establish that his conversation with the United States is not based in one city. It’s based in the North American art market in general, so having a show on the West Coast, on the East Coast, in Chicago, in Miami, all of these places where you’re going to get the highest traffic possible is important. And the most serious traffic also—you could have an art show in your grandmother’s basement and invite all your friends, but what you want is for people you don’t know to come, engage with your work, fall in love with it, and really commit to you as an artist.
Tell me about the Select Fairs Miami and New York. How do you think these events helped the goals of the US Project?
The Select Fair Miami is a few years old now and it is run by these two really amazing go-getter curators and working artists themselves. Not a lot of fair owners are working artists themselves so I find that the Select Fair is really relevant in that it doesn’t just go through a curatorial filter, it goes through a working artist filter as well. I find that this makes the work that they select and that they showcase in the Select Fair to be more engaging and to have a bit more relevance within the dialogue of contemporary art. When it comes to the New York fair, it’s the same guys running it so I’ve basically just partnered with them and I see them doing their fairs in two different locations—I’m hoping they’ll expand to LA but they haven’t yet. I think that going to Art Miami and also engaging in the New York Frieze Week was a no-brainer because they’re already based in New York, they already have all these connections, so many people that go to the Select Fair Miami are from New York, so it was a lot more convenient for many people and it seemed to us to be a no-brainer to also get on board with that. Anastas made a lot of connections in New York. We made a very large impression with a huge wall of 11 pieces of Anastas’ work. Because of the location of it, it was definitely showcased the most highly; we were able to give him the most press. But it is very hard to track that data of how that directly related to the US Project in the short term, because it’s sort of a marathon. This was just one huge impression on tens of thousands of visitors who came through the fair this last year, and over a hundred thousand who came to Art Basel Miami.
What is it about his work that makes him so singular?
It’s very narrative. Clearly, even though it’s abstract, once you understand the language and you really sit with the pieces I think you can see it’s an extraordinarily narrative form of abstract art. That’s really uncommon in my experience to see that there is such a story to be told. Sometimes that is minimally referenced in the title choices that he makes, but ultimately when I look at the mastery of materials that he executes, I can see that it’s a not a huge leap to understand his language and to engage and to see that there is a plethora of stories being told within that. Those stories have so much to do with his experience as a Bulgarian artist, as a workingman, and I find it to be really well executed and not only in its singularity, but that there is such a huge number of works that he has done over the course of decades. It really shows a huge dedication and well-executed craft.
Thank you, Monika, for sharing your thoughts!