In Conversation with Catinca Tabacaru: Bringing a Fresh and Global Agenda to the Lower East Side
Catinca Tabacaru owns and operates one of the hottest downtown galleries in New York City. Period. Committed to pushing thought-provoking art and steeped in a global perspective, her namesake gallery presents thriving artists addressing and exploring gender, identity, technology, spirituality, politics, existentialism, etc Through dynamic gallery programming like artist talks and performances, to producing crowd-engaging experiences at art fairs, to building a compelling social media strategy, Catinca Tabacaru has carved out a leading place on the Lower East Side art scene. I chat with the ever-busy gallerist on what makes her space so unique.
Check out Sophia Wallace's 'OVER AND OVER AND OVER' currently on view until June 25,2016.
Gallery Gurls: Prior to your entry into the art world, your background was rooted in human rights advocacy and social justice, what led you to transition into the New York contemporary art landscape?
Catinca Tabacaru: It was certainly a process. When I came out of the law I thought about what I was good at. My answers were: writing and art. I didn't think I was old enough to write anything of note just yet, so I started walking around the NYC galleries and see if anyone would give me an internship. It's almost funny to me now, looking for an unpaid internship when my alternative was a six digit salary at a law firm... but, I had to start somewhere. I met Johnny Leo of Leo Kesting Gallery which was located on Gansevoort at the time. Long story short, he brought me in and that's where I learned about curating, lighting, hanging, and the not so fancy life of a contemporary art dealer. I remember David Kesting saying, "Tinc, go hang that wall with Jason's [Douglas Griffin] pieces. So I did. It looked pretty good. I was hooked. This was in September and in December that year, David and Johnny took me to Miami where they organized the annual Fountain Art Fair, a dirty, dingy, authentic and brilliant collection of urban artists and dealers that every collector wanted to be at. This might be an exaggeration, but it certainly felt that way and most people I speak to today certainly remember it with the same rose colored glasses on. Nothing like it has existed since... we're talking 6-day stings of naked Estonian performers sitting in an elevated glass sauna type of level. (Grace Exhibition Space, who dominated the performance art scene at Fountain is in Bushwick still very much alive - do not miss these Friday night events!)
After painting a few walls I was convinced that I should have my own space within the fair and because the universe usually gives you what you need, after a few days of pleading my case, Johnny and David agreed to give me a closet. I tackled that space like it was my first born baby and everyone helped. Joe Heaps Nelson drilled into the concrete walls so I could hang the four works I had asked my favorite artist at the time for. Dave Tree helped me clamp flood lights to a 2x4 and hang it from the ceiling; and Sergio Coyote taught me how to paint... yes, that's the level I was at. I had so much support and love thrown my way that I felt powerful and encouraged. And it worked! I sold a piece, a small Christian Dore painting that I remember clear as day to this day.
From that moment, it was a domino effect, each step I took led me to the next marker. That Fountain Miami exhibit gave me the confidence to volunteer for the NYCLU after hearing the organization threw an annual benefit called Just Art. I was a curator (fake it till you make it baby!) and so I would curate the 2010 event. Six months later, I put on a 21-artist exhibition commenting on four issues the NYCLU was concerned with last year. Tully Hedley of Hedley's Inc. installed the whole thing for me and once again, it was a success with hundreds of people in attendance, great reviews and much of the artwork selling to benefit the Union... George Lepauw came to that exhibit and later invited me to be the Art Director of his newly formed Beethoven Festival in Chicago. I did that for three years. Etc.
I've come to realize that life helps those who put their minds to something and work relentlessly to achieve it.
"I breath and eat my gallery and take pleasure in every success, no matter how small... honestly, I even take pleasure in the failures because they always teach me something, or at least annoy me enough to either try harder or try an alternative route."
Your gallery promotes a strong global perspective, from Shinji Murakami to Charly and Chill to the two-part Zig Zag Zim series, how do you shape the culturally diverse programming for the gallery?
I follow my heart, my nose and that magical rabbit that seems to know the way. Being a gallerist, a dealer, a curator, whatever box someone might try to fit me into, is much like being an artist. The real trick is to be authentic so that you are unique in all the world. I try to stay as close to my instincts as possible. I do what excites me and what I believe supports the artists who I love and respect.
My specific experiences and interests obviously affect the direction. It's no surprise that I packed my bags and moved to Zimbabwe for a month to live in the bush with three of our gallery artists and ten local artists. I've lived in Africa while a human rights attorney and the continent fascinates me. It's the most rich in tradition and magic. But even that adventure started by listening to what excited me. I walked into the Zimbabwe Pavilion during the 2013 Venice Biennial and fell in love with Virginia Chihota's work. From that point, Zimbabwe kept popping up and I kept listening to the signs... while it took quite a bit of patience, perseverance and organization, it started with a feeling, an attraction. It was pure. Now, that Art Residency we started has taken shape as a museum show hanging in the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. That's pretty cool too.
"The real trick is to be authentic so that you are unique in all the world. I try to stay as close to my instincts as possible. "
Artsy recently heralded the Lower East Side as the most important art district in New York, talk to me about your position and the gallery community in this burgeoning area.
The LES is hip. If you want to take risks and be experimental, while still being able to sell enough work to keep both you and your artists fed, this is certainly the place to be. Still, with 150+ galleries around, you will find a bit of everything. It makes the hunt exciting. But remember, like all empires, the LES will one day fall as well.
I imagine there are challenges to managing your enterprise, tell me about them.
The overhead can be crippling, especially when dealing in emerging artists whose prices are still low. Galleries like mine, which break out artists by giving them their first solo shows face the additional challenge of convincing a fickle art market that a not-yet-validated-by-the-powers-that-be artist is worth its attention and investment.
In the summer of 2015 you executed an Artist Residency in Zimbabwe, which seems like such a curatorially invigorating experience, can you share its premise and mission? and will it be ongoing?
Yes, the Residency is ongoing. This coming summer we'll be heading to Newfoundland to execute A Project For The Wind. It is an idea inspired by Islandinc artist Sigurdur Gudmundsson's work by the same name from the 1970s. Evan's Point in Newfoundland is known for its strong winds. The artists, this time being Joe Brittain, Rachel Monosov, Terrence Musekiwa and Justin Orvis Steimer, will be making works in collaboration with the wind. The known result will be an exhibition at the gallery in 2017. I don't know what else will happen. Something good I'm sure.
I suggest reading about the inaugural Zimbabwe Residency here as it was a journey of a lifetime. In a nutshell, the goal was to grow beyond that which we new. To experience a people, a culture and an art world that we were wholly unfamiliar with. At one point before going, we were even talking about mocking our own search for the exotic. But it turned out to be so much more than all of these ideas. We found a home. We set down roots. We connected with a group of artist that I have no doubt will be world renowned as they ripen. That's the thing about unknown places, both physical and metaphorical, you don't know what you don't know, and you certainly can't predict how you'll come out on the other side. The trick is to go in fearlessly, with an open heart willing to learn and adapt, and accept what is given to you with grace.
My mission? Our mission? It's somewhere between entertaining ourselves and giving all we can to the world.