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Getting Into the Gallery with Kristen Chiacchia

NEW YORK, NY – There are many paths to success. But which ones best serve the hordes of hopefuls trying to break into the world of fine art? While the old adage about any goal requiring hard work and good luck is undoubtedly true, a word or two of advice never hurt anybody. We catch up with Kristen Chiacchia (as seen in photo 1 and photo 2 with artist Erik Beneson), the Director of Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art (a gallery specializing in American and European Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art) who sheds some light on the impenetrable mysteries of the art world for those looking to work in it—or to have their work celebrated by it.

thalo: Did you always know you wanted to work in an art gallery? What's your educational and employment background?

Kristen Chiacchia: I have a BA in the History of Art and Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh and a Masters in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University. After working at the Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art gallery (seen in photos 3 - 5) for six years or so, I went back to school and earned a certificate in Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts from New York University. 

I was originally an English Literature major. As part of the university's liberal arts curriculum, I was required to take either an art or a music class. My adviser asked if I'd rather listen to music or look at art. The idea of an art history class sounded much more appealing to me so I enrolled in an Intro to Art History class and fell in love. By the end of the first lecture I knew that I wanted to do something art related, and one of my art history professors steered me towards the idea of working in a gallery. I did my first internship the summer after my sophomore year of college in New York City at Holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo. After my internship and getting a taste of living in NYC, I decided that some day I was going to move here and work in an art gallery.

th: How did your experiences prepare you for your position at Edward Tyler Nahem?

KC: I didn't really have much experience in the art world at all. I was originally hired by Edward Tyler Nahem as an unpaid intern. I think my internship for a big name like Holly Solomon and being a graduate student at Columbia University got the attention of the gallery. I was in school and working part-time in retail at the time when I applied to a good number of galleries whose programs and stables of artists interested me. Holly Solomon Gallery was a primary market art gallery—meaning the art came directly from the artist or by way of the artist's gallery—it was nothing like Edward Tyler Nahem.

th: Why's that?

KC: We're mostly a secondary market art gallery. For instance, we may get a work on consignment from a client who wants to sell a painting they may have acquired from the artist directly or from a gallery, but we are re-selling it for them.

So my experience at Holly Solomon didn't really prepare me for what I was doing. However once I started at this gallery, I was very ambitious. I knew that I wanted a job there and worked extremely hard and after a very short period of time I was doing work in the gallery beyond what any intern would normally be required to do. I asked questions and kept my eyes and ears open.  The staff off in the gallery was quite small so I was able to see and hear absolutely everything that was going on in every aspect of the business and I learned a tremendous amount this way.

th: So what is the process like for finding new artists for the gallery—is it an active search?

KC: There is no specific process for finding new artists to exhibit at the gallery, since we specialize in the secondary art market. But we have been working on expanding our primary art market, so it is an active, albeit informal search. 

th: Okay, this is important: if I'm an artist who's got a substantial body of work but it's all just wasting away in my studio, how do I make the jump to infiltrate the gallery system? Is it really all who you know?
KC: There is no one answer to this question. From my vantage point and my own experiences, yes, success in the art world is sometimes dictated by who you know. There are hundreds of thousands of artists all competing for the attention of thousands of galleries. It's difficult for people to get noticed and who you know definitely helps you stand out and get attention initially. Once you have the attention of a gallery your body of work will speak for itself. 

On the other hand, primary market artists that we show at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art are mostly artists who the gallery's owner has admired and even personally collected over the years. For instance, gallery artist Erik Benson first caught Edward Nahem's attention when he was showing at the gallery Roebling Hall.  Edward purchased some of Erik's work and started following his career. When Roebling Hall closed a few years ago and Erik was looking for a new gallery, Edward approached him about showing with our gallery and offered him an exhibition at ETNFA. 

I think this scenario also goes back to what makes ETNFA stand apart from other galleries. This is another example of Edward only taking on artists that he really cares about and has a real interest in—beyond just a financial interest. 

Th: Speaking of financial interests, in your opinion, should artists be conscious of economic consideration with their work?

KC: I think artists should just "do their art." I don't think an artist should let an economic position dictate their aesthetic.  Their work could become forced and insincere.  You shouldn't make a certain kind of art because you think it is going to make you money.

th: From all you've gathered in your position, are there any traits or trends that turn galleries off from a particular artist's work? Any general rules or red flags?

KC: Even though our website states that we do not submit artist submissions, I receive solicitations from artists via e-mail and through the mail on a daily basis. Occasionally people will call or even go so far as to walk into the gallery, art in hand—that isn't appropriate for our gallery. This sort of behavior really turns me off. Do your research first! It's important for an artist to find a gallery where they will be a good fit as opposed to just any gallery that will take them. Another turn off is artists that have websites that are too busy and difficult to navigate. The works of art need to be able to stand out and speak for themselves when they are being presented online.  

All photos courtesy of Kristen Chiacchia