The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Katarina Wong is an artist, curator and entrepreneur based in NYC. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at El Museo Del Barrio in New York City, The Bronx Museum, the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, andFundacion Canal in Madrid, Spain. She has received numerous awards includingthe Cintas Fellowship for Cuban and Cuban-American artists and a Pollock-Krasner grant, as well as residencies atSkowhegan; Ucross Foundation; Ragdale Foundation; and the Kunstlerhaus in Salzberg, Austria. In addition to maintaining an active studio practice, Katarina is also the founder and curator ofMADE, an art consulting firm dedicated to making art collecting social. Previously, she was the Director of Curatorial and Community Engagement at Edelman, the largest global PR firm, where she started their corporate art collection and in-house art gallery, as well as developed and managed their community outreach programs.
We caught up at her studio in Chelsea to discuss her career as an artist and entrepreneur and her advice for creative professionals.
Brett Wallace: What first inspired you to become an artist?
Katarina Wong: My introduction to making art was through my father. When I was around three-years old, my father was a graphic designer, and he would give me pencils, brushes and paints to keep me occupied. As I grew up, though, I found that making art was a way to understand the world.
BW: How would you best describe your work? What is your artistic mission?
KW: I love seeing how an idea changes as it moves from one discipline to another, but I basically try to follow my discomfort – the annoying “what ifs” and “why” questions that stick in my craw. I let the investigation inform the medium I use. Most importantly, exploring these questions produces an addictive cocktail of curiosity, expansiveness and humor with a dash of terror for good measure – all things I’m hoping to communicate in my work.
Photo of Katarina working in her Chelsea studio
BW: Who or what inspires you?
KW: I’m particularly fond of the Chuck Close quote,
Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work”.
And, also what Jasper Johns said about making art,
Take an object, do something to it. Do something else to it.”
For me, inspiration is most immediately found in the process of making, in being present, and letting the process lead me.
BW: How has culture influenced your work?
KW: I often draw on my own family’s cultures – my mother is Cuban and my father Chinese. They separately came to the U.S. from their home countries, so my sisters and I are the first generation to be born in the U.S. While I desire to belong to each of these cultures equally, I also feel like I’m not “fully” Cuban, Chinese, or even American at times. A few years after I got my MFA, I went back to school to get a Master in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. I wanted to explore longing, absence, and transformation specifically in Buddhism. This led to my Fingerprint Project, for which I collected molds of friends’ fingerprints, cast them in wax and arranged them in migratory patterns in a series of site-specific installations. In a recent series of ceramics called Lechon, I made a series of pig heads – pigs are important to both Chinese and Cuban cultures, which I covered in blue and white imagery taken from traditional Chinese landscapes and porcelain decoration. I want to make work that, to borrow a line from Federico García Lorca, “floats between contrary equilibriums.”
Photo of ceramic sculpture from the Lechon series. Photo: Katarina Wong
BW: Over your career, you've developed a strong curatorial practice. How are being an artist and curator related? Which skills do they uniquely require?
I was curious to see how other artists were dealing with similar issues or themes in their studio so I started curating independent exhibitions as an extension of how I approach my own work. I approach curating as a way to create a nuanced conversation. The importance of playing with ideas in a communal way was instilled in me at St. John’s College. St. John’s is a mandatory program dedicated to exploring the “Great Books” of Western culture solely through discussion and writing. Guiding a good conversation is a delicate thing, and good curation requires similar skills in order to create a visual dialogue that engages the viewer.
BW: As the founding curator for Edelman, what did you most learn from your curatorial projects there? What do you think employees learned from interacting with the art that was exhibited?
KW: When Edelman moved from its former location in Times Square to a renovated printing house in Lower Manhattan, it was an opportunity for the leadership team to re-think everything, from how people could work together better to what should be on the walls. To address the latter issue, I curated a collection of art displayed throughout the floors that explored various communications systems (e.g., within the body, that make up a city, that inform individual identity) to reflect the company’s business focus and be inspiring and thought provoking. It was a terrific project – I had license to combine pieces by emerging and recognized artists with work by data scientists and information designers. When I created their in-house gallery, I focused on curating exhibitions about art at the intersection of communications, social media, and emerging technologies. This was a perfect opportunity to discover artists and share exciting new work with employees and clients. We also showed exhibitions highlighting employees’ personal creative work. It was so great to see the wide range of talents from across groups and levels within Edelman.
Photo of "Sly", an exhibition at the Bronx Museum curated by Katarina. Photo: Katarina Wong
BW: Tell us about MADE and what inspired you to found the company. Which skills came most into play to kickstart MADE?
KW: After 13 years at Edelman, I left last year to focus more on my studio work. I also wanted to explore some related business ideas that had been percolating for a while, so my time at Edelman also gave me invaluable business experience to draw on – creating strategic community engagement programs and events, forecasting and managing corresponding budgets, social media engagement programs, website development, and of course marketing. When combined with my background as an artist, independent curator, corporate art advisor and gallerist, as well as having taught art at the university level, I realized I had a special skill set that could translate into a business. I also started paying attention to barriers I heard – people talking about how they wanted to learn about and live with art but didn’t know how to find art; people who didn’t know how to develop or trust their taste; conversations about feeling intimidated in traditional galleries.
MADE was born out of all of this. Part of the model is focused on helping new
collectors discover notable artists through intimate, inviting events. Our more bespoke art consulting services includes helping companies incorporate art in their spaces as a powerful differentiator.
Photo from a MADE event, Tribeca, April 2015. Photo: Gabriel Cosma Photography
BW: As a first time founder, what was the biggest challenge for you?
KW: I think one of the more interesting challenges is to reframe the conversation about owning art. For those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s obvious that life is fuller when it incorporates art. But for others, art has the burden of being perceived as an unattainable luxury item. For new collectors, galleries are often seen as intimidating; the work can be challenging and therefore requiring a learning curve; and business practices aren’t always transparent. Buying art starts to feel like a joyless chore compared to, say, buying an Apple Watch. I want to help collectors experience art as hugely invigorating and meaningful, and I would argue that buying art is the culmination of an exciting and disciplined process of personal discovery. There’s also great satisfaction in knowing you’re investing in and supporting artists who are shaping and defining our culture.
Artist Nancy Baker talking about her work at a MADE event. Photo: Katarina Wong
BW: What is the best leadership advice you've received?
KW: My friend, artist and entrepreneur Crista Cloutier says this great thing in her business program for artists: “No one is coming to save you.” That can feel like a splash of cold water on your face, but it’s also hugely empowering to know you have it within yourself to create the vision, as well as the courage and will to make it happen.
BW: Which leaders, artists or curators do you most admire?
KW: I’m a big believer in artists creating their own opportunities – what’s the saying? “A rising tide lifts all boats,” so I really admire other artists who are creating new paths for themselves and helping other artists on the way. Robert Walden and Henry Chung, the co-founders of Robert Henry Contemporary; Ellen Hackl Fagan, owner of Odetta Gallery; Susan Jennings and Slink Moss, co-founders of LABspace, and of course Joe Ahmrein, founder of the influentialPierogi Gallery are just some of the many artists who have smart galleries and strong art practices.
BW: Based on your learning’s in founding MADE, what advice would you have for other creative professionals looking to start a business from the ground up?
KW: Be aware of what you don’t know and educate yourself; find a mentor and create a network of people you can go to for advice (but don’t be needy); create a business plan (yes, really); make sure you have the emotional support of those closest to you; distinguish between the things you really need to care about and the stuff that you needn’t bother with – it’s easy to chase your tail when starting a business; and finally, and equally importantly, be generous by sharing information,finding ways to collaborate when appropriate, and generally being supportive.
BW: What's coming up next for you?
KW: I’m headed to Cuba this month for the Havana Biennial. I was there in January meeting with artists and curators, so I’m excited to see their projects come to life. The mission of the biennial is to focus on art from the developing world, so I’m eager to discover work that may not be easy to find in the US or Europe.
I’m also working on MADE’s booth at the Sluice Art Fair in London this October during Frieze week. I’m curating work by Beth Dary, Susan Chrysler White and Travis LeRoy Southworth around the theme “Surface Tensions,” an investigation into the physical and emotional tensions we create for ourselves, others, and our environment. Each of the artists explores the push and pull between intention and accident; attraction and repulsion; and constructive and destructive interventions.
In the studio, I’m working a new series of paintings, so a headline is a little early. I post images of work in progress on my studio page.