Spotlight Interview: Kristen Becker

Kristen Becker: Director of Museum Engagement, Marianne Boesky Gallery

New York City

WFU Class of 2000

Double Major: Anthropology & Archaeology

kristen becker.jpeg

Kristen Becker is a shining example of blazing your own career trail. Working for Marianne Boesky as Director of Museum Engagement, the New Jersey native explains her unique gallery role and the path she's taken to arrive there.

 

DeacLink: How did you end up in your current role? It looks like you’ve had some interesting positions in New York with a variety of organizations.

Kristen Becker: I had been working in the arts for 15 years before I developed my current role, which is called Director of Museum Engagement. My career had been going down a traditional path- I was a gallery assistant for 4 years, did some archive work, moved on to assistant director, and then became a director in 2009. I was doing sales and serving as an artist liaison and I really enjoyed working directly with artists. Over time though, I realized that my best day at work involved getting the work of gallery artists placed in museums and institutions around the world. While selling to a private collector felt great, there was something uniquely gratifying about knowing the piece in the museum would have its own legacy with the public and I wanted to focus on this as my next job.

 

DL: Director of Museum Engagement is quite the interesting title. Would you mind telling us about your role at Marianne Boesky Gallery. How have things changed since you came on board in 2014?

KB: I pitched the museum role idea to two different gallery owners who loved the concept but still wanted me to be a salesperson and work with artists. Unfortunately, I knew well that this partial structure meant I would be sidetracked by the day-to-day needs of artists and the larger goals of institutional placement would be secondary. When I approached Marianne Boesky with the job idea she understood its potential immediately. Before I started working for Marianne there was no one on her staff whose entire role focused on long-term strategy. There were some amazing salespeople and artist liaisons on the team, but no one dealt solely with museum relationships until I joined the team.

In the past three and a half years my job has gone through subtle changes and iterations because it is not a traditional gallery role. My boss and I have forged a great path together because she supports the unique perspective I give and we are figuring this role out together. We sit down together often to share ideas and brainstorm new opportunities, and if I am leaning too far in one direction she brings me back to where my efforts should be concentrated. Sometimes our overarching discussions can seem a bit abstract but I am lucky to work for a boss who thinks big and challenges me while still allowing me a lot of freedom to try something new. I look at big picture goals while fully respecting the needs of our roster of artists. I spend a small portion of my day connecting with collectors and artists but my main focus is on developing relationships with museum directors, curators, educators, etc to learn about their organization and see if a gallery artist would be a good addition to their collection. I find that many wonderful colleagues (particularly at smaller institutions) appreciate the proactive outreach because they may have a small travel budget or may not be as knowledgeable about the full range of artists we represent. My style is one of collegiality and building community and people seem to respond to that natural approach.

The job itself has changed a great deal in the past few years. Museums and galleries often position themselves as adversaries, when in reality they need each other to do the best work for the artists. The space between the non-profit and commercial worlds gets smaller every day, and I find that we are all starting to really appreciate the unique position we each occupy. My first 2 years in the role were spent explaining what a Director of Museum Engagement was, but now that the dialogue between us has been opened up I am spending more time in collaboration with my museum peers since we know we are all on the same team. While there are still very few galleries that employ someone with the same job title as mine, more and more people are beginning to see how necessary it is to actively cultivate these relationships.

 

DL: At Wake, you studied Anthropology and Archaeology. How much involvement did you have with the art program? And how did you make the transition to the art world?

KB: I pursued a minor in Art History while at Wake and art always played a role in my interest in archaeology. I wanted to know more about the reasons why utilitarian objects so often possessed some artistic element or flourish. There exists a fascinating human impetus toward self-expression and the creation of form alongside function. Arriving on campus in 1996, it was as a particularly interesting time in the anthropology community. While I had never set out towards an anthropology degree because of social anthropology, I am beyond grateful that this was part of the program for my major. I feel that an understanding of other cultures has helped me develop a level of empathy that I would not possess if my classes had been focused exclusively on archaeology and its practice. This empathy has certainly made me better at working with artists as well as curators, collectors, vendors, etc, but it has also shaped how I approach most relationships.

In my senior year I took an Art History course on Modern art and found myself connecting strongly to the material. I had always been a passionate student when the subject moved me, but this level of engagement surprised even me. By this point in the year I had already started looking at graduate schools, so I widened the search to include Museum Studies Master’s Degree programs that would allow to me to choose either archaeology or art history as a core departmental focus. I had worked at the Museum of Anthropology throughout undergrad and helped run the lab during a dig my junior year so at the very least I knew that I wanted to be around the objects themselves, I just wasn’t sure in which context.

I chose to attend George Washington University’s Museum Studies program. I felt that being around the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall would be the perfect environment to continue my studies, and DC’s consortium of schools meant I could take classes at George Mason, Georgetown, American, etc, which opened up a wide curriculum. That modern art course at Wake had a strong effect on me and I decided on art history as my focus. A fellow student in my exhibition design class was focused on contemporary art, and conversations with her about our classes made me realize that most contemporary art classes never seemed to get to the most recent artists and their work. We would always get stuck on an artist beloved by the professor, or time would run out somehow and the class “1945 to the present” would always somehow end in 1980. I pitched a commercial art gallery internship to my Museum Studies advisor who allowed this exception because I explained that this was the only way to take my art history in to the present. I interned for a year and a half for Laurie Adamson at David Adamson Gallery. She was an exceptional boss, and because our team was small I learned how to run a business from hanging the artwork to doing mailings to helping with client presentations. I had never heard of the gallery system before and this was a terrific crash course.

 

DL: How have you found the different jobs and internships you've had? Applications? Networking? A combination of both?

KB: After graduate school I still had a second internship to complete, and this time my advisor (understandably!) mandated that it be at a museum considering it was a Museum Studies program. I moved back to New Jersey and secured a role in New York City in the development office at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. This internship lasted for the summer but set many opportunities in motion. My colleague there knew that I was hoping to end up in the contemporary gallery world and she connected me to her then-boyfriend who owned a mid-century design shop in Chelsea. I worked for him and his business partner for 5 months while I sought out a gallery job. Not only did their aesthetic shape my understanding of design, but their willingness to provide me with a flexible work schedule meant I could do interviews and go see galleries without feeling guilty. Keep in mind, I was living at home with my parents at this time so I had a definite motivation to find something permanent!

This was 2002 and very few gallery owners were using email, so I walked through Chelsea door to door with a giant stack of letters in my purse. Each one was addressed to the individual gallery and its owner, and because it is a visual industry I created a little bit of branding material that included my business card. This business card listed my name, my contact information, and my degree. That was it! I still keep one of these business cards in my wallet as a reminder of those first days starting out and also my art world friends really get a kick out of seeing what is now a pretty dated record of my enthusiasm.

The director of Gorney Bravin + Lee responded positively to my moxie and was impressed that I was spending my Saturdays doing these personal resume deliveries (as opposed to just mailing them), so she spoke to one of the partners and I had an interview which then led to my first real gallery job in New York. I worked as a gallery assistant at GB+L for a little over two years, at which time the gallery closed. Because the closing was public, I started getting phone calls asking me what my next step would be. I had been a diligent gallery assistant and some people had taken notice, and this really helped me see myself as an asset. It really wasn’t until then that I realized how difficult it was for gallery owners to find competent, enthusiastic staff. Through these conversations and also through New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) postings, I landed a job at C+M Arts working for Robert Mnuchin doing archival research.

The jobs that followed came about through a combination of NYFA postings, professional connections, and word of mouth. In most cases the posting would be public but by the time I was 5 years in to my career in New York I usually knew someone connected to the hiring process and people will almost always prefer a recommendation over cold interviews. For someone early in their career, NYFA is still a fantastic resource.

 

DL:  The gallery space is an incredibly popular one for Wake alums. What advice do you have for readers interested in breaking into the field?

KB: Don’t give up! Know your limits! I worked at one gallery for such a short amount of time that it is not on my resume because I only stayed for two weeks. I responded to a New York Times job ad, this posting was one of the few that was actually for a gallery and I was beyond excited (most of the listings that included the word “art” were for dentist offices, as in “state of the art equipment”). The material was Latin American modern but I figured I was a quick study and I felt confident that I could do a great job once hired. The owner and I connected immediately, she was in her 70s and ran a bespoke space in a beautiful brownstone. It was a quiet but beautiful environment and I was eager to learn from her.

The day I arrived to start the job, I saw another woman in front of the gallery door. Turns out, the owner had hired both of us and thought perhaps she could use us in slightly different capacities…but in the end it felt more like a trial run. The owner fired the other woman on the second day, and each day I stayed I realized that her temperament was becoming progressively volatile. At the end of a typical work day we would chat about what had happened and what we would do the following day. One day I told her that someone asked us to authenticate a painting and was emailing us with images. She did not want to deal with this person and I assured her I would politely thank them for reaching out but that we were not able to assist. As our meeting progressed she grew increasingly agitated and kept coming back to the discussion about the email. I told her again I would handle it on her behalf and she responded by saying that she did not want the email at all, and she walked to my desk and turned off my computer…thinking that by turning off the machine we would not receive the message. This generational clash was minor but indicative of a larger issue I had already seen many times over in the few days I’d worked there. The next morning, we sat down and she said my job was now under supervision until she could trust me again. I responded by saying that perhaps this was a problem without a solution and that this should be my last day. We parted on decent terms and I left the gallery (in the middle of the day) totally devastated and walked to a pay phone to call my mom and tell her I was taking the bus home and I couldn’t hack it in a New York gallery.

I tell this story because it is such a short blip in my career but it is maybe the most important one. I wanted the job to work. I wanted my boss to see that I was smart and a hard worker. It just wasn’t the right fit. I could have easily taken that experience and let it dictate a decision to take a break or even leave the art world, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure what it was that allowed me to pick myself back up. I really hadn’t failed at anything important before and this was new and frightening territory. The support of my family, the time I spent working for a gallery in DC, the realization that I wanted to be in Chelsea where there was foot traffic and living artists---these facts all contributed to my ability to leave a toxic environment. After I got my job at GB+L I told the director there about my brief tenure uptown. She told me that every month the same New York Times posting is listed because the owner can never keep anyone in that job. I know 4 people who tried to work for that uptown gallery owner, and all stayed for less than a month. However, at the time I had no idea that she had a reputation for being so difficult. I thought I was the problem, and I am so glad I stuck with it. I’m so happy that I saw a problematic relationship and was able to leave before tying my self-worth to someone who needed constant drama.

 

DL: How do you like living in New York? What advice do you have for students trying to make a career in the city?

KB: I have lived here for 16 years and love New York! It is a wonderful place but it can be incredibly overwhelming because the options are limitless. There have been times in my life when I have briefly considered moving elsewhere, but London and Los Angeles don’t give me the same energy. Unfortunately, only a few cities have the level of gallery density that come close to NYC, and this pace has honestly always suited me well. I also grew up in New Jersey so this city has been “the City” for my entire life.

My advice: live with roommates, find friends who understand what it’s like to live here with little money. There are tons of things to do that don’t cost much but I know I was lucky because my friends were mostly poor too so I never really felt like I was missing out. Create your own community whether through other alumni, peers at your job, organizations or groups, etc. When I first started out I developed amazing relationships through the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), and now I am on the steering committee for the Professional Organization for Women in the Arts (POWarts) which tries to develop programming and tools for art professionals at different career stages. New York is feasible and wonderful if you find your own strategies to work with it not against it. I often compare it to a wave, some days you’re riding with the wave and sometimes you are fighting it but honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

DL: What do you think Wake arts could do to better prepare students for life after graduation?

KB: My path after college was not necessarily the one I had planned. I thought I would maybe end up with a PhD in Archaeology, so I am sure there are many resources the art department provides that didn’t happen to reach me. I think Wake’s reputation as a business school usually precedes all others, and when I graduated tales of the school’s academic rigor were still spreading to the Northeast. I was there during the era of Tim Duncan so our sports record was really the most popular topic. I conditioned myself to always say “Wake Forest, in North Carolina” and for the last 10 years or so that mention of the state has been really unnecessary. Our school is small but is well known and I am so proud of that association. The Student Union Art Acquisition Trip has certainly done wonders for the school’s reputation amongst gallerists. I have lots of friends and colleagues who have met with this group over the years, and they love telling me how focused and knowledgeable the students are as they assess their acquisition options. I think that one thing that might be beneficial to students would be to have past alumni working in the arts come to campus to talk about their career arc. The more you know about your job options and what exists out there the better prepared you are to find something that suits you and your skill set and interests. This network exists but the ties can certainly be stronger.

 

DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on to current students and recent alums?

KB: I spend a lot of time discussing the same two topics with recent graduates, and I talk about them at the same time because they seem opposite but are actually inextricably linked. The first conversation is about knowing your worth, advocating for what you deserve, and not staying in an environment that makes you uncomfortable. The second conversation is about working hard, accepting that no one owes you anything, realizing that your work should speak for itself, and expecting that being at a front desk reception position for over two years is totally normal. It is no one’s job to promote you for doing what you were hired to do, and if you know in advance that the art world is not lucrative in those first years you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration. The art world is a series of small businesses and each gallery owner follows his/her own rules for success. When you are applying for a gallery job you should of course look at the role and the gallery program, but also look at the corporate culture. I once turned down a job offer at one of the most famous galleries partly because I saw that all the women who worked there wore very high-end clothes I could never afford. I knew that I would do a great job in the role but I also knew that I wanted to be myself and feel proud of my background and what I had worked toward up to that point. I didn’t want to be embarrassed of my clothes or my lifestyle, and I got the sense that I would feel judged every time I walked in to work. There were other reasons I didn’t accept the job, but this realization definitely set the tone for the types of environments I’ve chosen to work in over the past 10 years. Ask yourself these questions when considering a gallery- Will you be comfortable with their level of professionalism? Are there peers at the gallery or will you be the only person your age and level of experience? Are there opportunities for mentorship if you stay there for more than a few years? Of course, when you are applying sometimes you Just. Need. A. Job. But if it’s possible to look a little longer term try and do that too, it will help you assess your next steps while still keeping your expectations realistic. And don’t hesitate to reach out to people with more experience, they are usually happy to tell you how they made their way.