Caitlin Berry graduated at a time when the economy was less than promising for job seekers, but embraced the opportunity to get creative with how she pursued her aspirations. Springboarding from the inaugural management role at Wake’s START Gallery, Caitlin went on to break into the New York and DC art scenes. We’ve caught up with Caitlin to learn about her career path, and what’s next for art in DC.
DeacLink: What are you up to right now, both in and outside of work?
Caitlin Berry: Right now I’m the Associate Director at Hemphill Fine Arts, one of the oldest operating galleries in DC. Founded in 1993, we represent twenty-eight contemporary artists and two artist’s estates. We hold regular exhibitions here and curate two other locations in town which are more experimental. Additionally, we have a healthy secondary market program, with expertise and academic knowledge of Post-War American art and the Washington Color School. This historical side of the secondary market was my main strength when joining Hemphill. I continue to develop that program here.
My role, as it is in any small gallery, requires me to wear many hats. I do sales, a bit of artist development… which right now has consumed my last year and a half, working on a show with the newest artist to our stable, Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi. She’s been receiving great press, and rightly so, including a recent writeup from Hyperallergic. I’ve also been focused on an upcoming Washington Color School exhibition which opens at the beginning of February. We’ve been working with collectors across DC to pull that together.
Outside of work I co-chair the Communications Committee for the Art Table DC chapter, which does annual rapid-fire discussion based presentations for movers and shakers in the DC art scene- gallerists, politicians, artists, and so forth. It’s called ‘State of the Art’, and the next edition will be in the Fall.
DL: Take us through your journey from Wake to your current occupation.
CB: I graduated in 2009, right after the economy tanked. I remember Joe Biden speaking at our graduation, saying ‘I really envy you guys, you have this great opportunity to succeed in the face of adversity.’ At the time we all thought, ‘Yeah sure Joe.. we can’t find jobs’... but looking back he was right. Everyone I graduated with did struggle but we were all better for it. The conditions required us to get creative with how we proceeded, and in my case that rang true. By graduation I already had plans in place to move to NYC for an internship under Cristin Tierney at her gallery. Little did I know, she had been in touch with Gordon McCray from the business school (and leader of the Managements in Visual Arts course). They had earmarked me as a candidate for the inaugural position of gallery manager at START Gallery, which was still a rather nebulous concept at the time. When they approached me it was perfect timing, and after a rigorous interview process I was offered the position. The basic agreement was, I could go up to New York to work for Cristin but I had to come back to do START. I couldn’t have anticipated how great the experience was going to be… it was essentially myself and Paul Bright working with the Provost Office and a few others to bring START to life. Through the process I learned enormous amounts about what it’s like to run a gallery; it laid foundations for my understanding of professional organizations in the art world.
Of course, after START I wanted to get back up to New York- I had caught the bug while interning for Cristin. And speaking of Cristin, she is the biggest mentor in my life- we stayed in close touch after my internship, and she would frequently send me job postings and inform me of conversations she had with people looking for help. The pickings were still slim at this point… it was the Fall of 2010 and people were still trying to get out of the recession.
One day Cristin sent an email, saying to send my resume straight away to Eykyn Maclean, a gallery which was hiring help for a museum-quality exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s oeuvre. This wasn’t just sculpture, but works on paper, paintings, writings… and this opportunity got me back to New York, but talk about baptism by fire. Throughout my time with Eykyn Maclean, there were plenty of surreal and amazing experiences, and I worked Wall Street hours; but I enjoyed every minute there.
One weekend in April 2012 I went down to DC for a visit with Wake friends, where I met the man I’m about to marry. I moved to Washington in 2013 and found a job with a 19th-Century gallery, where I spent a short spell. I was networking a lot in the DC art scene, and was part of The Philips Collection Contemporaries Steering Committee, through which I made a friend who is my now-predecessor. She was leaving for St. Louis and recommended that I apply for her job at Hemphill. I jumped into the opportunity, and here I am three years later- very happy and wanting to stay for as long as I can.
DL: Did you consider a graduate degree after Wake?
CB: I’ve always considered going to grad school; I love the scholarly aspect of working with secondary market objects. I love nothing more than sitting in archives all day, going through catalogues raisonne and figuring out where works fit within an artist’s oeuvre. So while I’m happy where I am now, I would certainly consider grad school if it gelled into the right timing and allowed me to continue work.
I think it should be said, that grad school shouldn’t be a prerequisite for success. It can be good for some people but it’s certainly not for everyone.. People can succeed without it.
DL: Did your time at Wake have a big impact on your career path?
CB: I did have a sorority sister who was working at Gagosian… I remember thinking, ‘I want to do what she’s doing,’ so I asked her exactly how I could. She gave me some great advice, essentially laid out key guidelines for things I needed to do, in order to work in the art world. Two things she said were vital- taking the Management in Visual Arts course and to read any and everything I could about what was going on in the art world. ArtNews, Art Forum, you name it- I was constantly reading on the latest, and the pace of change was rapid. But employers in the art world expect you to be aware of everything that’s going on.
DL: Do you think Wake’s art department prepared you for life after graduation?
CB: I really think without the Management in Visual Arts class I would’ve been totally adrift in terms of having the tools to break into the art world, which can be a tough nut to crack. The best advice I got at the time was, be willing to work for free. Basically you have to understand, nobody is going to be making six figures right off the bat. But all Art History and Studio students should have to take an art marketing course. There’s an academic bias not to commoditize artwork, but artists can’t subsist without being able to do this, and galleries are so essential to the overall health of the market. Wake art students would benefit massively from developing a business sensibility.
DL: What’s the hardest part about breaking into your field?
CB: Realizing that you’re not entitled to success. I think being hard working, having a good attitude and being accountable is the perfect recipe for success in any field. But those three attributes are increasingly rare in the art world, and a person who comes into this ready to work is going to be an asset to any company, gallery, or museum they end up with. Networking has helped me massively with breaking into my field as well. Keeping up good relationships and not being a jerk frankly, are very important.
DL: How do you like living and working in DC? Do you have any advice for students wanting to move there?
CB: I would say- if you want to work in art world in DC, you should be focused on working institutionally or with a non-profit. That’s not to say you can’t be successful in a commercial gallery here, but for all aspiring gallerists, I’d say please move here immediately and open your gallery. We need healthy competition and more variety in our art scene.
I’m also a huge advocate of working whilst going to grad school, which will help you get a job in a museum especially if you’re curating. Grad degrees aren’t necessary for the development side of things, so one could obtain a grad degree for curating while still working in development at a museum.
DL: What has surprised you the most about the art scene in DC?
CB: The number of hugely talented artists who live and work in the area… not all great artists are in Brooklyn. The artists here are just as inventive and powerful, but don’t get nearly the same credit as those up in New York. There is a big opportunity to champion the local artists here.. So yet again- gallerists, come to DC and open your gallery!
DL: What’s the best piece of advice you can leave our readers with?
CB: Have a positive attitude.