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How Do You Make a Living, Art Curator?

Kristin Sancken talks to Noah Davis about the difficulties of being friends with artists, making money at the curation game, and why shameless is the new humble.
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(Photo: Max Noy Photo)

(Photo: Max Noy Photo)

Kristin Sancken fell into the curatorial world after her first-ever show—the same one she had to Google "curatorial proposal" before putting on—became a massive success. Sancken spoke with Pacific Standard about the difficulties of being friends with artists, making money at the curation game, and why shameless is the new humble.

How did you become a curator?

I went to school for art business. I randomly picked it because I wanted to get an MBA, but I didn't want to take the GMAT. Sotheby's had a program in art business.

My initial interest was in outsiders folk art, but I met Annika Connors, who is an artist. She asked if I would be interested in curating a show with her. I agreed to it. I had never done it before so I Googled how to write a curatorial proposal, and I wrote one on contemporary watercolors. I got a list of potential artists. In the interim period, where I was shopping around for a venue—it was initially supposed to be a pop-up exhibition—I was talking to a specialist at Phillips who also knew Annika [Editor's Note: Phillips is the auction house where Sancken was working at the time]. I mentioned that I was helping her curate a show and that we were looking for a space. She suggested Phillips. Before I knew it, the CEO had OK'd it, operations had OK'd it, the exhibition manager had OK'd it, and I had free reign over the downtown space.

We talked about it and decided to blow it out of the water because, while I was really young, I had Phillips behind me. It went from a small pop-up exhibition to this multi-million dollar show with all these great artists. It mostly happened because we had the name backing me. From that experience, I got a lot of press. I think a lot of that press happened because I was a 25-year-old coming out of nowhere who had the gumption to curate this exhibition at Phillips. There was a story for people to bite on.

After that, opportunities were handed to me, and I was asked to curate.

Do you get paid on a project basis?

I negotiate everything on a project-by-project basis. With Watercolors, I was already working at Phillips, so that was just my salary and then I got 10 percent of the sales of the exhibition. We had an agreement that they would cover all of the overhead costs, so I didn't have to throw down any money for the opening reception or any of the day-to-day expenses; I just had to curate everything. We also threw a couple of ticketed events in conjunction with the show, and we got all the money from the sales of the tickets.

I did one show at a non-profit: Rush Gallery, [which] is Russell Simmons' gallery. Non-profits typically offer a curatorial stipend, which is like $1,000 or something very small, and then you get money for arranging shipping and other expenses. Typically with small galleries, I would ask for a curatorial fee and a percentage of sales. The percentage of sales I would ask for is usually based on how much overhead they are willing to cover. If I have to cover an opening reception or shipping, I'll ask for a higher percentage of the sales.

Are there a lot of curators?

I think that everyone considers themselves a curator in the art world. I've noticed a rise of it. Someone wrote a really good essay recently called "You're Not A Curator." It used to be that artists would not curate their work into a show because that was shameful. Now, shameless is the new humble. Everyone is doing it.

I never asked to be called a curator. One thing that I have going in my career is that because of the press I've gotten and because of the shows that I've done, I have access to more artists. My shows tend to be different because I look for more established artists, actual names, and better artwork. There are lots of people curating Brooklyn and New York emerging artists. Are there a lot of people making money off of it? I don't think there are many.

You were with House of the Nobleman.

I'm no longer with them. I was with them for a year and a half. It was nice. It was almost like they were patrons or benefactors. They put their names on the show. I'm not overly concerned with being named as a curator; it's just what I love to do. It was nice because they financed the show. They helped with logistics. They helped with almost every other factor. They had a lot of different ideas of curating that they wanted to carry out that wasn't really my vision. They wanted to do luxury, white glove things. I'm a bit more edgy. I wanted to do things a bit more sexy.

Right now, I'm with a gallery called Ricco/Maresca Gallery. I'm doing their media side, focusing on PR, and writing right now.

Is curating something you'd like to do as a career?

I took a few months off because I had two shows going on at the same time last spring, and it drove me crazy. It was so much work. I don't like to push an idea or pull something stupid out of my ass. I think it takes time for something to come to you and an idea to grow. I think if it's creating one show a year that's fine with me as long as it's a good show. I want my reputation to be curating these high-quality, museum-quality shows. I don't want to do something half-assed just because I feel like I need to be doing something.

I got permission from my boss to do a show at Ricco/Maresca Gallery if I can nail down the artists. I have another meeting tomorrow about doing a show on contemporary eroticism and nudes that I've been working on for about two years. I've been trying to source a venue for it. I'll be back to curating soon.

Getting into a show can be a big financial gain for an artist. Do you feel pressure from some people to include their work?

Yes. A lot. There is the idea of strategically placing artists in a show because they are going to bring press, or they have connections to other artists and you can only get access through them. There's pressure that way. There's also pressure from people who I have shown in the past who I have become really close friends with or people who have done me huge favors. My entire career has been built on people being extremely nice to me so there is a certain feeling of responsibility for me to pay that back. That being said, sometimes an artist doesn't fit within the parameters of an exhibition. I can't carry everyone's career.

I would like to own my own gallery, so there is a certain group of emerging artists who I have befriended or taken under my wing. I include them as much as I can. I'm trying to court and maintain those relationships for when I have a gallery, and I'm representing my own artists.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.