Frank Talks

Olivia Smith – Co-Founder and Director of Magenta Plains Gallery

olivia smith

This week we sit down with Olivia Smith, who is the co-founder and director of Magenta Plains Gallery, in the Lower East Side of New York City. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Olivia Smith received her B.F.A. in 2011 from SMU Meadows School of the Arts in Studio Art, Art History, and English, with a concentration in Poetry. From 2013 – 2016, Smith acted as the Director of Exhibition A, where she worked in collaboration with over two hundred and fifty artists to produce and distribute museum-quality contemporary art editions. In 2016 along with artists David Deutsch and Chris Dorland, Olivia Smith co-founded Magenta Plains. With an emphasis on community, history, and newly emergent art, the gallery’s mission is to foster context and meaning for the development of new ideas as well as to present and preserve older generations of artists’ work. We are delighted to share this talented woman’s Frank Talk with you here.

What was your first job in the Arts?

My first year in New York City I was fortunate to complete internships at my two favorite non-profits: Artists Space and Creative Time. Eventually I began working at Exhibition A (exhibitiona.com) as a production assistant, and within that year I was able to transition into a leadership position there as Director. 

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

Oh, so many things! I learned about sales and the contemporary art market for the first time. I learned how to navigate communication with artists, how to work with tight deadlines, and how to deal with all aspects of a multifaceted business at once. I honed my marketing skills for e-commerce, and realized that in order to be a leader you have to be willing to start over from scratch in order to develop best practices. The most important thing I learned was to trust my instincts and my eye, and how to communicate more quickly and effectively. These lessons helped me grow into a more decisive art professional.

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

There was never any question that art would play a huge role in my life. What has surprised me is my transition from artist to art dealer. This began to take shape in my college years, when a solitary studio practice no longer made sense to me. Instead, I worked in ways which were more social and interdisciplinary: organizing lecture series and dinners, creating public art installations, and collaborating on performances with dancers, musicians and actors. Once I landed the internship at Creative Time in New York, everything changed. Nato Thompson (then the curator of CT) told me one day, “Whatever you learn to do well, you’ll end up doing in life.” I took that advice very seriously and at that point, decided that I would pursue a career in the arts but not as an artist.

What do you do now?

I direct Magenta Plains, a gallery on the Lower East Side of New York City that I co-founded with artists David Deutsch and Chris Dorland in early 2016.

Where are you from?

Dallas, Texas.

What is the arts community like there?

The patronage in Dallas is very strong—there is a serious collector base and a focus on philanthropy that supports fantastic institutions. In The Dallas Arts District alone there is the The Dallas Museum of Art, The Nasher Sculpture Center, The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center designed by I.M. Pei and multiple brand-new performing art centers. In Fort Worth, the Kimbell Art Museum designed by Louis Kahn and Renzo Piano and The Modern designed by Tadao Ando are world-renowned.

The Dallas Art Fair in April and the TWO x TWO annual auction in October are probably the largest contemporary art events each year. There is even a magazine dedicated to art, culture and design called Patron. Dallas Contemporary and The Power Station are two amazing non-profits dedicated to showcasing world-class contemporary art.

There are a few great galleries and artist-run spaces as well. I’ve observed that in the last ten years, more artists who graduate from local schools are staying in Dallas and building the community through their own initiatives such as opening DIY galleries and pop-up exhibitions.

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

Growing up in Dallas gave me a thirst for something larger and more difficult to attain, which definitely lead to my move to New York City. I come from a family of academic musicians and creative entrepreneurs. I think the mix of art and business in my day-to-day now reflects my upbringing.

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

I would advise to maintain integrity and show up to support and see art exhibitions. Networking within your community is incredibly important and it pays off to attend specific, key events. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself and when you meet someone, ask as many questions as you can. Remember that you can never go wrong with curiosity, generosity and ingenuity. Always be learning.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

I can honestly say that co-founding Magenta Plains is a dream come true. Specifically, I’m most proud of the fact that I presented the first solo exhibition by computer art pioneer, Lillian Schwartz, in September 2016 before her 90th birthday. Announcing our artist roster in March 2018 was a major moment for the gallery as a whole.

What has been a challenge for you?

Expanding a collector base from scratch in an oversaturated market.

What is something you do every day at work?

Look at the artworks in our current exhibition. Update a master sales spreadsheet and determine next steps for each transaction. Talk to the artists I’m working with.

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

As an intern at Artists Space, I accompanied an art handler to the 2012 benefit honoree Alan Vega’s apartment. Being so new to the city I didn’t yet have a New York driver’s license, so it was determined that instead waiting in the van and moving it if necessary, I would go up to Vega’s apartment and pick up the piece. I feigned confidence and marched into the luxury Wall Street apartment building, announced myself as the art handler, and the concierge sent me up to Vega’s apartment. Upon entering, Vega directed me to a large wall sculpture shaped like a cross about the same size as my entire body. Somehow I got that thing into the elevator and onto the truck without damaging it and it hung proudly on the wall later that week at the benefit. 

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?

For both: honesty, integrity, mutual respect, passion, tenacity, resourcefulness, patience.

What do you think makes a person hirable?

I’m always interested in hiring people who are well spoken and who are confident in their own skin. Other good traits are curiosity and a willingness to learn, which indicates growth potential.

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?

Notice what isn’t happening and take initiative to fill in the gaps. Do everything with good intention and integrity, even if it’s restocking the beverages in your company’s refrigerator. Initiate ideas, create new solutions. Offer to help others with their work.

What are things you can do to proactively boost your CV?

Join art councils or organizations, or volunteer in the arts. Create DIY opportunities and curate an exhibition or performance series in your apartment or any space you have access to, even if it’s the bathtub.

Are there any tips you can give people entering the workforce?

Be consistent with your attendance at events that are related to your interests. Have a one-minute speech prepared when you are introduced to someone who asks what you do or what you are interested in doing. Be discerning about internships and entry-level jobs—only accept positions at organizations you deeply respect.

In your experience, what are things to do and things to avoid during an interview?

Do your homework on the organization you are interviewing with and ask the interviewer specific questions about the organization’s history, mission, or their experience within it. Do express your genuine interest in the position, and be specific. Make eye contact and be yourself.

What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts at The Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland. So excited this exhibition has finally made its way to New York so I can see it in a new context!

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Vija Celmins, Roni Horn, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cady Noland.

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