Frank Talks

Anna Mikaela Ekstrand – Founding Editor-in-Chief of Cultbytes

Anna Mikaela Ekstrand
Taken during a sitting for, but not part of, Dominique Duroseau's series Black Face Index, 2018.

In this week’s Frank Talk we sit with Anna Mikaela Ekstrand, who is the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes, an online publication that promotes interdisciplinary and non-hierarchical art criticism. Anna Mikaela is also the Principal of Cultbytes Curatorial & PR/Digital Agency. She is American/Guyanese/Swedish and leverages her knowledge, network, and team to find new ways to innovate communications and curatorial practices to benefit her clients. She served as curator for the performance art exhibition ‘Grebnellaw: Sperming The Planet’ (House of Yes and The Oculus, 2018) and co-curator, together with Ayana Evans, for Your Decolonizing Toolkit (MAW, 2016). She continues to work with artists to realize their projects in New York and beyond. Anna Mikaela has held curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Bard Graduate Center, and the Museum of Arts and Design. At these institutions, she worked on over a dozen in-museum and off-site exhibitions and their catalogs. We are delighted to share Anna Mikaela’s international career experience and advice with you here! 

What was your first job in the Arts?

I interned part-time at the Museum of Arts and Design and worked in client services at Phillips.

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

An outside-of-the-box but on brand approach to curation. I helped set up a program with Francois Sagat that explored his journey from porn to cinema. It was an unexpected story to bring to a mainstream audience at a museum, but it fit perfectly with my supervisor Jake Yuzna’s program that was focused on avant-garde film, nightlife and queer subcultures. I realized that he was a great curator because he just did his thing.

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

Art History was the first class I took in college and I loved it. I have always been an experience and information junkie, and there are so many educational, reflective, and impactful experiences providing new perspectives that the art world has to offer.

What do you do now?

I am the founding principal of Cultbytes Curatorial & PR/Digital Agency and the editor-in-chief of our online digital platform.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Stockholm but as an adult, I have lived in Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, and New York. On my mother’s side I stem from indentured workers in Guyana, I like to think that strength, resilience, and perhaps a sense of displacement runs in my blood. I am a citizen of the world and I feel very privileged to be a multi-cultural and multi-racial woman in this important time of change.

What is the arts community like there?

The desire to explore new art centers is what propelled me to come to New York, and the other places I have chosen to live. That said Stockholm, where I call home, has a very rich cultural scene. We have a robust grant system in place to support artists and a large number of good museums and cutting-edge art institutions. Maria Lind, previously at CCS Bard, now the director at Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm is someone I admire, she has been integral in rethinking the art institution. Go for a residency in Sweden; IASPIS offers grants to foreigners.

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

Absolutely, thanks to my transatlantic network, one of my strengths is that I can cater to European clients that want to establish themselves in the US, and vice versa. I am in touch with curators, media outlets, and collectors on both sides of the pond and really enjoy working on projects that foster transnational growth.

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

If you think you might want to switch industry – do it! Collecting art or getting involved with institutional board work is a fantastic way to remain part of the industry while you are working somewhere else making $$$. Otherwise, persistence and if you have connections, work them. If not, start networking. It’s a competitive industry.  

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

Successfully launching and running Cultbytes Agency! We’ve worked with stellar clients on really interesting projects ranging from digital strategy and placing rad articles in leading publications to social media management. I’m proud of the editorial platform, but my agency work, where I can deliver immediate results and real growth to my clients, is what I find most rewarding.

What has been a challenge for you?

As someone who is working in the intersection between art and PR, my challenge is to find what’s next and make it happen. As mainstream interest in art is growing quickly, I want to find long-term ways for corporations to contribute to cultural growth and support artists through in-house revenue-building or brand-enhancing activations and projects, stay tuned.

What is something you do every day at work?

Pitch and execute new ideas. Media, and PR especially, are both fast-paced and dynamic industries – the key to success is to stay nimble.

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

I spent three weeks in Sun Valley, Idaho, together with my boss and her friends. Every day I researched Swedish wooden winter toys and spent the afternoon skiing with a Swedish ski instructor. To get there I took a private jet from Teterboro Airport with my boss, seven of her dogs, five of her staff members, and her boyfriend. If Fellini had made a film in the mountains, this would have been it. We had a blast.

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

I have really appreciated managers that have taken the time to help me develop and want to see me succeed. A good employee does what is in their job description. A great employee brings more than expected to their position, they solve problems you didn’t even know existed.

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

Dress well, show interest, and add value.

What are things you can do proactively boost your CV?

First of all, make sure your CV reads well and is formatted correctly. Ask a friend or recruiter to look it over. Then, it depends where you are in your career trajectory. Begin with interning – If you’ve interned enough; freelance – If you can’t find freelance work, make sure your network knows you are looking for opportunities and land something. If you haven’t already, go to grad school, if you can’t afford it, work a non-arts related job until the perfect art job comes along. Join a professional network for people in the arts.

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

Working with culture is a privilege. Seek inspiration from your colleagues and be proud of the projects you are contributing to. If you find yourself working at an internship you don’t like, stay for three months and then switch out, especially if it’s unpaid. 

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

Prepare, practice, and research! Make sure that you have a good pitch in place when you are asked to talk about yourself, prepare stock answers to common interview questions, and research the organization before your interview.

Make your interviewer’s life easier by asking them questions. Ask about their workload, what challenges they are facing, and what they are looking for in a candidate. Pro-actively tell them about who you are, what drew you to the organization, and what you can contribute to it. Be generous with complimenting your interviewer’s achievements, don’t trash talk your previous employers, and be thankful for the interview.

Always end by asking: “Do you think my profile is a good fit for the position? What are my strengths and what am I missing?” This will allow your interviewer to summarize what they liked about you in their own words, which is good as it reinforces your profile to them. But, most importantly it will allow you to address any insecurity they might have about you right away. They might say: “my main concern is that you don’t have experience with x” whereby you can respond: “absolutely, however, I have worked with y and z which relate to x, and I am a fast learner so that really shouldn’t be a problem.”

Any other anecdotes about your experience in the art world that you would like to share?

Last summer, I visited a juvenile prison on a small island off Naples in Italy with one of my clients. There she had, together with a group of inmates, created a site-specific art installation to help them voice their feelings surrounding incarceration. It was a very moving experience. I am really thankful that I, through Cultbytes Agency, have and will continue to promote and support unique projects.

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

Rachel Maclean at the Zabludowicz Collection in London. Her feature film Make Me Up (2018) just premiered earlier this month.

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

Hilma af Klint, Louise Bourgeois, a portrait of myself by Zeng Fanzhi, a Roentgen cabinet, Artemisia Gentileschi, and, since more is more I would also install an ice cream cone by Claes Oldenburg on my building.

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