We are extremely excited to bring this week’s Frank Talk with Mitra Khorasheh to you! Mitra is a New York based curator and educator. She is the founder and curator of signs and symbols, a New York based contemporary art gallery focused on performance and time-based media. Prior to opening the gallery in 2018, as an independent curator she curated exhibitions and performances at galleries, institutions, art fairs and not-profits as well as large-scale public art exhibitions in the United States and internationally. Her curatorial work has primarily focused on site-specific and performative practices, with an emphasis on the body in performance, painting and other time-based media. One of her most noted curatorial endeavors was the 2016 site-specific installation and performance by ULAY, marking ULAY’s first New York performance in 30 years. Please enjoy this intriguing and thoughtful Frank Talk below!
What was your first job in the Arts?
Assistant curator! I worked with a very prominent curator, and later I actually took on her position.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
The value of perfectionism and organization – from file names and artist CV formats to press releases and cleanliness of the workspace. Not only is it crucial to maintain a polished professional appearance, but your future self (and future colleagues) will be thankful to have well-kept records and archives.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
I always knew I wanted to be a curator, it’s something I have always been interested in since high school. I did take a little detour in my 20s after my BA when I lived in Mexico and worked in the music industry, but quickly enough I returned to curating and moved to New York to pursue my MA.
What do you do now?
I’m the owner and curator of signs and symbols, a gallery in the Lower East Side dedicated to performance art and time-based media. One of my main motivations and missions was to grow a community around performance, having identified a strong need for a platform of this kind. The gallery opened in the spring of 2018, and since then it has been two exhilarating years of exhibitions, performances, screenings and more!
Where are you from?
What is the arts community like there?
To be honest, I am not that familiar with it, as I have never worked in the arts there.
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
Not really, but I have lived and spent a generous amount of time in other cities that have shaped me more, like Berlin, Venice, Mexico City and, of course, New York.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Be diligent and authentic, and don’t lie. The art world is a small world! Everything you do will follow you.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
Absolutely the gallery. After curating independently and organizing exhibitions and performances for more than ten years, it was so exciting to open a permanent physical space. I had two full years of programming already planned by the time we launched! Running a start-up gallery has been a difficult experience but it is so rewarding, and I am so happy to be doing the work I love every day and working with my artists. My artists are my family.
What has been a challenge for you?
Also the gallery, particularly with the challenges that COVID-19 has brought. It has definitely been a struggle to adapt the program to online platforms while also trying to sustain the gallery and our artists financially. But, I am determined to survive this and make it to the other side stronger than ever.
What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?
Coffee, tea, daily phone calls with all my artists, phone calls with clients, answering e-mails. My big break every night is cooking, so I love to pour myself a glass of wine and make a good meal. My artists often bring me ingredients from their hometowns or travels — Persian rosebuds, Slovenian sea salt, French chocolate — and I love to incorporate those into my dishes.
What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?
Having worked with performance art for so many years, there is a lot to choose from! Maybe composing a legally sound letter for performers to have on hand in case of an arrest…? True story. No one was arrested.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
Open communication is so important for both employees and managers. It’s crucial to communicate clearly about deadlines, needs and expectations.
What do you think makes a person hirable?
Good work ethic, writing skills, and being personable are the top 3 things that I look for.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?
Be genuine, and be honest. Complete every task with the care and attention as if it’s the most important thing in your career.
Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?
Take risks and believe in your vision. If you don’t make your own dream a reality, someone else will hire you to make theirs.
Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share?
Don’t underestimate the value of community. Support your friends and “competitors.”
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
Honestly, I am so focused on the gallery (and there is so much to do!) that I barely get the chance to visit other exhibitions. However, I was lucky to take a few art-focused trips last year — to the Venice Biennale and most notably to Crystal Bridges in Arkansas to see gallery artist Jen DeNike’s new crystal sculpture and ballet piece.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection
I am so lucky to be able say that I already have my favorite artists in my collection – Tony Orrico, Zander Blom, Jen DeNike, Ornella Fieres and Ulay, all of whom I have had the pleasure of working with.
Have you seen any virtual exhibitions recently that you would like to comment on?
Performa’s virtual programming is excellent.
What artwork is in your home office?
I am currently looking at a work by Ulay (next to a treasured photo of the two of us), a small collage by Jen DeNike and a photograph by Shirin Neshat.
What is your greatest WFH challenge? Or a WFH luxury you don’t want to lose ever again?
I am so happy to be spending time with Stella, my Pomeranian who sits by my feet all day. I don’t know how I would get through quarantine without her, because the biggest WFH challenge is not seeing anyone, aside from a few stoop meetings with artists.
How has your current job adapted to the new virtual landscape? What do you think can be done better?
In March, signs and symbols launched a series of two-week, online-only video exhibitions. It felt important to continue to support our artists and show their work, but at the same time I wanted to stay true to the nature of our program and to the integrity of our artists’ mediums, to not compromise their installations and two-dimensional works. Social distancing will eventually end, and once it does, we will proceed with our exhibition program as originally planned.
What is your go to snack in quarantine? And your go to soundtrack?
Banana bread! While listening to Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part, looping all day basically. I’ve also created a new Spotify playlist called 2020 lockdown, compiling all the songs that signs and symbols artists are listening to right now and send me. I add to it almost every day.
How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?
Yes, absolutely. We need art to guide us and inspire us, especially during global hardships. Who would we be without artists?
Since we are all at home and exploring more galleries and museums online, perhaps some for the first time, when the quarantine is lifted, what is your first art filled destination?
I miss MoMA! I barely got to enjoy its new configuration. And once I can travel again, I’m so excited to go to Berlin and visit all of my artists and friends there. While I have been able to see my New York-based artists when they take walks in Brooklyn and come by my apartment stoop, I don’t know when I’ll be able to see the others further away!
And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?
Yes, definitely. We have a long way to go as an industry, but I practice transparency with my artists and the gallery and encourage others to do the same. I truly believe it benefits contemporary art on the whole to be more upfront at all levels.