Frank Talks

Heather Bhandari – Independent Curator & Co-founder of Art World Conference

Heather Bhandari - Independent Curator & Co-Founder of The Remix
Heather Bhandari - Independent Curator & Co-Founder of The Remix

We have a great Frank Talk for you to deep dive into this week! Please meet Heather Bhandari who is an independent curator; a co-founder of the project-based curatorial team and podcast, The Remix; an adjunct lecturer at Brown University where she teaches professional practice to visual arts majors; and Partner and Program Director of Art World Conference (AWC), a business and financial literacy conference for visual artists which debuted in New York City in April of 2019, Los Angeles in February of 2020, and online in October of 2020. Art World Learning, an educational platform, grew out of the conference in the midst of the pandemic. The second edition of her book, ART/WORK, was published by Simon and Schuster in October of 2017. Bhandari is on the board of directors of visual arts at Art Omi (an artist residency in Ghent, NY) and the advisory board of Trestle Gallery in Brooklyn. She was on the board of NURTUREart for nearly a decade. From 2000 to 2016 she was a director of Mixed Greens, a commercial gallery in Chelsea where she curated well over one hundred exhibitions while managing a roster of nearly two-dozen emerging to mid-career artists. Most recently, she was the Director of Exhibitions at Smack Mellon, a nonprofit in Brooklyn. Recent curatorial projects include a solo exhibition of Keith Lemley’s work at Urban Glass in Brooklyn and the group exhibition, Fertile Ground, at the David Winton Bell Gallery in Providence, RI, that included work by Maria Berrio, Zoë Charlton, and Joiri Minaya. She and her AWC co-organizer, Dexter Wimberly, were recently listed in the Observer‘s “Arts Power 50: Changemakers Shaping the Art World in 2019.” Please enjoy reading Heather’s incredible insight and art world prowess below!

What was your first job in the Arts? 

After working as an usher at a musical theater in Warwick, RI, and a furniture refinisher at an antique shop in East Greenwich, RI, my first serious job in the arts was at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Bristol, RI, while I was in college (it has since moved to Providence). 

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

Patience! I also learned that a lot of the work of an arts administrator is super important and not at all glamorous. I was young, so my job consisted of archiving (data entry), visitor relations (sitting at a desk and smiling), and collaborating on an exhibit of artifacts (more data). The exhibition was, by far, my favorite part, but I became fully aware of how important those other jobs are and how much information was being transferred, mediated, and processed behind the scenes.

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

I knew I wanted to be in the arts from a fairly early age, but most definitely since high school. How I fit into the art world took another decade to figure out. At first, I thought it would be as an artist, but after getting my MFA I changed course.

What do you do now? 

After working in galleries for the last 18 years, I’m an independent curator, educator (adjunct lecturer at Brown University), and co-founder/partner of Art World Conference, which brings business and financial health programming to the art and design worlds through conferences, online workshops, and a newly-formed educational platform, Art World Learning.

Where are you from? 

West Greenwich, Rhode Island.

What is the arts community like there? 

When I left for college, the population was under 4k. It’s now slightly over 6k. It’s tiny and rural, so when I was there, the arts consisted of my mom, my art teachers at school, and my grandfathers. In retrospect, my mom was amazingly crafty, my art teachers were awesome, one grandfather loved music, and my other grandfather was an incredibly passionate sign painter and hobbyist who snuck into RISD classes when he was young. Everyone looks to Providence where RISD dominates the art scene (in a good way!). RISD, Brown, AS220, Providence College’s gallery, and Dirt Palace all have a major impact on culture in the state. A lot of amazing artists are educated in RI. In general, the state council on the arts is supportive and organizations such as VLA Boston are really supportive of RI artists, but I wish there was more of a collecting ethos to support galleries in the long term and more opportunities to entice artists to stay. The state is very tiny, so the Providence and Boston communities are strongly connected.

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

Yes! I completely understand feelings of frustration and isolation felt by people in small towns without trust funds and connections to larger cities. I also understand the support that small towns/states can offer. I think it’s one of the reasons why I believe so strongly in transparency, access and education. And why I so appreciate institutions bringing opportunities to artists in their regions.

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

We all do everything. If you expect to wear one hat for your entire career, you may be in for a big surprise. My attitude is that we’re all working as a team. The “art world” I’ve found myself in is actually quite small. We are all one-degree separated and work together over decades to move the ball forward, pitching in where we can. And, most importantly, artists are at the core of everything we do. Without their input, collaboration and vision, it is extremely difficult to achieve any sort of success, let alone equity and sustainability. 

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

Just being in NYC for the last 20 years feels like a big achievement! This place is tough! I’m extremely proud of the book Art/Work I wrote in 2009/2017 with my co-author Jonathan Melber while working full-time at Mixed Greens gallery. We had no idea so many people would read it. I’m also really proud of safely producing 18 videos on financial health for artists and designers in the middle of a pandemic while homeschooling two kids and dealing with a financial crisis. 

What has been a challenge for you? 

Aside from the obvious challenges I just mentioned (pandemic and homeschooling while trying to run a business!), my biggest challenge has been, and will continue to be, how to provide practical, actionable information that actually helps the long-term sustainability of artists, designers, curators, and arts administrators. It’s easy to lecture, but providing information in a way that it is accessible, actionable, inclusive, and motivating is a never-ending challenge.

What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)? 

I drink hot cinnamon black tea every morning out of the same S’well thermos while I read Hyperallergic. If they stop making that tea or producing Hyperallergic, I will cry for weeks, if not months.

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

I had to care for 6 female mice as part of a show I curated at Mixed Greens. A week in, we realized one of the mice was a male and we had to fish him out of the sculpture and bring him back to the pet store. That happened nearly 10 years ago and the memory still haunts me!

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

A team player.

A team player. 

In my experience, collaboration, respect, and transparency lead to everyone becoming a stakeholder.

What do you think makes a person hirable?

Passion for the task at hand and an excitement to listen, learn and contribute.

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?

The ability to listen and be appropriately proactive is crucial in many small arts organizations, so I’ve found it’s the best (and sometimes only) way to stand out. In an interview, whether you get the job or not, honesty and enthusiasm are great traits to exhibit. If you don’t get the job after being honest and sincerely interested, it was not a good fit or a place where you would excel. Those traits, along with curiosity and a willingness to be proactive are what I look for in everyone I work with.

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

Be flexible. Our greatest strength as creative people is the ability to creatively problem solve. Not just execute an idea, but critique, get feedback, and give feedback. Kindly. And respectfully. 

Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share? 

I think all my funniest work experiences and greatest stresses have come from curatorial projects: keeping crucial plants alive for the course of a show, making sure visitors don’t crush tiny porcelain cars on a white floor, or stopping people from kicking over buckets of dirt piled just-so. Something I SO appreciate now that I did not appreciate enough pre-pandemic was workplace comradery (I miss my MG co-workers so much!) and chance meetings in a gallery. When you work in a gallery all day, anyone can walk through the door and say “Hi.” Those impromptu conversations gave me so much joy.  

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

This is a tough one because I haven’t seen that much this year! But the two shows I did see were fantastic: Monuments Now at Socrates Sculpture Park and Bound Up Together: On the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, curated by Rachel Gugelberger at Smack Mellon. 

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

I try really hard to buy artists who I want to be in my collection and I’m a big fan of payment plans (just ask when you need it!). Artists I do not own and would love to own are: Helina Metaferia, Derek Fordjour, Maria Berrio, Joiri Minaya, Kambui Olujimi, Esperanza Cortes, Zoë Charlton, and Sonya Blesofsky (It’s so hard to stop).

Have you seen any virtual exhibitions recently that you would like to comment on? 

I really appreciate the website Art At A Time Like This. Seph Rodney’s show, Building a Better Monument, came at the right time for me. (clearly this year has been all about rethinking monuments!)

What artwork is in your home office?

I am so lucky my “home office” has some great work in it: a Mary Temple wall installation that many people get to see as my real-life Zoom background, an Adia Millett photograph, a small Hank Willis Thomas photo, and a Valerie Hegarty 3D wall work.

What is your greatest WFH challenge? Or a WFH luxury you don’t want to lose ever again? 

My greatest challenges are the work/life/sleep balance and two little kids Zoom bombing me on a regular basis. Making sure they’re okay during this crazy time is exhausting. But I appreciate the weird times we’ve had together and don’t want to go back to “business as usual.” There has to be middle ground.

How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?

For me, art and culture are a huge part of healing on both an individual and collective level.  

How has your current job adapted to the new virtual landscape? What do you think can be done better? 

In-person conferences have inspired an online learning platform. We’re so excited about the accessibility of online programming and know we can do more to be inclusive.

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? 

Tribeca/LES/Chelsea! I would love to go to DC’s amazing museums now that I realize I took them for granted. A trip upstate to Art Omi will also be so much fun, with a stop at Wave Hill along the way.

It can be argued that the art world is finally forced to adopt and adapt technologies that have long been a part of other industries. Agree or Disagree?

Agree.  I think the art world is full of late adopters, contrary to our forward thinking in other areas.

And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent? 

Always. Doesn’t matter which art world you’re in. Transparency is integral to achieving equity.