Elaine Mitchell – Director of 81 Leonard Gallery


Elaine Mitchell

This week we sit down with Elaine Mitchell, who is the director of 81 Leonard Gallery and the studio manager of Nancy Pantirer Studio. Through the gallery’s diverse multi-media program, she focuses on bringing underrepresented and marginalized artists to new audiences. As Pantirer’s studio manager she has both administrative and creatives duties ranging from project managing commissions and sales to organizing the studio’s participation in art fairs. Mitchell graduated with a degree in textile and fashion from the Art Institute of New York and has for professional development continued to attend classes at schools across the city, among them NYU. Having lived in various places in America she is happy to be back in the neighborhood that she grew up in, Bushwick. We are very thrilled to bring you Elaine’s Frank Talk here, enjoy the read!

What was your first job in the Arts?

I worked as a studio assistant for a watercolor artist; I maintained her studio space and later initiated an archiving project to digitize her oeuvre. She worked with neat conceptual compositions photographing herself that she developed into reversal film. I remember being intrigued by the carousel projector we used to view slides.

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

I first took the studio assistant job to earn money while working on a degree in fashion and textile design at the Art Institute of New York but soon realized that I had learnt an invaluable lesson while on the job – my true passion was art, not fashion.

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

An unforgettable trip to the Met! One day while wandering through the museum I found myself in front of “Springtime” a grand scale 19th-century European oil on canvas painting by Pierre Auguste Cot. It depicted young and innocent lovers on a swing in a lush garden, butterflies fluttering. I remember being captivated and moved to tears.  So many details left me in awe: the masterfully painted draped gown revealing her curves, the way his right foot wrapped around his calf, and most importantly the intimate gaze shared by the couple. My emotional response shocked and confused me however it also helped me validate my decision to work in the arts.

What do you do now?

I work at 81 Leonard Gallery as a gallery director and I manage Nancy Pantirer’s studio. Both are run out of the same space which is a big plus for me. 

Where are you from?

I was born in New York and raised in Bushwick.

What is the arts community like there?

Bushwick is now gaining an art scene; factory warehouses have been gut renovated and replaced by galleries, artist studios, bookshops, and alternative clothing stores. The reputation that the emerging art-scene has helped create has in turn attracted people from the city and beyond to relocating to the area to open businesses rooted in creativity. Also, there is remarkable street art everywhere you go. The neighborhood is young, dynamic, and selfie-ready. 

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

Where I come from and how I was raised has influenced the way I work in the art world. The arts have helped me learn who I am and helped me gain a greater understanding of the world around me. When I was young the arts weren’t advertised or promoted at all in Bushwick. I want art to be an option for everyone, regardless of which neighborhood they are in. Unfortunately my personal experiences visiting galleries and museums in Manhattan have not always been pleasant. On several occasions, I haven’t been greeted and my presence was not been acknowledged leading me to feel judged and invisible. This is a feeling I wish on no human being. Therefore being welcoming, kind, and informative to those who come to visit our space is extremely important to me. Lastly, my background also plays into the artists I push to exhibit at 81 Leonard Gallery: misrepresented, underrepresented, and/or marginalized artists with meaningful messages.

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

Develop your entrepreneurial spirit! If I see an opportunity to make something better I just do it. I’ve learned to trust my instinct and take action.

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

One of my biggest accomplishments thus far is opening a gallery with my long-time employer Nancy Pantirer. A more significant accomplishment for me has been mentally breaking out of a mold that society tells me I need to fit into. For some time, I thought I couldn’t amount to what my aspirations were, and sometimes being logical was a setback. What I have learned is a person has to be extremely ambitious and also open to any positions and or odd jobs to get your foot in the door. I learned that you are responsible for creating your opportunities.

What has been a challenge for you?

As co-founding a gallery is a new experience for me I am doing many tasks for the first time. But, I do accept these challenges and have found that problem solving leads to personal growth! My greatest challenge right now is writing about the work of our new artists. Writing is essential to understanding art, process, and its purpose. What I write helps the artists gain a perspective. I can’t mess that up.

What is something you do every day at work?

Something I do every day without a thought, almost robotic is ordering my iced caramel macchiato, LOL afterward setting up my desk and checking through emails… a lot of emails. Once I take care of sending out emails and responding to emails, I make a checklist of what I need to achieve for the day and then for the week, depending on how big the project is. My team and I also touch base, checking in to make sure we are all on the same page, sharing our goals, and making sure that we have completed assigned tasks thus far.

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

There have been more than I can count! One memory that I reminisce quite often actually is when I took it upon myself to clean a Tribeca building rooftop that hadn’t been cleaned in over a decade. Mounds and man do I mean MOUNDS of pigeon droppings littered the roof like small mountains. I was soo beyond disgusted and honestly don’t know where to begin trying to describe the stench, but for some reason, I was so eager and ready to start cleaning up. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do anything that I set my mind to. And, it worked! I had fun and enjoyed the physical labor.

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

What defines a good employee boils down to being dependable, being able to communicate, having a good sense of urgency, being adaptive, and open-minded. It is inevitable that things don’t go as planned so being optimistic is also a helpful trait to keep spirits up while searching for a solution.

What do you think makes a person hirable?

When I look to hire someone, first things first is he or she has to give out good energies and be welcoming. Next is understanding the intentions for why someone may want to take on a position. Several factors are discussed, like experience, one’s aspirations and methods of which one works to complete tasks and projects.

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

Working hard is the best way to stand out. Give your full 110%. Steady hard work never goes unnoticed. “Hard work is reflective like a still pond” credit to my Chinese fortune cookie.

What are things you can do proactively boost your CV?

There are quite a few things you can do to boost your cv.

One thing I like to do when I have functional blocks of time is taking on programs in colleges that offer certification classes for the knowledge I know would aid me in what I am currently doing. This year I took a 6-week course at NYU on how to run a business. I also use online platforms like Lynda and or Skillshare that provide a vast selection of online classes with certifications. Lastly, volunteering at organizations that fall within the field you want to be in.

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

Entering any workforce, understand what your intentions are, what your short and long term goals may be. Allow yourself time to comprehend all aspects of the field you are entering and surround yourself with people who are veterans within the field.

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

Do’s and don’ts during an interview… I remember being asked a double ended question, what my pros where followed by what I can do to further enhance my pros, while interviewing for a retail chain I responded: “hmm nothing.” I left the interview knowing that I had said something that did not reflect me in the best way and would cost me the job. My intentions were positive, there is no possible way to master everything, but there is always an opportunity to learn and become even better. Once you understand that you are forever a student you can fully realize that there is always room for improvement… Which is what I should have said in the interview! Do come prepared.

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

Be hands-on, its the best experience I feel one can receive. Don’t be afraid to take on a task that you have never done before. NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK, It’s vital to go to gallery and museum openings, open studios, and panel discussions. Not only will you meet great people but its a way to stay informed about what’s happing in the world of art and the art market.

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

“Spilling over” at the Whitney. I was totally immersed in and enthralled by the explosions of color on each canvas. My favs were: “Bow Form Construction” by Sam Gilliam, “Dan Johnson’s Surprise” by Frank Bowling, “Septehedron” by Alvin Loving, and “Orange Mood by Helen Frankenthaler.”

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

“Springtime” by Pierre Auguste Cot, “Dark Gods” by Barbara Bullock, “Isi Ewu Na Nkwobi” by Chike Obeagu, “Adjoa” by Malene B, and “I Will Not Suffer For You” by Vanessa German. Can I add a sixth? “Society Womens Cloths (gold)” by El Anatsui.

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