This week we are delighted to bring you a new Frank Talk with Paddy Johnson! Paddy Johnson is the editor of the forthcoming book Impractical Spaces and the founding editor of the contemporary art blog Art F City. With Nancy Kleaver, she runs PARADE, a non-profit arts organization that commissions civically engaged art in Queens. She was the first recipient of the Arts Writers Grant for blogging in 2008, and a two-time nominee for Best Critic at the Rob Pruitt Awards in 2009 and 2010. She won the Village Voice Web Award for best Art Blog in 2010 and in 2011. Paddy has contributed to The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Economist, CNN, VICE, Gizmodo, Observer, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic. She was a columnist for Artnet, The L Magazine, and Art in America. In 2014, she was the subject of a VICE profile. She teaches new media art and writing in New York, where she lives with her partner. Please enjoy this weekend’s Frank Talk with Paddy!
What was your first job in the Arts?
In June of 2001, I got a job through an old classmate in the exhibitions department of the New York Public Library. There were about seven or eight of us, all underpaid contract workers, framing old prints for exhibitions, and making Plexiglas book mounts. There wasn’t much to do for the number of employees they had hired, but as the year went on, I got more and more of my friends hired. We spent all day in the shop, making mounts and talking about fine art. I didn’t know it at the time, but that job would shape what I look for today—opportunities to engage others in conversations about art.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
My student visa expired and the library didn’t have any options to sponsor a work permit for the type of work I was doing. So, I guess you could say, I learned how to navigate US immigration system! A few years later, I got my green card.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
Like many people in the arts, I’ve known most of my life. I went to art school and when I moved to New York, I did it with the intention of building a career in the arts.
What do you do now?
I am a writer, non-profit administrar, and communications specialist. I have an unusually large breadth of experience in the art world, which is helpful in the roles I take on, because it helps me predict the interests and needs of different readers, clients, and audiences.
Where are you from?
Originally, Guelph Ontario, which is just outside of Toronto. But, I’ve lived in New York for twenty years, and everyone here comes from somewhere else. So, maybe I have the license to say I’m from New York?
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Remember that time and marketing isn’t free. I constantly see artist project budgets that include line items for everything but their own labor, and organizations that assume all social media marketing can be done by an intern. Zeroing out those line items has a cost. Burnout, and the misplaced idea that marketing is just something that happens in your spare time. Like writing, successful communications looks effortless, but has hundreds of hours invested in achieving that look.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
I founded the contemporary blog Art F City in 2005, which slow rose to fame during the aughts and published many groundbreaking essays including Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes of Google Street View. The essay was named one of the most important works of the decade by Ben Davis when he was at ArtInfo. One of my greatest strengths is finding extraordinary talent and helping it grow. That can be seen in the alumni of Art F City, which include Julia Halperin the Executive Editor of artnet News, Karen Archey, Curator of Time-based Media at the Stedelijk Museum and Hillary Lebouf, a Digital Marketing Manager for Google icloud. The people I’ve worked with are all superheroes.
What has been a challenge for you?
Well, most things aren’t worth doing if they’re not a challenge, so I think the honest, but boring answer is everything. But, one of the challenges I face, and I know I’m not alone, is knowing how to turn work off from time to time. I like to be immersed in art, but if I don’t come up for air every once and awhile, I find my relationships suffer. Making time for my partner and family is really important to me, and while I love sharing art with them, I can’t expect them to always engage on those terms. And that’s a good thing. Life shouldn’t be defined by just one interest or activity.
What is something you do every day at work?
I use Twitter constantly, even when I’m not posting. It’s a great way to keep up with the news (although, these days that’s not a low stress activity), and there are a lot of fantastic people on the platform. Beyond that, though, the reason the platform works at all, is based on a common art strategy; limitations that force creativity. Even with the expanded character count—up to 280 from 140—it’s often a challenge to fit a message in that short window of space. And there’s nothing I don’t love more than a good challenge.
What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?
Spending three days assuring the managers of a closeted gay competitive hot dog eater that the benefit I’d branded around eating dicks would not make him look like he was eating dicks might top the list. I feel like I should put the fact that I succeeded in my list of greatest accomplishments.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
Good employees are people who care about making their work the best it can be. Caring is really the start of all good working relationships, because it makes a person resourceful and exacting in a way that they might not be if they had no stake in the work. A good boss has a clear vision, and exceptional communications skills. They are demanding and not afraid to make hard decisions, but compassionate and skilled as a listener. A boss with these qualities can build visionary projects with an unrivaled team.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?
The smartest most successful people I know tend to spend a large amount of time sharing information with other professionals. Success requires a network. A simple thing? Whenever possible, work to remember the names of professionals you meet at openings and other events. People need to feel they are valued before any opportunity ever gets extended.
Are there any tips you can give people entering the workforce?
Be patient, but not too patient. A career in the arts is a marathon, not a sprint, as they say. But at the same time, opportunities don’t just land at your doorstep. You have to go out and find them.
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
If you haven’t seen Nicolas Party’s exhibition Pastel at Flag Foundation (up through Feb 15), I recommended heading out to see it asap. Party completely transformed the architecture of the space, creating arched doorways and colored walls. Then, he used soft pastel to draw murals in the style developed during the medium’s golden age: 18th century France by well-known painters like Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Throughout the space, additional pastel renderings by artists like Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Wayne Thiebaud complete the work. The colors in this space literally vibrate, and the pastel use feels luscious and almost romantic. It’s a deeply inspiring show that exhibits the virtues of a medium under appreciated by the contemporary art world.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?
Jack Whitten, Jessica Stoller, Matthew Day Jackson, Dana Schutz, Nicolas Sassoon and Rick Silva, Gretchen Bender. I think I’d need a bigger house, too, for all this work!