Polina Berlin is a director at the Amsterdam and New York-based gallery GRIMM. She was previously the director of the Tribeca gallery Ortuzar Projects and held sales roles at Paula Cooper and Paul Kasmin Galleries. She has initiated numerous independent curatorial projects, including a billboard show in New York’s Chinatown and most recently organized In the Detail, a group exhibition featuring ten artists. Growing up in New York, Polina attended The Spence School before studying art history at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
What was your first job in the Arts?
I worked in the postwar and contemporary department at Christie’s – as an administrator for the evening sale.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
I learned that I wanted to work closely with living artists. My favorite part of my day was visiting the “vault” where the evening sale lots were kept – really, I just enjoyed being surrounded by art. It quickly became clear to me that I wanted to be closer to the “meat and bones” of the art world.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
I’ve loved art since I was a child. My parents had a big book of Byzantine icons reproduced on glossy paper with tissue inserted between each page. Spending hours examining these pictures, I understood art to be very mysterious and precious. I couldn’t read yet but I was able to glean stories from looking and I learned that art is a powerful avenue of communicating ideas and emotions. I’d say it has pretty much been my only consistent interest since then.
What do you do now?
I’m a Director at GRIMM in New York. I joined the gallery in October and it’s been a great pleasure to work in support of artists whom I’ve admired for some time and collaborate with colleagues who are curious and passionate.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
As a lowly intern at Gagosian I was tasked with making gallery exhibition maquettes. It was a pretty tedious and thankless job. One of the gallery directors asked me to deliver the maquettes to John Richardson’s apartment. We were working on the Picasso: Mosqueteros show and at the time I didn’t quite grasp that Mr. Richardson was the leading expert on Picasso and his personal biographer. Richardson’s sun-drenched Greenwich Village apartment was filled with busts from antiquity, rare books, and Picasso sketches. Very generously, he offered me tea and indulged my curiosity by telling me various anecdotes about his (frankly, remarkable) life. My most memorable experiences working in art – formative moments that have shaped how I think – have come about in these unexpected ways. So, the best advice I can offer is to have an open mind.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
I feel most accomplished about having figured out a way to do what I love – and to be able to support the artists I work with and those whose work I collect in even the most modest way. It feels very rewarding.
What has been a challenge for you?
It took me a while to find a mentor in the art world – but these days I’m lucky to have a few I admire greatly.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
I enjoy working with people who take pride in their work but are equally flexible and collaborative. A good boss will set you up with the tools you need to succeed in your role. A great one will inspire you to overcome challenges and give you the space to do your job as you see fit so that they can focus on their own.
What do you think makes a person hirable?
Candidates who are curious and passionate have always stood out to me. I’ve also gravitated towards people who are positive and energetic – those are the colleagues you want by your side when challenges arise.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?
I think the ability to take constructive criticism is very important. It took me a while to figure this out – I’m still getting the hang of it.
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
The best show I’ve seen in the past few months is the Goya drawing and print exhibition at the Met. With its quiet intensity, it’s a poignant reminder of Goya’s indelible impact on art history.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?
A Manet peony and works by Eva Hesse, Paul Thek, Cy Twombly and Ray Johnson come to mind….one day!
What artwork is in your home office?
Works by (in no particular order): Rosalind Nashashibi, Lee Lozano, Ivy Haldeman, Shannon Cartier Lucy, Tauba Auerbach, Kenturah Davis, Diane Severin Nguyen, Fin Simonetti, Dana Lok, Nikki Maloof and Eric Mack.