Kathy Battista is a renowned scholar, curator, and faculty on the MA Contemporary Art program at Sotheby's Institute of Art-New York. Kathy has also served as Editor in Chief of the Oxford University Press (OUP) Benezit Dictionary of Artists—a definitive art historical canon where many Sotheby's Institute alumni have published articles. In March 2018, Kathy and OUP launched a new "Women artists in conversation" series, which shines a light on both established and emerging female artists. Kathy recently sat down with us to discuss the series, the student experience at Sotheby's Institute, and the need for more female artists and art world professionals.
How did your Oxford University Press interview series with female artists come about?
I am just concluding a three year post as Editor in Chief of Benezit Dictionary of Artists at Oxford University Press. During my tenure I focused on adding more women artists, artists of color, and artists from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. My colleagues at Benezit asked me to do a few podcasts, which led to the idea of a monthly interview with a woman artist. Since I work with so many female artists, it is part of my practice anyway. I love giving younger women artists in particular a forum for exposure.
What is the most surprising or unexpected piece of information you’ve gleaned from the interviews thus far?
I’ve learned so many unexpected things from artist interviews. It’s hard to pick one! What has happened on many occasions is that I learn about other artists who have worked in a similar context or medium. It’s a network that grows as you conduct each interview. Sometimes I’ve learned personal information that shouldn’t be divulged in a public forum. It’s important to be discreet and respect the intimacy of that dialogue.
Why is it important for art world professionals to visit artist studios or foster relationships with artists?
Is it vital for all art professionals to visit studios and to foster close relationships with artists. First, artists are the core of the entire industry. All the artwork that one sees in museums, galleries and art fairs starts with the artists, most of the time in their studios. All art professionals work closely with artists in one aspect or another, so it is essential that we understand their needs, concerns and goals. It is also inspiring and a privilege of our industry to know and be around artists, who are independent thinkers and are always on the forefront of new technologies, as well as innovation.
In what ways are Sotheby's Institute students encouraged to develop these types of working relationships with artists? How has this aspect of the Sotheby's Institute experience affected the students during and after their time here?
Sotheby's Institute students are directly encouraged to develop working relationships with artists throughout their time on campus. This starts very early in the program when we take students to artist studios as part of our core class Navigating the Art World New York. Studio visits are also part of several courses at the Institute: In our Curating classes, students are required to conduct their own studio visits and to submit a journal of their notes; these visits are also documented in an Instagram account where they share their visits with artists in preparation for the exhibitions. I think the relationships that students cultivate with artists have helped them understand the great responsibility they have in their careers. I think these relationships have also led to students having greater clarity about which aspect of the art world they want to focus on.
Approaching artists can sometimes seem intimidating. Do you have any tips for breaking the ice?
I think most artists are excited when a curator or researcher is interested in their work. I always tell my students not to be intimated—even artists who have had a lot of commercial or institutional support can be very approachable. My students reached out to Alfredo Jaar, who is a very successful and acclaimed artist, and he agreed to create a commission for their graduate project! It never hurts to ask.
It is important to know what the artist has created in the past and to be prepared to ask intelligent questions. It’s vital to be familiar with an artist’s website, read all interviews or publications on the work, and show that you have done due diligence. Everyone’s time is valuable and no artist wants to rehash things s/he has said in print on several occasions. Come up with new questions!
According to the 2012 US census, women made up 60% of arts graduates but only 46% of all working artists. Though that was 6 years ago, many reports continue to be published about the disparity between men and women in this business. What do you make of these stats? Have you personally noticed any shifts in the demographic of the art world workforce?
I have a lot to say about art world gender stats! I have written about this in my forthcoming book. I think that women, even today, put their careers on hold for family commitments, having children, etc. So I’m not surprised about the stats. However, as curators and scholars we need to include women artists wherever possible in exhibitions, articles and books. Exposure is important!
Featured image: Zoe Buckman, Champ (2018). Photo by Veli-Matti Hoikka