"We focus on giving students the skills to analyze any artwork, any performance, any installation. We want them to know how to look at a artwork, understand its context, its production, how it's sold, and where it may end up."
Kathy Battista, MA Contemporary Art Program Director at Sotheby's Institute of Art New York speaks about her passion for art, her experience living in London and New York art worlds, and what students can expect from the program.
Where did it all begin for you? How did you develop a passion for art?
My first memory of seeing art was at the Yale University Art Gallery as a small child. I remember seeing Jackson Pollock’s Number 4 1949 and feeling excited about it. I didn’t know why, but I’m sure now I was excited by the energy and chaos and the possibilities it offered regarding representation.
I was never very gifted artistically as a young person, although I was seriously involved with dance, in particular ballet, which I studied six days a week. This is something that I’ve come back to as an adult through researching performance art and working with projects like the E.A.T. retrospective last year in Salzburg. E.A.T. collaborated with Merce Cunningham, Deborah Hay, Alex Hay, Lucinda Childs, Robert Whitman and others who were the breaking down the boundaries between dance, sculpture and the visual arts.
As an undergraduate at Fordham University, I decided to dedicate my life and career to art. I took an Introduction to Art History class with Dr Heleniak, who became my mentor and is still a dear friend, and I was hooked. I realized that I wanted to learn more about artists and in turn impart that knowledge. Dr Heleniak, along with Dr Carmen Bambach who is now a Curator of Drawings at the Met, was so inspirational for my career. I try to emulate their role as my mentors with my own students.
Tell us about your career trajectory and how you came to work at the Institute in New York.
As I mentioned I was an Art History major as an undergraduate and then I went to the Courtauld Institute of Art to do an MA and stayed in London for a PhD and post-doc. During my PhD I founded a non-traditional education program for Artangel and was teaching at several schools in the greater London area, including Sotheby’s Institute, as well as working closely with emerging artists of my generation. When they opened the Institute in New York and wanted to start a contemporary program they invited me to come to New York to set it up. I thought I’d be here for a year and here I am a decade later! It was a culture clash after thirteen years in London: New York as a city seemed so business-oriented and I missed the close knit artistic community of London. I lived through an amazing time there: the yBas were gaining prominence, the east end of London was flourishing, Tate Modern was launched. My time in New York has been great, though, and we’ve seen in the past decade the new Whitney open, the Met Breuer launch, and the art market and interest in contemporary art has exponentially expanded.
Alongside your role as Program Director for the MA Contemporary Art, you are also a scholar, curator, and most recently Editor in Chief of the Benezit Dictionary of Artists at Oxford University Press (OUP). How does being an active professional in the art world benefit those who come to study on the MA?
I see my role as an art world professional as an important part of my teaching. All of the practice I do outside of school I bring into my lectures and tutorials inside SIA.
I remember Alfredo Jaar telling our students that teaching accounts for a third of his art practice. I feel the same way, although teaching is a bigger percentage of what I do. I love working with artists, creating projects, and adding to the history of avant-garde practice. Many of the artists I write about, both at OUP and in my larger research projects, have been obscured in the history of art and I feel it is partially my role to ensure their place in history. At OUP I’ve been passionate about bringing more female artists and more diversity to Benezit. I try to do the same in my curatorial work and my teaching.
The days of sitting in a dark classroom, looking at slides and being an art historian are over for most of us. Being in the art world today often means wearing several hats, being able to talk to everyone from artists to collectors or funders, and having multi-dimensional careers. I try to impart this to my students and the thing that brings me the most job satisfaction is when I see my graduates thriving. Many of them are running galleries, writing articles and essays, doing doctoral work, and curating exhibitions. I get so excited and I’m so proud of the work that they do.
"Being in the art world today often means wearing several hats, being able to talk to everyone from artists to collectors or funders, and having multi-dimensional careers."
In your opinion, what advantages are there to studying contemporary art in New York?
New York has been the center of the art market since the 1950s. Most of the landmark sales of artworks happen here, which means it has a thriving art industry. One advantage for students is the opportunity to see art everywhere: from museums, galleries, and studios to public art, art in corporate spaces—even my dentist is an art collector so I look at a Terence Koh neon on the ceiling while I’m reclined in the chair! Studying or living in New York means that art is all around you. Also, of course there are many opportunities for internships and paid positions as well.
What can students who take your Master’s course expect?
Students on the MA in Contemporary Art can expect a lot of work. We read a lot, we see a lot, we are on the move a lot. However, we also have a lot of fun and camaraderie. We are a nimble group and we travel together so we get to know each other really well. Besides an amazing faculty who are so committed to teaching these students, they have each other as resources for life. Another thing I’m very proud of is how many of our graduates continue to collaborate with each other. They run art fairs and galleries together, publish together, curate together. I tell them on the first day of the MA “look around, these are your people for life, like it or not.” I still work closely with my colleagues from graduate school. It can be a very powerful thing—the cohort you form as a graduate group.
How would you capture the MA in Contemporary Art experience into three words?
Immersive. Exciting. Intensive.
What advice would you have for someone starting out in their career in the international art world?
My advice to someone starting out in the international art world is to focus on what they really enjoy doing, whether that is writing, curating, working with artists, or raising money for organizations. There are so many facets of the art world that one can work in, the possibilities are enormous, much wider than when I was coming out of grad school. Most importantly, you have to love what you do so I recommend focusing on what one’s strengths and interests are and building a career from there. And being ready to work hard and travel a lot are two key factors as well! If you want to have a quiet job sitting at a desk and going home at 5pm, the contemporary art world might not be the best place for you! If you want to travel, work intensively with artists, and have a constantly evolving career, then this is your place!