Marco Antonini stood in front of a tiny classroom at the Brooklyn art collective 3rd Ward on Monday night working a PowerPoint and explaining to a group of young artists how to make it in the New York art world.
“The most important thing with collectors is never pull their sleeve,” he said. “Never ever. Rich people, they can become very self conscious, and the last thing they want is for you to be nice to them just because you know they’re collectors. Never ask them for anything. Be very cool, otherwise they will probably escape.”
Some of the 10 or so people sitting around the table took notes; others just listened. Mr. Antonini wore a sweater with the sleeves rolled up and a cool watch as he presided over his class.
“I don’t know why it’s like this, but it’s a rule: never ever approach the gallery directly. Never ever. I didn’t make this rule and I don’t want the world to be like this, but it is. Don’t ask for a studio visit, don’t ask to show them your work, don’t do anything. Sooner or later something will happen.”
When he is not teaching at 3rd Ward-his course is part of this winter’s “Art and Ideas” program– Mr. Antonini writes for art magazines and works as an independent curator putting together shows with non-profits like the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, and the Ise Foundation. Born in the city of Pescara in Italy, the 32-year-old has lived in New York since 2003, having spent his formative years as a college student playing in a post-rock band and running in the once-vibrant art scene in 1990s Bologna.
Monday night was the third of six meetings that comprise the course, “an introduction and gradual deconstruction of the system of individuals and institutions that constitute New York’s art world” that cost $200 for 3rd Ward members and $250 for everyone else. The first session Mr. Antonini used to introduce his students to theoretical concepts of the art world as articulated by Arthur Danto and George Dickie, and the second to explain all the different neighborhoods in New York and the history of the scenes in Chelsea, SoHo, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side.
Monday night saw Mr. Antonini get into more practical, career-related concerns than the ones he’d covered in the first two sessions.
“OK, this is very serious,” he said. “Apart from the work, there’s no more important thing than networking. You need a group of people who have your same interests. You need a sidekick. Sidekicks are important when you go to openings.”
Earlier in the day Mr. Antonini talked to the Observer about how he had pitched the course to 3rd Ward education director J. Perelmuter.
“I see it humbly myself, pretty much as a professional development thing, but I have the hope that apart from this I can also communicate something else, which is a better understanding of how everything works, not just what to do what not to do.” The technical stuff, he said, aspiring artists could get from written manuals, such as Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber. He wanted his students to come away with an understanding of New York art history and a conceptual grasp on the world they are trying to penetrate.
“It’s largely based on my own personal experience,” Mr. Antonini said. “One of the valuable things is that I’m not, like, the biggest, hottest shot in the world. I’m a person who is somewhat at their level. I have six years of experiences in this city, which is not a short time, of course, but they have been tense years for me, because I was coming from outside. The things I talk about, they can relate to and sort of touch, you know? I’m talking about experiences they could have very soon. I mean, not tomorrow, but…”
Class ended a little after 10pm on Monday. Afterward, three students, each of them a distinct species of outsider, lingered in the classroom and talked about how the art world had treated them thus far.
Terence Smith, a painter in his 50s who lived and worked in Louisville, Kentucky before moving to New York in June, said he had come north in search of gallery representation.
“I’m here to sell art,” he said. “The economy– I don’t worry about that. I’ve seen it rise and fall too many times to worry about that. This is where people buy art. And if you can make it selling three, four pictures a year here, it’s the top of the game.”
28-year-old Allison Maletz, a photographer who has lately been trying to establish herself as a practitioner of more interdisciplinary multimedia art, said she came to New York by way of RISD, as part of a mass migration that included 300 of her classmates. Though she had some success with her photographs early on, succeeding almost right way in scoring a two-year contract with a Chelsea gallery, she stumbled when she started trying to branch out into other kinds of work. Dismayed, she moved to London, which felt more hospitable to her experiments, and after completing an MFA in Fine Art Media at the Slade School of Fine Art and being included in the Liverpool Biennial, she has returned home with a sense of momentum.
“It’s exciting to be in this city again,” Ms. Maletz said. “It is the land of opportunity. People come here to fulfill their dreams.” The art world course had attracted her, she said, in part because she thought it would help her meet other artists.
“So many of the people I graduated with came from art families, or came from money and had a way to propel themselves to the top through networking,” she said. “And I don’t have that. My family’s not from here. They’re not artists. All I have are my friends and the people I meet.”
The third student in the room was a 28-year-old artist who goes by Raghava KK. He is a recent transplant from Mumbai, and by any fair metric he is the most established artist taking Mr. Antonini’s course. His work has been sold by Christie’s, and his gallery shows in India sold out reliably, in part because his work-much of it created using only his hands and feet– was extremely popular with Bollywood stars.
The reason Mr. KK came to New York with his wife and young son six months ago, he said, was that his paintings had lately taken a turn for the dark, and were no longer being so well received by his patrons.
“They got a panic attack when they saw my new work and withdrew like slithering snakes into their little bubble,” he said in an email Tuesday.
Speaking in front of Mr. Smith and Ms. Maletz on Monday night, Mr. KK said his time in New York so far had left him bewildered. And Mr. Antonini’s course, he said, has only served to make him more anxious.
“I thought New York was the Mecca for cutting edge thought processes,” Mr. KK said. “And it appears as though it’s not-instead it is the perfect place to sell yourself. I think that’s what this class has taught me. I came here wearing rose tinted glasses.”
He added: “The reason I took this class is that I thought I would speak to someone who is accomplished, who has done it, who has made it, who is going to rub off some of that enthusiasm. It’s a certain optimism that I’m looking for, and there’s more cynicism than optimism. I’m getting a sense of what America is in this class. I think that’s what I wanted and I’m getting it, but I’m also getting a certain vibe that’s sort of depressing.”
Mr. Antonini himself had the opposite reaction when he arrived in New York in the fall of 2003.
“I expected it to be a modern, efficient, and technological city but then I realized there were rats and piles of trash everywhere, and this sort of urban decay that’s everywhere, even in the parts of the city that are supposed to be hottest and most desirable,” he said. “It made me love the city immediately because I felt like it was a city that could express two souls.”
This was two years after he graduated from the University of Bologna with an arts administration degree specializing in Medieval art-an experience that made him so sick of fine art that he took up a career as a graphic designer. But as soon as he moved to New York, he became enchanted by the contemporary art scene, and start reading magazines, going to openings, and independently curating small shows with artists whom he knew as friends. He began writing pieces for places like Contemporary, New York Arts, and Flash Art and eventually, in 2007, quit his day job and enrolled in the art history program at City College of New York . He completed his degree this spring with a specialization in contemporary art, and has since been scratching by as a curator, a writer, and a teacher
Mr. Antonini believes there is something to be excited about in New York right now. Though he mourns the crumpling of the once-promising Williamsburg art scene–“At some point we understood that people moved to the neighborhood because of the cheap rent and not for any other reason”–he sees in the broken economy signs of a new spirit of experimentation among young artists who have been liberated from the expectation of commercial success.
“What happens is the artists who really sell, they start to do more commercial work to make sure they keep selling, and the artists who weren’t selling before are saying what the fuck, if I’m not going to sell anything, at least I’m going to try something new,” Mr. Antonini said. “It goes in two directions. But you can see a sense of adventure. When it becomes clear you’re not going to make money from what you make, you make it just because. You just do it, instead of working hard to secure a visible gallery space when it becomes impossible to do that.”
And yet Mr. Antonini approaches his lessons with an obvious belief that everyone who is in his class has a fine chance of succeeding and eventually making a real living from their work.
“Keep everything labeled, keep everything documented,” he told them on Monday night.
“Try to have an archive of things that you do and try to have things retrievable. You never know. A friend of mine has always been a really good painter but he kind of worked in the shadows for ten years, producing a lot of work. When he finally hit, it really happened– it can always happen, even if it’s a little late-and he started selling everything. Everything he had was going for sale. People were on lists for his work, and his gallerist went back to him and said, ‘Give me old work. I can sell everything you give me at this point.’ And he had so few things because he’d destroyed pieces and pieces were damaged. If he had saved all his work and he had kept his shit together he could have gotten hundreds of thousands of euros out of that work. So, I mean, oy!”