In this installment of our Women Working in the Arts series, we are excited to profile Kelly Olshan.
Olshan is an arts manager and visual artist passionate about providing fiscal and professional development resources for creative practitioners. She graduated Valedictorian from UNC Asheville, where she obtained a BFA in Painting, and holds an MA in Arts Administration from Columbia University. She currently serves as New York Foundation for the Art (NYFA)’s Program Officer, Career Advice and Training, where she oversees a host of professional development programs for individual artists.
Prior to joining NYFA, she served as the Program Manager for Queens Council on the Arts for four years, where she oversaw the organization’s Professional Development programs, High School to Art School, and the founding manager of the Artist Commissioning Program, of which she authored the book How You Can Commission Art. which encourages everyday art lovers to support individual artists through commissions with as little as $100.
Previously, she has held roles at Americans for the Arts, Art21, Artforum, and Creative Capital. Her research on nonprofit professional development programs for artists has been published in the Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society. She participated in NYFA’s Emerging Leaders program, and serves as a frequent panelist for NYC’s Percent for Art Program as well as on the Advisory Committee of the DOT Public Art program. As a practicing visual artist, her sculptural oil paintings invite the viewer to navigate towards an unattainable space, and have been exhibited nationally.
My 3D paintings invite the viewer to navigate an imagined landscape. Abstracted, incongruous staircases defy spatial logic: steps go missing, heights fall out of proportion, and the structures spiral in on themselves. These steps defy the possibility of a physical climb, and ultimately lead the viewer to nowhere. In architecture, stairs represent a link – both real and imagined – between where we are and where we want to go. When they’re functional, they’re a means of physical and symbolic elevation; when they’re broken, they act as false pathways to an inaccessible ambition.
Painted amidst an otherworldly atmosphere built up through thin washes of oil paint, the color choices evoke water, skyscapes, and the horizon at a distance. The work plays with space physically as well as illusionistically. The 3D panels proceed and recede, highlighting paintings within paintings, or worlds within worlds. The imagery often expands beyond the rectangular composition, appearing broken yet related to one another. Ultimately, my work confronts the idealism and anxiety of navigating towards the unattainable, asking the question, what if the experience of wanting was a place?
Tell us about your path working in the arts thus far. What was your first job and how has your career evolved over the years?
Before I had the language to describe what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to combine art and business, structure and creativity. I studied and practiced studio art intensively in high school and undergrad, but didn’t want to be solely an artist. When I discovered arts administration was a job, I realized, “Oh, there’s a name for what I’ve been trying to describe!”
I then applied to graduate school in Arts Administration, ultimately landing at Columbia University’s program. I did a series of internships and temporary positions to make inroads in the arts management world - including with Americans for the Arts, Art21, Artforum, and Creative Capital. These experiences ultimately confirmed that my true passion and specialty is supporting practicing artists.
My first job out of grad school - and first significant job in the arts - was when Queens Council on the Arts hired me to run their Artist Commissioning Program. At the time, it was a completely new program - all they had was money and an idea, which is a really exciting place to be for someone who loves building programs. I had the privilege of building out the initiative from scratch, designing something that empowered everyday people to commission contemporary artists. My role grew at QCA, from running that program to running several programs and participating in the higher level visioning for the organization.
You're now a Program Officer with NYFA. Can you tell us more about the professional development programs you oversee and how artists can get involved?
Essentially, I manage a host of career development resources for artists of all disciplines and stages of their career. These range from one-on-one sessions with art industry experts to intensive, multi-day training programs. The former includes Doctor’s Hours and NYFA Coaching, where essentially it’s my job to invite art rockstars (curators, gallerists, consultants, etc) to provide individual feedback to creatives. The latter involves partnering with arts organizations and academic institutions across the city, state, country, and even globally. For example, we’ll go to the Art Students League, visit art schools like RISD, or even travel internationally to China or Guatemala to execute these “Artist as Entrepreneur” programs for communities of artists. Our team also offers workshops to further artists’ careers on everything from marketing strategies, exhibiting work, art law, grant writing, NFTs, etc. For all of these, it’s about conceptualizing what artists need to further their careers, then design and implement educational programming to help them get there. For all things NYFA Learning and/or to join us for an upcoming program or session, visit NYFA Learning’s website.
While they both likely inform and inspire the other in certain aspects, balancing being a practicing artist with a position in arts administration must have its challenges too. Do you have advice on how to achieve professional growth in both worlds simultaneously considering we're often told to focus on one thing at a time?
I love this question, as it’s something I’m always thinking about and happy to support others trying to occupy both roles. I think the first and biggest barrier you have to continuously tackle is psychological. It’d be so easy for me to say, “Why do I bother making art?” given I have this job I love that enables me to be creative, work in the arts, and earn a steady paycheck. But for me, being an artist is the entire raison d’être of this work. It’s the difference between being a lackluster manager versus an innovator that truly understands artists’ needs. If I take the artist piece away, I might as well apply my project management skills to another field and make 3X the money. Thus constantly reminding yourself of your why is the #1 priority. Given that, here are some additional strategies I recommend and try to put in place:
- Think of It as One Thing: What if you thought of both your arts management and artistic roles as one portfolio of cultural work -- the same way you might have different bodies of artist work? I’ve learned so many skills from my arts management work that I cross-pollinate into my artistic practice, and vice versa. Hard management/business skills gleaned from project management help me manage my artistic practice, and the process of creating something from nothing learned from artmaking mirrors the process of developing programs. When appropriate, the connections you make and resources you become aware of from one can also support the other.
- Time Management: This isn’t rocket science, but is important. I try to be very strategic with how I spend my time. Even little things can make a difference, like committing to work on art applications during your lunch break. Now that I’m largely working from home, I try to work from my studio so I’m looking at my art, as well as more likely to put in an hour or two of studio time after work.
- Establish Mentors: When you’re wondering if you can do something, it’s always helpful to look to others as role models. I admire dual artists and arts administrators such as Alyson Pou, Michelle Levy, Shervone Neckles, and Natalia Nakazawa, who remind me it's possible to excel in both roles.
What are some of the top skills you think artists should develop when it comes to business?
First and foremost, it’s about defining your goals. It’s easy to internalize generic and often outdated, reductive notions of artistic success -- e.g., get gallery representation, become instafamous, etc. These may or may not have anything to do with your goals. One of the exciting and deeply challenging things about the arts is there are so many ways to define success - financial, critical, etc. My advice: figure out what you want in specific terms and reverse engineer a system to help you get there.
The rest are learnable skills. While each can be more or less important based on your definition of success, I’d say the key topics are writing about and articulating your work, marketing, grant writing/fundraising, budgeting, and networking.
What are you working on currently? Can you share some of the themes you explore in your work?
My sculptural paintings depict an imagined landscape. I utilize a lot of abstracted architectural references - principally, staircases -- to create an otherworldly environment for the viewer to navigate. In the work, staircases are a metaphor for ambition, striving, and struggle; they function as the physical and metaphysical link between where we are and where we want to go.
Lately, my paintings have started to expand beyond the rectangle and into the realm of installation. The geometries now depart from the panel, sections of an imagined world extending onto the wall, or dripping down onto the floor and into the viewers’ space. “Perserveration Installation” is a mockup for how this could function in a gallery space, and something I’m working on in the studio right now.
I create spaces viewers want to but ultimately cannot escape into. I’m interested in psychological themes such as perpetually delayed gratification, unattainable happiness, as well as the ambiguity and idealism associated with ambition.
Is there one achievement you're most proud of as a practicing artist?
My most recent solo show in my hometown of Birmingham, AL, titled Portals (see photos here), was likely the most positive experience I’ve had as an artist for a confluence of reasons. It was an example of me making something happen for myself as an artist, leveraging a connection I had through my arts management work. A program constituent of mine at QCA introduced me to a colleague and former roommate of hers, Sara Garden Armstrong, who happened to have returned from NYC to run a gallery in Birmingham called Ground Floor Contemporary. We connected, and she invited me to submit an exhibition proposal to their review committee. I applied all my professional practices skills to that proposal: writing a clear narrative that articulates the show concept, meticulously organizing the order of the work samples, and creating a complete to-scale mockup of the gallery space (an extra step, but can be really effective!). A year later I got to showcase my work to my original artistic community, deepening relationships I’ve had since childhood. Working in artist services, we always talk about how art can strengthen community, but I never experienced it for myself as an artist so acutely as I did there in my hometown.
What are a few goals you've set for 2022 or over the next several years? Do you have any exciting exhibitions, projects, or collaborations coming up that you'd like to share?
Yes, I always have working goals! Here’s what I’m hoping to accomplish in 2022 and the next few years:
Art Goals/Projects in Development:
- Do a public art project: I am dying to dip my toe into public art! Given my work is so much about transitional spaces, ambition, and navigating impossible architectures, placing it within cityscapes feels like the perfect fit. I’ve had the chance to serve as a panelist for DOT’s Public Art program as well as NYC’s Percent for Art program, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do this as an individual artist. I’m currently in conversation and working on a proposal for a Brooklyn-based space I’m really excited about that is visible from the street level. I will keep you posted if it comes to fruition!
- Do a Solo Exhibition in the Tri-state Area: I would love to stage a solo exhibition in the Greater NYC or Tri-State area. I’ve increasingly started to think of my sculptural paintings as one interconnected piece that reference and respond to one another, so they are really meant to be shown together.
- Get Better at Installations: My paintings are starting to become installations interacting with built environments, but fabricating these things is a learning curve for me. I’m trying to figure out how to paint on the wall without a gallerist murdering me for actually oil painting on their wall. I’m currently doing experiments with vinyl, acetate, and etc, as well as working on setting up studio visits to ask other artists how they do this.
Arts Management Goals/Projects in Development:
- Grow NYFA Coaching program: I have officially joined the NYFA Coaching roster, and am really looking forward to working with artists individually on their goals. You can book a session with me or any other coach here. I’m also working on expanding the NYFA Coaching program to offer multi-part sessions that enable artists to tackle the projects that intimidate them most over time. For more on the NYFA Coaching program and my plans to develop it, visit this blog.
- Travel Internationally to Train Artists: Our team recently submitted a proposal to an international partner I’m really excited about, which would involve us traveling abroad to run a professional development program for artists. I’d also love to bolster our partnerships with colleges and universities nationwide, as I think it’s so important to prepare students for professional art careers as part of their arts education.