This week we chat with Nina Mdivani, an independent curator and writer, originally from Tbilisi, Georgia. Nina received her undergraduate degree from Tbilisi State University and Mount Holyoke College in International Relations and Gender Studies. After graduating from college, through the Columbia University initiative, Nina coordinated various social programs that helped low-income families and the homeless of New York City. Later Nina worked at the Georgian Mission to the United Nations in the capacity of an advisor. Nina has curated several exhibitions including New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness Part I at Assembly Room (LES), and Part II at Kunstraum LLC (Brooklyn); King is Female at Villa Wessel Kunstverein, Iserlohn, Germany, October 2018; Natela Iankoshvili Centennial at MoMa Tbilisi, Georgia, June 2018; Conversion Device by Rusudan Khizanishvili at Mark Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils, Latvia April 2018. Currently, Nina lives and works in New York City. In 2019-2020 she was selected as Curator-in-Residence at Kunstraum, a Brooklyn-based art hub that serves as a multidisciplinary platform for daring and envelope-pushing curatorial initiatives. Nina’s next curatorial project is an exhibition opening in April at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. We are delighted to bring you Nina’s Frank Talk below!
What was your first job in the Arts?
My first job in the Arts was a paid internship at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. As I was completing my undergraduate degree on an international scholarship it was part of my work-study process.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
Prior to moving to the US for my studies I lived in Georgia, Eastern Europe where I was born. Although I visited various museums in Europe before coming here working as an intern for this museum, opened my eyes on how museums operate, what goes into creating an exhibition, how educational aspect inside of an art museum comes together.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
I was born into a family of a scientist and a journalist, and very early on I was exposed to art and literature. Pretty soon I realized that I wanted to pursue art as a career, but my younger years fell into the time of civil war and general unrest in Georgia. So, I listened to my family’s pleas to pursue a more ‘stable’ and ‘solid’ line of education in International Relations. After graduating from college, I worked in various institutions either doing sociological research (Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health) or working in more practical areas directly related to International Relations (Georgian Mission to the United Nations).
What do you do now?
Over time I realized once more that going back to art truly fed my soul and was something that I needed to do. I always took opportunities to take art theory courses and various seminars on philosophy of art, as well as to do freelance projects associated with writing about art, etc. One thing led to another and right now I am finishing my position as 2019-2020 Curator-in-Residence at Kunstraum, Brooklyn. Kunstraum is a shared studio and gallery space, an art hub built upon a strong team between CEOs, gallery assistants, Curator-in-Residence and the guest curators via a shared work model. Its gallery program facilitates critical thinking about ongoing social, cultural, artistic issues through choosing the most thought-provoking and cohesive curatorial concepts via Open Call process. Over the past year as a resident curator I worked on putting together exhibitions as well as overseeing additional programming for the space. My residency culminated in the two-part exhibition New York Meets Tbilisi: Defining Otherness that cumulatively presented nine Georgian and five New York-based artists in visual dialogue with each other. Exploring phenomenon of Otherness in various aspects through artworks and finding correspondences as well as contrasts was challenging and exciting. Part I of the exhibition was presented at Assembly Room in the Lower East Side, and Part II opened at Kunstraum in March and is still on view. Unfortunately, not too many people able were able to see this second part due to the circumstances, but I am still very glad that I did this show.
Where are you from?
I am from Georgia, Eastern Europe.
What is the arts community like there?
Georgia has a vibrant art scene with more and more contemporary artists doing genuinely authentic and thought-provoking things. These current developments build upon age-old artistic traditions of visual arts, cinema and theater, but also reflect more recent traumas and transformations that the country has experienced. Tbilisi Art Fair is a young, but a well-organized event that was planning its third edition this year. There are several established galleries and smaller spaces that continuously are working on showcasing artists and exporting them to the West.
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
I think it shapes me to the extent that I want to expose this less represented region of the artistic production to the West. I think that the inherent knowledge I got from living there until the age of twenty-one shaped me into a person who looks at history and roots, encouraging my writing as means of analysis.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Find your creative strength and build on it, combine theory and practice, look at all the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art you can see, do not pay attention to your biases, and of course, network.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
In 2018 my book King is Female: Three Artists from Georgia was published in Berlin in conjunction with Kornfeld Galerie and was accompanied by the exhibition by the same name. This is a first such book that explores various factors influencing paths of women artists in Eastern Europe, narrated by the three outstanding masters of their mediums of sculpture, painting, and photography. Women artists need to overcome countless challenges to rise to the top of their careers and it is even more so in countries with traditional gender stereotypes, where many expectations are hidden from view, but still palpable.
What has been a challenge for you?
A challenging part of switching my career trajectory is that I do not come from ‘traditional’ curatorial path that involves either art school, art history degree or specialized curatorial program. Although I might consider pursuing a more academic route later on, my life experience and education is also valuable and I can bring to the table a more rounded understanding of the global cultural events.
What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?
At my current home office every day I am finding a healthy balance between my kids and my work. The big shift of schedule due to now homeschooling tasks makes this balance precarious, but things get done on time nonetheless.
What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?
For my ongoing exhibition at Kunstraum a sculptural head piece by a Georgian artist required a worn-out cardboard box as a pedestal. To the artist this box was a stand-in for a gravestone to which this piece is conceptually connected. So, I walked around near my home as well as in Brooklyn looking for a pristine, worn-out box of a right size to be this ‘gravestone.’ I never realized how many of thrown-out boxes are completely new. In the end, I bought one at Staples and used it before installing at the gallery.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
A good employee is reliable, detail-oriented, able to think independently and do her/his own research if necessary, not expecting to be paid for every small single task, but looks at this as a foundation of her/his own future. A good boss recognizes your strengths and builds on them, pushes you to the best of your abilities, sometimes outside of your comfort zone, and encourages you through constructive feedback.
What do you think makes a person hirable?
In the time of transition that we are experiencing as industry right now a hirable person is someone who is highly adaptable, has a wide variety of intra-personal and digital skills along with a demonstrated record of previous accomplishments relevant to the tasks/positions she/he is applying for. A wider angle of seeing beyond the minute dynamics as well as a drive is very valuable in any industry. By wider angle I mean an ability to think through the long-term goals. Drive is ambition that is productive.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?
I think that producing an accurate, consistent, thought-through story of your professional life is very important. It is a skill that is acquired and I personally worked on it, coming from a culture, where self-presentation is still scorned at. When you are applying for a position you need to look at it as an exchange of resources; what resource you can contribute and how you can benefit from resources that your potential employer already has and vice versa. You arrive at this through research and strategic thinking, then you need to show this homework during the interview. Also, I think your visual style matters. Art industry is all about presentation and taste, looking chic is as important as underlining your intellectual capacities.
Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?
As an advice to beginner curators I would say to put your legwork in. Go to artists whose art is interesting/inspiring to you; good studio visits matter, they build relationships and are basis for future projects. Be inquisitive and let the artists talk, I do love this part of my work. Also know your base, go to as many panels, artist talks, conferences as you can, ask questions and analyze the answers; this will help you to see what themes are important to you and in general; how and where you can contribute.
Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share?
One recent experience that will probably stand out to me for a while will be online panel I organized as part for my exhibition at Kunstraum titled “Eastern European Art & the Age of Extremity.” It was scheduled as a physical event for March 29 and we had to change it into online format. On the day I still went to the physical space to moderate the panel and it was such an eerie experience, it was the first time I ventured outside my home for weeks (at that point) and the apocalyptic city I saw was completely disorienting. During the panel we all struggled with comprehending the reality of the moment.
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
Andy Warhol exhibition at Whitney stands out the most as it was able to present as jaded a figure as Warhol in an encyclopedic and yet, playful way. Alice Neel exhibition at David Zwirner was also striking, showing various phases of Neel’s artistic transformation. Also, the remake of MoMa of course is refreshing, a bit sketchy in places, but a wonderful attempt to reshape the canon.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?
Anything by deeply philosophical Mark Rothko, mystical Michaël Borremans, heavenly Giovanni Bellini; a brutally concise drawing by Albrecht Dürer, and a drawing or sculpture by deeply vulnerable and yet, immensely powerful Louise Bourgeois.
What artwork is in your home office?
Work by an emerging Georgian artist Rusudan Khizanshvili, who ventures far beyond the localism and asks more universal questions of belonging, attachment, and changing.
How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?
Historically mission of the art has been to unite people, even those who have nothing in common. As we all are isolated art gives us a more sustainable, reflective, deeper way of looking at the current events. I am deeply inspired by strength and resilience of all artists working right now and am looking very forward to seeing art that has been now been produced. By supporting artists, we as curators, foundations, galleries, are in a way speeding up our own recovery as their artistic impulses in due time will find ways back into our lives through images and narratives, bringing healing and closure with them.
The article was originally published in ArtFrankly Newsletter in May, 2020.