Visionary Awards Honoree Susan Barrett Wasn’t Happy with the Dominant Art World—So She Made a New One

 In Culture, Feature

There are the artistic champions who would do anything to get their artists into the epicenter of the art world. And then there are the champions who study that art world, only to decide it’d be better to create a new universe completely.

Susan Barrett, the founder and president of Barrett Barrera Projects and projects+gallery, is firmly in the latter camp—and that’s why she’s among the recipients of the 2019 Visionary Awards. Ask her what she does for a living and she’ll describe her companies like an enormous Venn diagram, where the spheres of art, fashion and business intersect in surprising ways.

As you keep digging into what she really means by that, it becomes clear that Barrett’s companies are less like something generated on Microsoft Excel and more like something generated by a cosmic collision. She’s built a veritable solar system, where luminaries from the world of fine art share a gallery space with the best fashion designers on the planet; where, when those creators’ works don’t fit neatly into four white walls, superstar curators create events, programs and art experiences that are big enough to contain their vision; where collectors, dealers and gallerists who are hungry for this kind of expansive reimagining of what art can do can go to get their fill.

We sat down with Barrett to talk about how her vision for the art market has grown since the big bang that started her business, and what she thinks it’ll take for the rest of the planet to catch up.

A lot of journalists have written about you as a sort of polymath: You’re an architect by training who’s also passionate about fashion and views everything from the clothes on your back to the city around you as a potential work of art. When did you first realize that your path would be to take every avenue available to you rather than focusing on just one?

I think that happened because I can’t make up my mind! [Laughs.] In all honesty, the sense of possibility is, I think, one of the most exciting parts of creativity—and of living in general. I remember I used to drive my mom crazy because I wanted to take so many classes, and she was always saying, “Why don’t you just focus on one thing? Focus on one thing and get good at it.” But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I wanted to try everything. I wanted to go to all the parties.

You’ve had a wide-ranging career that’s spanned art, architecture and beyond, but right before you started Barrett Barrera Projects and projects+gallery, you were in a bit of an unexpected role: The director of the World Chess Hall of Fame. While you were there, you launched a fascinating exhibition called “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes,which took the concept of that chess piece as a point of departure for a radical exploration of the concept of queenliness across media—and that show is still touring today. Was “A Queen Within” also the point of departure that inspired you to start your businesses?

Yes, it really was born out of “A Queen Within.” That was the baby; it launched us in a totally separate direction. I think in creating that show, I realized a lot of things. For instance, the response to the exhibition was so overwhelming, but it seemed like it was particularly [resonant] with people from Europe. I realized [we’d somehow connected with] the European sensibility of art, and that their sensibility wasn’t quite as segregated as the American one. It has a much more open and free interpretation. Like, of course you can make wigs and be an artist. Of course you can be a fashion designer and be an artist. That seemed so much more natural to me than to isolate everything.

So I started working with a lot of the designers and artists from that exhibition, who came to me because there were no other forums for their work, especially in the United States. We immediately started with European artists, with a European sensibility, based in the U.S. We thought this would be pretty easy, to introduce it to the American art scene. [Laughs.] When, in fact, it’s like…Can it get any harder?

Why was it so difficult?  

I think because I didn’t anticipate how much more traditional the art scene had become. I’d been in the art world on and off for a long time [before Barrett Barrera Projects.] I’d worked in museums, I’d worked in magazines, I’d worked in galleries, but it’d been a while. And while I was gone, it seemed like the art world had gotten more and more monetized and become less and less about experimentation. So [when we started projects+gallery], the art world proper wasn’t understanding what it was. It was like, “Who are these people? What do you mean they’re not all artists? What’s their medium? Their medium is hair?”

An eye-opening thing for me, honestly, was just that the art market had become such a market. It was so much more commercial than I remembered. And I just thought, if art is a place for play and experimentation and moving a culture forward, why isn’t the market reflecting that? It became even more important to sort of go back and recreate everything, because there wasn’t really something to stand on anyway, right? If people in the dominant art world didn’t understand what we were doing, then we needed to build another platform. Essentially, we started doing that.

That’s what’s most fascinating to me about Barrett Barrera Projects. On the one hand, you run this traditional white-walls gallery space, albeit one that shows genre-pushing exhibitions, such as Christine Corday’s “Spacewalker,” which put viewers in literal space suits to confront the work, or the upcoming “Fashioning the Black Body,” which explores clothing through the lens of art and very complex questions about race in our culture. But on the other hand, you’re also working way outside of the gallery context to mount these giant productions, such as The Charlie Revue, which packs pop stars, circus performers and choreographers into a bombastic, immersive art-party experience. How else has Barrett Barrera created new platforms for your artists, and what enables you to do that better than anyone else?

So many ways! We started by just asking questions—for instance, figuring out how to participate in Art Basel in Miami Beach without going through the art fairs. So we started doing productions and experimentations, such as pop-ups. It just seemed like we kept breaking rules. And you know, we have the luxury not to work within these rules; we don’t live in New York, so we’re not chained to the enormous financial constraints and art-world hierarchy that can become very driving when you’re there.

I think what we’re ultimately doing is retelling stories. We’re telling them either through an exhibition, or through an artist, or through an artwork, or through a performance […] but it’s always about storytelling. I think that’s what art is: It’s using a different language in order to connect to another person. And it happens through the creative process, which we all share. Artists are the experts in that creative process; they create their own problems and then they find their own solutions to those problems. They paint images that never existed. They sculpt objects that never were before. But that’s no different than a physicist who’s searching for meaning or a chess player who’s trying to get to the endgame to win. Everyone is engaged in this same fabulous process of thinking and internal wrestling to understand flow. But I think artists are most comfortable in that process and, therefore, they’re some of the best problem solvers. Imagine the applications of that. That’s the part that fascinates me.

Wow. Not a lot of art world professionals are asking themselves those sort of fundamental questions about creation.

[Laughs.] Well, I think it’s important to step back and see if you’re asking the right questions, as well as if we should even be asking them. I think that’s part of the restlessness I had as a kid, and still have. In architecture school—people always find this funny—I kind of freaked out for a few years because I decided I didn’t know what space was. And how could I create something in space if I don’t understand space? And that led me to reading theoretical physics.

For me, that makes complete sense: There’s particle physics, there’s spirituality and there’s space, and it all collides. That makes more sense than someone telling me what architecture is. I have to understand it in my own way in order for me to accept it. I guess I was always a little rebellious.

Visionary Awards Honoree Susan Barrett Wasn't Happy with the Dominant Art World. So She Made a New One.

Image courtesy of Diane Anderson.

This is the fourth of a six-part series featuring the 2019 Visionary Awards for Women in the Arts honorees. The awards ceremony is April 22 at 6 p.m. in Grand Center’s Sun Theater. Tickets cost $50 and can be purchased online here.

Featured image courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.

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