Carrie Mackin of Mackin Projects in front of a painting by Jose Parla. Photo Credit: Rey Parla.
The founder of Mackin Projects gets real on what it takes to terraform a unique art world career.
Carrie Mackin is having a moment. Her consultancy, Mackin Projects, has worked with some of today’s most celebrated artists, such as photographers Ming Smith and Nan Goldin. She’s also been a contributor in pioneering arts organizations like NXTHVN — the emerging artist and curatorial platform co-founded by artist Titus Kaphar, which provides exhibition opportunities, mentorship, and fully-funded residencies to individuals from communities traditionally underrepresented in the arts.
Carrie got her start in Tampa, Florida, a city few would describe as a cultural nexus of contemporary art. Still, Tampa proved to be a kind of incubator for Carrie, allowing her to mount provocative exhibitions, manage artist studios and invest in real estate, all while she put herself through college.
That entrepreneurial background served her well in New York, where she moved following graduation and landed a coveted role as the studio manager for Kehinde Wiley, the iconic artist who painted President Obama’s official portrait.
Cultivating an artist’s career is more than just a job — it’s a calling. The lines between work and life are often blurred, because that’s typically how artists function. Applying order — not to mention a long-term business strategy — to the creative chaos that tends to underline artistic genius is no small feat and not for the weak of heart.
We asked Carrie 13 questions about her current work and her advice to young artists just beginning to navigate the art world’s uneven terrain. Here’s what we learned.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AA: Briefly describe how you got your start.
CM: I grew up on the west coast of Florida on a peninsula called Crystal Beach and spent time between there and my grandparent's home in Tarpon Springs. I put myself through college at the University of South Florida where I studied and earned degrees in photography, non-profit management, and public administration. I had aspirations to run for city council, but that fell by the wayside when I opened an art space that served many of the recent graduate art students of USF, as well as local emerging artists in Tampa and the neighboring city of St. Petersburg.
I'm not sure how I did it, but with little resources, I managed to produce entire shows featuring artists from New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Austria, Philadelphia, Chiapas, and other great cities that added to the gallery’s distinction in a historically non-art city.
Praxis, Carrie's exhibition and artist studio space in Tampa, housed in a converted auto garage. Installation shot: "Pray for Me,” From New York with Love. Image courtesy Carrie Mackin.
Those years in Tampa were nothing short of back-breaking work, but the entire community was supportive and I had a blast pushing the envelope with the viewers. Tampa was (and I think still is) a city in complete political opposition, which paved the way for me to flex my queer liberal muscle with those who stood with me. When you have protesters trying to prevent the public from seeing what’s on display in your art gallery, you know you’re doing something important.
Over a seven-year period, I produced two exhibitions per month and managed 10 affordable studios, before moving to NYC. Those years running my own business, buying real estate, and putting myself through school are the building blocks of my business today and influence the types of projects I choose to take on.
For example, when Titus Kaphar called me in 2016 and asked me to be the executive director and co-founder of what is now NXTHVN I jumped on board enthusiastically. There was a plan, but like all start-ups, it was in constant flux and a learning experience for all of the founders, and now in its 3rd year, it is making great advancements.
AA: How did you come to create your art business consultancy? What problem did you recognize in the art world that your work is solving?
CM: I was working for Kehinde Wiley from 2006-2009, and he introduced me to his friends who were all up-and-coming artists making post-Black art. From there, my consultancy spun out of the need for professionalizing businesses for many of those artists. At that time, there was such a scramble by collectors, curators, and writers to finally look at the work being created by African American artists, and at that point, Mackin Projects was created.
In 2009, the best art schools in the US were still not addressing “after graduation skills” (which is still the case for many schools now). You know, those really important skills that are needed when you leave your alma mater with huge debt. Artists want to make art, not worry about creating exposure, finding the best gallery, hiring the right staff, lawyers, CPAs, etc., who all contribute to the success of the artist—so, that's where I come in.
AA: How do you determine which artists you work with? Do you have specific criteria when accepting new artists/clients?
CM: I love a challenge. Sometimes artists reach out to me with requests that can range from, “I need to fill a managerial position in my studio” to “I need to leverage personal assets in order to send my art to Mars.” Whatever is missing in my work life at the moment is how I decide, with one caveat — I must have a personal connection to their vision.
AA: In a few sentences, describe your typical workday.
CM: A typical workday for me is being bi-coastal (New York and San Diego) — right now, it’s San Diego, which means that every day is a cut-off shorts and t-shirts day as I work from my home office.
My workload consists of a good amount of research for acquisitions, talking with lawyers, crunching numbers, and solving problems for my clients. Also, my 17 month-old daughter weaves in and out of my workday, and sometimes my clients get a cameo appearance during a Zoom meeting.
Ming Smith: Evidence. Installation shots courtesy Nicola Vassell Gallery, New York.
AA: What are some important projects you’re currently working on?
CM: I just finished managing a project with the artist Ming Smith in collaboration with Nicola Vassell Gallery. The collaboration was a two-part exhibition, the first featuring Ming’s known photography and entitled Ming Smith: Evidence — which was also Nicola Vassell Gallery’s inaugural show — and the second was an exhibition entitled Jordan x Ming Smith: Here for a Reason, featuring images Ming created with Jordan Brand and the WNBA, in celebration of the WNBA’s 25th anniversary.
Think austere women of basketball meets elegant evening wear (edited by Carlos Nazario) photographed in a bucolic Florida landscape by the first female African American photographer collected by MoMA!
AA: You work with a roster of very impressive blue-chip artists, but all of the artists were, at one point in time, emerging. What is your go-to business advice for emerging and mid-career artists, so they can reach the next stage of their careers?
CM: The answer depends on what the definition of “next stage” is for them at the time. Most of the artists I have worked with have been conceptually solid in terms of their artistic output, but that doesn’t lend itself to structure.
My advice is, if you have just earned an art degree, apply to residencies that cater to career development (like NXTHVN), learn how to properly post your work on social media, get out there and meet other artists. Almost all of the blue-chip artists that I have worked with have helped their peers get exposure and in some cases have been the source of their success — not a curator and not a gallery director.
And, don’t forget about the collectors. They are an amazing source of exposure. If you have one or two seasoned collectors that want to buy your work, let them. They will likely tout you to gallery directors and institutions, or even invite you to an outrageous Art Basel Miami party where you can meet art world tastemakers and wacky celebrities.
AA: In your opinion, what makes an artist “blue chip”? How do you define that category?
CM: That word was born in the world of finance and made its way into the art world to assure collectors that their purchases were deemed a solid investment with a steady return. For the art world, the term "blue chip" has certainly transformed over time, but historically the answer is institutional representation, gallery representation (read the museum labels), collectors, and more recently, graffiti artist-provocateur notoriety can make an artist “blue chip.”
Let's not forget the auction houses, who do business with all mentioned. It’s an unregulated market, which makes it interesting, volatile, and — like blue-chip stocks — also based on speculation. So, go out there and promote yourself if no one else will.
AA: The gallery-artist partnership is often misunderstood. What advice do you have for fostering the best possible artist-gallery partnership?
CM: It’s a double-edged sword. I think every artist should think of their gallery as a relationship and understand that it requires concessions from both sides, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Galleries are commercial entities and they possess many different strategies. Some are slower and more methodical in their strategy and some want instant gratification with quick sales and price inflation.
I think it is important to work with a gallery who not only tells you they believe in you, but they are actively bringing opportunities to the table. But, most importantly, do your best to be professional, insist on a paper trail when agreements are made verbally, and know your worth, but don’t be a brat.
AA: Are there any current trends in the art world that you think are noteworthy? Basically, what “spaces” are you watching right now and why?
CM: This may be an easy answer but you don’t need to go far from your computer to engage in art fairs, art conferences/conversations, exhibitions, and even parties! It’s a post-covid solution that has become the norm, and I have to admit I do like clubhouse, but I’m old school, so I prefer a tangible experience. Also, I am obsessed with NFTs because I have no idea of their aftermath, but I want to.
Outside of that phenomenon, I am most interested in those who have been overlooked, who have talent and need a platform. With one foot in Southern California, I’ll have better proximity to collaborate with Mexican and Native American artists, whose visions I can take to the next level.
AA: As a multi-hyphenate art advisor, what advice do you have for others building a unique business in the art world?
CM: If it is unique, you probably don’t need my advice. I think there is a ton of upside for young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs who want to infiltrate the art world and some will be successful, but at the end of the day, it's not a TikTok or Instagram platform.
If you want to work with artists, you need to be sincere and knowledgeable. And, many times, you also need to be a person with a lot of patience, commitment, and understanding of the artist's needs.
AA: If you could only give contemporary art collectors one piece of advice, what would it be?
CM: Buy art that motivates you and asks bigger questions about what it means to be human.
AA: Which artists are you personally collecting and why?
CM: My art collection isn’t for everyone, but I consider it in some ways a visual diary because the pictures represent small excerpts of my life.
The most recent acquisition was Ming Smith’s "Dakar Roadside” photograph, and a small painting from a NXTHVN fellow, Jaclyn Conley, who is now represented by Maruani Mercier and has a waitlist.
AA: Why is it important for artists to maintain their own databases?
CM: Creating and maintaining an artist's database is absolutely key and 100% necessary to manage an archive now and do business more efficiently.