Be Bold and Find Mentors Early: An Interview with Curator & Artist Coach Audra Lambert

Emilie Trice | September 28, 2021 (Updated September 20, 2022)

Left: Curator Audra Lambert in Rirkrit Tiravanija shirt, "Freedom Cannot be Simulated," on election day 2020. Right: Installation view of Hey, Wow! The Art of Oded Halahmy (2019) at the Center for Jewish History’s Yeshiva University art gallery, curated by Audra Lambert. Images courtesy of Audra Lambert.

The art world is known for its many gatekeepers—but some are actually working to open doors for artists and creating more equity in the process.

Audra Lambert wears many hats in the art world—curator, critic, artist coach, and art fair co-founder, to name a few. She’s currently the director of Amos Eno Gallery, an artist-run, nonprofit space founded in New York in 1974; she’s the founder and editor-in-chief of ANTE Mag, a publication for contemporary art criticism; she’s the curator-in-residence at The Yard: Williamsburg Bridge; and she’s a founding member at Ninth Street Collective, a professional collective that serves artists.

Audra holds an MA in Art History from Lindenwood University, as well as Certified Professional Coach credits from Certified Life Coach Institute, an ICF-approved coach training program. At any given time, Audra is regularly curating four exhibitions simultaneously, working with artists in a coaching capacity, writing exhibition reviews and editing art criticism, and generally contributing to the cultural landscape of Brooklyn and to the contemporary art scene at large. 

Currently, she’s curating two sister shows - Sur/Reality and Hyper/Reality - for Amos Eno Gallery, FLEX on view at The Yard: South Williamsburg, Home Room IRL at Radiator Gallery, and Home Room At Large at ChaShaMa’s 29th street location

Beyond the title of independent curator, Audra is really an artist-advocate. In a market where artists can feel exploited, misled, and generally untrusting of the very same people who purport to have their best interests at heart, an artist coach like Audra can help recenter an artist’s intentions and see the forest through the trees, so-to-speak. Her goal is alway to empower artists, so they can find a path forward, even when it seems like every door is closed or out of reach.

We sat down with Audra to talk about her work with Ninth Street Collective, her analysis of the current art ecosystem and what industry trends she sees on the horizon. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Installation view of Re-Orientations (2019) co-curated by Audra Lambert and Anita Alvin Nilert as part of alt_break’s exhibition program featuring artwork by Samira Abbassy (featured,) Camille Eskell, Dhanashree Gadiyar, and Sheida Soleimani. Image courtesy Audra Lambert.

AA: How does Ninth Street Collective work with artists?

AL: We work primarily alongside artists to help them, for example, rewrite their artist statements, to prepare for a studio visit, to know what should be in a loan agreement, etc.—so, just really practical, hands-on things. 

We do one-on-one consultations, but we also do workshops. We've worked with a variety of residencies and other programs, such as Mana Contemporary— the artist studio, exhibition space,  and storage hub— to coordinate workshops for artists. 

We've also worked with a pretty wide range of institutions along with residencies, and other organizations like professional societies of artists. We have hourly rates for one-on-one consultations, but for residencies that we facilitate, it's more of a dialogue with whomever the colleague is at the host venue that’s in conversation with us—so, if it's a six week program, then we'll scale it accordingly. 

Ninth Street Collective is simultaneously work, and also a labor of love. All of us who are in the collective do this work because we want to see artists succeed first. So that's our main priority. And, we do feel as though there's kind of been a hole that needed filling because the response has just been so great from artists who needed support and are now seeing success. 

I've worked with artists who, for example, didn't have a solo show for 25 years and they got one after a few months of working together. I had an artist that wanted to pursue a doctorate, but who hadn’t been in school for years—and she secured a spot in a PhD program. 

I've worked with well-known artists who just needed one-off help in submitting something for a grant— so there are mid-career artists, and emerging artists, as well. I've worked with artists as young as 22, and as old as 82. So, it's been a wide range. 

A lot of artists I've worked with have actually been women—maybe they took a break because they started a family, and now their kid is off of college. Or, they had to stop their practice to take care of a parent or spouse, and they couldn't actually make work or stay in their studios, but now they can. 

I've often seen that when people are trying to re-engage with the art world, they just feel lost. So, having someone orient them and support them is really crucial to getting back on their feet as artists.

AA: What are your thoughts on what it means to be “successful” in the art world?

AL: I think there's many art worlds. They're kind of like concentric circles that overlap. And there's many barometers for success. 

So somebody may start out like a street artist—like Banksy or JR or Kaws—but then, over time and through notoriety, they make inroads into the traditional art world and the art market. That market validation is actually important because the monetary value of something is really what determines how collectors view things—which then determines how the gallery system views you as an artist. 

Take, for example, Katherine Bernhardt. She was at Canada for years, and now she's also with David Zwirner, a major blue chip gallery. But her work has been known in the art world for a long time. Still, being represented by Zwirner has had an effect on her prices and how she’s perceived by collectors. 

All that being said—I think that, as an artist, it's fine to have your own idea of what success means. 

AA: What are your thoughts on the artist-gallery relationship?

AL: When it comes to the relationship between artists and galleries, I tend to view things as an ecosystem, and there's many factors at play. When I'm reviewing an artist’s CV, I'll actually kind of have an interview with them. I'll ask them, “Well, do you have any residencies or fellowships that you don't have listed on here?” And they’ll remember, “Oh, well, actually, I did this one residency.”

So then I have to ask if they’ve checked in with the other artists that did that same residency—because it's all about who you know and your network. Having a handshake behind closed doors will often get you farther than a million emails, right? No one's gonna read the emails, and people will remember the handshakes. 

I’ve also seen artists find success by working for another artist’s studio— it could be what actually paves the way for you to have a breakthrough. It could be an exhibition opportunity, or an introduction to a collector that takes a fancy to your new work, etc. 

I think the art world is both exciting and perilous, because there are so many kind of accidental opportunities that happen, just because you met some guy on a street corner, or because you're at a certain exhibition opening, or because you just happen to be at an artist's studio at the same time that somebody else was leaving, and you have a chance to exchange words. 

So there's just a lot left to chance. But, that being said, just having the right introduction to one person can change everything. 

Right after school, if you're suddenly flung into the spotlight and you’re trying to figure out how to please a major dealer—the power shift there can be very, very disconcerting. In general, while it's important to have a network and to keep meeting the art world figures and the collectors and all the dealers, you can also take a different route—through things like residencies, or even other artist friends, going to shows with artists to meet whoever happens to be curating their show. 

The majority of artists I've met independently as a curator were actually referred through other artists that I’ve worked with. And that’s the best-case scenario—because, if I’ve worked with you, and we have a good relationship and I respect your work, then I'm likely going to respect someone that you recommend. 

AA: What are some lessons you wished all artists already knew?

AL: Artists also need to make sure to advocate for themselves and their work. There's actually a great post on this by Jasmine Wahi, who’s the Holly Block Social Justice curator at the Bronx museum. She posted on Instagram recently—she's @BrownGirlCurator— that artists need to remember that they are the center of the art world. 

That just really stuck with me—it's really powerful and kind of a reflection on the fact that, without artists, we wouldn't have an art world. There would be no art market without artists. So, it’s critical to offer respect to artists that they've earned—it's not like handing someone respect, but rather that artists have already earned this respect. Moreover, artists need to be paid.

There are definitely rates for things like ‘an exhibition rate’ or an ‘artist fee’ rate. And there are some metrics for that that exist. For example, when I've worked with nonprofits in the past, they have a sheet that they refer to of rates that are standard rates that have actually been approved by an advocacy group like W.A.G.E. And, frankly, American artists need to have health insurance—they have that in places like Germany, so that artists can make work without having to live in fear of getting sick or injured. 

KS Brewer’s Red Viewer for Home Room (Fall 2020) Audra Lambert-curated performance art series via Instagram Live at Radiator Gallery.

AA: What should artists know about residencies?

AL: Residencies are often very supportive. I want to spotlight, in particular, the Project for Empty Space, which is run by Jasmine Wahi and Rebecca Jampol. They have an initiative called the Incubator, which specifically supports feminist artists, and offers a space free of charge. It’s also important that a residency has a show at the conclusion of it, because that's opportunities for press and for introductions. And those two things are critical for an artist’s career. 

There's also the Fountainhead Arts Residency in Miami, and they take a different kind of approach. When artists are not in the studio, they're almost always at events: private dinners, galas, museum openings, etc. The founders of the residency, Kathryn and Dan Mikesell, are also collectors and take the artists-in-residence around with them and introduce them to everyone. So these residencies can give you access to certain people that you might not have met if you didn't do that residency. 

Of course, not all residencies are created equal. The artist Katrina Neumann founded a website called because she actually did a residency in Berlin that terrified her. So, she founded Rivet along with other cultural producers to provide a public list of residences that are actually vetted. 

Before accepting any artist residency, I recommend doing three things:

  1. Search a site like Rivet or ResArtis to see if the residency is listed there, or on another credible website that aggregates this information.

  2. Find three artists who have listed that residency on their own websites—artists whose work or career you respect, of course.

  3. Best case scenario—speak to an artist that has actually done that residency and find out about their experience there.

I think sometimes artists have this idea that any opportunity has to be seized. And I think it's just always important to consider the reality of it—what will that opportunity actually mean for you?

Artists have every right to expect that their work is treated with respect. If you want your work to be hung a certain way, or you have certain ideas about who you want to work with, or who you want to own your work—the artist’s intent has to be acknowledged and recognized. And in every possible case, that intent should be respected. 

It’s important for artists who’ve traditionally been excluded or underrepresented to have a voice. There’s an incredible book by Jasmin Hernandez called We Are Here.  It spotlights cultural producers of color who are transforming the art world. We all benefit when diverse voices receive the recognition they deserve. I believe there's a lot happening in the art world right now, but I also think that artists should demand more and should speak up and be bold and shouldn't be afraid to advocate for themselves, and also to demand change. 

Installation view of C-print work by Evan Whale with Tyler Park Presents (Los Angeles) at Future Fair. Image courtesy of © David Willems Photography and Future Fair.

AA: What are some other shifts in the art world that you see now or anticipate seeing more of going forward?

AL: I think that having a wider range of financial and collectivizing models is something we’re going to see more of in the art world, where there are a few different arrangements around profit-sharing that further benefit the artists. There are so many ways that we can work together to find solutions. 

For example, there's an art fair called Future Fair—they have a different profit sharing model when it comes to galleries so that participating in an art fair isn’t such a risky proposition, financially-speaking. In the past 10 - 15 years, smaller galleries and even midsize galleries are feeling the squeeze, in a much different way than larger or “mega galleries.”

Small and midsize galleries have to scramble to afford fairs, and there’s so much pressure to find new collectors because there's so many galleries now who are representing emerging to mid-career artists—and they're all really fighting for the same attention. Whereas if you're representing someone like Louise Bourgeois, it's a whole other class of collectors—they're not even in the same circle. 

I think the pandemic inspired more people to find creative solutions to problems and to secure attention from collectors and critics. And I'm hopeful that that's going to drive a kind of exponential change moving ahead for artists and—specifically—for underrepresented artists. 

Having more room to play and experiment, and having a wider playing field with more profit-sharing will really benefit every single level of the art sphere—from the gallery, to the artists, to the collector, to the critic. It really helps to benefit everyone, so profit-sharing needs to be revisited, and we need some new models, but we’re seeing that happening already.

I actually co-founded an art fair in 2016 called alt_break with co-founders Adam Zucker and Kimmy Kitada, who's currently at the Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, as a curator-in-residence there. Alt_break’s programming is all free, so it’s a non-fair, in a sense. We started with the idea of founding an art fair not solely based on  profit. 

The idea was that it focused on the community—all of us had worked at art nonprofits. And while some nonprofits may have a lot of money, because of who their board is and what their aims are, etc., we really envisioned alt_break as a grassroots effort to independently produce projects that involved the community. 

For example, one of our earliest projects,  _SHIFT in 2016, raised money for select nonprofits. Each of our four sites had a curator and featured artists—and proceeds went to other nonprofits that we were supporting. 

We supported the Fountain House Gallery, which provides resources and studio space for artists living with mental health conditions, and engages with art as a therapeutic outlet for self-expression. We later supported responses to the climate emergency, working with Maskbook: Art of Change 21 to foreground the need to support legislation that’s working toward ecological conservation. 

Returning to our first iteration, all of our sites were walking distance from the Armory Show, but artwork sales were not the focus—the focus was to spotlight how these other organizations are actually supporting the community, and how art can kind of serve in a new forum to amplify underrepresented voices as well. 

That example strongly reflects my viewpoint of how I feel that we need to see more profit-sharing and more equity in the arts— and recalibrate just who holds the power and where the gaze is directed.

And that's one thing that Ninth Street Collective has done from the very beginning—a portion of proceeds from our workshops always go to benefit other organizations, such as the Black Art Futures Fund. Not supporting those organizations through our own work would be a missed opportunity.

AA: Any advice to your younger self?

AL: Be bold and find mentors early.

To learn more about Audra, visit Ninth Street Collective's website.

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