Curator Spotlight: Rick Kinsel, Executive Director of the Vilcek Foundation

Rick Kinsel, Executive Director of the Vilcek Foundation, has over twenty years of experience in the art world and happens to be among the distinguished first group of Visual Arts Curators supporting the launch of Pen and Brush’s new programming.  His work in both the for-profit and not-for profit sectors includes time at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Coty, Inc. 

Here’s what Rick has to say about the evolving art world, his thoughts on the need for parity, what emerging and mid-career artists need to know to succeed, and more.

Pen and Brush (P+B):  What are you most passionate about in your role as Executive Director of the Vilcek Foundation?

Rick Kinsel (RK):  Since joining the Foundation, I have developed programs designed to raise public awareness of immigrant contributions to the American arts and sciences.  These programs include the Vilcek Foundation exhibition series, which commissions original works of art shown at the Vilcek Foundation gallery, and the Vilcek Prizes, awarded annually to distinguished immigrant artists and scientists.  Through our grants, we have supported a wide variety of institutions, from film festivals, to youth orchestras, to biomedical research institutions. Many of the emerging artists we supported have gone on to promising careers, such as photographer O Zhang, musician Blitz the Ambassador, and choreographer Alice Gosti.

What I’m most passionate about here at the Vilcek Foundation is fostering new talent and recognizing extraordinary achievement.  And what’s most exciting about the job, and what keeps it so perpetually interesting for me, is that I get to do so across disciplines and practices.  I’ll meet a concert violinist one day, a choreographer the next, and an artist working in new and emerging media after that.  I’m always learning new things and having new experiences of art.  In doing so, I’m constantly being reminded that American society is uniquely invigorated by the talent, vision, and ambition of its immigrants.

P+B:  What are the biggest challenges facing the art world right now?  
RK:  American arts organizations are increasingly desperate for money, and that worries me a lot.  Government support of the arts has been slipping for the last 20 years, and, generally speaking, public funding has not kept up with inflation.  According to annual reports from the Grantmakers in the Arts, public funding of the arts increased only very modestly in 2014, and this was the first time in six years that funding from federal, state, and local governments increased at all over the prior fiscal year.  Using 1994 dollars, funding for the arts has actually decreased by 26 percent!

This situation is extremely problematic for those of us who work in the non-profit world, because the drop in public funding has meant that arts organizations now rely more than ever before on private support to cover their basic operating costs.  Foundation-based funding for the arts has stabilized since the recession, but there is no guarantee that the private sector will continue this level of support in the future.  It is largely made possible through charitable contributions, and charitable contributions are dependent on a healthy financial climate.  This is not a situation that’s good for the arts, and it’s not good for American society overall, since it means we are falling behind, culturally, as a nation. 

P+B:  Why did you decide to sign on as a Visual Arts Curator for Pen and Brush?

RK:  I think it’s a question of basic human justice that women should achieve gender parity in our society at all levels.  A century ago, women could not vote and were only able to work at the most menial and low paying of jobs.  That’s no longer the case — but even now, women do not earn the same as men.  If the arts are a mirror of our society, it seems to me imperative that women be recognized as artistic equals — and in some cases, superiors! 

After all, the arts help shape and influence public discourse.  I know this firsthand from the Vilcek Foundation’s work with immigrants.  We create space for artists from an underrepresented community.  We give them greater visibility while allowing them to speak in their own voices.  Pen and Brush does something similar.  Since I want to participate in that feminist discourse, I am pleased to serve as a curator at Pen and Brush.  

I was also attracted to Pen and Brush’s prioritization of excellence.  It echoes our belief at the Vilcek Foundation that the simplest and most effective way to fulfill our mission is to find and support the best and brightest.  Work of high quality is indisputable, regardless of the gender, ethnicity, or citizenship status of the maker.

Finally, and on a very basic level, Pen and Brush gives opportunities to artists.  There are many, many more artists and writers that we would love to support through the Vilcek Foundation, and unfortunately it just isn’t possible to help everyone.  Pen and Brush is a much-needed source of recognition for artists and writers, so I am particularly glad to be a part of it for that reason.

Pen and Brush (P+B):  What advice would you like to give to emerging artists?

RK:  The emerging artist has to develop his or her vision from scratch, and then choose very carefully just how and when to place that vision before the world.  My advice to the emerging artist is to think very carefully before making that first move, since with so many young artists out there, you really only get one chance to make that great first impression.

P+B:  What about mid-career artists?

The mid-career artist, by comparison, faces an equally difficult set of challenges.  He or she needs to keep his vision before the public, remaining recognizably him-or-herself, while innovating enough within that vision to not seem repetitive or tired.  The mid-career artist is basically a comeback artist every time he or she has a show — the challenge is in reinventing the self and the vision in a way that keeps people who already know your work interested in what you are doing now.  Behind the scenes, meanwhile, he or she has to be both an impresario and a businessperson: setting the stage for the art to be recognized and applauded, and at the same time, managing what is essentially a small business.

P+B In your experience, what is the common denominator shared by successful working artists?

RK:  In reviewing the winning applications for the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise each year (an annual prize awarded to emerging immigrant artists and scientists), the common denominator I witnessed across all spectrums of the arts — from filmmaking to literature to music — was the single-minded commitment of artists to their craft.  

These people work incredibly hard, are passionate every day about what they are doing, and they never let up in the pursuit of their dreams.  In order to be successful, many of the prizewinners had foregone the possibility of a stable income, a secure home life, and, in some instances, had even put off having children.  Nearly all of them had put in years of hard work before achieving any sort of recognition. 

P+B:  What changes or trends have you seen that have had an impact on artists in the past 20 years?

RK:  I think that the youngest members of our society are increasingly worried about making their way in the world, and their anxiety is shaping the way that some of them approach being an artist.  For example, many younger artists are focusing from a very early age on creating a business model for their art practice, and that’s something new.  

In the earlier years of this century, art was the opposite of a business — it was a calling or vocation.  Today, though, fame, critical recognition, and monetary rewards are all things our society is obsessed with… and artists are no exception.  Andy Warhol celebrated those ideas in his work and embodied them in his career as an artist, and over the past twenty-five years, many other artists have followed his example — artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.  But I’d like to think there are other, perhaps better, ways of being an artist, and I hope that in the coming decades we’ll see a return among younger artists to something larger and more lastingly important than fame and fortune.  

The themes that most interest me as a curator are ones that address social and political injustice, as well as the impending ecological crisis faced by the entire planet.  Social and political themes are ones that we have supported strongly at the Vilcek Foundation over the years, and that I personally will continue to support whenever I have the curatorial opportunity.