We’re thrilled to welcome Dr. Kathy Battista as the new Editor in Chief of the Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Director of the MA program in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute, she has dedicated her life to furthering knowledge of art history through a teaching career, one that has taken her from London to New York City. From issues in contemporary art to dramatic changes in the art market over the past decade, Battista addresses all our burning questions regarding the state of her field in an era where art, as a whole, has entered into the mainstream.
What is your role at Sotheby’s Institute?
I am Director of the MA program in Contemporary Art. I moved from London in 2007 to establish this program in New York. I formulate the curriculum and guide the program, working closely with my faculty, and aim to give the students the best experience possible over the course of eighteen months. My approach is to combine a strong art historical training (of the kind I received at the Courtauld) with practical and professional skills. I also try to get the students to think outside of the box in terms of what their career path might be.
Who influenced you in pursuing your studies in art history and your career in teaching?
While an undergraduate at Fordham University, I took an Introduction to Art History class with Professor Katherine Heleniak and was hooked. She, and her colleague Dr. Carmen Bambach, a Michelangelo scholar who is now Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are major influences on my career. These women are intelligent, dedicated, and infectiously enthusiastic about their subjects. I found inspiration in the way that they approached their work in all formats and I thought “I want to be like them.” They were important role models as teachers because they truly loved what they taught, were generous with their knowledge, and always pushed me to do better and reach further. They are also both incredibly elegant women who break the old stereotype of the art historian in a grey cardigan.
In London I worked with some of the most amazing professors including Laura Mulvey, Mark Cousins, Steve Connor, Colin MacCabe and the late Paul Hirst. Studying with this calibre of thinkers made me think in a more critical and interdisciplinary way. I now find it impossible to think about art without considering architecture, film, performance, and politics alongside it.
What is the most important issue in your field right now?
I believe that there are several crucial issues in the contemporary art field at present.
First is the proliferation of the contemporary art market. Contemporary art, once the bastion of an international elite, has moved into the mainstream. It is great that more people are visiting museums than ever before; however, we need to be wary of creating spectacle and remember that there is a place for art that is modest, quiet, ephemeral, and challenging. Also we must remember that, after the market frenzy, in the end we will return to the art that we love the most rather than what is worth the most money.
Another issue at present is the huge change in art historical methodology with the development of online culture. Now that so much information is available online, it frees time in the classroom for more discussion, dialogue, and debate. It also allows more time to see objects in the field. This is a huge development and I think as educators we are all still catching up to this massive change.
I’m also interested in sustainability and contemporary art. Living in the so-called age of the anthropocene, we are in a world riddled with ecological crises, from oil spills to earthquakes and superstorms. I think increasingly artists will be called upon to find ways to find solutions working with scientists. They will also hopefully want to create works using a smaller carbon footprint. Artists are always at the forefront of technology, and I believe it will be interesting to see how artists deal with the climate crisis. How one finds a balance between beauty and economy of scale and materials is an interesting problem.
What are you currently reading (personally or work related)?
I’m currently reading Siona Wilson’s Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance. It’s a wonderful read that offers an in-depth discussion of some of my favorite British works from the 1970s, including the film Nightcleaners; Mary Kelly’s early films; and Jo Spence’s important work. Siona writes beautifully and the book is so thoroughly researched. It’s just a joy. I also have The Great Mother and Arts and Foods catalogues beside my bed; both are from exhibitions I saw recently in Milan.
Can you give us a fun fact about your work?
I bring my dog Fifi to work every day. She is an eleven pound shih tzu who has been paralyzed twice but is now better than ever. She has a bed in my office and we call her Dr. Fifi Battista. We joke that she is the resident therapist because she makes us all laugh a lot, even during the most stressful days.
What do you think makes Benezit a valuable resource?
Benezit is an extremely valuable resource for students and researchers as a first stop for information. It is also useful for discovering new artists and fact checking biographical and bibliographic information, as well as reviewing auction records and signatures. It is wonderful that it is an online resource as it is so widely accessible.
What do you envision for Benezit’s future?
I envision a Benezit Dictionary of Artists with more images, more entries, and perhaps new categories. I hope to include a more diverse array of artists, more women and younger artists.
Which artists’ work interests you most at the moment?
There are so many artists that I’m interested in: younger artists like K8 Hardy, Kate Gilmore, Firelei Baez, Zackary Drucker, Juliana Huxtable, Martin Gutierrez; iconic artists like Carolee Schneemann, Marybeth Edelson, Mary Kelly, Judy Chicago, David Hammons, Dan Graham, E.A.T., Hans Haacke; and increasingly I’m interested in artists who work outside of the established mainstream including John Hiltunen, William Scott, and Uman. I recently bought two ceramic works created by a blind sculptor who works with Creative Growth Center in Oakland, CA.
My new book, New York New Wave, The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice includes a chapter on drag and trans artists. I love how second wave feminism is being re-evaluated and understood through the lens of a younger population of artists who are again seeking equal rights, equal representation and working against oppression.
What changes have you noticed in the art market in the past ten years?
The contemporary art market in particular has ballooned in the past decade. I remember when Old Masters were the most valuable art commodities. Now contemporary art has taken over that position. It’s been fascinating to see the market defy any resistance in the wider economic crises and continue to thrive. Blue chip art has outperformed stocks and bonds in the past half century.
It’s also been interesting to see more women and artists of color entering the mainstream market. I’ve been excited to walk into art fairs and see feminist artists holding prime positions in booths. You would not have seen that fifteen years ago. But women artists are still undervalued and remain a disproportionately small part of the market.
What was the last artwork or exhibition you saw that you couldn’t wait to show to someone else?
The last exhibition I saw that I couldn’t wait to share with someone else was Arts & Foods – Rituals since 1851, a show curated by Germano Celant on the occasion of the World Expo at the Triennale building in Milan. I love the sheer breath and ambition of this show, moving from the turn of the twentieth century to the future. It includes recreations of period kitchens, artworks, graphic design, industrial design and film. It’s a great theme and was such a delight to walk through. How often do I get to walk through a Futurist kitchen? Or see a Cubist teapot in the flesh?
What art would you hang on the walls of the home of your worst enemy?
Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture or any of Ryan Trecartin’s video work. I love both of these artists but watching these videos can be challenging and disruptive.
Alternatively, if you were being permanently banished to a desert island, how would you decorate your house in your exile?
If I were stuck on a desert island I’d decorate the walls with works by my artist friends. I love having pieces that remind me of people as it feels like a little bit of them is there in the room with me. So I would want Dan Graham, Mary Kelly, Judy Chicago, Linder, Elif Uras, Richard Mosse, Katie Holten, Sherin Guirguis, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Tom Burr, Haluk Akakce, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Hadrian Pigott, O Zhang, Ali Emir, Mentalklinik, and the list goes on and on…
Headline image credit: Paintbrushes by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.