Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve witnessed many a brick and mortar museum and gallery consider permanently restructuring their exhibitions for online viewing. As they still work out the clumsy functionality and accessibility issues arising from such an endeavour, independent curators, art bloggers, and collectors alike have taken it upon themselves to showcase veteran and novice artists online, primarily through social media. London-based Artistellar is one platform doing just that.
Founder and Curator Adele Smejkal started the online gallery in hopes to combine the marketing know-how of an art agent/representative with the eye of a curator, creating in-house (digital) 3D exhibitions featuring emerging artists.
Artistellar is an online gallery, which stages curated exhibitions online. We focus on emerging or early-career artists and on helping them gain significance in the art world.
Itself a budding organization, Artistellar fills what many are realizing is an ever-widening gap—and not just in the context of a pandemic year—between elitist galleries’ gatekeeping of early-career artists to potential collectors. Facing numerous existential crises, the art world neglects to understand that organizations like Artistellar teeter on the precipice of the industry’s future: if galleries don’t commit to more virtual-based opportunities, they will have certain trouble surviving. Artistellar gauges a more transient audience; a new-age gallery-going crowd that takes interest in both local and international artists, in small pop-up events or curator-led social media talks.
What’s more, Smejkal understands how social media platforms like Instagram shape the art-viewing experience. Artistellar, like any arts site, will have to face a crowd that is used to ‘Instagrammable’ art—works that are visually interesting and just palatable enough for their consumption. And let’s face it: art is meant to be seen in-person, but it isn’t always physically available to the general spectator, and galleries aren’t always the most approachable or democratic spaces.
Beyond art viewership, Artistellar aims to help an already vulnerable group: early-career artists who are tasked with marketing and promoting their own work while developing that very same work. Starting off with representing European artists, the platform hopes to expand their scope to international artists, as suitable for a new audience of spectators and artists alike.
Q: First thing’s first, for those who don’t know you, please introduce yourself.
A: My name is Adele, and I am the founder of Artistellar. I come from an auction house background; I worked at Sotheby’s for several years before starting Artistellar. During my time at Sotheby’s, I also created an Instagram based blog about art: @as_artjournal, where I share all my art adventures, and I started gradually working on small art projects. One day I realized that my passion for venturing something on my own is stronger than being an employee at a big company.
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: The straightforward answer (and maybe a cliché answer) is because I love it, and I am passionate about it.
Q: What is Artistellar?
A: Artistellar is an online gallery, which stages curated exhibitions online. We focus on emerging or early-career artists and on helping them gain significance in the art world. From the audience’s side, we navigate novice or experienced art collectors and we also aim to cultivate new interests in emerging artists.
Q: When did Artistellar start and what was the motivation behind it?
A: I had the idea for quite some time, but only with the occurrence of the global pandemic I really started working on it. I saw a window, and it was now or never. There have been many online ventures launching in the past year or so but what I noticed is that they are either huge marketplaces driven by selling art like any other e-commerce, or they are website with 3D rooms displaying art but without much context or story. I wanted to create the regular gallery concept but online, and really present artists and their works in a storytelling way.
Q: What is Artistellar’s primary goal?
A: Highlight the importance of emerging artists to initiate interest from the more general public. I think there are still so many people without any relationship or knowledge of art (especially emerging), and I want to cultivate that.
Q: What is your inspiration?
A: I try not to copy or follow up on what other curators are doing. I get inspired by books and fleeting moments in daily life. For instance, I got the inspiration for Artistellar’s second exhibition from reading ‘The Ninth Street Women’ book about female abstract expressionists.
Q: What experience can the visitors expect at Artistellar?
A: From the art exhibition point of view, our visitors will experience an entirely curated show at a time with a virtual gallery tour and a catalogue view with stories about each painting. From a customer experience point of view, Artistellar is friendly, young, and approachable. We are here to assist or help with anything regarding purchasing and/or collecting art.
Q: What artists can we expect to see at Artistellar?
A: We scout high caliber emerging or early-career artists around the world. Only in the first show we already have artists from three different countries, and the plan is to expand even more. I can reveal that in our next show launching in October, we will have an exciting line up of women artists.
Q: What is your creative process when you’re curating exhibitions?
A: I try to tell a story visually as well as verbally. The story is the topic of the exhibition, which can literally be anything worth exploring. For instance, last year, I visited a Van Gogh and David Hockney exhibition in Amsterdam, and I was blown away. The show was exploring the connections between these two seemingly different artists and mainly different time periods! You would say that the theme of nature and the four seasons is a little mundane and too reoccurring but on the contrary. The secret is in the way of communicating the subject of matter to your audience.
Q: When you are selecting works from artists, what do you look for in an artist?
A: I look for something ‘extra’ that is hard to describe – maybe let’s call it an X factor. I believe that you have to see tons and tons of work to be able to distinguish from good and bad art, but you need to see that extra factor in an artwork. And that only your instinct can tell you.
I rely on my intuition and also on what I feel when I see the piece of art. Because when I feel something, others are more likely to feel it too. I also look at what art schools the artist attended and how many times, or where has she/he exhibited, but it is definitely not a deciding factor for me.
Q: What strength or weakness do you look for when you are selecting a venue for an exhibition?
A: Depending on the curatorial project, sometimes the place is already set, sometimes it is an online exhibition, but if I have the free hand of choosing the venue, I first look at the location because I think that’s key; the better [the] location, the better chances of a high number of visitors. Then, of course, the character of the space and the entire building and how well they fit in the context of the exhibition.
Q: The display of artwork is essential to an exhibition experience; how do you decide on where each work of art should be placed for the best exhibition experience?
A: I think you need to understand the space and be able to create some kind of logic to it. For instance, when I enter the space, what is the first thing I see, where does my intuition tell me to go next, which wall is better for large scale pieces and smaller pieces, how does the light work if, etc. When I was younger, I wanted to be an interior designer, and I even studied architecture for I while, so all these things come to me quite naturally.
Q: What situations might occur that would cause you to rethink an exhibition?
A: I would say any kind of unexpected situation due to a current event or incident that could make the exhibition seem inappropriate or insensitive.
Q: What would you say is integral to the work of an art curator?
A: For me, it’s to understand the artist and his/her work as much as possible, to communicate it to the audience in the best possible way. It is important to think about your audience as well. I always aim to attract [a] more general public – meaning people that are not that familiar with art. I want to make art accessible for them.
Q: What do you think is the primary challenge facing exhibitions today?
A: At the moment, it’s the physical location of exhibitions due to COVID. All these restrictions and risks make everything more difficult. In the long run, I think it’s keeping up with technological development while maintaining the identity of each artwork and curatorial practice.
Q: What do you believe are the most effective ways for marketing exhibitions?
A: It always depends on the budget. But one of the most effective ways, even without a budget, is social media or knowing the right person (with a huge audience) who can help spread the word. Otherwise, media features, such as artist interviews or exhibition reviews, are always great.
Q: What do you like and dislike about working in galleries/exhibitions?
A: I like what additional experience museums and sometimes commercial galleries offer. You can choose from a number of events, talks, and tours. I dislike how commercial galleries are unapproachable sometimes; if you are just a regular visitor, you ought to ask not too many questions or prices of the works.
Q: In your opinion, where do you see the future of art curation in 10 years?
A: It is hard to predict. It all depends on where society and technology will be ten years from now.
Q: Do you have any advice for curators starting and do not know where to begin?
A: One of the best things you can do is to be out there. Meet people from the industry: curators, gallery directors; network; be curious. Look for opportunities even if they are unpaid, just to learn and be part of the process.
Q: Is there anything that worries you about how social media is affecting the promotion of artists, exhibitions, and museums?
A: Overall, I think that social media had a revolutionary impact in terms of promoting artists and exhibitions. Social is a very powerful tool in that sense. Many artists have built their careers thanks to social media, but what worries me how exhibitions are sometimes curated with a sole purpose: to be the most ‘instagrammable,’ and the same goes for artists. Sometimes I see tendencies of works that are made just for the purpose of being ‘cool’ for the camera and the Instagram likes.
Q: What is the future for Artistellar?
A: There are so many plans, and we are only at the very beginning. Firstly, I want to expand Artistellar to different artistic mediums and to really explore what talents are in the emerging art world. And secondly, I’m very much looking forward to having a first pop up show. Artistellar is and will be based online, but I believe that an occasional pop-up event/show will enable us to connect with collectors and art enthusiasts.
Hind Berji is a freelance writer and museum professional with experience in arts reviews, blogging, and sociopolitical criticism. She has written about topics ranging from opinion pieces and features on the Arab World to literary essays and poetry.