Tell Me About Yourself: Alaina Feldman

Tell Me About Yourself: Alaina Feldman

An Interview with Alaina Feldman, Director and Curator of the Mishkin Gallery by Angelina Medina

A career in the arts can be daunting. My mission is to talk to different arts professionals about their past and current experiences in order to educate other students about what steps they should be taking as well as what they should ultimately expect when they are employed at an art institution. This month, I interviewed Alaina Feldman, the Director and Curator of the Mishkin Gallery, about her professional journey, her workday, and her advice for students who aspire to attain a career in the arts.

Photo: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Can you tell me about your career path and what led you to your role as the Director of the Mishkin Gallery?

Alaina Feldman (AF): I studied in New York and took every opportunity I could get in terms of experiential learning. I interned for artists, art galleries, festivals, and magazines in order to figure out what approaches to learning through art I found the most exciting. Having female mentors throughout this time period was very important, because I was able to work alongside women who wanted to introduce me to new ideas and opportunities I may have otherwise not have been aware of. I then worked and saved up money so that I could continue graduate work in Europe which was helpful in widening my perspective that there is no singular art history. Soon those internships lead to jobs, and one job lead to another. 

After nearly a decade as Director of Exhibitions at Independent Curators International (which is a wonderful organization), I felt it was time to move on. My favorite part of being a curator is the research and connecting audiences to artists and their ideas, so there was always a pedagogical approach to my work. I can’t think of a more special place to make such connections than at CUNY, the biggest and most diverse public university in the heart of New York.

It is rare for younger curators to stay at one institution for a long time, but I believed that if you want to change our institutions from the inside, it takes time and perseverance. During my tenure at ICI we completely changed who our guest curators and artists were to the most multicultural group ever. We also diversified the ideas that the exhibitions promoted and worked with more art spaces outside the West than ever before. I look forward to spending time developing the Mishkin Gallery as a premier place to see art from around the world for our students and for the greater city. 

Disidencia installation view, detail of Not Impressed by Civilization, Minerva Cuevas, 2019. Courtesy of Mishkin Gallery.

What does a typical virtual workday look like for you?

AF: I wake up at 7:30am, make a coffee and take my dachshund for a walk. These morning walks are a great time for me to establish a “to-do” list for the day. I then get ready for work like I always have, but with no commute! I scan my inbox for any urgent matters and address them by priority. My day typically includes about two zoom calls and many, many phone calls! These days I am handling several new and experimental projects for the Mishkin Gallery such as a new publication series, exhibitions and conferences, and artist talks and film screenings that can be done online. My calls are typically with artists, other curators, and faculty across CUNY and then there is always a lot of following up: writing and editing proposals, making checklists, handling pr and financial work, and fundraising. I also check in with the students who work with me every Tuesday through Zoom. It’s comforting to connect with them and hear their perspectives on all the important changes taking place in our world. I try to dedicate the later half of my days towards research and have recently returned to museums and art galleries to see work in person; a lucky day for me is when I’m able to meet up with an artist or curator at their exhibition to learn more in person. It’s a good reminder that although much of our world is mediated through the screen, experiencing art objects in space and in person cannot be fully replicated online.

What do you enjoy the most about what you do?

AF: I enjoy building new appreciations and understandings for the art and ideas of our times, and on the flip-side, I love to learn alongside artists myself. I’m a very visual person and build new understandings of the world through the eyes of others. I hope to be able to recreate these kinds of enlightening moments with others through exhibitions, publications, teaching and public programs. Ultimately, it’s about making yourself open to new ideas and perspectives through art.

Disidencia installation view, detail of No Room to Play, Minerva Cuevas, 2019. Courtesy of Mishkin Gallery.

What skills do you think are the most important for a student who is attempting to pursue a career in the arts?

AF: Most importantly, stay curious! Follow things that you love and that excite you. I carried a notebook with me everywhere in order to jot down names of artists, books, films and other inspiring ideas I wanted to continue to learn about. Having that knowledge also gave me the confidence to partake in conversations that would have otherwise be intimidating. 

What do you wish you would have known about working in the arts when you were an undergraduate student?

AF: I wish I would have known more about how unequitable the art world is. There is so much money being filtered through which creates uneven access to opportunities. I was more privileged than some people, but working-class and had to put in a lot of time and effort to show up and make myself heard. But I learned there are also many different art worlds; ones that embrace difference and ones that fight for equity also exist and are gaining momentum in this tumultuous time of questioning our institutions. Having a background in the arts and being able to think critically are skills that can be mapped onto many other disciplinary practices, and so a background in the arts can open many new doors for you, but most importantly opens new perspectives.

BLUES installation view, details of i ran from it but was still in it, Nicolas Premier. 2020. Courtesy of Mishkin Gallery.

Click here to view all posts in the Tell Me About Yourself interview series.