In Dialogue with Marco Palli
The online sculpture exhibition “FLUX : Vita Mutata” curated by Natsuki Takauji and hosted by the veteran non-for-profit artists’ cooperative Sculptors Alliance, features seventeen artists who display works made before the pandemic, throughout the closure, and beyond. The Sculptors Alliance president, Marco Palli. shares with Art Spiel how the show evolved, and how his organization transformed throughout the pandemic, while offering us a generous peek behind the scenes.
You are an artist yourself and since March 2019 you have also been serving as president and board member of the veteran non-profit organization Sculptors Alliance, which was founded in 1980. Tell me a bit what brought you there?
It all started in the summer of 2017. I was having a solo show at Rich Timperio’s Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I invited everyone I knew to come see the exhibition. One of them was Natsuki Takauji, whom I had met five years before when we were both students at the Arts Students League of New York (ASLNY). She was co-curating a show for Sculptors Alliance (SA) with former SA president Anne Stanner. I did not know anything about the organization then. After seeing my work, Takauji invited me to join Metal—A Sculpture Exhibit. A few days after my solo show, I installed at Governors Island the sculpture she had chosen at Sideshow. At the opening reception, I learned that David C. Terry, who was then the curator at New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), had given me an Honorable Mention Award, and I was blown away. As an immigrant, I can testify how hard it has always been for me. There I was, under the umbrella of an organization true to their mission, where an unknown sculptor is recognized in an unbiased way. Naturally, I wanted to get involved. The first thing I did was to donate the award (it was a cash award) back to the organization, because the honor alone was plenty for me.
Historically the Sculptors Alliance has been hosting shows in galleries and alternative spaces in the New York City areas. Recently with the pandemic, you came up with quite an extensive online platform. What is the genesis of this project?
For this massive online project, I am indebted to a grant we received from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs this year. They have both been among our strongest allies, and with their support we had the funds to run our usual program in education, which we do in-person at different locations over the city, like the New York Public Library (NYPL). Our program was proposed in March 2020, and after that, we were supposed to dedicate our time to our 40th anniversary exhibition. It is a special event we do every 10 years in addition to our annual exhibition. On March 2nd, 2020, the terror from the news on the pandemic caused a massive exodus, and I was among the many people who left New York City. I went to Kent, Connecticut, where I have my art studio. Like many, I was just idling waiting for good news, partially depressed, immersed in uncertainty, thinking and overthinking everything.
Fortunately for me, my studio was truly a mess. It was more like a storage unit that contained all my materials, tools and works I had made — more appropriate for “camping” occasionally than “living.” So, as I was in “pandemic mode”, I found mental stability in fixing, reorganizing and even renovating the place. Suddenly, it was Labor day, and I simply freaked out. COVID-19 Global pandemic is here to stay, and of course, even with all its limitations, the most complete medium available for interpersonal communication is the internet. Can SA do anything online? Everyone I called was against it. If you think about it, the internet embodies the opposite of sculpture, but we had the grant, and the responsibility to put that money for use is, and was, enormous.
What made it happen?
One important phone call prompted a shift in my mindset. In this conversation I talked about the online platform idea with sculptor Leonid Lerman, who is among the artists I admire the most. After we shared our view that sculptors are the most physical, touch-driven, hands-on advocates, space- oriented/dependent people in the art world. To some extent we both agreed that online courses are not the best way for teaching sculpture. Then he told me, “Do not look at this as a challenge, but as an opportunity,” and from there I did my best to see it that way. Over several weeks I reached out one by one to all the instructors who have worked with SA before, and encouraged them to prepare a syllabus for a course they would like to teach online. My invitation was not received well, no one wanted to get involved. From trying to prepare content for my own course, I knew that the online course had to be conceived from the ground up to be taught online. As my mind began to open, I began cheering everyone up with phrases like: “Think of the course you always wanted to take. What is that course like? Is there anything you know that you wish someone taught you earlier? I want you to teach that!” and I began receiving syllabi but it was not enough. In addition, I used the 717 email addresses in our mailing list to let everyone know what we were trying to do and all I got was one response, “wonderful!.”
I knew I needed help, and I knew SA could not afford the kind of help I needed. I reached out to the one person I knew who had the might of a battalion, that was Peggy Roalf, Chief Editor of DART Design Arts Daily. She said to me: “I am enjoying the city [of New York] now that is empty, but I can give you one hour every day to help you with anything you need” and she did. She was enormously generous. She put more time than that. We revamped the entire page— read, edited, re-read, re-edited, emails, newsletters, forms for subscribing, risk and release agreements, application forms— and we started a fresh Instagram account from scratch in September, 2020. We started with only one course online, Wonders of Sculpture by Francine Perlman, and soon we had 8 more. We started with the one online exhibition that is currently on view, “FLUX : Vita Mutata” curated by Natsuki Takauji, and now we have 4 upcoming ones. In simple words: “Once you own a hammer, everything is a nail.”
Let’s take a closer look at your current online show, “FLUX : Vita Mutata” curated by Japanese New York based sculptor Natsuki Takauji. The show is based on both invitations and an Open Call. Tell me about the curatorial premise and the title of the show.
Takauji had the concept for the show and proposed the title “FLUX.” We discussed many possibilities and the more we talked, the clearer I was about what I wanted the show to be for SA and the clearer she was about the scope of the exhibition. I asked her to consider an Open Call to extend the opportunity of participation to everyone. In addition, inviting artists she had already visualised in the show, but of course they had to apply just like everyone else.
Roalf and I went back and forth on everything and it was Roalf who suggested the need for a secondary title. I grew up listening to my father clarify complicated things with a citation in Latin, as if the Latin would make me comprehend any better. After using the Latin quote he would support his point in a way that I actually understood. So I looked for something in Latin to complete the title, and after writing down a few options, “Vita Mutata” came and I felt it was the kind of thing my father would say. I shared it with Takauji and she liked it. I shared it with Roalf and she loved it.
Were applicants required to pay?
Everything else was business as usual, except that a lot of people were affected financially by the pandemic, and we wanted to allow everyone to apply. As New Yorkers we are spoiled by the Met Museum that allows us to contribute as much as we can. Yes, we do not have the Met’s budget, but it was worth trying if we could achieve such an ambitious goal.
We came up with a way to let people choose how much they could pay — “($20) I am able to pay the total application fee; ($35) I am able to pay for myself and happy to anonymously support another artist; and ($5) I could use the support of the Sculptors Alliance’s community this time.” Talking about this waters my eyes, because I was blown away by what I learned from the Analytics. About 72% of people were able to pay the $20, about 9% were able to pay for themselves and did support another artist, about 12% did use the support of the Sculptors Alliance’s community. Basically from our financial perspective, we did not have to absorb the loss of funds because people from our community were effectively supporting themselves.
Now there is 7% missing right? Well, half way in the Open Call I received an email from a sculptor in Argentina who wanted to participate. I had no idea we had international attention as we have been operating almost exclusively in New York City for four decades. I went to see if we had other responses from abroad and indeed we got responses from Australia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom. I felt that it was necessary for us to add an additional option: “($0) Sculptors Alliance Volunteer (Fee Exempt).” If we do not create opportunities for people who cannot afford the application fee to participate, it is us who are missing out the opportunity to have wonderful artists share their intellectual achievements with us. At the time we closed the Open Call, about 7% of the submissions paid ($0). I intended to accommodate artists from countries like Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela, who experience harsh regulations in currency exchange that might hinder their opportunity to participate, but I learned that most of the people who applied using the option corresponding to ($0) were residents in New York City.
What about the selection process?
I must confess that I painfully witnessed Takauji reject artists that I knew and admired. I saw her reject an artist that is well known, extremely skilled that we both have high regards for. I asked her why, and Takauji said, “I know, the work is amazing, but it is not adding anything to this show.” And this is just one of the many reasons I am so proud and honored to be working with her.
What is your takeaway from this show?
FLUX : Vita Mutata curated by Natsuki Takauji epitomises a great spectrum of artists whose lives have been changed by the global pandemic. She was capable of making a great lemonade when life gave her lemons, but I learned other things. Many of them about myself, and many more about my responsibility to my community. For instance, I am among the very many artists who have done their best to emerge professionally. Artists who with the lockdown and the closing of borders have lost opportunities that may never get back. In 2020, I was going to fabricate and show work in France and China. I feel as if after massaging the dough for so long, and just when the fermentation was about to ignite the growth, all of a sudden, I am back flat on the table. That is why I personally contacted many artists to invite them to join the Open Call. There are artists who did not make anything during the pandemic period, like myself. By not applying we robbed ourselves of the opportunity to be a part of this exhibition, when actually we could have participated telling our story and showing only works made before the pandemic.
When I was programming the website, in the order that Takauji gave me, I really began seeing the exhibition forming. When I read Geoffrey Owen Miller’s statement I could not keep myself together anymore. I realized we are all having a really hard time, but there are people fighting fiercely and somehow teaching the rest of us how to fight. The people in this show are not only incredible artists, they are resilient, admirable, and mind blowing. When Takauji proposed this exhibition, I thought that most people would share a story similar to mine, but no one did. I was rewarded with learning that because of the lockdown some artists spent more time dedicated to their work, and it evolved. I learned that some artists, challenged with the fact that they were unable to do artwork because they could not go to their studio, reinvented themselves. I learned that some artists continued doing what they have been doing before, which is actually an incredible achievement in times like this.
As for myself, I learned that there is no point in doing art if it is going to stay unseen in my studio. I learned that what fuels the engine in me is not the making of a sculpture, but the opportunity that my expression resonates with someone else. Unequivocally, when no one is listening, there is no point in screaming. So my work this time did not manifest into art making, but focused into the making of a space, a pedestal, a window where our community had the chance to show their expression and to hold on to. Hence, my greatest takeaway from this show is that I did flux, “mea vita mutata est” (my life was changed).
Would you like to share anything in particular about the selected artists in the show?
Perhaps it would be unfair of me to mention an artist and not mention the other artists. I stress this because I am the kind of person that continues exploring ways to include everyone, perhaps that would make me a bad curator. Sure there are things that stuck in me perhaps because I may identify directly with the work.
For instance: Anne Muntges said “I have made sculptures of drawings [not to be confused with ‘sculptures from drawings’] but that is because to me everything is a drawing, or starts as a drawing.” From a closeup one realizes that she has drawn every surface, texture and detail over a tridimensional form that, in addition to all the objects she had carefully made and grouped, together creates an installation that makes one feel as if one looks into a drawing. She does not worry about perspective or any illusionary drawing techniques. She creates her world of drawing which ultimately manifests as a “living” drawing, where after a little while, everything is familiar but the viewer.
Amalia Galdona-Broche, what a powerhouse! I felt dwarfed by her skills for producing work. What is her secret? I have not had the chance to ask her but my gut tells me that she is just someone charged with something really important to say. I do not want to spell it out for you and ruin your opportunity to discover her but wait no more. She is writing history.
Monika Majer’s relationship with the stone is so profound that the weight of her work provided her with the necessary inertia to overcome the pandemic. Her success rises from her ability to imprint in the stone her own humanity. She does not even struggle, as for her the stone is butter. The result is sculptures that embody the tenderness of babies that one wants to caress, but never to lift. Like every good “mother”, she lets her “babies” develop organically. Majer is only an honest and experienced “advisor” in conversation with the growing “being” just so it becomes what it wants to be, and the best it can be, whatever that is.
Hak Sul Lee, the right and the left hand of many artists in New York, a person capable of everything — from the hand made forging of metal to the most precise computer rendering in 3D. I have so much to say about Lee, that I better not get started. All I can say is that I was very happy that he decided to participate and submitted a response. He truly is one of a kind.
What is your overall vision for the organization in context of the New York City art world?
I cannot go back to working exclusively with New York City. We are international now, and this is the kind of thing that cannot be reversed, like an egg cannot be unbroken. So, I am going to spread the yolk and albumen as much as I can. I know that it sounds ambitious, because it takes a village to build a village, a city to build a city, and a world to build a world, but right now I know I am not alone. We are motivated, and our doors are open to let everyone in.
For those people (artists or not) who want to pass on their knowledge, and/or curate, learn, show, lecture, participate, volunteer, belong, help, ask for help, share an idea or have a request, from beginners to the most critical, my vision for the SA is to become a giant open door. Yes, our mission seems to be exclusive for sculptors, but it is not. At times, a painter needs to make a sculpture, an organization needs to erect a memorial, a chef needs to make a mold for an edible sculpture, and a writer needs to explore the realm of the physical. Additionally, many people have the need to give back volunteering their time, experience and even resources investing into their community. We already are that vibrant community, online for now, but we are still here. The ripple effect or our work has and will continue changing the art world.
What would you like to share about your upcoming online exhibitions?
This show is followed by: On Being curated by Kim Power, who proposed to question: “What does it mean to be human? Is it our emotive or intellectual capacities that define the existence of our species?” It aims to explore the human spirit in both figurative and conceptual sculpture. Power is a painter, writer, curator and teacher living in New York City. Virtual Opening Reception: December 27, 2020.
Followed by the current Open Call for entry: “Radiance of Imagination” curated by Shi Lan, who proposed to step forward — to share what we can do with our imagination. Shi is a gallery owner, founder of Lan/Space Art Center located Caochangdi, Beijing. Submission deadline: January 6, 2021. Announcement of selected artists: January 18, 2021. Virtual Opening Reception and Release: February 16, 2021.
Everything else is in their early stages. There is plenty of work ahead yet to be done. I recommend everyone to subscribe to our mailing list because that is the best way to be informed about what is happening.
All Photo Courtesy of the Artists
Artists: Amalia Galdona-Broche, Anne Muntges, Bob Clyatt, Carole Loeffler, Christopher Skura, Dai Ban, Geoffrey Owen Miller, Haksul Lee, Judith, Roston-Freilich, Judy Glasser, Kenichi Nakajima, Lesley Bodzy, Mark Eisendrath, Michelangelo Arteaga, Monika Majer, Rich Tomasello, Sara Knight
Virtual exhibition extended through January 30th, 2021