I spend a lot of my free time on art, in one sense or another. From the Tate Modern to your mate’s exhibition in the back room of a Peckham shopping arcade, I often find myself using my free days perusing galleries, or Thursday nights trying to get to private views before the free beer runs out. I am not especially educated (I dropped art in sixth form after a traumatic AS level) or even well informed about art in the traditional sense, but I do not think that means I cannot be interested in or appreciate ‘art’. Grace Miceli is the 27 year old, New York City based founder of Art Baby Gallery, an online exhibition space with an ethos that echoes that sentiment exactly: art should be undefined and accessible, created by anyone who wants to create it, for anyone who wants to consume it.
Since its launch in 2011, Art Baby has featured almost 50 up and coming photographers, painters, illustrators, poets, writers and multimedia artists. Art Baby now also encompasses Grace’s successful Instagram account, @artbabygirl, wearable art anti-clothing-label label Art Baby Girl, several hugely popular ‘irl’ exhibitions and (in the near future) a permanent physical space. Following one such exhibition, and a super interesting talk about alternative gallery spaces as part of the launch of the new Tate Modern, I caught up with Grace to chat art, the internet, politics and fashion.
(pictured above: Grace and Ashleigh Kane at their ‘A New Sensation’ London exhibition – photo by Patrick Larder)
Do you consider yourself more an artist or a curator, or do you think that those two roles are linked?
I think at this point it feels almost 50/50 – I feel equally immersed in both professions, but they really do inform each other. I’m a better artist from knowing what curators want, and I’m a better curator because I’m more sensitive to what artists need. I also get bored if I do one thing for too long!
You studied at Goldsmiths for a year, but you seem to still be in London quite frequently, what draws you back?
I’m still in touch with people I knew from when I was a student here, but because of the internet there are so many artists like Maisie Cousins that I’ve developed friendships and then working relationships with. The internet makes it so easy to communicate across continents, and luckily I’ve been able to start working with certain institutions and brands that are able to facilitate these cross-country collaborations really coming to life, instead of having to exist only on the internet.
(Grace, photographed by me at the Tate Modern)
Do ‘irl’ things like curating an exhibition as successful as ‘A New Sensation’ and speaking at the Tate still feel like a big deal to you, in spite of having a big following and community online?
When I did Girls At Night on the Internet in New York, my first ‘offline’ exhibition, I had no idea how that was going to go. It’s scary, it’s kind of like an art party that you’re planning. That had a great turnout but I live there, to see that happen in London as well really shows the power of the internet!
Definitely – and the exhibition was so cool! How does an artist / curator, in the internet age, actually make a living? A lot of people in art tend to come from money, but I think that the challenge of actually being able to sustain yourself from art is something that puts a lot of people off ever trying.
I think it’s super important to be transparent about this because nobody talks about it in the fine art world. It’s not that people in the art world aren’t hardworking, you can’t be mad at someone for having the luxury of money, but I was definitely confused about how other people were managing when I was a young artist. This is my fifth year in New York, and for my first four years I worked full time in retail and almost did art full time on top of that. It was actually great because I had such little free time, so I really made the most of everything! For the past 9 months or so I’ve been freelance – I still feel like I have ten different jobs because I do Art Baby, I do freelance illustration for various publications, I sell clothes, prints and stickers, and with Instagram I’m in a cool area of the internet where I’m an artist but also, technically, I’m an influencer too. It’s really a bit of everything, and it all adds up. It’s scary to not have a weekly paycheque, but that’s super motivating to me because every day when I wake up I have to be hustling.
(selfies = art)
For sure! So the ‘digital art’ that you focus on, I think that’s really unique to our generation so far. Do you think that you’d be as impassioned by art if you were doing it in a more traditional setting?
When I first started I came into art through photography, and that was in a pretty traditional setting. It really wasn’t until when I was at university and I was practicing in a way that was quite traditional, but I was always trying to push buttons and questioning my professors like ‘why is this perfectly realistic painting more important than this more conceptual fun piece’. I’m not skilled in the traditional way, I couldn’t make art like that, but I knew I had to make art. It just felt necessary to me, so I was always looking for ways to find how I fit, and that resulted in me doing my own thing and realising that, for example, the art I was seeing and putting on Tumblr was just as real as anything else.
Do you think that Art Baby was influenced by Tumblr?
Totally! I was using Tumblr so much but because it’s not solely an art platform, stuff just gets lost in the endless scroll, so I wanted to take the same things we were doing on Tumblr and look at them differently.
A lot of the art that comes from Tumblr, and digital art more widely, is quite politically charged. Do you think that’s always a good thing? Are the aesthetic and the political unavoidably linked at this point?
That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently – when I first started doing art I didn’t care about anything political, I just wanted to make stuff that was silly or cool or beautiful. For me personally that started to get a little boring and old, and now I want to make are that provokes some sort of reaction or engagement, especially when things in the real world aren’t going well. I think that art can be a really amazing way to speak about more serious things, and so recently I’ve been more invested in figuring out art that is also political.
Does that then create a pressure, positive or negative, to react to the real world, to a tragedy, or to comment on political and social issues? Do you feel like you *have* to use your art and use your platform for that purpose now?
Of course, but the pressure is totally positive. I think that having a platform is a responsibility – at times I do think ‘oh I shouldn’t have to’, and I used to have more of an adverse opinion of more political art, but now I’m just more engaged in politics etc and so I think that’s reflected in everything else. What’s the point of having all these people listen to you, if you’re not going to at least sometimes say something that’s important.
(Art Baby Drizzy inflammatory essays longsleeve – photo by Savanna Ruedy)
Let’s talk about fashion – your art has manifested itself in clothing with ‘Art Baby Girl’. I think that the crossover between artist and designer is really cool and interesting and I find people like Claire Barrow, who is doing both, really inspiring. How do you feel about fashion and personal style generally? Is it a world that you enjoy?
Love Claire! Fashion has never been my main interest but I’ve always had fun paying attention to trends, and I’m such an avid consumer of film and TV and it’s really fun to reference those things through clothes and fashion. It was really fun for me to get to the point where I could afford to start producing clothes, because I had a lot of friends who would see my art and be like ‘oh I would wear that on a shirt!’ I love that I can do a drawing and immediately put it on Instagram, but your work can travel in different ways. You don’t have to go to the internet or to a gallery to see your art, someone can be just walking around a city in it all day. In my yearbooks when I was about 10 I wrote that I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up, so it’s cool to have come to that in this very roundabout way. Fashion is just another way to express yourself.
What’s coming up next for Art Baby and Grace Miceli?
My next exhibition is at Pon Ding in Tai Pei, which I’m really excited about – it’s called ‘Why Didn’t You Like My Pic’. I’m also currently working on getting my physical gallery space, which will hopefully be later this year, and following that I’m excited to start working with some different artists. There’s one artist Monica Garza who does paintings of larger girls laying in bed or on the beach or working out, and a duo Aleia Murawski + Alex Wallbaum who do a lot of miniature sets – I’m just excited to show more painters and have more installation work because there are certain works that lend themselves better to being seen ‘in real life’, not just online.