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To exhibit at Carter Burden Gallery, you must be two things: exceptionally talented, and at least 60 years of age. In an effort to promote promising visionaries otherwise dismissed for having celebrated too many birthdays, director Marlena Vaccaro has made it her mission to exclusively represent an older set of artists who struggle to market themselves in a youth-obsessed society.
As a seasoned painter, printmaker, and mixed-media artist, Marlena Vaccaro is familiar with the challenges of marketing oneself in New York City. Regardless of talent and experience—both her own and that of her peers—she could see that middle-aged-plus artists are largely overlooked, their potential subverted.
Perhaps this reality has been skewed by the enduring popularity of artists like David Hockney (age 80) and Yayoi Kusama (88), but as Vaccaro points out to me over the phone, “galleries will certainly show an older artist who’s been in business for 40 years. The question is, would they look at an artist who is 70 but hasn’t shown in 40 years?”
The greatest obstacles stand in the way of artists who have found their calling later in life, and artists who wish to re-establish themselves after garnering a degree of previous notoriety. “If, by the time you’re 40, you haven’t demonstrated earning power in terms of sales, it’s hard to get the attention of a big gallery,” Vaccaro told The New York Times. That’s where she comes in.
At the helm of Carter Burden Gallery (a subsidiary of the Carter Burden Network, which provides services promoting the wellbeing of senior citizens), Vaccaro represents artists over 60 who haven’t sold anything in the last decade or so, but wish to get back in the gallery game.
“It’s been a difficult uphill battle in terms of getting shown over the last 20 years,” she says. “I decided I wouldn’t get too bogged down with the reasons why older artists are struggling, and just say, ‘why not?’ when they came to me.” Vaccaro has since cultivated something of an “anti-gallery” at Carter Burden, to combat the industry’s otherwise “ageist dynamic.”
Carter Burden Gallery forges a “miraculous coming together” of artists from all walks of life through a shared love of their craft, sans the pressure and elitism present in so many top-tier commercial galleries.
“Part of my mission was to knock out that elitism,” she says, which she quells not only by exhibiting new artworks made by re-emerging artists in the last two or three years, but also by adjusting prices so that interested buyers “don’t have to walk in with $25,000 to spend.” The highest-grossing artwork sold at Carter Burden was $9,000, with prices ranging from $200 to $18,000. In other words, it’s all about accessibility.
Since the gallery materialized, Vaccaro has executed a program of over 100 solo and 50 group shows. More so, she has cultivated a nurturing community of re-emerging professional artists. “A lot of what we do is bringing people up to speed technologically,” Vaccaro told the New York Times. Part of her mission is to familiarize her roster of artists, age 60 to 95, with up-to-date tools for marketing their work.
To facilitate the artists’ transition from slides (the traditional method of presenting a portfolio for consideration) to social media and the online world, the gallery hired college students to assist with creating and updating websites, and building Instagram accounts that advertise the artwork without emphasizing the inconsequential nature of an artist’s age.
“The network created around this gallery is such an amazing, beautiful thing,” Vaccaro says. “Friendships have been formed. Artists who haven’t seen each other in 30 years have come back together [to co-exhibit]. All of our artists come to each and every opening. It’s an encouraging, comfortable community. And we want people to come in and ask questions. It’s a place for regular people to buy amazing art.”