Even if you don’t know Carrie Mackin’s name, you probably know something she has been involved with.
Mackin has spent the last two decades curating more than 100 exhibitions and projects, and has helped power some of the most prominent names in the industry through her consulting. In her career, she’s shifted through many roles, from running an exhibition space, to studio manager, to independent consultant. Her experience gives a glimpse of the ecosystem at work that makes a lot of the art world’s more mysterious successes happen.
In early March, just before lockdown, Mackin and I met at the Princeton Club of New York to discuss her career.
Mackin got her start in Tampa Bay area. Covivant, her project space, launched in 1999 in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse she discovered through her mechanic. She transformed it into two galleries and 10 studios.
“Covivant means ‘co-living,’” states Mackin. “The word, or name, was about cohabitation, and it truly ended up being a community space.” It lasted until 2006, when she moved to New York, feeling the collector base in her home state wasn’t ready for her. After going back to school for a master’s in Public Administration, she shifted gears and committed to focusing on the arts full-time.
Within six months of moving to New York, she was hired as studio manager for Kehinde Wiley, the Brooklyn-based portrait painter who has become world-famous for a portfolio that includes Barack Obama’s 2017 presidential portrait. Soon, Mackin was promoted to business manager just as Wiley’s career was going from strength to strength.
“Business management is one step above studio manager,” she says of her time with Wiley. “That’s when somebody gets to a position where they trust that you can handle their business.”
This role meant managing Wiley’s finances and investments, as well as talking and negotiating with galleries. “At that point, everybody wanted Kehinde. I felt like I was becoming a real gatekeeper for him.”
Mackin then started her own consultancy, Mackin Projects. Launched as a project management company, it has morphed into a bigger service, making use of her business acumen and connections to help emerging and mid-career artists “get to the next level,” in her words. Mackin’s role for her clients is to serve as the liaison between artists, galleries, collectors, and other third parties. “A lot of artists have also hired me to come in and hire for them,” Mackin explains.
Working with artists including Sanford Biggers, Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas, and Titus Kaphar, Mackin serves as an outside adviser, dropping by studios and offering feedback. She’ll ask about current issues the artists face, the changes they hope to make, and their goals over the next several years. From there, a collaborative relationship ensues.
One of the most noteworthy projects she has worked on is NXTHVN, a not-for-profit artist incubator in New Haven, Connecticut, opened by Titus Kaphar, Jason Price, and Jonathan Brand. The space is currently under construction, with Deborah Berke as the architect; Mackin worked as an advisor alongside Kaphar during the project’s earliest stages. The space has already been a success: NXTHVN received 360 applications from 13 countries for its inaugural fellowship program.
Another memorable project was Mickalene Thomas’s “Better Nights” in 2019, a successor to the artist’s 2013 Art Basel hit “Better Days” exhibition, which created an immersive art bar. Mackin Projects brought talent, resources, and generous funding to assist the new project.
“Everything revolves around Mickalene’s mother and the parties she threw in her living room at that time, which is why the space is so domestic but also looks like a 1970s bar,” Mackin says of the installation, which transformed the Bass galleries into a wood-paneled environment. (The show was set to remain on display at the Bass until September 27, before the interruption of COVID-19.)
In addition to working with figures like Thomas and Kaphar, she also has joined forces with collectors who hope to engage in the kinds of artistic conversations she’s interested in. “I’m looking to create a conversation within the body of work,” Mackin explains. “And that conversation is really socially driven. Lots of times it’s hyper-political.”
Mackin’s career is one rooted in personal relationships and word-of-mouth referrals. I asked her where she finds her advisory clients. “I meet them at art shows, through projects, and I meet them through artists,” she explains. “I think people who are looking for contemporary art made by Black artists, either American or from the African diaspora, know I’ve been around the art and I’ve been around those artists for 10 years.”
As an advisor, Mackin is able to offer both business insights and knowledge she’s gleaned over the years. She also brings with her a network of trusted people: lawyers, CPAs, and financial advisors. In her view, no artist is too established to benefit from professional help.
“I also give them an understanding of their relationships with their galleries,” she adds. “Those relationships are intense, they’re intimate, and they’re not just business.”
Ultimately, the advisor’s objective is to help artists forge rock-solid partnerships where both parties—both artist and gallery—seek the same thing. “Honestly, I think I just enjoy working with artists and helping them understand how they can make money while doing what they love,” Mackin says.
This summer, she stepped into yet another new role as a visiting lecturer teaching “Art Studio Management and Gallery Representation” to art students at the Royal College of Arts. She sees teaching as a way to reach an even wider range of artists.
As an art collector, Mackin got her start trading work with artists back when she was an art student herself. Over the years, more than a few artists she’s worked with have negotiated their fee by offering Mackin works of art. Today she would have a hard time parting with the pieces she’s accumulated—Mickalene Thomases, Nan Goldins, and Cindy Shermans among them.
“This has been such an organic process for me,” she says. “I’ve never advertised, you know—it’s just word of mouth. And hopefully a lot of satisfied customers.”