Assembly Room invites female curators to collaborate, come together, break the rules, defy the status quo, as well as create compelling art, exhibitions, and experiences. We are building a strong community of women to deepen the understanding of women’s work and offer support for female curators to achieve groundbreaking and inspiring results.
Interview with Assembly Room
with founders/directors Yulia Topchiy, Paola Gallio, and Natasha Becker
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Natasha, Paola, and Yulia! You opened Assembly Room in September with your first show in the space, a solo show titled Soft Power with work by Fawn Krieger. Congrats! Can you tell us more about the show and the decision to open with this particular exhibition?
Paola: Opening the space happened very suddenly, as always in New York, and we had a month to put the first show together. My immediate choice was Fawn Krieger. She is an artist I have known and worked with before coming to New York. She is a generous artist, she understood and was able to handle the circumstances of an inaugural show in a new space. I visited Fawn’s Studio during the summer and saw her “Experiments in Resistance” work: a series of sculptures in cement and clay that are reflections on the meaning of resistance as it occurs or happens between two materials, as an action between two bodies, and resistance as a political work in opposition to Trump’s election. Assembly Room’s mission is political, and Fawn’s work was able to poetically express our intentions without screaming in the establishment’s face. Her work holds a “Soft Power”, specific to a feminine sensibility towards social and political issues that we believe in and stand behind.
It also just so happened, that the very first week I moved to New York eight years ago, on my own, without a clue of the New York art scene, Fawn had a solo show at Soloway in Brooklyn, and I went to the opening. She introduced me to what became my real first art community and friends in the city. So it was natural to choose her as the first artist to open Assembly Room, coming full circle and bringing good karma for this new beginning.
Natasha: As a team, we identify as female and we feel that one way to end the dominance of destructive macho voices in culture, society, and politics, is to take over those spaces and fill it with more constructive, female voices. Everything about our first show articulated our desire to create a room of our own, so to speak, that provides better opportunities for women in the arts. Our practices as independent curators and artists are closely intertwined and it’s incredibly satisfying for us to support each other.
What are each of your backgrounds and how do they relate to the arts? When did each of you begin curating? Have you operated other spaces in the past?
Paola: I studied Sculpture in Carrara, Italy. I wanted to be an artist, but it didn’t happen because I didn’t have the strength, the right personality, and honestly, maybe not the talent. It was the end of the 90s, and the profession of the curator was in fashion and sounded like a good alternative. I imagined turning myself into a professional connector that could link artists to the institutions that could support them. Knowing the struggle it takes to be an artist, I made it my mission to be a curator that cares. I enrolled in a curatorial studies program in Milan and shortly after, entirely by catching a chance, I had the opportunity to open my own nonprofit space at La Fabbrica del Vapore, Milan. We struggled for years, but during this period I realized that a space should be an opportunity for others. In that time we were able to connect with young artists and curators by turning our space into a platform that’s available to artists that otherwise might not have had the same opportunity I had. And with that, suddenly FDV became a central part of a community, full of independent curators and young artists, in the city of Milan. In 2008, after the economic crisis, the public funding that supported my nonprofit was withdrawn and I had to close the space. Heartbroken, I started wandering—first to Spain, then to Berlin, ending up in New York.
Starting all over once again, I worked as an independent curator on several projects. I participated in a curatorial program with No Longer Empty, and I went back to the struggle of being in the loop of open calls and freelancing. When I was almost ready to give up and move to a fisherman’s island in Greece, a new opportunity presented itself.
I knew getting a space was a matter of being fast, and what seemed to count most was timing. I didn’t plan on having a space at the time, but I did think if I could have one I would have liked it to be like Shrine Gallery or Kristen Lorello Gallery, a small space that can challenge your curatorial creativity and not be too much of a financial burden. The universe somehow brought me to Yulia and Natasha, and with the same feminist perspective we opened Assembly Room. A platform for women curators, because let’s be honest, being a woman, even in the Arts, is not very convenient.
Natasha: I am originally from South Africa and grew up in a country where black people were hugely excluded from the arts but always found a way to challenge the status quo and achieve hard won victories. Because of this, I’m always championing the underdogs! It’s in my DNA. I came to New York several years ago to study art history and eventually migrated to curating. I have ten years of experience as an international curator having worked in the arts in the United States, at the prestigious Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, and the renowned Goodman Gallery in South Africa, where I was a Senior Curator. I loved working as a cross-cultural curator; connecting people and institutions/organizations, creating and linking each to vital, win-win opportunities. I continue to work collaboratively and across cultures with emerging and established artists, galleries, and foundations.
Yulia: I am an independent curator, originally from Russia. I’ve spent sixteen years in New York working for commercial galleries, auction houses, art fairs, and not-for-profits before launching my curatorial debut with CoWorker Projects, a project which started in the basement of Entwine bar in the West Village. While working with CoWorker Projects, I showed works by many emerging video artists and filmmakers there, eventually leading to curating shows at spring/break art show, where I met Natasha Becker. I worked with an extensive network of emerging and established artists and collaborated with galleries, non-profits, and independent curators on special projects and exhibitions. Until recently, I served as a Senior Gallery Relations manager where I specialized in online sales, global promotion, and exposure through online strategies at Artsy. I also played an important role in several Artsy Projects initiatives where along with Elena Soboleva I created commissions, performances, and site-specific installations.
You have mentioned that one of your goals is to champion the work of underrepresented curators. Can you elaborate on why this is important right now?
Yulia: Our goal is to support underrepresented women curators, and by extension, artists. The women curators we work with are professional, highly educated and, skilled curators who cannot find secure positions in the institutions and galleries in this current job market. They are full of excellent ideas, community-driven, and supportive of underrepresented artists. Our job and mission is to give these curators a voice and to support them in the process of launching that first exhibition of artists who may have not been seen otherwise and engage in a dialogue with the community we bring to the space.
As a space run by women, offering opportunities for female curators to curate shows in NYC, can you expand upon the current need for this type of support?
Yulia: Having worked in the art industry for the last sixteen years and curating shows for six years on my own, I felt at a loss for resources and community to share my frustrations and my struggles asking for funding or financial support for my projects. The community of spring/break art show was amazing, and many important connections and friendships were formed, though it only lasted a few weeks a year. Natasha Becker and I felt that creating a community of strong-minded women who are bound together creatively and spiritually, is important nowadays to have a safe place where you can be heard, your problems or questions can be addressed, and you feel supported, where a vision you create for yourself can be nourished. I think that community or commune is important for living with people, as you never feel alone— you are sort of forced to share your thoughts about your day, say hello or say ‘fuck off’ at times. But at least you are part of something, part of people connecting together. That’s what my passion is to build a community of strong women bound together to succeed in the art world through curating, working with artists, working and feeling supported and not alone in this world.
I think now is a great time for creativity and expression for women. There has been no better time to come forward, speak your truth and feel supported by others. The #metoo movement certainly builds confidence and the sense of solidarity among many women. Women feel empowered to create more political work, come forward, speak their truth. Many institutions and art galleries are showing work by women, women of color, queer women—it’s a great time to be a woman!
Natasha: I agree with Yulia and I would like to add that even high profile women curators, who work at prestigious institutions, need our support! We have to talk about why radical women in the arts have recently been fired from their jobs (most recently Kimberli Meyer, Helen Molesworth, Laura Raicovich, Maria Ines Rodriguez) and how we can support our institutional colleagues. Shows provide one type of opportunity but we also want to support women through activism, advocacy, and discussion.
Have spaces with a similar mindset given you opportunities to curate exhibitions in the past?
Yulia: Not in my experience. I strongly believe we are building something that doesn’t exist anywhere!
Paola: In my experience, curatorial opportunities are not proportionate to the amount of young students that graduate with degrees from curatorial programs around the world each year. The idea of opening a platform as an opportunity for young curators is a way to take responsibility for the profession that we have chosen, and towards the idea of independence in our field. To stay independent is to create a dialogue that can harmonize with institutions, maintain its freedom to expand beyond any preset boundaries. So—no, because I’ve had to open my own space twice.
Natasha: Opportunities to curate vary enormously and there are many people and organizations who are sympathetic to women, people of color and, minorities. We, on the other hand, are 100-percent dedicated to this and we want Assembly Room to be taken over by independent women curators who also have a strong commitment to multiplicity in the arts.
What is it like to collaborate with a team of three people? What different strengths and weaknesses do you all bring to the table?
Paola: Working with a team of three is positive because we can share tasks and responsibilities. We can each have a role in managing the space day-to-day from its conceptual underpinnings and administrative needs to its most practical problems. And in the end, its New York—being three means being able to share the investment, the time and everything that goes into starting a new venture. In the end, being on a team of three gives us all the opportunity to keep running the space and to stay focused on our mission. One of our most vital strengths and possibly obvious weaknesses is that we are all immigrants. Being an immigrant means bringing an international network and an alternative background to the job every day. At the same time, it means not being permanent. Considering the current administration, our position is certainly precarious.
Natasha: It’s lively and we laugh a lot! The food and wine is always amazing and we love being good hosts. I think it’s the influenced by our Italian, Russian, and South African backgrounds. Our strengths and weaknesses somehow balance out because there’s three of us and someone always has your back. We have enormous respect and trust in each other, the process, and the space.
What’s coming up for Assembly Room this year?
Yulia: Currently on view until the end of November we have a group exhibition, Multiplicities Vol.1 Continuous Unknowing, curated by Natasha. It’s a group show introducing three different young artists, Blake Daniels (usa/South Africa), Helina Metafaria (Ethiopian American), and Brett Seiler (Zimbabwe/South Africa).
In December and January, Yulia will curate a group exhibition by young emerging women from the neighborhood area, literally from Henry Street. This show will include three artists: Emily Wang, Dachal Choi, Cici Wu (all based on Henry Street) with a performance by Emily Wang on the closing day of the show. The idea behind this exhibition is to explore the themes of Asian American artists living and working in our neighborhood, the fluidity of their practice, the authenticity of their work and experience living as an immigrant.
The programming downstairs in our streetside cellar space will be curated by Yulia and Banyi Huang and will include video screening by Alison Kuo and Riitta Ikonen, Maya and Zhiyuan Yang, and Taehee Whang. Also, Luke Luokun Cheng is thinking of doing another iteration of Eating Bitterness, which is a performance he did cooking bitter melon and feeding it to visitors. So thinking about the idea of bitterness as a metaphor for immigrant experience, as well as food as a way of bringing people together and community-making.
This show will focus on the community a lot as we feel this is our job to embrace the neighborhood and contribute to its vibrancy and diversity in the most positive way. We are working with the local library and creating a workshop for their visitors with artist and astrologer, Alice Yang. We are also collaborating with Manny Cantor Center, Educational Alliance on a talk or workshop to promote a dialogue between our artists, curators, and the community of Chinatown.
Thanks so much for talking with us!