Is Thea Nedelcheva finding her mojo?
The first interview attempt was a disaster. In the summer of 2001 Thea and I were sitting across from each other and awkwardness slowly cast its web over Thea's vision of art as a world-changing force. It was hard for me to comprehend.
"Intense," I thought, "but insane."
Five years later, after a remarkable metamorphosis, Thea Nedelcheva is busy preparing her second curatorial show in Lower Manhattan. To many, the very notion of Chelsea, the heart of the New York art scene, is a badge of accomplishment. Not being preoccupied with the fine measuring scales of success, Thea is simply viewing both shows as a stepping point to the next level. And who knows what that next level might be? A curatorial debut in MOMA, a Fulbright scholarship in Milan, a gallery of her own in Soho? The possibilities in this city are endless, the popular mantra goes.
"I found out that the other aspects of life are kind of fleeting in my personal experience. The only constant presence that always excites me is art. It is something that keeps me afloat no matter what. It is something that pulls me through the most difficult moments and is also something that I can cherish in the happiest of times. It just gives my life meaning. And because this recognition comes from the inside it cannot be taken away."
We are standing with Thea on Pier 40 on the Hudson River, a vast concrete platform that half a century ago was a transport hub serving the thriving meat-processing industry on the west side of Manhattan. The industry has long since moved elsewhere and the meat-packing factories have been replaced in the last decade with boutique shops, trendy eateries and a stretch of private art galleries further north between 10th and 11th Avenues. The sun sets in a beautiful mellow glaze over the industrial parks across the river in New Jersey, and it is a good opportunity to take some photographs. The sun reflects on Thea's face, softly enveloping it in a golden haze. After more than a decade of knowing Thea in various incarnations, I still continue to wonder where in the world this rail-thin frame of a woman, a very attractive woman, I should say, finds that source of boundless optimism, a kind of cheerfulness that sparkles through even her life's more difficult moments.
Thea says that early in her career, first as an artist and then as an artdealer, she figured out that she could best fl ourish in a collaborative environment. A graduate of New York's highly-regarded School of Visual Arts, the seeds of her collaborative nature were apparent in her graduation project back in 1995. That probably explains why, despite her recognised knack with the brush, after a few years as a painter Thea decided to switch her priorities."I saw there were lots of incredibly talented people who were not getting adequate representation. And I kind of felt it, with my gut, that I could fill that gap. Instead of spending long hours painting in solitude, because this is what most painters do, I discovered my forte - it was communicating art and art ideas to people who are not necessarily artists. I see myself as a connector and a social sculptor."
Described as the city that never sleeps, New York has acquired its romantic image through the famous Frank Sinatra song, but there are different and darker faces of the city, like the one, for example, skilfully portrayed in the Terry Gilliam movie The Fisher King. Yes, New York never sleeps: it is like a shark, always swimming to take in oxygen and always on the prowl for its next victim. Taking the crown from London after the Second World War and firmly establishing itself as the art-centre of the world, New York has become a natural magnet for ambitious, talented individuals the world over.
Daniel Libeskind, the laureate architect who is now overseeing the rebuilding project at the World Trade Center, vividly recollected in a conversation with this writer the significance for his creative development of his first glimpse of Manhattan when he arrived as a 13-year old boy from his native Poland. Christo, another, as he describes himself, "displaced person", always gets excited when he remembers the vision of the downtown Manhattan skyline dotted with skyscrapers on the maiden voyage he and his muse Jean-Claude took as total unknowns in the spring of 1964. These people were fired with creative energy, they were intent on taking over New York, and they did. But for every person who succeeded there are countless others who did not. Thea, who decided at the time to specialise in the emerging art market, views the chance of success in this cut-throat environment philosophically.
"The emerging-art market is a tough sell, but precisely because of the challenge, I am attracted to it. I always tell my clients that if they are buying emerging artists purely for investment purposes, they should not do it. It's a gamble, a lottery, regardless of how talented or inventive an artist might be. In New York you may work very hard all your life and still fall through the cracks. It's not like a print by Andy Warhol which a collector bought for $10,000 in 1997 and can easily sell for $110,000 today. Collectors interested in investment appreciation should look elsewhere. Patrons of the emerging art market are adventurous by nature, they like the thrill of the new and are inclined to support it. There might very well be an investment value there, but it's a hit or miss situation, one should not count on it."
John Bonafede, one of the artists presented at the Hybrid Space Show (www.kulturegardin.com) says that he's known Thea from the time she was "Dorothea". The name shift was adopted after the events of 11 September 2001, although there's no relation between the two. Thea, which is, of course, derived from Dorothea, simply has more zing to it and is easier to pronounce. This may be viewed as another example of the never-ending quest for efficiency in the hurriedly paced environment of the New York art-world. "She has strong marketing skills," John says, "and was instrumental in the opening of an artists' studio where I participate. Our relationship is not typical for an artist/ dealer - we have total trust in each other and speak in plain language."
The idea for the Hybrid Space Show, Thea says, came from the purpose of the gallery where the work is presented. Baldev Duggal, owner of one of the most sophisticated photo and digital labs in the city, kindly allowed Thea and the artists to use the space for a month.
"The concept is first of all hybrid because it is the quality of the space where it is being presented: it's a gallery-slash-workspace, it's not this traditional white box. It's also a hybrid because of the mixture of artists represented in the show: they are very different, but what unifies them is the fact that they're based in New York and create work that feels on a very sentient level like the City of New York without illustrating it. And I wanted to capture this with a show of New York artists, people who work in New York, because I've never seen a show that deals with the creative energy of this city and this is what this show is about, how it comes about in many different permutations, and is more or less something that can only be created in this city with this sort of intensity."
Miriam Cabessa is another artist presented at the show. She has come a long way, from Israel.
"I was very impressed," Miriam says," when I met Thea through a collector this spring. She radiates freshness, is articulate, and is very knowledgeable about contemporary art. Thea is an intelligent young woman with an open mind. She impressed me with her ideas about art, so the issue of her representing me was not an issue at all, it just came naturally."
Putting the finishing touches to our recent recorded conversation, Thea and I are staring through the windows of an empty cafe, observing pedestrians on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue or, as it is officially known, "The Avenue of the Americas".
Having being drilled with questions all afternoon, Thea nonchalantly mentions that Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone and Andrea Rosen, the top art-dealers in New York, are her career role models.
"By the way, do you want to order French fries?" One can easily guess that the blood sugar levels in Thea's slender body have a tendency to decline rather fast.
"Sure, why not? What's your favourite food?"
"What nationality? OK, Bulgarian, for one."
"Fried zucchini with garlic and yogurt" - a typical Bulgarian summer meal.
Before setting foot in America in the summer of 1990, Thea enjoyed a happy childhood and adolescence in Plovdiv, which at the time was Bulgaria's second largest city. She graduated with honours from the mathematical high school there and studied for a year in Sofia.
Being good with numbers does not necessarily transform into fulfilment. Early on in New York, Thea realised that she must find a way to be closer to those aspects of life that deal with the senses, the intuitive, the unknown. In brief, with all those things that hardly translate into digits. Communication was one of those.
"I became aware how important communication is when I realized that I am really not that good at it. That was preventing me from doing the things that I wanted to do and to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. So I made a conscious choice, a commitment with myself to improve my communication skills - in the field I'm in, it's crucial. If something didn't work out in the past, it was still a good learning experience. Could I have made better choices in certain situations? Probably I could. But it's all water under the bridge now so there's no point wallowing in self-pity and unravelling what 'coulda-shoulda-woulda'. I exist in the 'now' and I am looking to the future."
Thea quickly dismisses the notion that she might follow a particular approach, a scheme, when dealing with people, because it would have implied an element of manipulation. She says, as trivial as it may sound, that each person is unique and that she follows her instincts when dealing with them.
Artists in the Thea Nedelcheva group, from the left, standing: Val Stoyanov, John Bonafede, Suzzanne Rieker, Karl Kotas, Tom Schreiber, Doug Henders, Thea Nedelcheva; seated: Miriam Cabessa and Lindsey Nobel
"With artists I usually have to increase my own level of sensitivity and deal in a way that can stimulate people to open up towards me as opposed to shutting down. With business people you have to be a lot more effi cient and 'matter of fact' in the way you deal with them. With art-collectors it is somewhat of a mix between those two. So if I can describe the communication I had to establish and maintain with various types of people every day, it would resemble a dance - a different dance with different people, and how well you can dance pretty much determines the outcome of each interaction."
Tom Schreiber, another artist participating in the Hybrid Space Show, is apparently inseparable from his fedora. He doesn't describe himself as a "struggling artist" but seems to have a good grasp of what this fundamentally New York image means.
"Struggling artist - you feel it acutely in your early 20's, it becomes intimidating if you are 40 or 50 years old and still haven't made a breakthrough. But the struggle is a positive thing, it helps you evolve, to develop as a finer artist. The struggle is the small steps you have to make along the way to advance your knowledge, your mastery, the little and sometimes not so little sacrifices one has to make to succeed. But struggle becomes tough if you are lost, if you don't have direction. I don't mean an exact goal, but the general direction of your path."
So, now for the next level. Yoga, meditation and Pilates help the body and mind focus on it. One cannot predict the twists of destiny, Thea says, but at least one can be honest with oneself. Brutally honest. I take note.