16. Dezember 2019

Isolde Brielmaier: Powered by joy

On a gray, rainy fall day in New York, Isolde Brielmaier immediately stands out from the crowds in Times Square. Mainly because of her knitted hat in bright neon pink––an accessory as practical as it is playful, which immediately stamps Brielmaier as a lover of color. But Brielmaier has built her career on our human need to express ourselves in color and form. As one of New York’s most prestigious curators, Brielmaier has spent over ten years designing exhibitions, installations, and art projects for companies and cultural institutions around the world.

Whether her work involves museum exhibitions, commissions for the Peninsula Group, or art for public spaces, Brielmaier is always guided by her instinct for the way in which art moves people––and how its message shapes our world. But she must also keep enough space in her diary for all her other longstanding commitments: The daughter of an Ugandan father and Austrian mother is the national advisor on arts and culture for Unibai-Rodamco-Westfield shopping centers, as well as a professor in the Department of Photography, Imaging & Emerging Media at New York University’s “Tisch School of the Arts”. She has also written numerous essays and articles on art, and is mother to nine-year-old daughter, Farrah. At an early age, Brielmaier learnt the discipline that is essential for a fast-paced life packed full of widely diverse engagements; before starting a course of studies at New Yorker Columbia University, she trained as a professional dancer.

“The White Cube” is a familiar concept in the art world. What do you feel when you look at a work of art, what are your thoughts and emotions?

It all depends on the individual work of art and on the connection it makes to my thoughts and feelings. It may disturb me, make me sad, or make me laugh. It does not matter; as long as it moves me in some way, I will stay and engage with it for longer.

What were your feelings in our “White Cube”?

Well, Times Square is a really hectic and crazy place. As a New Yorker, I really do not enjoy coming here. But the “White Cube” feels like a cocoon, a protective refuge at the heart of the chaos. And like an incubator, where something very special is happening that has nothing to do with all the madness out there.

How did you become who you are?

First and foremost, my parents and my family who made me what I am today. My mother is Austrian while my father is from Uganda, and I have a brother I am very close to. Because my family is a mix of cultures, I have always traveled a lot since I was a child and I have always felt like a “global citizen”––which is actually an enormous privilege. At the same time, my parents insisted that we kids stand by who we are and embrace our identity; we should never try to be someone else, but just stay true to ourselves––“black and beautiful.” And of course my experiences shaped me. I came to New York to train as a dancer when I was a very young woman. Every experience is accompanied by challenges, but no matter how clichéd it sounds, they shape your character. However painful a phase in your life may be, however convinced you are that you will never survive it, you always do in the end.

What else did you learn from your experiences?

Well, we are talking about who I am now, but I cannot predict who I might be in the future. I am continuously developing and growing, this is my hope. And I believe that’s a key idea for young women to understand. Be who you are, but stay open to learning and evolving. Our identities are in a constant state of flux. Stop comparing yourself with other people. As soon as you compare yourself, you either overvalue or undervalue yourself, and neither does us any good. Let others do their thing. You do you.

Where did you develop this confidence?

It might be hard to believe, but while I was a student, I found it cripplingly difficult to speak up in class and talk in front of a group. I only developed this confidence and this indifference to what other people think as time went by. And I am still working at it. I have a background in the world of ballet, where perfection is the ultimate goal and people are always hyperaware that they are on stage being judged. During training, I would often think things like “I just did a triple pirouette, but nobody saw it. Does it even count?” Today I can say: yes, it very much does count and it does not matter whether anyone saw it or not.

Can you tell us about the most magical moments in your life that you still remember with pleasure today?

Two immediately spring to mind. The first big exhibition I ever curated took place at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, where I was head curator. It focused on the work of the artist Fred Wilson, a very critical and intelligent thinker; I learnt so much from him. The second formative experience was a project for the Peninsula Hotel Group. Last year they launched their global culture program in Hong Kong, and I and my co-curator Bettina Prentice were invited to create it. The project involved large-scale artworks and installations and it was breathtaking to see them taking shape. Simply magical.

You work for so many clients in so many different roles. How do you stay organized?

I am actually a very organized person in general; I am always writing lists and I keep my diary as efficiently as I possibly can. But I also have an awesome assistant and a project manager, Cheyanne Epps, who is pretty much my left and right brain; she predicts things before they even occur to me. Ultimately, it is always about collaboration and teamwork.

The artists you work with express themselves in their art in a very focused manner. But what’s your medium––how do you express who you are?

Outside my work, I express myself in dancing. As a former ballerina, it is vital for me to stay flexible and fit. It also keeps my mind healthy and makes sure my thoughts are not stuck in a rut, and that influences my work. When I work with artists, I think about their vision and about the relationship between art and the space in which it is located. You could also say I express myself in collaboration with others. I get bored with solo work; I need discussion, debate, even disagreements. One of the best things in work is when two people see things differently, but pull themselves together and come up with a creative solution.

Do you still dance? What have your experiences as a dancer taught you?

Yes, I still dance, but just for fun––preferably in clubs and on dancefloors to hip-hop or house music. The dancefloor is my happy place. Dancing certainly taught me about self-discipline, about being passionate about a thing or an idea, about never regarding defeat as defeat because there is always something to learn from it. I owe my perfectionism to my time as a dancer, which has its good and bad sides; the older I get, the better I understand that nothing is really perfect. And the other things I learnt were humility, far-sightedness, resilience, and self-care. As a dancer, you are constantly battling bone-deep weariness and painful feet, so it is important you learn to look after yourself.

When you think back over your work with artists, can you recall any specific person whose message moved you profoundly?

I am currently working on a project for the ICP International Centre for Photography, a big photography museum here in New York. Mike really should visit it! Anyway, I am curating an exhibition on 24-year-old Tyler Mitchell, the first black photographer ever to shoot a cover for the US edition of Vogue. He is a great artist, and the best thing about his work is that it is all about joy. Mitchell grew up with the feeling that the photography he saw all around him never showed black people being happy; it was only ever about the sorrow and suffering, the hard work that black people had to cope with. So he turned the lens on joy, fun, and leisure. It has been a great experience working with him because he really values dialogue and the exchange of ideas. He is young and relatively new to the art world, but he still knows what he wants. I find that really inspiring.

What do you enjoy most in life?

That is a great question! Here in New York we always ask people “Where do you work?”, but I am more interested in what makes people happy. For me it is my nine-year-old daughter Farrah; she is the best. When I see the world through her eyes, I see it in a really pure, unfiltered way; children don’t spend so much time brooding as adults do. And I love being surrounded by nature. I live near Prospect Park in Brooklyn and spend a lot of time there, especially in the summer. And I enjoy traveling, film and good food. And I enjoy politics as well as the volunteer work I do. I am on the boards of the New Museum and the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). I am very committed to criminal justice reform.

When was the last time you jumped in at the deep end and did something for the first time?

Well, this is my first shoot on Times Square, so that is first on the list (laughs). And recently I tried out rock climbing for the first time. I did not get too far, but hey, at least I tried.

When you travel, do you spend your whole time looking out for new art?

It depends. Sometimes I like to take a break from art when I am on vacation; after all, art is part of my work and breaks are important. But of course there are times when I can’t help but take a look. If I travel somewhere and a friend recommends a gallery or an artist, I do my best to go there.

What would your recommendations be to someone looking to start collecting art but who only has a small budget for investing to start with?

If you want to become part of the art world, start by finding out about art and artists. After all, you should be collecting what you like, and you can only know what that is once you are well informed. Museums are still the best places to build your knowledge; you can become a member and attend tours or exhibitions that help you get to know artists and the art community. A completely new world will open up for you!

You work for galleries and museums, but also on art for public spaces. Does the location where art is exhibited make a difference?

Oh yes, absolutely. Every environment involves a different set of conditions, like technical requirements. But I think the most important difference is the people. When people come to Times Square they are not here to look at art, but they will go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art specifically to see an exhibition. That means that art in public spaces has “an accidental audience,” people who stumble on the art by chance; the element of surprise has a key role to play. I love being able to reach different people in different places, and I believe it is important for the artists too.

What makes your heart beat faster?

Stress. The feeling that I have a pile of work in front of me and the pressure about how I am going to get it all done. On the positive side, watching my daughter dance or play football; she loves both activities and gets so much pleasure from them that it makes me happy too.