On Cultivating Art Collectors, Connecting in Person, and the Charlotte Art Scene: Deskside with Irina Toshkova

Irina Toshkova’s biggest professional accomplishment also happens to be the biggest professional challenge she’s faced: Opening the New Gallery of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September 2011. As the Co-Founder and Managing Director of the gallery, her work seems to seamlessly blend into her life, with her days—and most evenings—spent forging a link between art enthusiasts and the talents behind the works that they admire. Here, the Sofia, Bulgaria native discusses what it’s like to pursue a career dedicated to cultivating art collectors while surrounded by works from luminaries including Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Hunt Slonem (“I pinch myself every day that I get to work with such beautiful things and great clients who have become close friends,” she says), her work uniform, and how the topic of diversity is currently energizing the art world.

Tell us about the New Gallery of Modern Art—its mission, its approach, its place in the art world.
The New Gallery of Modern Art presents a range of artwork that provides education, builds collections, supports local endeavors, and introduces new aesthetics. We advise both the novice and expert art enthusiast on purchasing art. We also offer in-home consultations and a corporate art loan program. Our main goal is to develop collectors’ taste for art while fostering a spirit of collecting. Our vision is to simultaneously show compelling and provocative art that really opens people’s eyes to new materials and new ways of seeing.

Inventory includes a selection of graphic works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. To complement our portfolio of 20th-century modern masters, we showcase internationally known contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Alex Katz, Robert Mars, and Hunt Slonem, as well as renowned regional artists like Shaun Cassidy, Maja Godlewska, Stephen Wilson, Isaac Payne, and Barbara Schreiber. We are located in the heart of Uptown Charlotte, right next to three of Charlotte’s major museums, the Mint Museum Uptown, the Gantt Center, and the Bechtler.

Describe your background, and what brought you to the New Gallery.
I was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, and came to the U.S. in 2002 to attend Salem College in Winston-Salem. I graduated in 2006 with a degree in art history and arts management. While at Salem, I began interning at Joie Lassiter Gallery in Charlotte. I eventually rose to the position of gallery director at Lassiter and earned an MPA in arts administration at UNC Charlotte. In 2009, I moved back to Sofia and worked as a gallery director at one of the most prominent galleries in Eastern Europe, Museum Gallery of Modern Art. In 2011, I returned to Charlotte to open the New Gallery of Modern Art. I’ve had time to grow a lot of affection for Charlotte!

“Gallerists can make a difference in terms of the shape of art in our city. It’s a very weighted profession. You have to come at it with both your head and your heart.”

What does your Job entail?
I would say my job is divided between working closely with our artists and assisting our clients with their art collections. Essentially, I work to bridge the gap between artist and collector. I believe that the secret of a good art dealer is not only in our knowledge, but in the relationships that we build.

I also spend a good chunk of my day reading market trends, auction reports, and online art publications. My hope is that we can cultivate people within the beautiful city of Charlotte to collect important works of art that can be gifted to our wonderful and growing art institutions. We, the gallerists, can make a difference in terms of the shape of art in our city. It’s a very weighted profession. You have to come at it with both your head and your heart.

Walk us through a typical day.
I would have to say that I never have a “typical day,” but there are few things that I like to do every day to insure the viability of my business. My day usually begins the night before. Before leaving for the evening, I clean off my desk and I write a short to-do list for the following day, leaving it neatly centered on my desk. I am a very early riser and love mornings. I work out first thing in the morning and take my dog on a long walk. On the way to work, I do a series of visualization exercises focusing on what I want to accomplish that day. Plus, I always visualize selling a piece of art!

Being a gallery director, usually the job does not end at 5:00 p.m. After the gallery closes, oftentimes there are community events to attend, such as museum and gallery openings and lectures, artist open-studios, etc., all of which are about learning, connecting, and networking.  Although I love social media as a networking tool, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication.

Is there a trend in the art world right now that particularly excites you?
Diversity has become a total buzzword that is provoking stimulating dialogues about contemporary art. Earlier in the year Whitechapel Gallery showed a remarkable exhibit by the Guerilla Girls. It explored diversity in European art organizations and it showed how far institutions have to go in order to promote women artists as well as artists of non-European and American backgrounds. Another incredible show focusing on correcting the gender and geographical imbalances in the art world, in particular looking at the contributions of Latin American artists in L.A., is the large initiative Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America comprised of forty exhibitions celebrating modern and contemporary Latin American art in Los Angeles and its surrounding region. I was lucky enough to be in L.A. right when it opened in September and saw a few of the amazing exhibits at MOCA and the Getty.

What’s on your desk?
A bright yellow “YO” sculpture by Deborah Kass, my MacBook and iPhone—both gadgets that I can’t live without! A datebook. A copy of The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade by Simon de Pury, and a cup of green tea (my favorite tea is Lune Rouge from Mariage Fréres).

“Training your eye can take a while, but it is something that will exponentially improve over time and it is so much fun.”

What advice would you give someone who is starting to collect pieces for their home?
Developing a taste in art is a skill that can be learned. Everyone can visit museums and galleries to study works of art or read books about an artist’s life and career. Training your eye can take a while, but it is something that will exponentially improve over time and it is so much fun! Both for my personal collection and for the gallery I select work that I consider interesting and important. I always say that there are three important things to look for when considering a piece: critical attention, support from museums and curators, and commercial sales. You are really happy if you get two of these…but three is amazing!

Do you have a “work uniform?”
I usually go for clothes that are functional, yet elegant, as oftentimes I need to transition from daytime activities to evening events with no time to change. I love layering and different textures and materials—linen, silk, velvet, etc. I also love bling and good shoes! I think fabulous shoes can definitely take an outfit from good to amazing. Black is usually my choice of color, but every so often when not in the gallery you may see me wearing a crazy pattern!

What do you enjoy about being part of the Charlotte art scene?
The fact that I am in great company—Charlotte has wonderful museums but also several amazing galleries! Being part of such a vibrant yet close-knit community, you get to have the best of both worlds.

Who is your favorite artist?
Hands down Robert Rauschenberg. He was the originator of impulse, intuition, and visionary certainty. He became one of the biggest art influencers. So many artists today use all these different techniques—collage, found objects, mixing of all kinds of materials—this all goes back to Rauschenberg. Today it is so common for art to be made out of everyday life objects, but Rauschenberg was the biggest catalyst for this. His desire was to work “in that gap between art and life.” He once told a writer from the New Yorker, “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t, I want it to look like something it is. And I think that a picture looks more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.” I think that’s brilliant. Plus we share the same birthday.

What do you do to unwind?
Enjoy a good dinner with friends, read a physical newspaper, catch up on TV shows (I have a love-hate relationship with TV), cook something lavish for myself.

What are your favorite local gems?
The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Soul Gastolounge, Halcyon, and Not Just Coffee.