Art on the Edge

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13

    NUDITY. INAPPROPRIATE language. Spandex. Not exactly the words that spring to mind when considering the National Arts Club (NAC), the New York institution that has catered to an elite cultural patronage since 1898. But in a year when “change” has been so bandied about, the private club has added a new Contemporary Art Division to its eclectic programming—introducing a few decidedly different artistic varietals.

    “People really are shocked because it’s so unexpected,” says Stacy Engman, head and chief curator of the new department. “It’s fantastic, as the emerging scene was being missed to a certain extent.”

    Dressed in a sleek black outfit, accompanied by a netted train and single velvet glove, Engman explains that the division’s first event took place in March.Three emerging contemporary artists were showcased and experimental performance group FLUXCONCERT appeared on opening night, recreating twelve scores from the 1960s Fluxus movement, which famously saw Yoko Ono have her clothes cut off by audience members in 1965’s “Cut Piece.”

    “One of the recreations was to basically say something inappropriate for 30 seconds,” recalls the 31-year-old Engman.The result was “more inappropriate than anticipated” and it didn’t end there: Another score saw the troupe removing its costumes, stopping just short of more intimate apparel.

    “Afterward I thought: ‘I’m dead meat. They’re dead meat,’” she says, ever mindful of the traditions, etiquette and older patronage of an institution which has seen the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Dwight D. Eisenhower among its members.

    Thankfully, Engman survived the performance and club president Aldon James didn’t even bat an eyelash at the provocateurs’ mischief. “His comment was ‘embracing contemporary art is the most conservative gesture we can make’” she says. “He had such street cred in my eyes after that.” It’s this new embrace, which James and the NAC hope will attract a younger membership to Gramercy Park’s Tilden Mansion, whilst satisfying its established patrons.

    “Stacy has the energy, the expertise and background to be a cheerleader on this campus,” James says, explaining that the Club’s 2,200 members “are sophisticated people, ready for a strong message.”

    Engman herself is aware of the interest—inside and outside the NAC—regarding her programming choices, which saw Russian contemporary artist Andrey Bartenev (whom she met at last year’s Venice Biennale) adorning glittery limegreen spandex at the Club for his first ever New York performance early October.

    What makes the new division dually interesting, however, is that the NAC has attempted to appeal to a younger audience before. In 2004, the Accompanied Library was introduced to attract the twenty-thirtysomething crowd, and while some mystery lurks around its demise, James only says, “[It] was so successful it outgrew its stay.”

    Yet regardless of past approaches, it is Engman who’ll help attract younger members and her credentials appear to be a firm foundation for such an undertaking. Having attained her Master’s degree in Contemporary Art at London’s progressive Sotheby’s Institute, she has since become a globetrotting fine art consultant, editor, critic and board member at the Museum of Contemporary Art Beijing. “The jetlag is a bit obnoxious at times,” she laments, just back from a stint at London’s Frieze Art Fair. “My passport has 5 extension insert sets in it.”

    Described by one of the Club’s 17 governors, Rose Billings as “a little Scarlett O’Hara,” Engman’s passion for her field is clear. So much so, that at times she has so many acclamations regarding her work that they compete for airplay. But amongst it all, Engman still retains her focus.

    “Experimental performance is something we definitely are going to do on an ongoing basis,” she says, outlining how she’s curating a “Pop Icon Series” for next spring with projects across fashion, music and film. “It’s magical having the opportunity to erode barriers and work in a very intimate way,” she says, noting how the Club is changing.

    “I think the notion of fine art is taking on many different forms all the time,” she says, mentioning how someone like British street artist Banksy has defied the normal expectations and routes of the art world through his anonymity.

    Infamous for installing his own art in hallowed institutions (a stuffed rat found its way into London’s Natural History Museum and a portrait of a woman wearing a gas mask was discovered at the Met), it seems that Bansky may just embody the daring of the National Arts Club’s newest department, with Engman at ease with any contribution the audacious Brit may like to make. “If I was walking through the Club one day and I saw a little Bansky, I would be delighted,” she says, laughing. “A little well-presented Bansky, why not?

    Stacy Engman and artist Andrey Bartenev.