I was born in Burgas, Bulgaria on March 25th, 1975. I grew up in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, in a brutalist architecture style building. We had the penthouse – 14th floor, tiny one bedroom apartment. My mother was one of the most prominent English linguists and translators of books in Bulgaria. She was also a journalist. My father was a journalist, doctor in sociology and political economy and the one of the first entrepreneurs in Bulgaria, after the communism fell in 1989. He was also a musician (jazz) and passionate theatre and art patron. I am the only child. Growing up, I had a cat, Roshlio, who went crazy one day, bit a bunch of people and ran away, never to be seen again.
I was exposed to the arts from a very young age. In elementary school, I wrote poetry and quite successfully premiered my work on national radio and television. I also attended studio art classes and entered local competitions, reciting Bulgarian poetry classics on stage. I played piano for 11 years and though I never wanted to professionally pursue career in music, truly enjoyed being good at it. My parents took me to see opera, ballet, theatre and symphony, since I remember myself. My two favorite plays which I saw when I was nine years old were Arsenic and Old Lace, by American playwright Joseph Kesselring, written in 1939 and Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett. My favorite opera of that time was La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi and the ballet, Giselle with music by Adolphe Adam. I read a lot too – my favorite books were written by authors such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev, Nabakov, Bulgakov, Marx, Flaubert, Zola, Proust, Balzak, Hugo, Stendhal, Gide, Baudelaire, Sand, Voltaire, Sartre, Vasov, Konstantinov, Pelin, Debelyanov, Smirnenski, Yovkov, among so many others. I am also influenced deeply by J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon. Film – so many to list here but growing up, I watched (unavoidable during communism) films by Tarkovsky and Eisenstein as well as many Bulgarian directors.
Unlike most institutional curators, I have a great affinity with the underground because I grew up in communism. This is a longer chapter in my life, but suffice to say here that I will forever carry the imprint of the ‘un-official’ culture with me – the ‘un-sanctioned’ urban corners of the metropolis, the intriguing characteristics of the black markets full of western commodities, the mix-tapes of pop music, passed on from hand to hand like gold. I say the underground as in the ‘un-corrupted,’ the ‘un-commodified,’ the ‘un-collectable,’ the ‘un-sellable,’ the ‘un-marketable,’ the ‘un-desirable.’ The underground as in a community full of potential to change the world or themselves, to live outside of the constructs of the communist ennui.
In 1992, I was in a horrific car crash as a result of which, my father passed away. I was 17 years old when I lost him. Meanwhile, my mother had already escaped the clutches of the post-communist regime in Bulgaria and moved to New York to work with poet William Meredith on a book about Bulgarian poetry. After the car accident and the death of my father, I boarded a plane (Air France) and joined my mother in New York City. After graduating Curtis High School in Staten Island (yes, I travelled to Staten Island each day from the Upper East Side, where we were subleasing a fancy apartment in a doorman building on the premise that this high school was really the best….), I did a degree in Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC. This degree absolutely changed my life. I admit – I did want to join the Art Crime unit of the FBI and later wanted to be a prosecutor, then a judge and so on. I was fascinated with the study of constitutional law. I still believe to this day that each one of us should know how to read, interpret and make a case based in the constitutional law. During my studies, I gained deep knowledge and serious chops in critically examining, questioning, and debating the justice system and its institutions, the law, and those, who serve in the name of the law. I also did a lot of philosophy, sociology and criminology classes. The trajectory of a BA in Criminal Justice is going to law school, so I applied, got accepted and postponed because shortly after my graduation from JJC, I found my dream job – account executive assistant – at one of the largest advertising firms in New York City, right in the heart of Union Square in downtown Manhattan. I loved how different this environment was. I enjoyed the stark contrast between this bustling, creative environment and the court room, or the many law offices I apprenticed at, during my studies.
I never did make it to law school. Instead, I met my husband, Andrew, an artist, who was at that time finishing his MFA in Art at Hunter College. He opened a new world to me – the world of art, artists, museums, and galleries and just like that, I decided that I wanted to work in the art field. I applied to do a MA in Art Market at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC (I should mention that I have always been into fashion, club culture, etc. so being accepted in this school was a dream come through for me). So, I ventured to Queens one day, in search of internship, which was required of me my first year of studies at FIT. When I arrive at P.S.1 Contemporary Center (now MoMA PS1), I said to myself that this is the only place for me. I was right. I began my internship initially with Carolyn Christov-Bakardjiev, then curator at P.S.1. Immediately, I was thrown in the fire, sort to speak, by being asked to assist with organizing the first Greater New York exhibition in 2000. Shortly after, I was hired in the position of an Executive Assistant to the founder of P.S.1 and Clocktower, and Executive Director at that time, Alanna Heiss. Alanna was one of the originators of the alternative space movement. She has curated and/or organized over 700 exhibitions at P.S.1 and elsewhere. Needless to say I learned everything I know about art curation and management from the ‘best.’ While at P.S.1, I also met international artists and curators whose work I studied in my classes at FIT. My first show that I project managed in 2001 was John Wesley: Paintings 1961 – 2000. Later on, I also helped with the first several installments of the now renowned Warm Up series, which presents the best in live and electronic music each summer at MoMA PS1. After completing my studies at FIT, I realized that I was lacking in business acumen still, since by that point, I have decided that I will open my own nonprofit art organization/art space someday soon. I was accepted in the first certified MBA in Media Management program in New York City, at the Metropolitan College of New York (small but excellent program and school). The program took me to Cannes Film Festival and through it, I found critical theory and cultural studies and fell in love with Lyotard and the Frankfurt School of thought. In my last year of studies, and as part of the degree requirements, I started FLUX Digital Arts Space, with the mission to expose underprivileged communities in NYC to digital art and culture. Although I thought that it will take ages for me to finish the business plan for the organization, send all IRS necessary documents and work with pro bono lawyer to make it all happen, it turned out that within 3 months FLUX Digital Art Space was alive, certified as a 501 (c) (3) organization and already attracting attention from the local art community. We coined the ‘creative divide’ as part of the organizational mission. In 2000, everyone was talking about the ‘digital divide’ which was the gap between those who had access to computers and digital technology and those who didn’t. We extended this idea to a new gap we identified – the ‘creative divide’ gap – a gap, which separated those who had the access to and the knowledge of how to use digital technology for creative purposes and those who didn’t. During the first years of leading FLUX, I worked closely with artists and curators to develop community based art projects and education programs in digital art that advocated for closing the ‘creative divide’ gap, and making the growing creative economy and the art world more equitable and universally accessible. Hence, our community based art projects and education programs took place in non-traditional art spaces – community centers, schools, parks, basketball courts, public housing projects in Harlem and the Bronx, prisons, youth centers, etc. It was during this time that I became very interested in ideas that provided for alternative modalities of producing, organizing, presenting, and teaching art. In the early 2000s, when FLUX started, there was no such term as creative placemaking yet. Most of the artists we worked with on projects came from Europe and what we did with FLUX was framed in art terms as community based projects or community art. However, through these projects, we pioneered what today is called creative placemaking. In 2002, the residents of the Frederick Douglass Houses public housing project on the Upper West Side created, with the guidance of a lead artist, selected by FLUX, the FLUX InternetTV channel – a new, digital, non-commercial Internet channel that provided creative, educational, civic and multicultural programming and served as a social vehicle for the expression of hyper local community’s issues and concerns. The model emergent from projects like FLUX InternetTV confirmed that our ideas for decentralized, organic process of community organizing through long-term art projects with digital art emphasis does work indeed. FLUX remains an important cause and organization to me because it provided me with the opportunity to experience first hand the impact of art on marginalized, underserved, and underprivileged communities, and especially on young, art-risk youth. Secondly, it provided me with the opportunity to pair my studies and love for social justice and my studies and passion for art in one pursuit, in one organization. I will forever be grateful for the people, artists, educators, cultural workers, writers, critics, volunteers and Board member of FLUX who made this organization a pioneer in so many things and in so many ways – everything that FLUX did was unique, from the way it worked with volunteers and artists, to our ‘think tanks’ we organized on monthly basis, to the projects we did, to the way we engaged with our community and the level of trust we built, everywhere we went with our programs.
In 2001, I gave birth to my son and in 2004, to my daughter. In 2007, I was offered the position of the Executive Director of a multi-disciplinary art space in Syracuse, NY and we moved to Central New York for this opportunity. At the Redhouse, I got back to my first love – theatre. Under my leadership, the 99-seats black box theatre of the Redhouse became one of the most important, experimental theatre spaces in the Central New York region, with direct connections to the vibrant scene of New York City. In collaboration with the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Theatre Program and the Chocolate Factory Theatre in Queens, the Upstate/Downstate Theatre and Presenting Programs Initiative was born with the mission to promote collaborations between small and mid-sized NYC-based producing/presenting organizations and their upstate counterparts. While at the Redhouse, I worked with an incredible team of passionate people, commissioned new work, collaborated with artists on the production of exhibitions and site-specific projects, curated sound based performance and new music series, brought traveling shows, initiated film and reading series, and produced experimental theatre. In 2010, I received the prestigious The Ewing Marion Kauffman Prize in Entrepreneurship grant and with the award launched the first radio station in Central New York, Redhouse Radio, that aired exclusively arts and culture programs. Along with several dedicated and ingenious co-founders and collaborators, we conceived and produced radio programming and content that challenged the preconceptions of the contemporary radio medium. A lot of the programs involved participation, some transgression, and on occasions, we exposed above ground audiences to the magic of the underground. In 2013, I came home to New York and continued to consult art organizations, theatre collectives and spaces and individual artists in development, fundraising and publicity. I also joined once again Alanna Heiss at the Clocktower and worked on many shows, projects and events as part of what I would call the Clocktower ‘dream team.’ I also continued to curate exhibitions and projects independently. In 2013, I was the Associate Director of Research and Archive for the Dale Henry Estate and subsequently, worked in the role of a consultant for the Dale Henry: The Artist Who Left New York retrospective exhibition at Pioneer Works, Center for Art and Innovation in Brooklyn, NY in the Spring of 2014. Shortly thereafter, I left my home, NYC, and moved to the West Coast, to follow my husband’s dream to be a professor in art (tenure track). We settled in Oakland and for a year, I worked in Development at Saint Mary’s College of California, where my husband actually taught. Several months in the job, I embarked on a plan to create and sustain a high-quality, highly visible, multidisciplinary initiative in the performing, visual, and literary arts. This initiative aimed to build on Saint Mary’s already strong programs in the arts, including: highly-ranked MFA Program in Creative Writing; widely- respected undergraduate, programs in Theatre, Music, Dance and Visual Art; a multidisciplinary, collaborative culture that connects the arts to the humanities and sciences; and close ties to other arts institutions in the Bay Area. This Arts Initiative included the development of new programs including visiting artist residencies, Masters programs, conferences and endowment awards, and the establishment of a set of local, national and global collaborations. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Academic Deans, Department Chairs, Faculty and Community Leaders. While at Saint Mary’s College of California and in the span of only 1 year, I also raised 1 million in funding towards arts programs on campus and scholarships. Although I loved my job at the College, I must say I began missing the fast-paced, scrappy, deadline driven, poorly paid environment of the art institution, and in 2015, after a string of successful interviews, I joined Pro Arts Gallery in downtown Oakland as the Executive Director. This gem of an institution, which began operations in 1974, presented but a few challenges from the very beginning of my tenure. Stale programming, exhausted Board, and disenchanted staff members, all of whom left, before I even started my job. Slowly, I built an amazing team, cleaned house, conceived of new programs, expanded programming to include all forms of art, including public art, started artist and curatorial residency, did a lot of fundraising and development work, and most importantly committed all staff time and organizational resources to audience engagement through public programs and participatory events. In addition, along with Pro Arts’ Board of Directors, I negotiated a long-term, below-the-market rent for our space in downtown Oakland (we are in a City of Oakland’s owned space). This was a huge victory for the organization. Today, Pro Arts is flourishing, supporting more than 200 artists each year and brining over 10,000 audience members to our site. I am proud that I have turned Pro Arts into a cultural hub for new connections between artists and audience.
I continue to present at conferences, attend curatorial residencies and engage in the global world of art. I am also working on new ideas on what Pro Arts can shift into in the next few years of operation in order to stay relevant and supportive of the ever changing local art-ecosystem. I also continue to curate exhibitions at Pro Arts and projects that are concerned with the peripheries of the art world, with the underground, with the alternative and with the artist at the center of our social, political and economic orbit. In other words, I continue to practice social justice in my daily life as an arts administrator and cultural leader.