Life Story

Natalia, 1st grade

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. 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, doctorate in sociology and political economy and one of the first entrepreneurs in Bulgaria, after the communism fell in 1989. He was also a musician (jazz) and passionate theatre and visual art patron. I am the only child.

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.’

In 1992, I was in a 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. Soon after the death of my father, I boarded a plane and joined my mother in New York City. After graduating Curtis High School in Staten Island, I was accepted to study 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. I was also fascinated with the study of constitutional law. During my studies, I gained deep knowledge and serious chops in critically examining, questioning, and debating the justice system, its institutions, and those, who served the field. I also took a lot of classes in philosophy, sociology and criminology. The trajectory of a BA in Criminal Justice is going to law school, so I applied, got accepted and then postponed because at this point, I was hired at one of the largest advertising firms in New York City. I loved how different this environment felt from the legal firm/court room environment.

At the end, I never did make it to law school. When I met my husband, Andrew Mount, an artist, who was at that time finishing his MFA in Combined Media at Hunter College, we decided to open an art gallery
together in New York. Hence, instead of continuing with my studies in law, I applied to study Art Market at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. I ventured to PS1 (now MoMA PS1) one day, in search of internship, which was required of me as part of my studies at FIT. When I arrive at PS1, I said to myself that this was the only place I wanted to do my internship at. I began my internship initially with Carolyn Christov-Bakardjiev, then curator at P.S.1. My first assignment at PS1 was to assist with the first “Greater New York” exhibition in 2000. Shortly after this gig, I was hired in the position of an Executive Assistant to the founder of PS1 and Clocktower, and Executive Director of PS1 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 PS1and elsewhere. Needless to say I learned everything I know about art curation and management from the ‘best.’ While at PS1, I also met international artists and curators. 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 “Warm Up” series, which presents the best in live and electronic music each summer at MoMA PS1.

While at FIT, I craved more classes in business management. I decided to apply to the first certified MBA in Media Management program in New York City at that time, conceived of and developed by Dr. Ran-Moseley, a Renaissance woman, a published poet, author and photographer, former Fulbright Fellow in theatre, and Producer-Writer-Director with over 100 Off-Off Broadway Productions to her credit. The program took me to Cannes Film Festival as well as introduced me to critical theory and cultural studies. I fell in love with Jean-François Lyotard. In my last year of the degree, I started FLUX Digital Arts Space, with the mission to expose underprivileged communities in NYC to digital art and culture. Within 3 months, FLUX Digital Art Space was a full blown, 501 (c) (3) organization. We coined the term ‘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, which separated those who had 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 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. Looking back, with FLUX, we pioneered what we call today ‘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 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. It also provided me with the opportunity to pair my studies and love for social justice and my studies and passion for art in one fluid pursuit. I will forever be grateful for the people, artists, educators, cultural workers, writers, critics, volunteers and FLUX Board members, who made this organization a pioneer in so many ways. Everything FLUX did during the time of operation was revolutionary – from the way we worked with volunteers and artists, to the monthly think tanks we organized, and from the projects we conceived of and realized, to the way we engaged with our community and the level of trust we built.

In 2001, I gave birth to my son Lucien and in 2004, to my daughter Vivienne. In 2007, I was offered the position of the Executive Director of a multi-disciplinary art space in Syracuse and as a result, 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 in Queens, the “Upstate/Downstate Theatre and Presenting Programs” was born. The mission of this initiative was 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, initiated film and reading series, and produced experimental theatre. In 2010, I received the prestigious The Ewing Marion Kauffman Prize in Entrepreneurship 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, 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 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. 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 “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, following my husband, who accepted a tenure track position at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, CA. Upon arriving in California, we settled in Oakland and for a year, I worked in the Development department of Saint Mary’s College of California. 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 also missed the art management field. In 2015, after a string of
successful interviews, I joined Pro Arts Gallery in downtown Oakland, as their 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, all of whom left, before I even started my job. Slowly, I built an amazing team, cleaned house, curated relevant exhibitions, expanded programming to include all forms of art, including public art, started an 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 supports more than 200 artists each year, brining 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.

Today, 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 art-ecosystem. I also continue to curate exhibitions at Pro Arts and projects that are concerned with the peripheries of the art world, and on issues that are central to our social, political and economic imagination.

Mom and Dad getting hitched

Natalia, 12th grade HS
Latchezar Velkov Ivanov – my Dad
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Natalia
Violeta Ivanova Kumurdjieva – my Mom
Natalia & Andrew Mount
High School graduation
Gallerista in NYC
Lucien, Vivienne & Natalia
Vivienne & Lucien Mount
748 East 74th Street, NYC
Natalia & Violeta
Event flyer
The building where Natalia grew up
Andrew Mount
Natalia’s elementary school in Sofia, Bulgaria
Violeta, Dimitar (uncle) and Natalia