Interview with art consultant and curator Anwarii Musa, founder of ArtMatic

Bianca Bova
Production / Direction

Art consultant and curator Anwarii Musa is best known as the driving force behind New York-based advisory firm ArtMatic. Since he founded the firm in 2014, Musa has built a vast network of private collectors and corporate clients, bringing them together with galleries and institutions to enhance their collections, facilitate pop-up exhibitions, and produce public installations.

His most recent project, Voices, at Studio 525 in Chelsea, "foregrounds the narratives that have encompassed Black beauty in America and throughout the world," according to Musa. Showcasing more than a dozen artists, the exhibition presents a sweeping survey of the modern Black voice, featuring both highly established artists like Derrick Adams, alongside relative newcomers like Steve Sweatpants.

Proceeds from the sale of works from the exhibition help support the Black Artist Fund, an initiative started in June of 2020 to collect funds directly from engaged art lovers and through art sales. The funds are then disbursed to individual Black artists and Black art collectives / organizations throughout the United States.

In September, Musa sat down with 10011 Magazine to talk about his firm, his early days in the art world, and what it means to be an art advisor at a turning point in modern American history.

B: Thank you for taking the time out to talk to me today, Musa. I know you're both an art consultant and curator, and I'm interested in what drove you towards those roles.

M: When I first started, I had no knowledge of the art world. I was definitely interested, especially in going to exhibits as I got older. So when I had the opportunity to be part of the Sotheby's program, at their institute, and then later working there, I really took advantage of the chance to learn about art, and art history. Eventually I knew I wanted to make this my career, once I was fully engaged in the industry.

B: I know you currently have an exhibition, Voices, on view at Studio 525 in New York, a show that benefits the Black Artist Fund, an initiative giving money directly to Black artists to combat systemic inequity in art. How did this show come together?

M: For me, I always had in mind that I wanted to do a show like this. One year, I was at Art Basel, and I ran into a gentleman named Tracy, who happened to be Trayvon Martin's father. At the time, he and his family had started a foundation to raise awareness around police brutality, the issues surrounding that. Being in the art world, I never experienced seeing that kind of thing, people taking notice of that, and I knew I wanted to do something about this. So when the opportunity came up to work with Studio 525 it was perfect timing, because of everything going on with Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, it was like a resurgent moment when I thought about that, it took me back to the time of Trayvon Martin, and when I met his father, and those conversations we had. I knew I wanted to put something like this together, to invoke those conversations again, both inside the Black community, and throughout the world.

B: It's great to see curators doing such timely work as we reenter the first mid-pandemic art season. As you organized the show, how did you select artists? Were they artists you already had a mind to work with, or did you seek out artists that were working with this cultural moment?

M: It was a little bit of everything. Me being an advisor, a lot of the artists I did have a relationship with prior to the show, so it was a simple conversation bringing them into the show because they already did work that resonated with the meaning behind it. It was also me introducing a lot of new artists who had never been in a show like this before. I'm thinking of people like Steve Sweatpants, and somebody like Mark C., those two photographers who had never been in an exhibition, and to see them come out of this and get a lot of exposure, and for people to see the meaning behind their work, that's kind of what I did it for. And then, there are artists like Jeffrey Meris who, for him, this is kind of like a coming out party, because the work he gets into, it really invokes, and talks really strongly about the Black body.

B: Is that how you work in your art advisory practice as well? Bringing in emerging artists, rather than working with strictly established artists or work coming from the secondary market?

M: I lean towards emerging artists strongly. In my practice I noticed right away when it came to advisors and curators they were the ones who really found the artist first before the galleries. It's a unique position to be in. You're also helping mold them into this new industry they're entering, into their career. You're with them during the whole process of them emerging as an artist. It's amazing to discover artists in the beginning of their career.

B: Do those relationships tend to become collaborative, as you're helping guide them not just towards collectors, but into the social side of the art world, into a more viable practice?

M: Yeah, with my advisory, there are plenty of times I help artists on the business side as well as helping them find the right position for them to be in. Whether that's the right gallery, the right collectors, doing a lot of studio visits is definitely instrumental to the beginning of their careers, because those are the first people to engage with the artists. Then as they flourish in their career, you're a part of that conversation too, whether it's indirectly or integrated.

B: How do you find new artists typically? Is it through studio visits, the word-of-mouth network of the art world, or do you gravitate more towards the twenty-first century methods, like instagram?

M: Being in my position, I definitely see a lot of art. I solely rely on my eye. Sometimes when I discover an artist, I don't connect with them right away. I sit back and see if they develop in their practice because one, that's a way to see if the artist is learning about art history, if they're learning the materials, and if the body of work changes, develops. That's my way of telling if I really want to work with an artist. And then, once I talk to them, building that relationship is the icing on the cake.

B: Do you take a similar approach when you work with new clients looking to build a collection?

M: No, it's a different approach. A lot of my clients are personally close to my company, my advisory, Artmatic, which I started in 2014. Six years later, I still have those clients. So it's more a building of a family than a business with me. I'm with them when I'm talking about art, and when I'm not talking about art. I get to know them as a person. That's how you help build their collection, is knowing their personality. If you come at it from one angle only, as a business, I think it would be very hard to understand what your client wants.

B: Art collecting is such an intimate thing, when you talk about acquiring works for residential clients, this is something they're going to not just invest in, but live with for a long time to come. I can see why that kind of personal relationship would help you do the job better. I'm curious, with that in mind, about how you got started--you mentioned earlier you first worked at Sotheby's, as a handler. Can you tell me about that experience, how it led you to pursue the work you're doing now?

M:  I think that experience was the birth of me knowing about art. Before I went to Sotheby's I didn't even know what an Andy Warhol was.

B: That's quite a way to learn--hands on.

M: Exactly, and going there and being in an institute that literally has their hands on the whole art world, I was around impressionists, modern and contemporary, american art, asian art, so to have all that in the palm of my hand, I saw it as an opportunity to learn, to teach, and to discover. Through art I discovered myself and what I wanted to do in the arts. That was to be an advisor, and now, transiting into curaton. Helping new emerging artists is a priority, and adding curation to my portfolio, it only helps the artists out more.

B: It seems like through Artmatic you have a wide range of paths to direct your artists on. You not only advise residential collectors, but also corporate. Tell me about what that's like, placing art in corporate collections and public spaces.

M: Corporate collecting is a whole different thing. The relationship is more about really learning the aesthetic of the space. When I've done hotels or the lobbies of residential buildings it's really what the client wants to have aesthetically that leads. If they're high end establishment, they want high end art. If they're a young business, maybe they're more interested in emerging artists. It's a way of helping them understand what it is to have an art collection, to display art in your space.

B: The communicative aspect of art collecting.

M: Right.

B: Knowing that's how you work, how has your practice changed in the last six months?

M: Drastically. Before covid and before things got going with Black Lives Matter, I was finding myself in this space where I wanted to do something very powerful and also, at the time of being in the house for five months, looking at how can I progress as an advisor. So I've been getting really close with my long term clients, but also learning and discovering how to properly curate a show. I learned a new aesthetic approach to the business, which was a real learning process.

B: Is that something you think you'll stay with, whenever things do get back to business as usual?

M: Absolutely. I feel like if you're coming out of covid doing the same thing as you went in, you're not progressing. If you come out of this having learned anything new, that's always a positive. I just made sure that the positive I had was something that moved me forward in my work, not just a hobby.

B: On the business side, there's been a triage approach, everyone just trying to keep the doors open by whatever means necessary. It's great to see people working towards more sustainable alternative models.

M: I started at Sotheby's just before the recession happened, and that molded me into knowing how to navigate in trying times. I was the lowest person on the totem pole, and in some ways that gave me the most opportunity to learn. In tough times, the people who really are flourishing, in any industry, they're going to find a way out of it.

B: Agreed, I really believe opportunity shows itself when everyone else is running for the door.

M: Yep.

B: Thinking on that, and about the reduced access to public space, and even private space, with appointment-only viewing models becoming the norm, what approach do you plan on taking with future projects?

M: Well during covid we found that it's limitless, right? To see virtual platforms exist now is amazing. For us, as people in the industry, we need to take a step back and really understand what that process looks like. We're still learning that virtual world. Physically we're still in this pandemic. We still need a place to see art in person. When it comes to galleries, they're going to find a way to navigate. When it comes to artists, they're going to find their own way to navigate these trying times themselves.

B: Have you been back to the museums and galleries since they reopened?

M: Yeah, I went the first day! As somebody that lives and breathes art, I was suffocating those six months. The minute these spaces reopened, I was the first person walking through the door. Also as an advisor, you get the first look, that's one of the perks of the job.

B: What did it feel like, walking back into those spaces again?

M: Well I said I was suffocating, right? It was like a breath of fresh air. It also felt like the artists that had themselves been staying in the house or studio all this time, that they came out even more powerful. You could see it in their work, that they had had more time to think and develop their practices. That was part of it for me, seeing what they've been doing in these months.

B: I'm curious if working in this hybrid in-person/online context has changed the kind of work you're interested in showing. A lot of dealers are now focusing on showing work that presents well in two dimensions, and moving a little further away from work that demands a physical viewing experience. Has that changed for you?

M: So, I think any advisor, curator, or gallerist knows that 90% of our work was through JPEGs and PDFs, pre-covid. That aspect of our work didn't change at all. It was more so doing the day to day, the studio visits, being physically inside spaces. For curators it's especially difficult. If the physical space is shut down there's potentially no place to curate. It goes back to what I was saying about the VR platform--for curators, it's an extension of what they can do physically.

B: Sure, having access to a physical space makes all the difference. That said, as you work with both residential and corporate spaces yourself, can you tell me what your relationship to architecture and design is? Where your work intersects with the work of people in those professions. I'm sure it's different from the standard white cube a lot of dealers and curators are accustomed to.

M: Yeah, I work with a lot of interior designers. That's how I got to do the Obama project, working with Michael Smith, who is of course an internationally known interior designer. Working with designers and working with architects is definitely a part of the practice. When it comes to really understanding architecture it's even more complex, because you're dealing with not one white wall, you're dealing with a whole building. That's where I was able to practice how to curate first, in these corporate spaces. Learning the space, understanding the aesthetic of the space.

B: That seems to be a thread in your career--you take the most out of every opportunity. Not everyone takes that approach.

M: It's true, it's true. Not a lot of people think that way. And it's so important to start early, if you want to learn that way. That's why two or three times a year I visit schools and speak to the kids about the art industry, different roles in it, whether it's a director, a curator, an advisor, an artist liaison. Just giving them the opportunity to understand there are ways to approach the art world other than just being an artist.  

B: That's great, that's so important. I'm often surprised by some of the artists I work with, some of the things they don't know about the industry, that no one has ever taught them how the market works, or how institutions like museums are structured internally, or how to build relationships with galleries. It seems vital to bring that practical experience to them, especially if the art schools aren't going to do it. It keeps them from being taken advantage of, for one thing.

M: Absolutely, absolutely. I learned really fast that the younger you learn, the better progression you have. You have to start early, just jump in.

B: I'm with you there. I've been working in the art world since I was eighteen, it's the only industry I've ever been in. Trial by fire is a great way to learn.

M: I feel like you and me, we're both products of the art world. I'm the same, I started when I was nineteen. It's a really effective way to learn. I do notice a lot of artists are starting to be more comfortable being teachers, whether it's at the same school they graduated from or not, they're moving towards that path, which is amazing for the kids that can learn from them.

B: So what comes next for you, after Voices closes at the end of this month?

M: Voices definitely opened the door to a lot of opportunities to do bigger projects. I'll be working on a few of those, but I really want to take a step back, reflect, practice more before doing other curation projects. In the day to day, I want to make sure that I'm not just talking to the big name art collectors at this point, but also the minority-majority collectors that have a modest living, making sure I let them know that there's still an opportunity for them to collect. You just have to find what you love.

B: Not all advisors bring those options to the table. Increasing accessibility to art from the collector side is something that has to happen in order for the industry to keep moving forward. It's not always been possible, or when it was, very visible. I think it's outstanding that you're making that a priority.

M: I'm here to change all that. That's what Artmatic represents as a whole. That's what I'm about.

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