Bill Carroll may be many things to many people, but a passive spectator he is not. Throughout his many roles, from his work as a Professor in the MFA program at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York City’s Brooklyn borough to his work as Director at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts’ Studio Program. For over thirty years he has been a bright star in the New York art world firmament, contributing to the likes of the Dia Foundation and Brooklyn Museum to his transition to the art market as Director for both Charles Cowles Gallery and, subsequently, Elizabeth Harris Gallery. Carroll previously lived and worked in San Francisco before establishing himself in the New York art scene, where he intermittently continued working on his artistic practice in its own right while emerging in his role as pre-eminent cultural producer. He currently practices as a full-time artist while directing the EFA program and working as a professor. We met with Carroll to learn more about his artistic development, his recent practice and what he really thinks about artists pursuing an MFA in the contemporary art world.
Bill Carroll’s Career Trajectory
AL: Thanks for speaking with us, Bill! You have worked across many different capacities and currently work as Director of EFA Studio Program in Midtown Manhattan as well as teaching in Pratt Institute’s MFA program. Ultimately, however, your career is rooted in your work as a visual artist. Can you walk us through how you shifted your artistic practice when you relocated from San Francisco to New York roughly thirty years ago?
Bill Carroll: Well, I originally worked on portraits in black and white. This feels like it was a million years ago – I probably still have slides of these works. It was such a different context when I worked in San Francisco; there, I was running around in turquoise jackets and pink pants. When I came to New York I dyed everything I wore black. After operating in one “tribe”, I then had to readjust and adapt to customs of a new (New York) “tribe”.
AL: So the artwork you make now is in black and white – back then, your art was already in black and white, as well, so did you shift to figurative work in terms of developing your work?
Bill Carroll: Previously some of my work was also in color, so [then] I started to make paintings related to different subject matter.
AL: I see some works here [currently in the artist’s studio] include the color red…
Bill Carroll: That’s really the only color that I’m using.
AL: When you returned to NYC, you were also working in Arts Administration, correct?
Bill Carroll: Yes, when I returned I worked at the Dia Foundation, and then I went to the Brooklyn Museum. When I transitioned from these arts administration roles to then working as director at [Charles Cowles] Gallery, I just had to put my art on the back burner. Those are two difficult hats to wear – you can be a critic and an artist, or a teacher and an artist, but dealer and artist? The dealer/director position at Charles Cowles was a seventy hour per week job. From the 1980s through the 90s, I would make art during the summer. After that role, I took a job at Elizabeth Harris Gallery on 20th street. The gallery moved from SoHo to Chelsea in 1997: one of the first migrants to the Chelsea art “neighborhood.” Over one thousand people came through at our first opening at the [Chelsea] building. The whole world was curious! The building was filled with really great galleries – toward the end of the 1990s, I was directing the gallery and really enjoyed those first few years in Chelsea. I wasn’t looking to change jobs but I was lured away… and something I have to note is that in my work teaching professional practice [to MFA students], this work in the gallery world has totally informed an important perspective for students taking this class.
AL: You’ve taught for years now at Pratt, can you walk us through your professional practice course? What are some of your aims and what do you hope to communicate to your students?
Bill Carroll: I’ve worked at nonprofits, galleries, attended various auctions, and I’ve also been an exhibiting artist… [the art world] is a big ecosystem and we’re all important and we need to respect everyone in the system. I have a firm understanding of this, which is why I’m good in leading this course. I’ve been teaching this class for 8 years; we take important field trips. I take them to a self-proclaimed ‘art lover’/ art collector’s house every semester. He calls himself an art lover first, and my students are really great during our visits. Our class has two field trips per year – we visit the collectors home and then we go to EFA. I always invite art critic David Ebony, Managing Editor at Art in America, and my class learns how to send a proper thank you letter. It’s a small thing but as I came into this career without an art background or pedigree, without a family background in art, I entered this field totally clueless. I’m working to teach my students in one semester what it took me forty years to learn.This idea that everyone is Jeff Koons: I mean, it’s half of a percent of artists who reach this point.
AL: And so over the course of eight years, has any of the topics you’ve taught your students altered in that time period?
Bill Carroll: Interestingly, the type of artwork that students pursue has shifted: for example, at some moments everyone [pursues] painting, or is working in new media. Maybe at some points artists are experimenting with photography. In terms of topics, it took me five years to work out a team of visitors and advisors who come in. Now I’ve perfected the formula so to speak and so I bring in the same team who cover what is needed for students to learn. My guests range from an art advisor, to an art critic, a grant writer, even a tax advisor. I tell my students I can only teach them so much but I want them to leave truly curious about how to best run a working artist’s studio. If you want to be a professional, know how to deal with curators, you need to put together a strong mailing list and treat yourself like a professional.
AL: I’d like to pivot back to your career evolution. Can we start with your early education and how you came to work in the commercial gallery space, as well as your return to pursuing your MFA?
Bill Carroll: Well, most recently before returning to work as an artist I worked [as Director] at Elizabeth Harris gallery. The first 5 years in Chelsea were really great; that job came to me as a result of my work at Charles Cowles gallery, which I really got by accident. Then in the past 15 years they’ve started teaching professional practice at Pratt Institute, which perfectly aligns with my career path, so things fit together well. The art world is really an ecosystem, and it is a bigger thing than you realize. So many wealthy collectors donate paintings to museums. I watched the film ‘Price of Everything’ – it made a strong impression on me, and I will be using it as an educational tool in my class at Pratt.
In terms of my artistic development, from Elizabeth Harris Gallery, I was accepted/attended Queens College for an MFA. After completing my MFA, I then went on to Nancy Graves Foundation before my current role at EFA. I’ve learned my strengths; I’m good at promotion, not necessarily at selling art. To be a good art dealer you have to love the money: I wanted to get back into the nonprofit [art world] and back to making my own artwork. The Director role at EFA required a Master’s degree, and I was ready to switch careers. Honestly, it has all worked out great. Up to that point, I’d worked in art dealing and curated several shows, but wasn’t known as an artist.
Learning Lessons in the Art Market
AL: Can you talk to us about what you learned early on working in the art market?
Bill Carroll: First of all, a small group of patrons support the whole [contemporary] art world. At Charles Cowles gallery, I learned the art world is run by the same five hundred people. They were all in the same international councils, boards, etc – contemporary art is its own club around the world! The same money, therefore, flows through nonprofits and commercial galleries supporting contemporary art. It’s a small group of people supporting arts.
AL: Did you keep these contacts? In your role with EFA, did you shift into fundraising?
Bill Carroll: Actually, at EFA we charge artists as little as possible, subsidizing ninety studio spaces for artists. We do get some grants in order to support these artist studios throughout the building, so the hardest part, really, is keeping the studios filled. We have an ongoing relationship with the Greenwich Collection, who has demonstrated interest in supporting these contemporary artists. Luckily in addition to this and other gallery funding, the program basically funds itself.
AL: Can you talk to us about your education, and specifically the time you spent the Queens College MFA program?
Bill Carroll: Even while working as a gallery director in 1987, I was still making artwork. All of my artworks are [made with] acrylic, even works that look like watercolors. I would also occasionally make new paintings in the summer while working as a gallery director. I began to draw inspiration from my hobbies: I’m a big walker, and on my days off, usually Fridays now, I can be found walking across New York City all the way from Manhattan’s East Village to Coney Island or Brighton Beach. It’s a roughly twelve-mile walk. I came to realize my art should really be about walking through New York, so I came up with a body of work based on this interest. I used this body of work to apply for Queens College, where they forced me to better articulate this narrative. I have my fifth show coming up with this year, which just goes to show…
AL: …the interesting art world twists and turns?
Bill Carroll: Right. Well, if they had done the first show and it was a dud would be a different story but it worked out. Really the whole thing is that in the art world I’ve been really a known entity as an art dealer.
AL: Even though you originally started as an artist?
Bill Carroll: Well, I was known in the art world for one thing, so this was necessarily a transition for most people who knew me [to accept me as an artist]. At that point, I was really trying to figure out what I was doing. I had my first show as a visual artist, post- MFA, and Kathryn Markel came to my opening. It was fun and convivial, and everyone approached me – some hesitantly. I approached Kathryn in her gallery space soon after to view the current exhibit and thanked her for coming. She said, ‘Oh Bill, my pleasure – I’m so relieved they [your artworks] weren’t terrible.’
AL: How funny.
Bill Carroll: Tell me about it. Since then I’ve had a solo show at a Manhattan public library – at the Mid-Manhattan branch – and I’m in an upcoming show in California.
AL: So the work you make is themed around New York? Are you still focused on the City even in your artistic practice today?
Bill Carroll: Yes, I make drawings and from these I create works with acrylic. Walking through New York I can sketch more quickly. Many of my works are featured throughout the City, including a work included on a 7×7’ billboard in the Garment District. In my practice, I take scenes from the City, mainly from Manhattan. But I’m also always out walking in the boroughs, searching, looking for new buildings.
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