Zuzanna Ciolek took on her role as UTA Artist Space director in Beverly Hills just a week before the gallery opened in September 2016.
“L.A. felt like a place where anything could happen,” Ciolek says of relocating from New York and London, where she was immersed in the traditional art world. “I felt there was a lot of artistic freedom here.”
In the past, galleries visited L.A. to show work that felt specific to the West Coast, she went on. “Now, we’re seeing work that stands on its own and is smart and exciting and conceptual. We’re seeing everything here. There’s no one type of work that I’m seeing in galleries. The work is as diverse as the landscape of L.A., and I think that’s really the most exciting thing to me.”
UTA Artist Space is an extension of the Hollywood powerhouse agency — a venue to showcase art at 403 Foothill Road, just steps away from UTA headquarters. It been acting as a vehicle for the agency to feature its fine arts branch, while immersed in the scene and the interconnectivity between art, entertainment and sports.
Ciolek has been at its center, curating group shows with both emerging and established talent. Growing up between Poland and the U.S., born in Warsaw, she brings an international view and experienced eye. Prior to joining UTA Artist Space, Ciolek worked at art galleries and advisories in New York and London, including Lehmann Maupin, The Heller Group, and Lisson Gallery. She holds a bachelor’s degree in the history of art and architecture from Brown University and a master’s degree in art business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
“I really wanted to tell the story of alternate narratives of the female beauty and women, just various backgrounds of women exploring concepts of beauty and really dismantling traditional notions of beauty,” Ciolek says of her first exhibition at UTA Artist Space, “Beyond the Looking Glass.” It featured works by 14 women artists including Genevieve Gaignard, Hiba Schahbaz, Jesse Mockrin, Kiki Smith and Sanam Khatibi.
She’s also presented works by artists Ernie Barnes, Arcmanoro Niles and Derrick Adams through the years. Her latest show is “Elsewheres,” open until Nov. 11, a group project with 17 artists from around the world. L.A.-based Alex Anderson, Dainy Chin, April Bey and Sara Issakharian are among them, with politics, sexuality, religion and race explored through different perspectives.
“I felt like it would be really exciting to do an exhibition of contemporary artists who also create new realities through alternate views of the past, present and future,” explains Ciolek. She was inspired by the classic Surrealists. “I thought it was really cool and exciting how they were able to create these alternate worlds and surrealist worlds in order to engage in political debates or what was happening in society at the time.”
UTA Artist Space has grown to a team of about 10, running a second gallery in Atlanta and a pop-up space in New York. Most recently Ciolek oversaw the Devon Rodriguez show in New York and project with Charlotte Colbert during Frieze London.
Here, she discusses the L.A. art scene and her work at UTA Artist Space.
WWD: How have you seen the art world grow in L.A.?
Zuzanna Ciolek: It’s grown incredibly quickly. Just the sheer amount of galleries that have come and moved here, galleries from New York, galleries from Europe, galleries moving down from San Francisco. I think there’s such an incredible collector base. There’s a lot of young collectors in entertainment and the sports arena. It’s really exciting actually being at UTA, because we can work with a lot of these collectors, whether it’s actors or musicians or athletes. I think there has been a whole new collector base outside of the traditional collectors that I’d been working with in the past that have come out and have been supporting a lot of young artists and a lot of new artists that have come on the scene. It’s been really exciting to meet this new cohort of people.
WWD: What is it about the landscape and the culture here that lends itself to the artistic freedom that you mention?
Z.C.: I think artists are really drawn to the landscape, even geographically that you can experience here. We’ve heard a lot historically about great light, you know, with the light and space artists from the ’50s and ’60s. But I also think for a long time, it was less expensive to have a studio here than it was for example in New York. Now the prices in L.A. have of course gone up quite a bit. But you could also have more peace and quiet. L.A. has such a diverse geographical landscape. There are so many different neighborhoods. You can be by the beach, be in the hills, drive outside of L.A. and be in the desert. I think geographically it’s very appealing to different types of people who want to experience living in different environments. But at the same time, everyone can still come into the city and meet up with each other. And then historically, there’s been the history of California and Los Angeles welcoming a lot of artistic freedom and creative expression.
WWD: What are benefits that come with the attachment to the Hollywood agency that you’re able to bring to the art world?
Z.C.: We have an incredible platform that is a little bit different from a traditional gallery. We attract many of the same collectors and artists and viewers that a traditional gallery might attract, but we also have this incredible platform within the entertainment industry. We have an incredible reach being at UTA where a lot of people hear about our gallery who might not even follow the traditional art world. So, I’ve always felt our demographic of viewers has been a lot more varied and diverse than a traditional gallery.
The second thing is with many of our shows, we try to also collaborate with the agency and integrate with clients from other departments if we can bring somebody in. For example, during our Ernie Barnes exhibition, our clients Coodie & Chike directed a film for us for the show, which was really exciting and being able to incorporate that in the exhibition was wonderful. We had one of our clients performing during the opening, Channel Tres. He was amazing. So being able to have those types of resources for some exhibitions that are potentially not traditional shows is really wonderful having the resources of an agency like UTA to put together some of these larger picture, more complex shows where we can integrate clients from the agency. And the other thing to mention, too, is that most of our exhibitions are project-based, and are not clients of the agency per se. Because as UTA Artist Space we don’t represent artists, but sometimes we do do exhibitions with our clients, which, for example, with Ernie Barnes, we do represent his estate.
WWD: What do you look for in an artist?
Z.C.: I’m always really impressed with how brave artists are. I love working with artists that are able to perhaps say things that I wouldn’t have the courage to say or explore. I think I’m really drawn to artists like that. I’m planning an exhibition with Erin Riley next March, and I think she’s one of the most incredible, brave artists working and one of the most important artists of my generation. She works in tapestry that depict really, really psychologically raw imagery, dealing with women’s lived experiences. There’s many artists I’m drawn to for many reasons, but that’s something that I’m always really inspired by, an artist’s ability to really put their lived experience on the canvas or on the tapestry and show it to the world.
WWD: What does the collaboration process look like between you and artists as you curate a show?
Z.C.: For some of the artists, I have had longer relationships where I spend time with them, spent time in their studios and visited many of their exhibitions. For some newer artists, I have a relationship developed with their gallery, and I’ll reach out to their gallery and see if they’re available and interested in participating in an exhibition I’m curating. And it’s been a wonderful way to establish relationships with galleries through doing these group shows. And then there’s definitely artists that I will just reach out to on my own, if I don’t have an established relationship with their gallery or if they’re just not working with a gallery. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a DM on Instagram. If they’re living in a city that I perhaps am just not able to get to, we’ll do a Zoom studio visit. I’ve traveled to Toronto or New York or London for studio visits. If I’m in their city I always love to meet them in person and get to know them and spend some time in their studio.
WWD: What’s next for UTA Artist Space?
Z.C.: We have two really exciting shows that I can already share coming up in 2024. One is with Mario Joyce. We’ll be opening his show in February 2024. He just finished a residency at Skowhegan. He’s an incredible, incredible painter, exploring his family history and coming to terms with his own identity. And then Erin Riley is going to be our March exhibition.
We just really want to continue doing really exciting and cutting-edge programming and having really wonderful artists and curators and different voices.
WWD: Ultimately, what has been your mission as the director of the space and how has that evolved through the years?
Z.C.: Originally, we really wanted to bring artists to Los Angeles who didn’t necessarily have a platform in Los Angeles, because there were not as many galleries here as perhaps there were in New York. And we wanted to also have the fine arts department. We really wanted people to be able to see into what we were doing with artists and make it more accessible to the local community. I think as we’ve grown and as the L.A. art world has grown, we have zeroed in on the artists we want to show. Our mission has really become giving a platform to artists who we think are, you know, at the cutting edge of what they’re doing, who are addressing important things that are happening in the world, artists who might have otherwise been overlooked, really giving a voice to narratives that we’re excited about, telling stories that we feel strongly about.