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The Long, Winding Road Home for CPCC's Richardson

by John Schacht

August 13, 2015

Photos: (top) Cassandra Richardson at an art auction aboard the Holland America Noordam cruise ship; (below, in descending order): Richardson today; first day of renovations at CPCC's Pease Gallery; Susan Brenner's Natural Histories 1009 (mixed media on paper, 30" x 22") at Ross Gallery; Bay area impresario David Ferguson with associates Richardson (far left), Angela Holm and Simone Nelson; poster for the OFFS 1984 debut album on Ferguson's CD Presents label, with cover drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat; Richardson (left) picking up an award for CPCC's galleries.


Every kid imagines what they’d like their adult selves to become — fearless firefighters, altruistic doctors, daredevil pilots, teachers of the year, even rock stars and World Series heroes. In a few rare instances, though, these dreams exhibit a curious specificity. Just about the only thing missing from these ambitious children’s career blueprints are the “…or bust” signs.

That’s likely to have been the case for a young and precocious Cassandra Richardson, who growing up in Charlotte loved painting and sculpture but didn’t dream of following in the footsteps of Picasso or Rodin. Instead, her goal was to gather together life-altering artwork and show it to other people.

“Ever since I was a little girl I knew I would be a gallery director; other kids would play school teacher or astronaut, I played gallery director,” says Richardson, who attended Charlotte Country Day School. Before she even hit the age of 10, in fact, Richardson says she was hiring the neighborhood kids “to create art for me, and I would curate it around our rooms and charge our parents admission and make them buy things.”

Richardson has come full circle now, returning to her hometown and realizing her younger self’s dreams in her new role as Central Piedmont Community College’s gallery director. Beyond fulfilling that childhood master plan, though, what stands out about Richardson – besides the 35-year-old’s infectious ebullience, intelligence and comeliness (she’s walked the runway and consulted for modeling agencies) – is the unconventional journey she took to get to this point.

After those early days commissioning and curating the neighborhood kids’ art, Richardson graduated summa cum laude from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a trio of art degrees (Art History, Contemporary Art Theory and Fine Arts); served as right-hand woman for Bay area-based impresario David Ferguson and his Institute for Unpopular Culture; raised significant arts funding from Silicon Valley titans; put together outsider artist exhibitions and galas for Hollywood royalty; started her own artist agency in San Francisco; ran a successful private gallery; and served as an art advisor on high-end cruise ships and private yachts, stamping her passport in 27 countries along that part of her voyage.

Bringing It All Back Home

All that experience, she says, has proved invaluable in revealing the nuances of the art game. Richardson has already been applying her extensive experience to CPCC since taking the gallery director position in March, 2015. After finding her footing last Spring, Richardson has overseen the total renovation, from ceiling to floor, of Central Campus’ Pease Gallery; put together the Fall Faculty show and Susan Brenner: Natural Histories exhibition (both opening Monday, Aug. 17) at Pease and Ross galleries, respectively; set up her own program with painter Charles Williams for the Sensoria Art & Literature Festival in 2016; and founded the CPCC Young Art League to bring young (“or young at heart”) art enthusiasts, collectors, creative collaborators, and professionals together at special events to celebrate the myriad cultural opportunities at CPCC.

Melissa Vrana, associate arts dean at CPCC, was part of the committee that hired Richardson and has been impressed by her understanding of, and quick integration into, the campus community. “We want all students to feel as if they belong in a gallery, and that the art and artists reflect and/or challenge the students, staff, and the community who visit,” says Vrana, who praised in particular the Young Art League and Williams’ upcoming Sensoria exhibit. The latter’s work, with its provocative racial context and high degree of artistry, “is a perfect example of her eye for the quality of the art but also for selecting an artist who has a narrative that will resonate with CPCC students.”  

Naturally, Richardson’s collegiate background in art history and modern art theory helps curate impactful artwork that builds off tradition without aping it. But her Fine Arts degree, with its concentration in ceramic hand-building, provided key lessons, too — first and foremost that her days of throwing clay were not going to lead to a career as an artist. But out of that epiphany emerged some less-immediate benefits that Richardson uses to build organic connections between artists, audience and patrons.

“(Sculpting) allowed me a greater expanse of appreciation for studio practice and the type of courage it takes to call yourself a professional artist,” she says in admiration of the brass it takes to forego any semblance of a normal career. “‘I may be a waiter, I may be a hostess, I may be a bartender for the next 20 years of my life to pay the bills, but I don’t care – I’m doing the damn thing.’ That takes a lot of guts.”

I Left My Art in San Francisco

Richardson’s most immersive education, though, came from working with David Ferguson. The founder of the Institute for Unpopular Culture — known in the Bay area by its colourful IFUC acronym — was a man she calls “my forever mentor, my S.F. 'spirit guide,' and a brilliant, insane, wise and beloved friend.” Sadly, shortly after that unsolicited homage, Ferguson passed away unexpectedly on July 24 at the age of 69. But the imprint he leaves on his acolyte is indelible.

Their meeting certainly wasn’t preordained, though. After graduating from Boulder and having a disturbed ex-boyfriend smash all of her sculptures, Richardson and a friend flipped a coin to determine whether they’d go east to New York or west to San Francisco. Her fellow graduate, a financial analyst, found work immediately in the Bay area; Richardson had a harder time landing a career-oriented job until her resume crossed Ferguson’s desk in 2003. They talked, he hired, and within two days she says she was promoted from intern to associate director. She would remain in that role (later adding CFO to her title) until 2008.

“He saw something in me, and I just thought he was one of the most brilliant and interesting men I had ever met,” she says.

Even a cursory look at his background confirms his candidacy for that. Ferguson founded IFUC in 1989 after establishing his outsider credentials through CD Presents, a seminal record label he co-started in 1979 that specialized in punk and post-punk acts like the Avengers, Public Image Ltd., D.O.A. and the Butthole Surfers. When he founded the Institute a decade later, he took the DIY principles he used to subvert the vile trenches of the music industry and applied them to the art world. Among the artists IFUC represented were illustrator Vaughn Bode, whose Cheech Wizard character influenced legions of graffiti artists (and who died at 33 of autoerotic asphyxiation); Barry McGee  (aka, Twist, painter and graffiti artist); Jean-Michel Basquiat (championed by Andy Warhol); and San Quentin death row inmate William A. Noguera.

Such clientele weren’t the exception for IFUC, they were the rule. As the Institute’s literature stated, IFUC promoted “artistic attempts to challenge and destabilize the status quo. By sponsoring subversive or ‘unpopular’ artistic visions, we hope to help alleviate the artist’s need to cater to public taste and opinion in order to survive...Through endowment, marketing and mentoring, we provide alternative sources of funding to artists in order to relieve them of dependency on arbitrary government and grant-giving entities.”

Marketing the Unpopular

IFUC’s success, Richardson says, came from connecting outsider artists with Silicon Valley insiders hungry to get into the art world. That nexus of artist needs and donor wants proved especially beneficial to the artists: each year, five of them would split tens of thousands of dollars in donor checks, one of which tallied a staggering $100,000. As a non-profit free from stultifying and expensive bureaucracy, IFUC could cut out the middlemen and streamline the process. Donors saw their dollars go straight to the artists and impact their lives in immediate and significant ways. If an artist wanted to take six months off from bartending or being a bike messenger to concentrate on studio art, Richardson says, the donations made it happen; if they were inspired by the giants of art history but had never been to Italy or walked the halls of the Uffizi museum, now they could.

“They could literally watch (that money) change a person’s entire life,” Richardson says, adding that those repercussions rippled well beyond the financial boon. “It gave the artists just that bit of confidence — that the world believes in you and believes in your talent and has proactively sought you out to say, ‘Hey, just because you don’t have the perfect pedigree or didn’t graduate from X, Y or Z art school, and so therefore you can’t get in to galleries because you don’t know how to do a proper gallery submission, doesn’t mean you’re not relevant and that your work isn’t groundbreaking and life-changing.”

It turns out Richardson’s job was a lot like a record label’s A&R scout: she kept an eye out for emerging and interesting off-the-beaten path talent, and then showed the work of these “wildly creative and progressive artists” to potential patrons with more money than God. In turn, those donors would get more art bang for their buck by getting to “interact with the Twist types” in their studios — a far cry from the usual museum director/curator rabble banging on their door for money and shielding them from the artists except on opening night.

Richardson also discovered that she was adept at selling these donors on artists. That was an essential part of the IFUC experience for the artists, as they often had no clue what an artist’s statement was, let alone how to apply for grants.

“David founded this institute because he saw the same terrible problem happening with visual artists or performing artists or actors that was happening in the music industry,” she says, “and that was so many talented people with absolutely no clue how to monetize their passion, how to market themselves, and how to be strategic and business-minded about their art and genius. Most artists that I have met who have a brilliant and potent visual language have terrible difficulty translating that into your standard 27-page financial projection grant proposal.”

But despite the tangible differences they were making in the artists’ lives, Richardson had absorbed just about everything she could after seven years at IFUC. She’d learned how to tell a story about art and capture the media’s attention with outside-the-box events and openings. She’d honed her skill set with the day-to-day facets of installation, curatorial design, guerrilla-style marketing, website design, social media, talent scouting and grant writing. There was only one direction to go from there, and she had Ferguson’s blessing and promise of ongoing collaboration, too.

“With all of these pieces in my wheelhouse, I said, ‘You know what? I need some fresh energy, I’m going to do it myself.”

But 2008 was a lousy time to start a new business, as Richardson soon discovered with her short-lived agency, Camorra Fine Art. She did okay, she says, paying the rent, feeding herself and making some artists happy. But it wasn’t proving sustainable in the long-term, and when the owner of a gallery in a rapidly gentrifying area of San Francisco offered her the chance to run his space, she shuttered Camorra and accepted. Her success at Octavia Haze Gallery (co-owned by New Orleans painter James Michalopoulos) took some of the sting out of her own business’s failure. It also confirmed the idea that she did indeed have the skill set to run a successful gallery.

“That’s when I knew that, ‘okay, I don’t really suck just because my little business failed, or didn’t do what I wanted it to’,” she says. At Octavia’s Haze, “I got to be really creative and do whatever I wanted in terms of marketing and social media and creating these experiences in the exhibition. I started to fluff my feathers and say, ‘alright, I can do this, this is where I belong’.”

A Supposedly Fun Thing...

But her journey was about to take an unexpected and aquatic turn. After the break-up of a seven-year relationship, and feeling restless in general, Richardson got a tip about a company that had gallery directorship positions on luxury cruise ships and private yachts. After an extremely selective and exhaustive hiring process — six months and nine interviews, at least one of which caused her to break out in hives — Richardson was invited to the intensive two-week training-slash-placement test at the company’s South Beach, Miami headquarters. Given 1,000 pages on 200 contemporary artists — and nearly as many legendary ones — to absorb shortly before, Richardson threw herself into it “like the huge nerd that I am” and emerged at the top of the class.

“You were expected from Day One to not only commit it to memory, but to be able to speak eloquently and persuasively on any given topic or artist,” says Richardson, finding her schooling paying off again. “For me it was a little bit easier because I read about contemporary artists and the great masters for fun, so this is like bedtime stories for me.”

But it was getting to handle illuminated manuscripts, lithographs and serigraphs of masters Picasso, Miro, Dali, Rembrandt and Erte that proved to be as alluring as the travel. Based in ports like Venice, St. Maarten, Halifax and Barcelona during her two-plus years with the company, the work was nevertheless gruelling – 100-hour weeks were the norm at sea, as gallery directors designed their own programs; oversaw 500-700 works of art held in the ship’s climate-controlled belly or under lock-and-key on the captain’s bridge; lectured on (and in Richardson’s case, wrote) topics like “The Art of Collecting for Novice Collectors” or “The Masters and Their Muses”;  supervised a staff of five; and, of course, held auctions for audiences that could number as many as 500 and result in single-item sales of up to $65,000 — the winning bid for a signed copy of one of Picasso’s “La Suite Vollard” lithographs.

“To get involved with the great masters in any capacity was just so tremendously exciting,” she says.

The genius of the shipboard galleries and their rotating exhibitions and regular auctions was in recognizing that you have an audience “stuck on the ship with nothing to do and who eventually get sick of eating and gambling and napping," Richardson says. "How many times can you go to the buffet, after all?” Eventually, though, the experience took on a Groundhog Day quality as one battalion of passengers debarked and another replaced it, and one port of call took on the attributes of the others. And though Richardson concedes the travel was glamorous, she also knew when she'd had enough.

“I’ll tell you this – I would never work on a cruise ship gain, but I can’t wait to travel on one.”

Closing One Circle, Opening Another

The cruise ship contracts typically called for six months on, six weeks off, and were renewed (or not) every six months. Richardson often came back home to Charlotte on her time off to check in with family and glance at the want ads. But as her seafaring days drew to a close, she began perusing the local arts scene in earnest for gallery director openings — quickly realizing that the relative scarcity of galleries in Charlotte means that those already with director jobs might as well be on a tenure track. So she joined artist-friendly groups like the Mint Museum’s Young Affiliates and the ASC in the hopes of making connections. And when the call came, she was ready — but of course by then she’d already spent a lifetime getting ready.

Now it’s about passing on lessons learned along the way, she says. With the Young Art League established and online in time for the new school year, Richardson hopes to get young painters, poets, actors and others cross-pollinating the variety of arts endeavors at CPCC and beyond, from plays, dance recitals and music concerts at Halton Theater to happy hour gallery crawls of Pease and Ross and walking tours of the Wall Poems of Charlotte with creator (and CPCC instructor) Amy Bagwell.

Just as significantly, Richardson hopes to establish and teach an arts elective on the process of professionalizing one’s art — learning to put together a portfolio, properly matting and framing artwork, writing artist statements, how to photograph artwork for submission, etcetera. “Our arts students are learning what my most talented arts friends who graduated from RISD and Parsons with those fancy art degrees never did,” she says. “And that fits with the same mission as the rest of the college – and that is, professional development.”

But Richardson will also be reminding students that there’s usually more ways around a problem than the beaten path most use. Galleries require an exhibition history, but in a fine piece of Catch-22, how do you get a show without having had a show to put on your CV in the first place? What happens if you’re not in the year-end student show? The answer is what punk rock record labels were founded on and what the Institute for Unpopular Culture turned into a selling point. It's also what enterprising people do every day rather than give in — they do it themselves.

“I want to present students with ideas I learned from David,” Richardson says, “which begins with thinking outside the box....more important than the money was his absolute diehard predilections for the DIY philosophy — it was something he lived.”   

Richardson cites that lesson as one she initially didn’t understand. When Ferguson asked her if she knew how effective she was at selling works, she was still burdened by the notions that self-promotion and salesmanship were dirty words in the art world. But the lesson soon sunk in. “Because of David’s belief in me and some of the life experience I had gained, shockingly, to me, I found that when it was the heat of the moment, opening night of a reception or an art exhibition, and works and sculptures were flying off the walls as I was talking about them — well, that didn’t feel like sales to me. It was putting beautiful art in the hands of people who loved it.

“Of course, if you’d have told me at 16 that I’d be in any position that had to do with sales I’d have said you were hallucinating — but we’re all works in progress, forever.”

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Tags: CPCC, Ross Gallery, Pease Gallery, Basquiat, Institute for Unpopular Culture, David Ferguson, cruise ship, Susan Brenner, Young Art League, the Avengers, Vaughn Bode, Barry McGhee, Twist, Public Image Ltd.,

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