Alex Bass founded Salon 21 in the summer of 2018, inspired by the historic French salons of the 18th century where influential aristocrats would gather in the salon (the living room) to discuss fashions, trends and social issues of the time. Bringing it into the 21st century, Salon 21 provides an all inclusive educational platform that democratizes the voices of budding collectors and new talent at the intersection of arts, culture and critical conversation. While Salon 21 has gone completely digital for the Covid age, it initially ran pop-up artist talks, hosted cocktail nights and other events, where attendees could learn about the next generation of emerging artists and how to begin collecting. As Alex is about to finish an MA in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, we spoke to her about launching Salon 21, her art world sheroes and art during a time of social isolation.
What first drew you to art?
What’s funny is I’ve never asked myself this question. I don’t think there was one particular moment. But I can trace it back to some of my earliest memories, which were my mom giving me a bag of colored pencils and markers that I would drag with me everywhere – to dinner, on trips, literally everywhere. I always had supplies with me: crayons, paper, even scissors, magazines and tape to make collages. Being an artist herself (not just fine art, but also culinary arts – her food is unparalleled), my mom instilled a love and appreciation of creativity in me at a young age. In addition to creating art myself, my mom would take me to museums as a baby – The Met and the American Museum of Natural History in New York were my two favorite places to visit – forget the playground. Art for me is now a way to express myself, connect with others and understand our world.
What inspired you to create Salon 21?
Roughly two years ago, I founded Salon 21 to fill a void in the social experiences available to both my demographic and those of a similar age group. Focused in and around the New York area, Salon 21 began to initiate several alternative social activities. The name “Salon 21” speaks to the historic French salons of the 18th century, in which influential aristocrats would gather in the salon — aka the living room — to discuss fashions, trends, politics, social issues of the time, etc. Additionally, it references the academic salons, which showcased the contemporary art of the time, as we aim to do. The number “21” is about bringing this type of social gathering into the 21st century. This contemporary twist allows us to mimic this mode of exchange while keeping it relevant to our demographic now. Personally, I was getting sick of just hanging out at a friend’s apartment or frequenting the same bars on the Lower East Side. I wanted to create a new space for people to hang out and learn something.
What are your events like?
Our events combine socializing and networking with an educational purpose, where attendees can learn about new forms of art by emerging artists. I aim to provide a platform for new talent who would perhaps not have the opportunity to showcase their work in other settings. Now with COVID-19, Salon 21 is trying to create a community that can engage through virtual activities, in which you can take an hour or so of your day to enjoy an educational arts and cultural experience and learn something new. These events range from artist talks to wine tastings to in-depth discussions about diversity and representation in the art world (the latter two are coming soon!).
You’re writing your dissertation on how the art world will have to respond to social distancing and the digital sphere. Can you tell us your thoughts on that?
To expand on this, I am very in touch with and am constantly researching how the art world has been responding to the current crisis, and the increased focus placed on social media and digital communication for artists, institutions, galleries, auction houses, etc. in order to connect. It is crucial to be able to operate on this platform and as studies show, Instagram is the art world’s channel of choice in comparison with all other forms of social media.
Salon 21 was arguably set up with an “anti-digital” mantra because of our emphasis on physical connectivity — which is pretty ironic now that we are switching to this form of communication. I felt that physical spaces were essential for sharing, socializing, understanding the artists’ work, but I am having to rethink this concept with all that we are going through. It has been a new opportunity for the whole art world, not just Salon 21, to keep engagement at the highest possible level. What the art world is trying to do across the board is all experimental, and even before the current crisis, there were some sectors in the art world setting up a strong digital infrastructure.
Truthfully, we all hope to go back to real physical interaction, but in the meantime, it is brilliant that we have these forms of communication to rely on in the meantime. This digital infrastructure is long overdue, with the art world actually being the slowest sector to adapt to said changes. There are so many ways technology can be beneficial to learning about art, and it is up to our leading institutions to implement it in the right way and not in a superficial fashion.
Which female artists should we have on our radars?
In my spare time I am constantly probing Instagram for up-and-coming artists. Some of my favorite female artist who I’ve found on this platform just this summer are Kiki Williams (an army vet who turned to snapping Polaroids as a form of trauma healing), Loribelle Spirovski (I’ve never been much of a painter, so the way she handles colors truly amazes me, and I love that her works feel like an ode to Francis Bacon), Jane Dashley (one of the first fashion bloggers who also paints which I just discovered), Tali Lennox (the silkiness of her brush is mind-blowing), Cassi Namoda (a Mozambique artist living and working in East Hampton whose raw painterly style captures the life of everyday men and women in Africa beautifully)…I could just keep going but will stop here! And if you don’t know Toyin Ojih Odutola, stop what you’re doing right now.
Who are your art world sheroes?
Kimberly Drew aka @museummammy who was the social media manager at The Met who I was lucky enough to meet during my time interning at the museum. Through the few chats I’ve had with her as well as following along with her journey on Instagram navigating the complexities and inequalities in the art world, I’ve learned so much about the industry. Also, the women who I’ve worked with and befriended throughout my internships and jobs! I’ve learned so much from all of them. The art world is a tricky place, and us women need to cement our role in the leadership of major institutions worldwide.
What advice would you give to young women wanting to create a career in the art world?
Know your art history. I just went for my MA at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Art Business, and it was a shame how many people did not know references to the Ancient Greeks and more because they were only focused on the “business” component. Even if you’re dealing with Contemporary Art, everything is rooted in history, and you need that knowledge in order to understand the objects you’re handling and be able to talk about them. On the other hand, you will have to do A LOT of mindless tasks that require zero art historical knowledge. These are not unique to the art world, but knowing how to organize someone’s schedule or even a filing cabinet is an invaluable skill – and most importantly, not complaining about it.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I hope to show people the value of art beyond its market value. Art is life changing. Art helps us to make sense of society and each other. By supporting the next generation of artists, we are ensuring that the future is rich with not just beautiful works but with ideas and meaningful conversations. I want Salon 21 to grow into a true salon, being a space for these types of exchanges and become a vibrant community of creatives.
Interview by Lizzy Vartanian