Krista Scenna, Curator and Owner of Ground Floor Gallery, on Life in the Arts, Small Business Ownership and Motherhood

"Yes, I’m a small business owner but I’m also a black woman, a mother, and, generally, a concerned citizen with a deep respect for humanity and this gift of life."
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"Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue: Pinwheels" by Ellen Hackl Fagan create in partnership with Prevent Child Abuse America.  $100 from each sale of this limited edition series goes to PCA America's efforts to support vulnerable youth and families. 

"Seeking the Sound of Cobalt Blue: Pinwheels" by Ellen Hackl Fagan create in partnership with Prevent Child Abuse America.  $100 from each sale of this limited edition series goes to PCA America's efforts to support vulnerable youth and families. 

Have you ever met someone whose very presence coaxes a smile? Krista Scenna is one of those people. In the toughest of situations, she finds ways to make you grin or laugh, even via social media or email. Her energy, her positivity, her thoughtful insights and subjective, yet empathetic approaches to goings-on in the world and cultural sphere make her incredibly unique.

Like many working parents, the past few months have been challenging for the curator, gallery owner, and mother. How do you transform a small business that operated as a physical space when your city is “on pause”? How do you care for two small children while attempting to manage your own business at the same time? How do you process police brutality and systematic racism as a Black mother? Through all of the turmoil, Krista remains resilient and confident in working toward a better future, a true feat as we are all barraged with painful headlines and imagery, because like countless protest signs have read, “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his momma.”

Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?

Sure! I’m an independent curator and owner of Ground Floor Gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We connect underrecognized emerging and mid-career artists to new art buyers and audiences. I see myself as a matchmaker, in that respect!

What made you want to start Ground Floor Gallery?

Funny enough, I had no intention of starting a gallery when we first opened. Just the opposite! I was perfectly happy curating pop-up, solo exhibitions in alternative spaces without the overhead. One of those pop-up spaces was a shop run by a jewelry design collective who, effectively, offered us their very affordable lease when they moved in 2013. There was one year left on the lease so it felt pretty low risk. We jumped at the opportunity!

By “we,” I mean my good friend and former business partner, Jill Benson. We consulted with a couple of respected gallery owners and ultimately invested minimal savings into sprucing up the space up a bit, adding a wall, and setting up an LLC.

We knew very little about sales but just dived into the process head first and learned the ropes of operating a lean, contemporary art gallery on the ground.

Who would you consider your audience? Who do you hope to reach?

Our audience in our physical space has mostly been local, Park Slope residents (typically, young couples and families), and the highly supportive artist community in neighboring Gowanus. Online, our audience varies widely from interior designers to new collectors, artists, and international art buyers.

We’ve enjoyed past and present partnerships with office spaces, small businesses, and nonprofits and I’d enjoy partnering with more businesses and organizations in the future. I also enjoy art consulting and facilitating private commissions so I look forward to picking up where we left off with those . . . once it’s safe to enter people’s homes again!

How does your experience in the nonprofit world affect the way you run your business?

Thank you for asking this question! I like to say I was raised in the non-profit arts and the more I learn about running a small business, the more parallels I see emerge: namely, the importance of prioritizing your energy and resources and making decisions closely linked to a strong mission. Creatives working in nonprofits or managing their own businesses need to constantly assess which ideas are worth pursuing, how to begin executing on a good idea, and confirm that our efforts feed the mission and long-term sustainability of the enterprise.

Our business model has also relied on partnerships with nonprofits: we shared our space with the 5th Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) for several years and have organized fundraisers for organizations including Arts Gowanus and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

We’re currently partnering with two stellar nonprofits on summer projects: a limited-edition print by artist Ellen Hackl Fagan for Prevent Child Abuse America’s #greatchildhoods mission, and an Artsy Online Exclusive exhibition in collaboration with YAI Arts, who support artists living with intellectual and developmental disabilities here in New York City. I am honored to be working with these two incredible organizations and hope we raise both funds and awareness about the crucial work they always do but especially now!

Candle Light #22, Sumi Ink on watercolor paper, from "A Candle a Day" exhibition featuring Veronique Gambier

Candle Light #22, Sumi Ink on watercolor paper, from "A Candle a Day" exhibition featuring Veronique Gambier

As a space that displays creativity, do you feel any responsibility to show work that’s in concert with the current climate?

I definitely didn’t feel the need to uproot or dismiss our planned projects but looked at them through a different lens and gave extra thought to whether or not they could, or even should relate to the current climate.

Our YAI Arts exhibition, for example, was going to be an exhibition in our physical space that then morphed into an online exhibition. In light of artists setting up studios in their homes, having art supplies delivered, and photographing their own work, we shifted the focus of the exhibition to home and the concept of the still life with its aspiration to bring order to chaos.

Artist Véronique Gambier and I had started planning her powerful “A Candle a Day,” project which originated as a private, daily ritual in her home: a moment of reflection to help cope with the quarantine. After Memorial Day and the murder of George Floyd, we knew the project also spoke to the senseless loss of black lives to police violence. Incidentally, Véronique is raising two black teenage girls and I’m raising two black boys (ages 11 months and 3 ½ years).

What effect has COVID had on the gallery?

Oh my. Where to begin?!

On the positive side, two out of the three exhibitions we had planned for April were actually slated as online projects pre-COVID so we were somewhat prepared for the virtual lifestyle that would follow.

During that incredibly stressful month, when our physical space had been shut down and things in New York City were really coming to a head, it was reassuring and, frankly, a huge relief to continue making some steady sales online.

With that said, we’ve certainly incurred some debt that we are now working to resolve. My mind also feels like it’s starting to come out of the COVID-19-induced fog many New Yorkers experienced. Time has been slow and abstract, my productivity and focus have been compromised and that certainly reduced/delayed gallery operations. We’re truly taking it one day at a time over here and are so much more focused on near-term programming. It’s just not feasible to plan ahead as I used to under these conditions.

What was the response to the Exquisite Corpse game you had outside the space?

Mixed. We displayed about 30 Exquisite Corpse drawings at our space and only about 3-4 were left on our fence at the deinstall. We had asked for people who took a drawing to share their completed work on social media and leave a suggested donation for the gallery. Most people didn’t do that, which is fine. I certainly understand the duress everyone is under these days!

I say the response was mixed because the majority of people cared enough to take a drawing home from our installation and, presumably, shared it with their loved ones. If we provided some type of gratification through art, then I’m satisfied.

Have the recent protests in Brooklyn had any effect on the gallery?

Luckily, no. We’re a bit tucked away from the main commercial drag which helped us stay off the radar.

As a small business owner, how do you feel when the value of human life and safety are pitted against property in the media?

I think it’s narrow-minded and ill-conceived.

Yes, I’m a small business owner but I’m also a black woman, a mother, and, generally, a concerned citizen with a deep respect for humanity and this gift of life.

I am beyond angry, frustrated, and exhausted by the same headlines and videos of violent, racist police officers killing black people. So many lives taken so viciously and senselessly - with complete disregard for an oath to “protect and serve” - cannot be replaced. Property can always be rebuilt.

We need to focus on the issue at hand and ensure that black lives really do matter. When will the cops who killed Breonna Taylor be arrested? When will qualified immunity, police budgets, and their toxic culture be re-evaluated in a real way? We need accountability now or this won’t stop happening.

Literally, the whole world is shouting “Stop Killing Us!” If your response is “but, but, but . . . “ you need to think seriously about what side of history you’re on.

As a Black mother to biracial children, what has been the experience of processing the national reaction to the systematic police brutality and murder perpetrated again Black men and women?

It has been intense and visceral, to say the least. Also, terrifying, when I think about my kids as older boys and men. I am reminded of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice (who would’ve been 18 on the day I’m writing this) and Jordan Davis who died senselessly from buying Skittles, playing with a toy gun, and listening to loud music . . . while black. It’s incredibly painful and gut-wrenching every time.

Like many professionals in the art world, I process myriad images each day. Only now, more and more images from recent events are hard to shake. I’ll be doing the most mundane thing like washing dishes or making a sandwich and suddenly see a vision of George Floyd calling for his mother, Breonna Taylor’s smiling face, or even childhood memories of Rodney King’s brutal beating by the LAPD. The tears well up. The anger returns.

My kids are a joyful distraction. They’re helping me keep it together. I have to stay centered, present, and strong for them.

What do you hope your boys remember most from this time?

That mommy was always there for them. Like . . . always . . . there. HA!

All joking aside, I really do hope that they (or, really, my three-year-old) look back on this time as a family adventure where we cooked, baked, and played together even though there’ve been a lot of screens involved! Ironically, I think he’ll have fond memories of being outdoors since we’ve had to deliberately seek that out. Soaking up the natural world has been a salve for all of us.

We’re also trying hard to be honest with him about what’s happening out there while remaining positive and focused on his world.

I think you’d agree that mothers feel the need to keep hope alive even when things get worse because we have to for our children. How have you been able to do that?

YES! Wholeheartedly. I touched on that a bit earlier. I definitely remind my older son (who’s almost 4) that this is all temporary and one day he’ll see his friends again, and be at school again and go back to the museums and activities he loves. I feel like I’m trying to convince myself too!

Kids really do appreciate routine and look to us for comfort as well, so, as a mom, I really have tried to establish a . . . different but somewhat consistent routine these past few months.

"Blue City, My City" by Juan Hinojosa, part of Ground Floor's print club for new art buyers. 

"Blue City, My City" by Juan Hinojosa, part of Ground Floor's print club for new art buyers. 

What do you envision for the future of Ground Floor Gallery?

For me, personally, it’s been very difficult to run a physical gallery space. I actually did not renew our lease this summer for several reasons: the shutdown proved to be financially unsustainable; lack of school, summer camp, and consistent childcare has been crippling; I am distracted by all that is going on in our world, and the general safety concerns of operating a space during COVID-19 are just too overwhelming (hosting events or even expecting people to brave the subway to get here are not in my playbook).

We will continue to be active online and I’ll be organizing solo shows in close collaboration with emerging and mid-career artists. I’m hoping to work with artists who’ve been on my “wish list” and collaborating to explore how an exhibition can exist and resonate on virtual platforms. Solo projects are more manageable for me, right now, and allow me to continue supporting artists.

We just launched a print club for new collectors that I’m also excited about. My vision is to have that be our accessible, analog offering. I’m hoping they’ll be appealing to new collectors and also a reliable source of revenue for our artists and the gallery.

I will look into the prospect of reopening when we’re on the other side of all this. I feel strongly that this is a reset and an opportunity to devise a new business model grounded in safety and sustainability; one that is nourished by a physical space (it’s visual art, after all!) but not dependent on it.

More importantly, what do you envision for the future of your family?

This time last year, my family experienced a series of health scares with both of our boys. It was incredibly scary, stressful, and humbling and definitely put a lot into perspective. I pray for our continued good health, first and foremost. I no longer take that for granted!

Beyond that, I envision us reconnecting with our family and dear friends and spending time - safely - at the local haunts that make New York City our beloved home.

KS Headshot July 2020

Ground Floor Gallery Founder and Owner, Krista Scenna

Additional links to mentioned collections: 

Limited-edition print for Prevent Child Abuse America

"Life Still" online exhibition with YAI Arts

"A Candle a Day" exhibition featuring Veronique Gambier

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