How Carrie Mackin Went From Small Town Gallery Owner to a Behind-the-Scenes Power in the Art World

Mackin Projects provides support for a wide array of art stars.

Carrie Mackin. Image courtesy Carrie Mackin.

Even if you don’t know Carrie Mackin’s name, you probably know something she has been involved with.

Mackin has spent the last two decades curating more than 100 exhibitions and projects, and has helped power some of the most prominent names in the industry through her consulting. In her career, she’s shifted through many roles, from running an exhibition space to being a studio manager to taking charge as an independent consultant. Her experience gives a glimpse of the ecosystem at work that makes a lot of the art world’s more mysterious successes happen.

In early March, just before lockdown, Mackin and I met at the Princeton Club of New York to discuss her career.

Mackin got her start in the Tampa Bay area. Covivant, her project space, launched in 1999 in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse she discovered through her mechanic. She transformed it into two galleries and 10 studios.

“Covivant means ‘co-living,’” states Mackin. “The word, or name, was about cohabitation, and it truly ended up being a community space.” Feeling the collector base in her home state wasn’t ready for her, she moved to New York in 2006.

Within six months of moving to New York, she was hired as studio manager for Kehinde Wiley, the Brooklyn-based portrait painter who has become world-famous for a portfolio that includes Barack Obama’s 2017 presidential portrait. Soon, Mackin was promoted to business manager just as Wiley’s career was going from strength to strength. “Business management is more complex than studio management, as it involves more attention to business strategy and fiscal management,” she explains.

This role meant managing Wiley’s finances and investments, as well as negotiating with galleries and collectors. “At that point, everybody wanted Kehinde. I felt like I was his gatekeeper.”

Mackin then started her own consultancy, Mackin Projects. Launched as a project management company, it has morphed into a niche consultancy, making use of her business acumen and connections to help emerging and mid-career artists “formalize their businesses,” in her words. Mackin serves many roles for her clients from professional development to securing corporate projects to liaising with collectors and other third parties. “A lot of artists have also hired me to hire staff for them,” Mackin explains.

Working with artists including E.V. Day, Nan Goldin, Hank Willis Thomas, Amy Sherald, and Michael Zelehoski, Mackin serves as an outside adviser, dropping by studios and offering feedback. She’ll ask about current issues the artists face, the changes they hope to make, and their goals over the next several years. From there, a collaborative relationship ensues.

One of the most noteworthy projects she has worked on is NXTHVN, a not-for-profit artist incubator in New Haven, Connecticut, opened by Titus Kaphar, Jason Price, and Jonathan Brand. The space is currently under construction, with Deborah Berke as the architect; Mackin was hired as the first executive director during the project’s earliest stages and is a co-founder. The space has already been a success: NXTHVN received over 160 applications from 13 countries for its inaugural fellowship program.

Another memorable project was Mickalene Thomas’s “Better Nights” in 2019, a successor to the artist’s 2013 Art Basel hit “Better Days.” “This iteration was organized by the Bass Museum,” says Mackin of “Better Nights.” “Different decade, different tone—and historically a project inspired by her mother’s house parties that directly embody the spirit of her living room in the 1970s and ’80s.”

Mackin Projects liaised between Thomas’s studio and the museum to manage Thomas’s complex three-room installation which included nightly performances by notable artists for an entire week of visitors to Art Basel Miami Beach. (The show was set to remain on display at the Bass until September 27, before the interruption of COVID-19.)

She also has joined forces with collectors who hope to engage in the kinds of artistic conversations she’s interested in. “I’m looking to create a conversation within the body of work,” Mackin explains. “And that conversation is mostly socially driven. Lots of times it’s hyper-political.”

Mackin’s career is one rooted in personal relationships and word-of-mouth referrals. I asked her where she finds her advisory clients. “I meet them through friends, at art openings, and often times through artists who I’ve worked with,” she explains. “I work with a wide range of contemporary visual artists, but it is the stars who have absolutely contributed to my understanding of the NY art world over the years—an experience that exceeds any college degree—and now I am able to share that with young artists.”

As an advisor, Mackin is able to offer both business insights and a networks she’s gleaned over the years. She brings with her a inventory of trusted people: lawyers, CPAs, and financial advisors. In her view, no artist is too established to benefit from professional help.

Ultimately, the advisor’s objective is to help artists establish a professional and profitable business practice and to forge partnerships with galleries. “Honestly, I truly enjoy working with artists while helping them reach success doing what they love,” Mackin says.

This summer, she stepped into yet another role as a visiting lecturer teaching “Art Studio Management and Gallery Representation” to students at the Royal College of Arts. She sees teaching as a way to serve an even wider range of artists.

As an art collector, Mackin got her start trading work with artists back when she was an art student herself. Over the years she been able to purchase works, and more than a few artists she’s worked with have negotiated their fee by offering Mackin works of art or have gifted art to her. Today she would have a hard time parting with the pieces she’s accumulated, including pieces by Hank Willis Thomas, Nan Goldin, and Wangechi Mutu.

“This has been such an organic process for me,” she says. “I’ve never advertised—it’s just word of mouth. And hopefully a lot of satisfied customers.”

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