Sadaf’s Winding Path
Sadaf Padder reached out to me after reading one of these profiles to share her story. This is a good strategy that often does not work well. However, her work and path are well worth knowing about. Sadaf, 33, is a resident of Brooklyn, NY and an independent curator and founder of Alpha Arts Alliance, one of the only independent South Asian female run art dealerships in New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from George Washington University in Sociocultural Anthropology, Master of Arts in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University in Secondary Social Studies. I invite you to learn more about her journey.
* photo by Rashida Zagon
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
My days vary based on the season and weeks vary based on upcoming projects, community events or exhibitions. I am either conceptualizing, fundraising, executing, installing or in post-production - and often, timelines for various projects overlap.
I conduct studio visits with artists I am working with once or twice a week and host collector visits for people interested in acquiring work.
I am often attending events, openings, and exhibitions to discover new artists or to support those I am working with already. I joke that Thursday nights are like Monday mornings in the art world - gallery exhibitions tend to open on Thursday nights in New York.
During the wintertime, I am in research and writing mode as I prepare for exhibitions and community programs this year, apply for grants and solidify the 2023 Alpha Arts Alliance artist roster and inventory.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
I wanted to be a photographer and a psychologist. My parents wanted me to be a doctor.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
To study hard and aim high. My parents both modeled that education can be a ticket to access for greater opportunity. My father was one of the first people from his village in Kashmir to go to university. He used to hike three hours just to get to school.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
My work as a writing tutor and then student director of the George Washington University Writing Center showed me the need for writing support across ages and backgrounds.
My time as a public-school history teacher in Baltimore and as a Dean of Students in a Brooklyn based charter middle school revealed to me the discrepancy of education and class in our country as well as the dearth of youth arts programming.
I moved to New York in 2014 and met Justin Pigeon. As my former principal he has been my greatest professional mentor. He taught me how to conduct crucial conversations, mediations, lead a team, professional developments and manage systems.
I also really appreciate Natasha Becker, a co-founder of Assembly Room, a support platform for independent female curators. As a mentor she gave me key advice to hone in on my interests and to always have a few curatorial concepts drafted and ready to pitch - because you never know when an opportunity is going to come up! She was right.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
People are often surprised when they learn I have only been working full-time in the arts for 4 years. They are also tickled when they learn I am a creative myself. I have been an artist and craftswoman myself for nearly a decade. It keeps me empathetic to the artistic process. I began practicing henna tattooing when I was a first-year teacher. This is also the year I began grant-writing and crowdfunding to bring our first arts programming and field trips to my school in Baltimore.
Why did you pivot?
I’ve always loved art. I had been visiting exhibitions since I was a teenager. Looking back, if I had been encouraged in art by my school, I may have pursued a career in art-making myself. I had no idea curation was even a career until a few years ago.
As a Dean, I found that the students who were most often being sent to my office were artists - they just didn’t have the chance to discover that yet. There were so few opportunities for creative expression at our school. When I began, students only got recess once a week for 15 minutes on Fridays. There was virtually no visual arts or music programming. I started an afterschool arts club.
At the same time, I found that many of my friends who were artists were struggling to access opportunities to exhibit and get grants due to literacy skills. I saw how these gaps between my artist friends and my students mirrored one another and began to provide pro-bono writing services for artists.
As I began to find success in accessing opportunities, I could only help but wonder what would be possible if I had all my time to focus on curatorial work and artist advocacy. So, I applied to a local emerging curators program in 2019 and was accepted. I curated and opened my first gallery exhibition the same week I left my job as a Dean of Students - after 8 years of serving in the school system.
I felt it was my duty and calling to pass forward the skills. All around me, I see brilliant creatives - particularly Brown and Black - whose talents are overlooked or obscured.
I promised myself that when I left my job, I would create youth arts programs that could reach the kids I spent the most time with in my office. Since then, I have funded and directed four youth programs in Brooklyn. A percentage of all ALPHA art sales and commissions goes towards this initiative. As of late, ALPHA is partnered with Grown in Haiti where we are building an artist retreat and community center in the mountains of Jacmel.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
I found that my mediation skills have been imperative in almost every situation I have entered. I am unafraid to address conflict and feel confident in my ability to do so in a productive, solutions-oriented manner. I am an adept multi-tasker - which I was able to keenly develop when I was responsible for 400 students and 30 staff members at the same time. This allows me to handle multiple projects and artists at once. I ran our school assembly every Friday, so I basically got 5 years of experience running large-scale events.
What was new to me was the logistics of the art market and curation - how to price, how to attract collectors, how to install a show, how to ship artwork, how to build a website, start a mailing list … I have also been learning the power of authentic marketing through video.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
Feeling like I am on an island! I yearn to meet more South Asian female art dealers in New York. I have met curators and artists and gallery directors but no other dealers … yet. However, I am noticing a clamoring for a sense of community amongst South Asian diasporic artists.
There are very few spaces for independent female curators to share knowledge and collaborate.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
“Not everyone's emergency is your emergency.” I am a giver by nature. I have had to unwind my mindset that everything needs to be done in urgency. In the school system I was trained for years to respond to crises. As a result, I found early on in my career shift I was giving away free strategy, services, and consultation.”
Don’t let people pick your brain - without your consent. I learned to be unafraid to ask the intent or nature of the inquiries I receive. Sometimes, people will ask to pick my brain, get coffee or “catch up” when really, they are seeking professional advice. I am learning how to better set boundaries between friends, collaborators, and peers as I adjust to the steady increase in demand.
There are no industry standards in this field. I had to work hard at establishing my rate as a creative consultant and coach. Once I understood the artist biography or statement, I helped the artist craft what could go on to secure them various opportunities or thousands of dollars of grants. I realized I was undervaluing my services. My work is very personal. I need to really believe in and love the artwork of the artist in order to serve them. I am looking for life-long connections.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
Find people who are modeling the lifestyle you are attracted to and spark up conversation. If you can, save a financial cushion so you can cover up to 3 - 6 months of living expenses before you jump. You are not alone.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
Even though my parents had very little understanding of the art world and market, they have always trusted me and my abilities. They were worried, of course, but never tried to deter me from jumping headfirst into unknown waters.
I found a community of creative freelancers and entrepreneurs that catalyzed my desire to leave my job and inspired me to launch one that celebrated South Asian American creativity.
I was also very lucky to have had a stable job for several years that allowed me to save the funds I needed to feel comfortable to make the jump.
Finally, my first therapist, Jane, in Baltimore propelled my journey into arts. I was deeply depressed when I had moved to Baltimore, and she asked me very simply what I enjoyed doing. I recalled a high school ceramics class. She urged me to begin crafting again, to create with my hands.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life? Overcoming imposter syndrome and establishing work-life balance. I am a self-taught curator. Everything I have learned, I have learned through sheer grit, will and observation. I am an avid learner but there are no shortcuts in this career path. I took many unpaid and underpaid opportunities so I could observe and learn from those I admired.
In this career, my professional and personal life has melted together. Many artists and collaborators are friends. Many social outings now also feel like work - you never know when you may meet a collector or when you may be approached by an artist who would like a studio visit. I am adjusting to “visibility” - I now am in rooms where people may know me through social media, but I have not met them yet in person. It is a good problem to have but it requires a different energy and boundary-setting. Unfortunately, I can’t make it to visit all the artist studios I would like if I wanted to properly execute the projects I have at hand. I have found that now it is critical to water the relationships I have already planted rather than continuing to establish new ones.
I enjoy keeping my artmaking close to heart. I will host my own pop-up one day at home, salon-style. Kicking it back to the good old days. Until then, I want to focus on my curatorial, dealership work and artists - many who have been art-making since their youth - and who deserve recognition for it.
What is a highlight you are particularly proud of? Last year, I connected with a friend and artist Farah Mohammad, who was part of my first show ever (when she was still a social worker, and I was still a Dean!) to her first solo exhibition. This exhibition resulted in an acquisition of five of her works to the Baltimore Museum of Art. This was a major milestone.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life? Since I am a self-taught curator, I plan to secure more research-based grants for myself so I can focus on my curatorial scholarship and writing.
I am grateful for the opportunities that have come that I could never have imagined. I truly believe in the power of manifestation. I am excited to join RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) as a guest critic this fall as well as host ALPHA’s next fundraising exhibition for Grown in Haiti at the World Trade Center.
As a 2023 goal, I also hope to sell my 100th piece of artwork. I am not too far off…
What social media links, if any, might you like to share in the piece?
LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/sadafpadder/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/sadaf.padder
Instagram - instagram.com/pitterpadder