This Art World Digital Strategist Embraces Clubhouse, Memes, and Catalogues Raisonnés
In 2018, contemporary art dealer David Zwirner hired the young Elena Soboleva to optimize his galleries’ online sales operation and digital presence—prompting some critics to respond with skepticism, wondering if a “millennial social media influencer” could lead one of the world’s largest galleries into the virtual realm. But Soboleva, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a family of scientists, was up for the challenge. She’d first glimpsed the potential of the digital sphere as an assistant at Manhattan’s Jack Shainman Gallery, where, as its youngest staffer, she set up social media accounts and filmed YouTube walk-throughs in the early 2010s; later, she spearheaded partnerships at the online art marketplace Artsy. Simultaneously, Zwirner was experimenting with ways to expand online, and introduced initiatives such as online viewing rooms and a podcast, both atypical for the art world at the time. “David thought of the online spaces as shoulder-to-shoulder with the physical galleries,” says Soboleva, who’s based in Belgium and New York, and who was recently promoted to become the gallery’s first-ever global head of online sales. “And, of course, that vision was very prescient, because when the pandemic hit, we had an incredible team in place that was able to seamlessly transition. Last year, we did more than forty online exhibitions.”
Soboleva continues to chart new territory. She recently launched Program, a livestream event series that transports viewers to David Zwirner galleries around the world, featuring new and never-before-seen works by its artists alongside compelling, contextualizing segments, such as a talk by New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl on the state of the art world. Next month, she’ll mount an online exhibition of a new series of paintings and works on paper by artist Nate Lowman, whose pieces will be shown concurrently, in real life, at The Armory Show in New York, from September 9–12. To better understand what informs Soboleva’s thought process, we recently asked her about her media diet. Like her work, it’s at once curious and quirky, ranging from surveying catalogues raisonnés to exploring new apps through a newsletter that embodies them in memes.
How do you start your mornings?
I try to sleep in as much as possible. Then I read the Financial Times on my iPad. On weekends, I let myself fully indulge in The New York Times. Another thing that I do is take my flowers out of the fridge—I put them there each night to keep them fresh. In Belgium, I get bouquets at a fantastic shop run by flower artist Thierry Boutemy, whom I follow closely on Instagram.
What podcasts do you listen to?
I’ve been thinking about Clubhouse a lot. It’s becoming more engaging and interactive [through its voice-based chats], which is a great evolution, because audio hasn’t had that level of interaction through traditional podcasts. The a16z podcast is probably my current favorite. It provides a constant array of thinkers on everything, from the innovation of Covid-19 vaccines to the long-term potential for cryptocurrency.
David Zwirner has a podcast, Dialogues, that’s in its fifth season. It’s really fun, because it brings together voices from different creative fields, such as Beeple, the digital artist who sold a $69 million NFT in March, talking with artist Jordan Wolfson. NPR’s How I Built This is a classic, and I love listening to some of the archived episodes for inspiration, like the ones featuring Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe, Spanx’s Sara Blakely, and Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia. And the Spotify series Renegades: Born in the U.S.A., featuring conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, was great, especially after I listened to Obama’s book A Promised Land. It’s almost thirty hours long, and kind of a perfect companion for when I’m walking around New York.
What other books do you seek out?
My husband is very passionate about art books, so I constantly have these fantastic volumes arriving at our door that are often first editions or rare finds. Catalogues raisonnés are brilliant; you think they’re going to be very dry, but they’re actually the opposite, because it’s the entire oeuvre of an artist’s work. No museum exhibition could ever bring all of that together. Right now on my coffee table, I have a book called Cubism and Abstract Art that was written in 1936 by Alfred Barr, who was the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. The cover is a futuristic diagram that was the thesis of a MoMA exhibition of the same name. It’s kind of a touch point for art history.
Any newsletters you love?
I love The Canvas. It’s monthly market insights meets long-form interviews. I also find Product Hunt Daily‘s newsletter, which [uses memes to illustrate new digital products], very interesting, as well as Rhizome, which has a blog that’s great for people who are interested in digital artists.
What are you watching or reading for fun?
I’m probably late to the game, but I’m very into Call My Agent!, even though I’m only a few episodes in. And I can’t wait for the next seasons of Succession and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. One TV show I’m especially excited about is from the creators of the latter, and based on Ninth Street Women, a book by Mary Gabriel that I’m currently working my way through. It’s about five female painters from the Modern movement that challenged art.
Any guilty pleasures?
For fashion magazines, my absolute bible is Vogue Collections. They come out twice a year, and I hunt for them, whether it’s at airports or small bookstores. The publication is a bit oversized, has minimal ads and text, and shows entire collections of all the international major shows, in full entirety as the designers intended, instead of them editing for you. Since it’s bilingual, a single issue is released all over the world. You can flip through it, luxuriously, from anywhere.