Mary Nguyen is a businesswoman, humanitarian, “foodie,” former gallery director and New York art world figure … among other things. You’re going to love my chat with her because she is so positive and down to earth … not only about art, but the art of living. We chatted about art appreciation, the art world and why food may be the most artful enterprise of all.
MICHAEL: Hi Mary, thanks for chatting. First of all, you're not an artist or curator, but you seem to be an art world figure. How would you characterize your relationship with art and the art world?
MARY: Hello Michael. No, I am most certainly not an artist in that sense of the word, but I am fascinated by artists and their lives and dedication to their passion. Being involved in the art world kind of fell into my lap accidentally. My best friend opened a gallery in Chelsea a few years ago and I would occasionally help him there and of course being in a relationship with an art dealer/gallery owner helped to thrust me into the art world. I assisted him at the gallery as curator/director, so I am very familiar with the art world and its inner workings. So, in the traditional definitions for both, I would say no, but it has driven me to create art in my personal life and really focus on my true passion … food. So I would classify my relationship as somewhat of a symbiotic relationship. I drew inspiration from the world of art and in return, I have given something back to it, I’d like to believe.
MICHAEL: As you know, so many people are intimidated by art and the art world. Was this also the case for you early on?
MARY: I know all too well. Before working in the gallery, I was an art collector myself albeit a modest one, but I too was intimidated. I felt almost scared to ask questions about certain pieces because I felt like I was the only one that didn't know anything about it … all I knew was what I liked. I believe art should be only about that. It’s a very subjective thing and when it comes down to the core and you strip away the pretense, YOU should love the piece … other opinions should not matter.
MICHAEL: Wow. Isn't that interesting? Why do you think so many people feel that they must be "experts" about art to appreciate it? I have my own theory, but I'd love to hear yours.
MARY: I don't think they feel like they have to be experts, or rather I didn't. I felt scared to be truly honest or rather felt like if I were to ask the wrong question they would think I was stupid or wasting people's time. There is an air of superiority in the art world that is there by design and I think it functions for a purpose. Not only have I been on the side of the galleries, but I am also a collector so I understand the importance of really understanding a piece and if young buyers are anything like me, they want to know the ins and outs of an artist and a certain piece and they shouldn't be made to feel bad or snubbed for it. That is why I truly enjoyed my time at Merge Gallery and also at Emmanuel Fremin Gallery because we make art accessible and in my opinion, to a beginner collector, this is the key factor for them; art should be fun, accessible and not strict or constrained.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. This "air of superiority" that you describe among some people in the art world ... What purpose do you think it serves?
MARY: Well, I am not certain as to the true origins, but I think it serves as a protection, almost like a shell. At the end of the day, art is a product, something people are trying to sell and just like any other high end product such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and so on. They need to make it feel prestigious and I think in doing that we get away from the core … deriving pleasure, passion and beauty from it. Art shouldn't be about pomp and circumstance, it should be about ART.
MICHAEL: Did you grow up with art or do you come from an artistic family? What was it like growing up in Pittsburgh? Apart from the Andy Warhol Museum (among others), many people might not consider Pittsburgh an art city.
MARY: Unfortunately, I was not raised in an environment where art was around. My family was a very pragmatic, working Asian family from Pittsburgh … math and reading and no in-between kind of environment. The city definitely has its charm and people love it. You know, art is alive. It is everywhere. It is in New York, Pittsburgh as well as Little Rock. That is why I love art … you are surrounded by it no matter where you are.
MICHAEL: You mentioned earlier that you love food (who doesn't?). Is there a connection between food and art for you?
MARY: Well, for me food is art. I have been around food and restaurants all
of my life. Food is my driving force and passion … it is all of ours ... the true life force really, without sounding corny. I guess it is more prominently displayed today with top chefs and such a huge food culture developing not only in urban cities, but more so in the rest of America and that is great. My family has always been obsessed with food and so is every single person who is Vietnamese. I have never personally traveled anywhere, where people are as obsessed with food as in Vietnam. Art and food to me go hand in hand … food is just another medium, a way for expression and conveyance of a story, idea, emotion almost like we can appreciate art with our eyes, food is like savoring the same feeling on your palette of taste, smell, touch ... forming a connection and a bond and a message from not only the food itself, but the culture, the chef and experiencing that with a collective, that's intense! Food is so much more than food, just like art is so much more than the canvas or paper that something is printed on or the medium used. It’s existential.
MICHAEL: Yeah, you definitely love food! Is food also considered an art form (of sorts) in Vietnam? As you know, many folks in the Western world might think the Vietnamese are thrilled just to get something to eat at all, let alone consider food a luxury like cuisine.
MARY: In Vietnam, if your life does not revolve around food in some way, there is something wrong with you. People are obsessed with quality and freshness. It can become compulsively annoying if you are not used to it. They go to the market daily and the inspection process for food would make any NASA facility inspection look brief! I think that generalization had its time and people probably don't feel that way now. And with the increase in food shows and exposure, people are more educated about countries such as Vietnam and the quality of food that is present in those cultures.
MICHAEL: Do you think obesity would be a lesser issue if people appreciated cuisine and the artistic nature of food ... quality over quantity?
MARY: Well, I think there are many variables involved with the issue of obesity, but for certain, quality over quantity is the correct step in the proper direction. We should not be eating foods pumped with antibiotics, pesticides, additives and preservatives. We are slowly
but surely returning to our roots with regard to food in this country. Soon, there will be a much needed exodus from processed foods as the norm and a push back to natural foods. Good food SHOULD go bad!
MICHAEL: Haven't you created a line of food products? Also, I think you've figured out a way to work the art world into the equation haven't you?
MARY: Yes, it’s called, “Saigoniste all natural” www.saigonisteallnatural.com. Right now, we have one product ... a peanut sauce which comes in three flavors: original, spicy and vegan. This sauce can be put on anything and everything. It complements every flavor and palette out there. Being involved with the gallery and doing art fairs, I found the food to be very basic and sometimes not the best. When you are working long hours and sometimes we were so busy, we were not able to leave and grab food. I would either pack food but more times than not, I would not eat because the food was very bad. So I decided to create my own catering company that catered these types of events and fairs to allow some "flavor" into the art scene.
MICHAEL: Wow. That took some courage. That’s great.
MARY: We started out small doing catered events and then we were invited to do Red Dot Art Fair at Art Basel Miami Beach. We were so successful we sold out every single day! We were invited back this year for Red Dot NYC and the Korean Art Fair during the Armory show. Our next big fair will be in July and we are teaming up with Art Hamptons to really showcase the food and the peanut sauce. It’ll be a big fair for us. We will also be teaming up with prestigious Jason De Pheres Champagne from France. Doing the fairs and events are great because I get to be around art and my food, two passions of mine that are entwined in my world. I couldn't have pictured a better marriage!
MICHAEL: Congratulations. You’re going to love Art Hamptons. It’s very cool. Isn't it interesting how things come together ... art, commerce, passion and circumstance? Where did you get the courage to create the product? It could have failed.
MARY: It is truly amazing. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and that once you have realized your dreams, everything around you will congregate to make that dream possible. So for me, it is never a question of it being a failure or success … it was always the question of when it would actualize. Anything you do, attempt or create could fail; you could not make it to the other side of the street, but that doesn't prevent you from crossing the road. You can't live your life always asking if something will work or fail. Failure is not trying. And this is a product that I truly love and personally am addicted to. So at the end of the day, I have already succeeded in the mere fact of creating something that I believe in and am passionate about and completely enjoy; life, art and food should most importantly be about finding joy.
MICHAEL: Finally Mary, you've really captured something that I've always believed ... if people can make art personal, internalize and tailor it to their experience, the intimidation factor will disappear. You've already done this. How would you suggest others do it and what are your hopes for the future?
MARY: Art is everywhere. Don't be scared to take from it and have it manifested in any area of your life, regardless of what others believe. I guess the same lesson about art can be applied to every aspect of one's life: Own it, love it and appreciate it because at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live with it or yourself! I only see infinite possibilities for Saigoniste Peanut Sauce and a possible restaurant venture! The universe is abundant and "wealth" (not referring to money) will flow into your life, if you allow it, but you can't see the possibilities of the future without fully experiencing the richness of the present ... so I will continue to immerse myself in both of my passions of art and food! As we like to say at Saigoniste: "get some!”
MICHAEL: Thanks Mary. This has been absolutely fantastic.
MARY: Thank you Michael. It was a pleasure on my end as well! We will invite you to the opening of the restaurant.
For more information about Mary’s venture, visit www.saigonisteallnatural.com.