Art gallery owner Irina Toshkova keeps defying the odds.
She opened New Gallery uptown at a precarious time. It was 2011, and Charlotte was still reeling from the Great Recession. The space wasn’t obvious, even if you were looking for it, tucked away as it was at The Green — and at the previously sleepy end of Tryon Street.
A native of Sofia, Bulgaria, Toshkova was banking on the then-new Levine cultural campus, made up of the Mint Museum uptown, the Bechtler and the Knight Theater, to boost business.
Business thrived there for a decade. In what turned out to be a prescient move, she shut the gallery in late 2019, before most Americans had heard of coronavirus. “It was just time to close that chapter,” Toshkova said. “I think I had outgrown that space and that program.”
By “that program,” she means a monthly rotation of exhibits. She took a couple of months off and evaluated what she loved most about the gallery business.
“At the top of the list were working with artists and working with clients,” Toshkova said. “So, I decided to start an advisory wing and expand my reach.”
Out with the New Gallery
Toshkova Fine Art Advisory is in a space very different from Toshkova’s uptown digs, but familiar to fans of fine antiques. She moved to the stone house on Crescent Avenue in Eastover that was formerly home to Circa Interiors, which moved to the SouthPark area. Toshkova called the house “iconic.”
The space allowed the Salem College alumna to change her concept.
“This house allows me to have these little solo-focus exhibits, because it’s broken into rooms,” she said. “I can show a variety of artists’ work without it clashing. New Gallery was this open space, so everything had to flow and work together. This has been a nice change.”
“I moved last summer, which was such a good distraction from the upset of everything,” Toshkova said. “We didn’t open our doors until the end of November.” She had the luxury of taking her time, finding the right spot.
Or no spot at all.
“At first, I wondered if I really needed a space,” Toshkova said. “But I feel strongly about showing work and having people experience it in person. And I do believe in giving artists a platform. I feel like I have this responsibility to the artists who entrusted me with their work over the years... even though it’s a slightly different format and it’s somewhat of an experimental model for the time being.”
She carries the work of a number of bold-face names: Alex Katz, for instance, whose work is in the permanent collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, The Met, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and MOMA, among other places.
And Deborah Kass, best known for appropriating Andy Warhol’s style and pop culture iconography as a social commentary on the scarcity of women in the modern art canon.
Toshkova brought many artists with her to the new space, where she turned a back room into a micro gallery, which she treats as an exhibit space with a rotating schedule.
She had what she termed a “mini-show” for Shaun Cassidy there — a natural choice since the two have known each other since the early 2000s.
“The very first piece of art I ever owned was by Shaun,” she said. “The gallery where I was working at the time — the Joie Lassiter Gallery — allowed me to have a payment plan. I remember paying on that piece forever.”
Toshkova just closed an exhibition for another abstract artist she’s followed since her college days. “Jiha Moon: Kaleidoscope Mind” included paintings, prints and ceramics by the artist whose works are in the Smithsonian, the Hirshhorn, Atlanta’s High Museum and The Mint.
Art is magical
So, what does an art consultation entail? “I always try to meet people on their journey wherever they are,” Toshkova said.
Some clients look at art as an investment: “There are certainly some artists that have done extremely well on the investment front,” she said. “But I think the biggest investment we get with art is the fact that we get to live with it and enjoy it. You know, it’s not like I’m going to buy art and hide it in a vault. Living with art is magical.”
Still, approaching modern art can be intimidating. Toshkova applauds Charlotte’s museums for making it more accessible.
Toshkova has individual and corporate clients, and works with long-time and new collectors. “I recommend aspiring collectors talk to people in the art world,” she said. “Talk to curators. If an artist has had curatorial success, and by that I mean their work has been included in museums or juried exhibitions, that’s a good sign.”
Despite, or maybe because of COVID-19, business has been good, Toshkova said. “COVID forced all of us to be at home and evaluate our spaces,” she said. “People actually seem more focused on their interiors than they did pre-COVID.”
Toshkova, who hails from a European “capital of culture,” remains committed to Charlotte. After working at Joie Lassiter Gallery right out of college, she moved to Boston, then back to Bulgaria.
“And then, I came back,” she said. “I’ve always had a lot of optimism around Charlotte. It has proved me right in the sense that it is a very resilient city and very eager to grow culturally.”
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