How This Charlotte Designer Spotlights Rising Artists

Cathy Austin shares how promoting emerging talent can benefit your projects
By Katherine Burns Olson
November 12, 2018
Austin works with artist Charlie Havanich, pictured here, who is represented by Hidell Brooks Gallery. "I adore Charlie and I just acquired one of his works," Austin tells AD PRO. "The image in the picture is a commission for one of my clients that bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Jackie."Courtesy of Cathy Austin

Cathy Austin began her career not in design, but in art, working at Sotheby’s across departments including European Porcelain, American Paintings, and American Furniture. “I assisted the experts cataloguing the works for the auctions, handling archives, client contracts, condition reports, and arranging presale exhibitions. I began as an intern and archivist and also worked as an administrator,” recalls Austin. When she transitioned into interiors, Austin kept connected to the art scene, attending shows like Maison et Objet and TEFAF—but also in a more tangible way, sourcing local Southern talent for her interior-design projects.

Austin complemented her space at a recent Traditional Home show house with a portrait, left, by artist Kate Long Stevenson and a large abstract, right, by David Paul. Courtesy of Cathy Austin

The designer, who tells AD PRO that she has “always been an art history student at heart,” makes it a priority to educate clients. “Since art is very subjective, I encourage my clients to collect works that they respond to emotionally. Original art elevates every interior and reflects the personalities that inhabit the space. By attending art fairs at home and abroad, I seek out emerging artists to introduce to my clients. Getting to know the artists personally and learning about their process and what inspires them is very important to me to pass along that knowledge.”

As principal of Catherine M. Austin Interior Design, of Charlotte, North Carolina, one of those talents Austin has gotten to know on a deeper level is a New Orleans–based SCAD graduate named Amanda Talley, whose work she discovered in a local showroom. “I fell in love with her abstract, gestural works and designed my first living room around one of her paintings that I did not even own…knowing that one day I would add her work to my own personal collection.” The designer-artist duo’s first commission together was for a couple who were newbies to art collecting and just beginning their collection; their second commission was for Austin’s home. For each project, Austin sends Talley “inspiration images” as well as examples of her art that Austin’s clients like. Then, Talley “takes over and works her magic! I have loved watching her style evolve, yet still being able to recognize her brushstrokes knowing it is her work.”

What should designers know about sourcing art, particularly from emerging talents? In addition to the perhaps obvious exposure (“See as much as you can. Go to as many museums, galleries, auctions, and art fairs as you can to train your eye and be exposed to what is available in the marketplace”), Austin also advises having an open mind. “Do not be intimidated by price point. Even established artists can be within reach if you look at their complete body of work, including studies and works on paper. You can research artists through wonderful websites like Artsy which can also lead to discovering new artists and art galleries. It has been thrilling to watch the careers of artists I befriended years ago soar through their values increasing and being acquired by museum collections.”

An interior by Cathy Austin with artwork by Amanda Talley, above the fireplace. Courtesy of Cathy Austin

Another tip? Keep your eyes peeled; sometimes discoveries unfold on one’s downtime. Austin met a valuable collaborator during a volunteer commitment with the Mint Museum in Charlotte. “I was serving as the head of the Mint Museum Auxiliary and working closely with Brad Thomas, our curator of modern and contemporary art, selecting possible acquisitions for the museum’s permanent collection that our organization would underwrite. He was already an established artist, as well as art consultant and artist mentor—but his work was taking a new direction,” she explains, which “combined mixed media, collage, and his distinctive handwriting that became abstract lines when intertwined on the canvas. The words in his works examine the influence writers have had on shaping his worldview.”

The artist’s works are now found in Austin’s collections—and in her clients’. “We recently collaborated on a work for the Atlanta Southeastern Showhouse this spring. I asked him to create a work inspired by a Southern author. He used the Flannery O’Connor quote, ‘To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.’ The abstract work was the perfect finishing touch to my bedroom, that made the space more personal and provided a contemporary juxtaposition to the more traditional elements in the room.”

And for up-and-coming artists? For their part, recommends Austin, “artists can share their portfolios with designers whose work they admire and offer to lend their work for various show houses and charity events,” says Austin. “Attending events at the major design centers and other industry events is a great way to connect with designers. Every city from Atlanta to Los Angeles now seems to have its own design week full of opportunities for networking.”