It is a quiet Sunday afternoon, and Pro Arts Gallery is closed to the public. But even on her day off, the executive director Natalia Mount is excited about the current exhibition. Stylishly dressed in a fitted black leather jacket and heeled boots, she plugs in three sculptures that begin to produce loud sounds.
The exhibition, titled “Invisible Choirs,” is artist Nolan Lem’s interpretation of the societal effects of automation and artificial intelligence. Lem experimented with sound and movement to animate everyday objects and experiences. “We live in a techno-centric society,” said Mount. “For an artist to present that through an artwork that the audience can engage with and a discourse can happen, I think that is the role of the arts today.”
“Invisible Choirs” consists of three large installations and a photography series. One of the loudest sculptures is installed on the floor. Powered by an electric wheel, two large wooden troughs vigorously shake, causing the dozen or so heavy rocks inside to roll back and forth, colliding and smashing against the walls of the containers. Their noise is loud, randomized, and rhythmic.
The second installation includes a long row of white sneakers that automatically pound against the floor, as if worn by people aggressively stomping their feet. Above the sneakers, self-portraits of the artist hang on the wall. But instead of seeing the artist’s face, the photographs capture close-ups of his viciously cracked and bitten fingernails.
The third sculpture consists of hundreds of light switches mounted on the wall. From far away, the installation looks static, but on closer examination they emit a slight clicking from the slow movement of the switches. Hooked up to an electrical circuit, they automatically flip up and down, and become animated without human intervention.
Founded in 1974, Pro Arts is a non-profit contemporary arts space located in Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. The gallery has a well-established history of exhibiting primarily visual art by both local and national artists. Mount’s curatorial practice emphasizes multimedia and interdisciplinary work that promotes accessibility in the arts. “In terms of access to the arts, it’s very important that we reach out to audiences that a lot of other places and art institutions struggle to reach out to,” said Mount.
Since Mount came on board two years ago, the exhibitions have involved a wider range of mediums and broadened the scope of what is considered “art.” In collaboration with the Great Wall of Oakland, they projected digital art onto the exterior facades of buildings. In response to the growing demand for affordable, non-commercial arts space in the Bay Area, Mount launched the Studio Lab Curatorial and Artist Residence Program in 2016 to provide artists with much needed studio space.
Kristen Zaremba, manager of the Public Art Program in the Cultural Affairs Division at City Hall, met Mount when she became executive director of the gallery, and they immediately began to think about ways to bring art outside of the gallery walls. In 2016, the two collaborated on a project titled “Red String,” which was an installation of continuous red string that snaked through Kahn’s Alley in Frank Ogawa Plaza. “Everything that Pro Arts has been historically has always been valued and treasured by the arts community, and by the city. But, it was a slightly more one-dimensional interpretation of an art gallery,” said Zaremba. Mount, she said, looks at how “different disciplines could overlap, and how to actually bring a little bit more of a critical eye to contemporary issues.”
Mount has worked as a curator and arts administrator for over 20 years, but she wasn’t always involved with the arts. In 1992, she emigrated to New York City from Bulgaria. She was just 15, only halfway through high school, and in search of a better life. With little grasp of the English language, Mount joined her mother in the United States, who had emigrated a few years earlier.
Mount’s mother, a journalist and translator back home in Bulgaria, switched gears upon arrival in New York and received a master’s degree in special education. She began teaching blind children Braille at public schools around Manhattan and adhered to a demanding work schedule. With her mother often busy at work, teenage Natalia relied on her new friends to learn English.
Early each morning, Mount left her mother’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and boarded a ferry to Staten Island where she attended a public high school. The commute was exhilarating and fun. At school, Mount very quickly turned classmates into close friends. Many of her friends were also from different countries, and their bond helped Mount acclimate to life in a foreign place. It was not long before she thought of herself as a true New Yorker. “Oh, my God, it was incredible,” Mount said of moving to New York. “It was mostly overwhelming and just super exciting, and just a different world all together.”
Mount spent her time at school, hanging out with her friends, and working part-time jobs. Her first job in this new country was as a bartender at an Irish pub on Lexington Avenue near her mother’s apartment. “And not only that,” Mount said between laughs, “I was a bartender with a fake ID.”
In college, Mount received a BA in criminal justice from John Jay College in New York. “Yes, I wanted to be an FBI agent. So, it’s very strange that I got into the arts after all of that,” she said. But looking back, Mount says her background in criminal justice influenced the kind of curator she would become. “I’ve always been someone who is very much engaged with justice. I’m an advocate for justice in any shape or form,” said Mount.
While interning at MoMa PS1, one of the largest and oldest nonprofit modern art museums in the United States, Mount became enraptured with contemporary art. Mount continued to work at the museum for several years, and eventually was hired as assistant to the museum’s founder and director, Alanna Heiss. With Heiss as her mentor, Mount was introduced to artists, curators, and art directors from around the globe, and she helped produce several exhibitions at the museum, including retrospectives of prolific American artists such as painter John Wesley, multimedia artist Bruce Nauman, and the printmaker Sol LeWitt.
“I think that because [Heiss] was my mentor, I learned a lot of things, such as you don’t have to have an art history degree, or curatorial degree, in order to be interested in what you do, to be good at what you do, to curate, and to be respectful, and to support artists and the arts,” said Mount.
After working at MoMa PS1, Mount left criminal justice behind and embarked on a career in arts administration. Mount cofounded FLUX Art Space in New York City, which produces and commissions artworks, public performances, events, and houses residency programs. She managed radio stations specifically dedicated to arts programming, including Clocktower Radio and Redhouse Radio, where artists are interviewed about current social and political issues. She has produced countless film, music, theater and visual arts programs, and she has delivered lectures at international conferences, including a lecture titled “The Politics of Representation, Displacement and Hybridity in Cultural Production,” at the Light Move Festival in Poland in 2011.
In 2015, Mount and her husband left New York and moved to California. Shortly thereafter, she began working at Pro Arts Gallery. The art community in Oakland “is very open, is very inclusive,” said Mount. “The political milieu here is very unique, and the artists here are very authentic.”
Mount feels the deeply inclusive and tight-knit nature of the Oakland community lends to a robust engagement with the arts. She loves how supportive people are of the arts, and how the culture is rooted in activism. “It’s not only the art world, it’s not only friends of the artists, it’s not only my friends who will come to the space and engage with the art. But it is really and truly the community at large that does participate,” said Mount.
Because of the political volatility of this country, Mount believes, it is essential for the arts to engage and politicize its audience, and it is the responsibly of artists and curators to share art that offers different perspectives and challenges the status quo. After observing that many art institutions benefit from unpaid artistic labor, Mount and her staff began a program following guidelines established by W.A.G.E., an organization dedicated to fair labor practices in the arts, to ensure artists who participated with Pro Arts received payment for their work. In response to the displacement of Oakland residents and the general lack of studio space, Mount developed a residency program for artists. Many spaces in the DIY and underground art scenes, Mount said, are disappearing in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire. In response, programming at Pro Arts has been expanded to experimental music and sound performances to accommodate emerging and alternative art forms.
Earlier this year, Mount co-curated an exhibition titled “The New Situationists” that surveyed work by Bay Area artists inspired by the countercultural, anti-capitalist Situationist International artistic movement of the 1960s. The artworks, which included dance, performance, print, sound, and multimedia works, offered a critique of consumerism and economic inequality. Larry Bogad, artist and professor at UC Davis’s Department of Theatre and Dance, presented his piece titled “Economusic: Keeping Score,” in which Bogad transformed economic data on unemployment, incarceration, and homelessness rates into a digital music performance with visuals that were projected directly onto Oakland City Hall, in the plaza where Occupy Oakland camped several years earlier.
Bogad, who has shown work in numerous theatres, galleries, museums, and outdoors in public spaces, said participating in “The New Situationists” exhibit was one of the best experiences he’s had working with a gallery or museum. “Natalia is super knowledgeable. She’s an expert on this kind of interventionist, or political, art,” Bogad said. Bogad’s piece was extremely complicated, and involved several attempts at producing video documentation. Mount, Bogad said, was enthusiastic and entirely supportive during the process.
“The New Situationists” was Mount’s experiment pushing the boundaries of what constitutes an artwork. By “paying attention to the underground culture, to the peripheries, to the marginalized communities,” Mount said, “That’s how we feel we participate as an institution in this idea that we need to continue to practice radical openness when it comes to ideas, and to presenting work for the community.”
This article is part of a series profiling women artists and gallerists in Oakland.
Click here to read the profile of collage, print and mural artist Favianna Rodriguez.
Click here to read the profile of ArtVale gallery founder Shoshana Zambryski-Stachel.