Flack Attack! New York City's PR King
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Adam Abdalla’s made a disrespected profession glamorous.
By Farah Halime
Like a scene from an apocalyptic movie, rows of people inhaled white smoke billowing from luminous cubes. Others, wrapped in emergency space blankets, gazed at a glass wall smeared with a red substance later discovered to be 55 gallons of lipstick. But this was no film set. It’s the opening night of an art exhibition in New York, a carefully orchestrated Adam Abdalla–trademarked event in which the space blankets are actually printed press releases.
Abdalla, the smiling, bearded publicist to New York City’s art and culture elite, is not your average public relations flack. For one, artists actually like him. Shunning antiseptic PR tactics for one-on-one meetings, he’s earned himself a reputation as a connector and the go-to guy in the art and culture world. At just 30, Abdalla is the head of Cultural Counsel, a communications company he founded last July after spending years working under the helm of Nadine Johnson, one of the few prominent publicists who works with the arts. His client roster has included everyone from rapper will.i.am to Creative Time, the nonprofit arts organization behind artist Duke Riley, who in May began releasing 2,000 pigeons over New York’s East River every weekend as part of an exhibition. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Abdalla shrugs, speaking from Cultural Counsel’s white-walled office, housed in the same building as Red Bull Studios (one of the energy drink’s 12 contemporary art and music locales). “I came into it from the perspective that you’re not just a press office, and a lot of people value that,” he says. His company’s website, which bears only his email address and the double C logo for Cultural Counsel, shows there’s little need for self-promotion for the arts man about town.
Abdalla’s genius, according to people who’ve worked with him or know him, is his seemingly effortless ability to reel in aloof artists with a disarming charm and sincere knowledge about art. That comforts contemporary artists, gallerists and curators, people who have traditionally shied away from the PR world, considering the industry tacky or a costly extravagance. The received wisdom was that if a gallery had good artists and exhibitions, the press would come clamoring. But that’s all changed as the number of galleries in Manhattan quintupled, from around 100 in 2000 to today’s 500 or so. Now, an artist needs more. “There’s been a sea change,” says top curator Neville Wakefield, who has worked with Abdalla on a series of exhibits in Switzerland’s Gstaad mountains, favored by the rich for vacations. “Artists have become more adept at self-promotion,” he says.
While PR firms can charge anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month for a retainer, Abdalla occasionally gets paid in paintings, and has built himself an impressive private art collection from artists including Scott Reeder and Mark Flood. Others, like pieces from Laura Owens and Jim Shaw, he buys himself. He says he’s not in it for the cash, and only takes on artists he admires. “That would be boring for me,” he says. “Somebody else can do that job.” He claims he doesn’t “really do celebrity PR,” though he’s taken on higher-profile clients — like will.i.am’s optics brand ill.i, which released a collaboration with Chinese artist Xu Zhen; that work, he says, was all about the design. Abdalla is fiercely eager to show he’s neither into the mainstream nor into writing repetitive press releases. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as just a PR company,” he says. Abdalla’s plan is to expand his business (and the currently blank website) by combining promotions with events, strategic art collaborations and an editorial bent, publishing essays on the art world.
Born to an Egyptian father and an American mother, Abdalla stumbled into communications. He started out working with New Orleans nonprofit The Green Project, which helped rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He and some seven artists helped organize a pop-up art exhibition in an abandoned storage facility, where the group also lived for three months, and he became the exhibitors’ de facto publicist. He later landed a position on the front desk of art communications giant Susan Grant Lewin’s firm. “I was basically a receptionist,” he says. But his knowledge of the contemporary art world led to a quick ascent to senior account executive. “He cut his teeth here,” Lewin told OZY, of Abdalla’s two-and-a-half-year stint at her company. Now, she says, “I don’t think he’s interested in being just an employee anymore. He’s beyond that.” If anything, she’d consider an offer to merge firms, she said.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. His departure from Nadine Johnson’s firm after five and a half years was soured with disputes over who kept which clients. It meant several of the clients he worked with as the senior vice president of arts and culture could not jump ship with him to his new gig until a noncompete agreement had expired, according to a few people familiar with the situation. (Johnson did not respond to requests for comment; meanwhile, Abdalla said he had “no basis to comment.”)
Last month, during an elaborate spring gala in a hangar at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Abdalla, hair slicked back, sporting a light pink blazer, was mingling with well-dressed guests. Then, Johnson arrived. His friends pointed out in hushed whispers: “Nadine’s here.” He waved them off, eyeing her just a few meters away, before swiftly moving to the opposite corner of the hall. Going rogue in the world of art PR can be a dangerous business if you’re on the wrong side, but Abdalla’s deluge of friends and partners appears to be standing with him in good stead.
“He’s a PR guy that I actually don’t hate,” says Nic Rad, a Brooklyn artist who attended the gala. “That’s pretty hard to believe.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Xu Zhen.