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Cool Jobs: Twin Educators Talk Balancing Career and Passion for the Business of Art
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Sharon Mackey and Karen Mackey, founders, Mackey Twins Art Gallery (Image: Mackey Twins Art Gallery)

We have good news for you. You can have a cool career and make a good living. No need to choose between loving your job and paying your mortgage. The following profile, part of theBlackEnterprise.com Cool Jobs series, offers a peek into the nuts and bolts, perks and salaries behind enjoyable careers.

There’s that saying that two is always better than one, but twins take things to a whole other level. In many cultures, they are seen as mystical creatures whose minds and spirits are intertwined and who might even attract good fortune.

Sharon Mackey and Karen Mackey are no exception, having been able to balance more than two decades advancing through the ranks of education as teachers and administrators, with the demands of the Mackey Twins Art Gallery, a Mt. Vernon, N.Y.-based gallery founded in 2004.

It houses more than 80 original pieces from acclaimed and award-winning artists including Danny Simmons, Jerry and Terry Lynn, Leroy Campbell, James Denmark, Stacey Brown, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and many more.

The sisters have also curated events for companies, organizations and institutions including The New York Times, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Famous collectors and supporters include Bill Cosby, Kanye West, Ruby Dee and Bob Johnson.

BlackEnterprise.com caught up with the enterprising women, known simply as “The Twins,” to talk balancing two full-time careers, continuing their mission to support minority artists, and how anyone can follow their dream—no matter what age or career stage.

What prompted you two to start your own gallery?

Sharon: Once a week, we’d visit a gallery, looking at art and purchasing poster prints. We were teachers at the time, making very little money, and we would spend a considerable amount of money on matting and framing. One day, the owner asked, ‘Can you leave your work here, because when people see it matted and framed so nicely, it really makes people want to buy.’

A few years later, we finally decided that we had to make the investment to purchase original work, and we felt the need to support artists of color. Finally, we met another gallery owner who allowed us to go on payment plans to buy and collect original work.

Karen: We wanted to look at how we could take it to another level to reach all people. Sometimes, the art world can be intimidating and people might be clueless about what to buy, what to look for and the financial component. We thought about how we could make a comfortable environment where people could feel safe asking questions and learning.

We wanted to provide a fine environment and experience. So we incorporated events with live jazz, a wine sommelier and hors d’oeuvres—to make an environment very social. We wanted to establish communities of collectors.

When people say, ‘I can’t afford to buy original work,’ there’s something we like to say in response: ‘Well, do you have a flat-screen TV? How much was a big appliance you’ve purchased? That’s in the same range as some of this original artwork that you say you can’t afford.’ And it really got people to see purchasing art differently.

A Mackey Twins Art Gallery patron is seen with her first purchase (Image: Mackey Twins Art Gallery)

How do you balance your day jobs in education with your art gallery duties?

Karen: It’s a very big challenge. As vice president of government and community relations at the City College of New York, I also have aspects of the arts under this office: our performing arts center…. arts and culture. And I try to make sure they are separate. It’s long hours and it’s demanding weekends, but one of the things that makes it manageable is a love of doing it and enjoying my full-time job and the business, which is beyond full time. If you have a dream, it keeps that fuel burning.

Sharon: Both of us are educators. We started as public high school teachers. I am executive director for continuing and professional studies at City College. It’s very long hours, but you have to be driven. When you’re driven you’re fed by the value and essence of something that I think is called spirit work— things we’re just born to do.

An interesting twist to this is that not only do you all work together with the gallery and at City College, but you are twins, working as sisters. Talk a bit about that experience of working with family.

Karen: There’s a powerful synergy between the two of us. I always tell people, when the two of us put our heads together, we can walk through a cement wall. That’s how powerful our partnership is. We help to fuel each other in this process.

Sharon: Working together as identical twins, we feel like we are one. It helps propel us, know eachother’s thoughts without speaking, and we are on this uncanny, like-minded mission.

Karen: We both wanted this business, and we didn’t have to talk eachother into it. We came to this place together without communication. And, there’s no success with just one group or two people. Sharon and I have a tremendously talented team who work with us, including our family–from spouses to children to extended family. And everyone has began collecting work because of their involvement.

You both are seasoned professionals who were able to take a leap and follow your dream despite demands of your professions and families. What advice would you have for other women like you who seek to do the same?

Sharon: Do not let your dream go. It may seem impossible but don’t let it go. That will make you unhappy. Hold on, involve people around you who love you, and make it happen. Don’t take no for an answer. This business is expensive—sometimes, we didn’t know how we were gonna make it—but if you keep working at it, you’re not going to fail. It’s critical for your own happiness in life not to let dreams go.

Be sure to talk to people who are very good in the business and learn how they got their start. Try apprenticeships or find other ways to work with those in the industry.

Karen: If its something you really want to do, you have to find a way to make the time, even if it’s starting with a half hour a day. Spend that time learning about the business, reading up on it, keeping a journal. Do something every day that contributes to your dream.

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