Interview with Takeshi Moro (tmoro projects)

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Interview with Takeshi Moro (tmoro projects)

By Vivian Sming April 24, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


When artist Takeshi Moro was offered a teaching position at Santa Clara University in 2013, he decided to open up a non-profit art space, tmoro projects, in his garage right across from campus. In the last exhibition at this location, Burn Notice, Marcela Pardo Ariza presents lenticular still-life photographs of fruits engulfed in flames alongside Conrad Guevara’s hanging mobiles made of baskets, straw, and oranges. As we sit amongst the brightly painted orange walls, Moro reflects and reminisces upon the self-run space—its aspirations, challenges, and evolution as it continues to its future Bayview location.

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Vivian Sming: I thought we could start by talking about how it is you came to start tmoro projects, and your decisions behind making it a non-profit.

Takeshi Moro: It’s quite a reflection. This house is owned by Santa Clara University, and when I was offered the job, the department told me there were different types of housing available. At the time, I was living in Ohio and Chicago, and I was familiar with Michelle Grabner's The Suburban, which I think is smaller than this garage. She's been running The Suburban for years and years. I had been to her space in Oak Park, which is where all the Frank Lloyd Wright houses are outside of Chicago, and seen her shows.

I’d never lived in a house, and there were housing options for faculty including an apartment, a house, or a duplex. When I visited campus, I thought oh, I want this home because it’s close to the train station. It's a three-minute walk to the Santa Clara Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE train stations, and next to the airport. I thought I could turn the garage into an art space, and its location meant that people without a car could access it. Well, it turns out most people drive here.

A lot of the initial ideas—and I say initial because things have changed—were an homage to The Suburban and to the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. The work that Hamza Walker did there was a big influence on me. I still remember the essays that resonated with me, like the one he wrote for Black Is, Black Ain’t. When I moved out here, I thought I would replicate those ideas.

VS: Had you curated before?

TM: No, and I don't know if I can even call myself that. It would be very bad for me to say the “c-word” because it would be offensive to that profession. I don't even write that on the website. I've had the privilege of working with curators as an artist, and I just can't claim that. Maybe an organizer, I would say.

Santa Clara University has an exhibition space, but it’s run by a committee. Selection by committee is great because you can disperse all the work amongst faculty, but it also has big challenges. By default, you have to make joint decisions, and I wanted a space where we could just say, “Let’s put these two artists together and see what happens.”

Now, back to your question of why it needed to be a non-profit. This was when I first moved here. I didn't have kids and had a lot of time. I could fill out this five-inch document, drive to Sacramento, and file the 501(c)(3) application because I was bored enough to do that. I also thought I had enough time to write NEA and other types of grants that would allow us to have sustainable funding. I wasn't interested in having a commercial venture. 

I had much bigger plans at the time. For instance, Walker used to write essays at the Renaissance Society on a fold-out poster. There's an essay on one side, and a poster on the other. We did that maybe in the first one or two seasons, and I paid for it out of pocket. Then it got to be difficult.

We even used to do events. Perhaps one of the most memorable ones was Dickson Schneider. He sells work commercially, but also does this project called the FREE ART Project, where he just gives away his artwork for free. My background is in economics and visual arts—I worked on Wall Street—so the notion of giving away artwork was so bizarre to me that I enlisted a colleague in the business school, Dongsoo Shin, who teaches economics, to give a lecture on the practice of giving away a commodity or a product. We had a lot of business professors and students come to the opening, and that was great because we were really cross-pollinating. 

We did all these events, essays, and publications, and now with Hanna, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, it's been harder to do those things. We still try to continue and do what we can. The programming is not as frequent, but we have a different crowd now, I suppose. It's now a family affair, often with kids trying to negotiate the works. 

In the last project, Chris Hamamoto and Jon Sueda—both graphic designers—created an algorithm that generates flags. They made a flag for Hanna based on where she has lived or visited in her life. She was born in Japan and has been to three or four cities. For the opening, they hoisted it in the backyard—Hanna’s flag.

VS: Can you talk about how the artists would approach the space? Were there any challenges of working within a small space under the premise of a two-person show?

TM: Some artists decided to split the space up. Sometimes there'd be three artists sharing the inside and outside, and they would just experiment and share. You would think it would be easier for a solo show—and we have done some solos—but, when there was more than one person, we could discuss what goes in and what goes out. It was an interesting process for us all. 

Also, we're in the middle of nowhere; it's hard to get people in here. I probably should've done group shows, but I never really got concerned about the size because I’d seen small exhibitions work at The Suburban. The limitations were actually interesting.

VS: Having a space requires a commitment, a need to be there all the time. This is something I think about a lot. On the one hand, it’s appealing to have a space that you’re tied to, but then you’re also tied to it. How was that negotiated in your life? 

TM: In the beginning, I used to have regular hours—Saturdays, twelve to five. I would be there every Saturday if there was a show. But, this is Santa Clara. No one comes. My dream was that folks from Oakland could come—they could go to the ICA, they could go to San Jose Museum of Art, and they could stop by our place. I had this dream, but then, I don't think that really happened, so I stopped doing those regular hours. Now, I just do openings and by appointment only. 

I have to say, we had the most attendance in the first couple of years, and recently, because we haven't been as consistent with putting on shows due to life changes and different types of commitments, the turnout hasn't been as strong. But, I don't feel that bad about it. We are moving to Bayview, and we do have strong desires to continue the project. It will be a different experience because we will need every square inch of the space, and it will be family-centered.

Dickson Schneider, 2014; installation view, tmoro projects, Santa Clara. Courtesy of tmoro projects.

VS: Are there any takeaways or learning lessons that you’re bringing to the new space?

TM: I'm very happy with how the project has evolved. I had grand plans [with the essays and events], and now that I look back at these things, I wish I was able to continue them. But, I also know that things had to change. 

I think about continuity. Going back to Grabner, she has continued to run her space for decades. I mean, I'm not even close, but if we continue for ten, twenty, thirty years, surely something interesting must happen.

VS: It feels like you’ve streamlined to just the show which is, in a way, what’s most valuable and at the core of your project: giving artists space.

TM: I say this to everyone: if you have a spare garage—people make computers and start bands, why not a gallery? It's a pity to put a car in there if you've got the space. This is different from The Suburban because we don’t have the same winters as Chicago. Here, you don’t need the garage, so make it something useful. I really hope that people can take this model and replicate it.

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