4.16 / The Museum, Part 1: The Mutable Object

Magna cum cura: A Bay Area Curators’ Roundtable

By Patricia Maloney May 27, 2013

Image: Ceci Moss.

There is a stratum of the Bay Area’s cultural geography that stimulates development and progress across all other layers: the curators of contemporary art affiliated with the region’s institutions. They produce programming that challenges prevailing notions of exhibition making, introduce new forms of artistic practice, embed dialogues from other regions into local conversations, and create points of intersection between visual, political, and technological cultures. They work with collections and in kunsthalles, and frequently, their titles include the term “associate” or “assistant,” which signals evolving notions of what it means to engage an audience from within an institution as much as it indicates a stage of their careers. Many of these curators are women. 

What follows is an abridged and combined excerpt from conversations that took place over two nights, April 29 and May 9, 2013, in the lounge on the top floor of the Empress of China hotel in San Francisco. Ten female curators participated in these conversations, five on each night. They responded to questions about how they define the role of curator; how they perceive and construct audiences; what subjects, narratives, and fields motivate them; the challenges they face as women in the field; and the guidance they’ve received in navigating it. Their answers reveal not only their individual histories and philosophies but also herald new approaches to curatorial practice and new points of access for us as audiences to the institutions of which they are part. —Patricia Maloney

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Participants

Dena Beard is an assistant curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), where she has organized exhibitions with D-L Alvarez, Lutz Bacher, Anna Halprin, Desirée Holman, Barry McGee, Silke Otto-Knapp, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Additionally, she curated the Lending Library, Taking Up Room on the Floor, and Inverse Internet Operating Manual exhibitions for alternative art spaces.

Jeanne Gerrity is a curatorial associate at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco, as well as an independent curator and writer. She has curated numerous group shows of emerging artists at non-profit spaces in New York and San Francisco.

Jenny Gheith is assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Last fall, she organized New Work: Alessandro Pessoli and is currently cocurator for the 2012 SECA Art Award and Project Los Altos: SFMOMA in Silicon Valley, overseeing commissions by Spencer Finch, Chris Johanson, Kateřina Šedá, and Jessica Stockholder. She has contributed essays and film reviews to national and international publications and has taught at the California College of the Arts (CCA) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

Allison Harding serves as the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum (AAM). Her current projects include Gorgeous, an exhibition of works from the AAM and SFMOMA collections, as well as a series of smaller exhibitions featuring Bay Area artists. Her past projects for the AAM include Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past and Here/Not Here: Buddha Presence in Eight Recent Works. Harding holds degrees in art history from Williams College and Yale University.

Christina Linden is an independent curator and writer based in Oakland, California. She is currently working with SFMOMA’s department of Education and Public Programs to help produce Desirée Holman’s piece The Indigo and the Ecstatic: A Motion to the Future. In the piece, indigo children, conscious dancers, and time travelers will perform and then lead the public out of the museum at the moment of its closure for expansion and transformation.

Katya Min is curator of public programs at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), where she directs and curates the Room for Big Ideas projects, a free public project space within YBCA, the ConVerge Series, and other public programs. She is also the curator of , a contemporary art project space in the Mission district of San Francisco. Min has produced and curated several Bay Area arts exhibits, festivals, and cultural events that have brought together multidisciplinary artists.

Ceci Moss is the assistant curator of visual arts at YBCA, in San Francisco. She is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at New York University. Her research addresses contemporary internet-based art practice, digital technology and perception, the materiality of media, postmodernism and digital art preservation.

Donna Napper has worked in the field of contemporary art for over ten years, including seven as the owner and director of the Los Angeles gallery den contemporary. Napper served on numerous committees and panels for the Los Angeles art community, and last November she moved to the Bay Area to assume her current position as curator for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).

Amy Owen is a curator at di Rosa. She has held positions as senior exhibitions manager at YBCA, director of exhibitions at Artists Space, and exhibitions associate at Independent Curators International. Owen received her MA in Curatorial Studies from Bard College. 

Xiaoyu Weng is a curator and writer. In addition to her independent endeavors, Weng directs the Asia Programs for the Kadist Art Foundation and the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium (ACAC), in San Francisco. 

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Defining the Role of Curator

Jeanne Gerrity.

Dena Beard: I never felt like the curatorial role made sense, except as a proxy role, but it is a brilliant proxy role. The word curator has its root in the Latin word [for] “to care for” and came out of Catholicism and religious caretaking, a highly masculine position. Now, many women have found a way to slip between the lines of producer and consumer in this proxy role, to use inanimate objects to project our judgments, political agendas, and desires out into the world. 

To care for objects is one thing, but good curators care for art practices that undermine the official narrative and allow unofficial narratives—aesthetic and social and political ones—to rise to the top. I’m really interested in anything that changes perspective in that way. Curating can be seductive but also a little unsettling because it operates best in unsanctioned territory.

Christina Linden: The idea that a work of art is something that stands in for your desires is interesting to me, but I really like working with artists in a process of helping something come to fruition. That’s always been the aspect of curating that is most compelling to me: to be able to confront and shift the ideas embedded in these processes and in these objects.

Something I really like about art is that you come to it, or you make it happen, but it just can’t be of you alone, so you’re forced to find ways to talk to other people about it. And in that process of articulation, you learn more precisely how you actually think and feel about things.

Ceci Moss: I’ve ended up where I am because I was going to punk shows and involved in these underground cultures where people come together over common interests. I don’t have a degree in art history, but I studied critical theory. I’m very interested in philosophy, which is a lot like art. Both are about posing questions and then creating communities around those questions. And the questions are the same: Why are we here? Why does this matter? How do we communicate? How do we be together? So whether it’s a really crazy performance or discussing an essay that you’re really excited about, curating is about bringing people together to realize what we all share.

Xiaoyu Weng: It’s important for curators to take a critical position in the work that they’re doing. A curator is someone who plays a role in the knowledge production an art practitioner undertakes. We connect to the artist but also to people that are outside of the so-called art field. I value the relationship of working with different people from different backgrounds.

Curators need to promote and also to confuse, in a way. Not in the negative sense of being confused, but in looking for the balance point of productive confusion, as I would call it. On one hand, it’s about interpreting artists’ practices, and on the other hand, it’s about how to convey this information to the audience in a nondidactic way. Finding this balance point is really important for the curator.

Xiaoyu Weng.

Jeanne Gerrity: The responsibility for organizing exhibitions for a museum, often from the collection, is still a valid role for a curator, but particularly in the context of contemporary art, it has come to mean a lot more. Recently, it has been trendy for a curator to act as an auteur, using artwork to illustrate a thesis. In my practice, I prefer to put the artists first. When I organize a group show, the work I am excited about becomes the impetus for the idea behind the exhibition. In my role at the CJM, I also am always thinking about the audience.

Katya Min: I haven’t used the term “curator” to identify myself because I’ve seen my role as curating audiences and communities and in some ways as convening and facilitating artists. I’ve rarely worked in the more traditional context of preserving and caring for collections. Within most institutional hierarchies, the curator is perceived as being removed from the public, and I didn’t want to put a lot of space between the artworks or the artists, the public, and myself in that organizing role.

YBCA is unique because we’re a multidisciplinary arts center. So within my role, I also present artists working in multiple disciplines—most of them in an experimental, interactive, and participatory framework. Within YBCA, I must always consider who the audience is for each specific event or project that I present. I’m aware that I don’t speak to a single audience. YBCA’s mission is about revolutionizing how people engage with art, so I do see myself as a person who can support and provide a platform for artists who are creating disruptive and transformative work.

Amy Owen: I work between caring for a collection and providing platforms for experimentation with emerging artists at di Rosa, so I feel that the role of the curator is very dynamic. It changes from context to context. If you’re in a larger institution, it’s vastly different from being in a small nonprofit organization. The curator rests at a point between provocateur and diplomat, making sure that the constituencies of artist, audience, and institution are aligned so that projects or exhibitions take shape and are received well.

Jenny Gheith: I enjoy working in an institution that has a collection because I love looking at work behind the scenes and outside of the galleries. When you see work in storage, you can tell when objects are filled with an energy that sometimes you can unearth and invigorate again. There’s something I really love about objects and how sometimes they go together in a gallery in ways that you can’t anticipate.

Each of you spoke about the importance of working with artists to get to somewhere else and that you realize that it’s also not of you. That’s so important. I want objects to be objects, and I want artists to be artists.

I hope that I can get out of the way so they can do what they do best. Because I think they both have that power, whether it’s an artist making work for an exhibition or simply picking out the right objects that they made in the space together.

Linden: In my thesis show at Bard, I collaborated with an artist, and we both wrote text and made objects for the show, and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m not sure I would go back and do it again. I was really invested in the idea of questioning the possibility of authorship as a curator, but it is hard to cross that line and have everybody feel solid about it in the end.

The Gender Question

Jenny Gheith.

Beard: It’s such a funny thing because we’re all women at this table, and we operate in this way where it’s comfortable for us not to have to take on the role of the author. We’re very comfortable not being the primary producers; we’re the facilitators and the instigators. But then there are people like Jens Hoffmann—

Moss: Or Hans Ulrich Obrist, where they are the center. But it’s also that they feel comfortable in that role because they’re men.

Allison Harding: So many of us who choose this career are, by nature, researchers or bookworms. The best days for me are the days when I have to work on whatever essay and don’t have to break my concentration. That’s when I really feel that I love what I do. We might need to redefine the idea that success means fighting your way to the top to be a museum director. Our director doesn’t wear his curatorial hat anymore, so I often think, Is that really the goal now? Certainly for the male curators, that seems to be a more visible driving force, but this ambition itself is not gender specific.

Beard: The appointment of men into director roles is very comfortable for boards of trustees and major patrons because men just undo the top two buttons of their shirt and say, “I’ve got this.” They are just claiming their patriarchal right to power. And yet a distinctly creative labor force always enables the real work. There has been this huge influx of men into curatorial programs, because women have made it very obvious that it’s an opportunity to operate interstitially, to create narratives that haven’t happened before, and to do something different within that hierarchical power structure.

Moss: It depends on the organization, though. I’m new at YBCA, but one thing I enjoy about it is that we’re very self-reflective about these sorts of issues. There is a lot of awareness of what an institution is, how we might take it apart, and what kinds of audiences we are reaching out to. People are taking a step back and talking about these issues, which I think is crucial.

Mentorship 

Donna Napper.

Donna Napper: Here’s a secret goal of mine: quiet power. Usually, you’re going to find this with women, fortunately or unfortunately. But there is a lot of power in silence. I’d like to find that power in a mentor because it does represent many women and on a deeper level. And that deeper level should be valued and respected as we make our way through traditionally male-dominated industries, whether in the legal field or the art world. Strength and success may be found in women who are not only the most outspoken but also in one who exerts her power quietly yet effectively.

Linden: I’ve had several mentors, but Anne Ellegood at the Hammer Museum has probably been one of the most important. I’ve seen men in curatorial positions get away with unbelievably careless social interactions, but it’s extremely difficult to be a powerful female curator and not get a bad rap very quickly. Anne has made amazing things happen while remaining collegial with her coworkers and producing challenging projects even while she was at a place like the Smithsonian Institution, which has a nearly impenetrable bureaucracy.

I’ve worked with other people who I respect equally who have decided that they’ll just develop a thick skin, knowing people are calling them difficult but getting what they want done. Striking this balance is a problem that often becomes amplified for us as women curators. 

Weng: Maybe the situation is becoming more severe nowadays because curators require such tremendous power to succeed in their careers. To maintain that power means that you have to be hyperterritorial, and it also means that it’s very risky to share your connections. The need to open up hasn’t been been acknowledged very much. My support for my work comes mostly from peer curators of similar age. We have found that it’s important to stick together, support each other, share knowledge and resources, and also invite each other to participate in programs that we’re creating.

It’s an extremely difficult field, especially if you want to maintain an independent practice and independent thinking. You end up being poor! It’s a choice you have to make in each stage of your career. But I’m still very optimistic because I know there is a group of people intelligently encouraging one another.

Allison Harding.

Harding: We’re not in a business that measures success by how much money you make. We define our success by an almost intangible matrix of criteria that’s different for every person and institution. When what you’re fighting for is something that’s an intangible thing, you have to ensure that you’re going to get that gratification at the end. A lot of people feel that they have to scrape to get it—although that’s true of a lot of industries, not just the art world.

Moss: I believe in managing with positivity and encouragement. My former boss at Rhizome, Lauren Cornell, is a force and incredibly smart, while also very diplomatic, kind, generous, and thoughtful. She was able to accomplish a lot because she was able to connect with people in a real way. I want to support people, but I also want to set the example that you can get things done by being a positive, encouraging, and kind person. I think that that should be the standard for everyone. You accomplish more in this world by trying to be the person that you want to work for.

Beard: The Berkeley Art Museum is amazing because up until the point I arrived there, I was discouraged by the art world and the weird situation I was in, but I loved working with artists. Elizabeth Thomas hired me, and she’s a badass critical thinker and a writer, and my director Larry Rinder has a voracious and democratic hunger for fresh ideas and artists. 

But of all the people I’ve met, Connie Lewallen takes the cake. She blew it all away for me. We are both eager to see artists come to terms with what they need a museum to be. She has shown me why scholarship is intrinsically linked to the energy of finding new work and being a part of an artist community. She raised kids while she was working major curatorial roles, which was unprecedented at the time. She got out of museum or gallery situations whenever they weren’t working for her; she has this relationship with administrating that is purely pragmatic. She wants to be as generous as possible to both artists and the public, and it’s extraordinary to see how much effort she makes to meet those ends. 

Amy Owen.

Owen: Since finishing graduate school, I’ve been constantly trying to reconstruct the experience of having a tight group of peers who are sounding boards or critical checkpoints for each other. At di Rosa, given the rural location and small department structure, I feel that now more than ever it’s important for me to develop a network of peers who I can talk to and bounce ideas off of. 

Harding: This idea of supporting each other is crucial in any field, but I have found that the Bay Area is a place where you can really make things happen in a real way. That’s not true of many art centers or art cities. Here, artists have a voice beyond the galleries or the institutions and own the scene in a way that is very meaningful.

Weng: For the Kadist residency program, the only expectation we have, which is obviously not a requirement, is to connect artists’ practices back to the cultural context of San Francisco. We always expect to examine how this context—and the people, practices, and community here—can feed back to the artist’s practice. It’s always very inspiring and very rewarding to see how it influences the work that they produced, especially with our current exhibition by the Korean collective Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. They were in residence for two months, and they created three beautiful pieces, which speak so closely to the geographic, historical, and cultural context of San Francisco.

Audiences

Beard: Part of the impetus of this proxy curatorial role is about teaming up with the artist and saying, “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine, let’s just do this.” I’m interested in the process of making projects, though I do like already-made objects, too. But during the process of making an exhibition, I would like more opportunities for the public to come into critique. Yes, you’re put in a position of defending the work, but you’re also opening this work up to an audience that can compel you to articulate how it’s actually relevant to different communities.

Gerrity: I’ve always done a lot of independent curating. When I’m doing independent projects—at Queen’s Nails, for example, or another space where there’s already a built-in art audience—I’m more interested in using that venue to recontextualize the artist’s work. I try to give more richness to the context of their work. In that sense, I’m not thinking as much about the audience but more about the artists. Whereas at the CJM, the core of our audience is invested in Jewish culture and doesn’t have an extensive art background, so I’m interested in bringing contemporary art to them and inviting critical thinking about art in relationship to Jewish culture. I want to open up new ideas for our audience and allow them to think differently.

Christina Linden.

Linden: Because I don’t work in any one institution, I have to ask who the audience is every time and then negotiate it or, in some cases, create it. Last spring, I worked with the Kadist Art Foundation on the Creative Time Living as Form archive. Embedded in it were questions such as, “What happens when people don’t read this as artwork?” or “Why are we showing this as artwork?” They are very interesting questions to me, especially for works that set out to try to engage with a broader understanding.

In Movable type no documenta, which was part of Ben Kinmont: Prospectus at SFMOMA, the artist started with similar questions and asked them of people directly. It was the perfect piece to put in an education center, where families and classes come through. People visit SFMOMA when they’re on vacation in San Francisco or once a year with their family, and this part of the audience is not looking at art all the time. It seemed like a great place to invite people to reflect about their relationships to art by looking at an artist who is asking about that explicitly.

Owen: What Xiaoyu said in terms of productive confusion is particularly interesting for me because di Rosa is uniquely positioned as a destination venue. It’s the kind of place that requires the intention to go there, but at the same time, there’s such a wide range of visitors. We need to engage people who have little or no familiarity with contemporary art, as well as very sophisticated viewers who are contemporary art collectors or aficionados. We are also a venue for artists, curators, and scholars as a resource for Bay Area art. So it’s a complex situation to find accessible yet challenging and critical entry points for all these various constituencies.

Often this means creating friction between the content of the work and the expectations of the viewer. But I think this tension should inform interpretive or contextual approaches rather than curatorial decisions. Setting up the conditions of viewing is half the battle. It’s about establishing a tone and providing viewers with enough informationto feel equipped to have a meaningful experience or encounter with a work of art. 

Weng: We use the term “general audience” a lot to describe who we’re working for and why we’re presenting certain work. However, the concept of a general audience is a fake one because all the different groups are very particular and specific. The reflection on audience has come up so much in the conversations among curators because it plays an important role in the two sides of the work we’re doing. Is the term “general public” still valid? Maybe it’s never valid. 

Harding: It comes from a notion of engagement, which seems to be at the fore of most art institutions these days. All curators struggle with accurately conveying a certain set of ideas to whatever public there is without shutting off the ability for them to have their own ideas in return. Something that we talk about a lot at the AAM right now is how everything—from how we write our labels to the way you get your ticket at the front desk—is about setting up the right conditions for an experience to happen that doesn’t convey an authoritative voice but a provocative and a meaningful one instead. We want it to be almost an open-ended voice that can give you the tools you need to have your own experience, however you might define that, in whatever segment of the audience you fall in. That, for me, has been a really surprising part of my job, actually, probably because most of our core audience isn’t a contemporary audience. It’s been a big challenge for me.

Alternative Routes to Curating

Katya Min.

Min: I took about ten years off from the art world, and in that time I was doing artist management representing multidisciplinary artists in performance spaces, film spaces, theatre, and exhibitions. I studied art at CCA as an undergrad in the early ’90s but then studied integral psychology and pursued social work, working with immigrant women in community centers in the East Bay and Oakland.

Napper: I came into the art world from the legal field. I moved to Los Angeles with the intention of going to law school, but along the way I met an artist whom I married and who introduced me to the art world. There was a point in time when I was auditing commercial real estate files while working as an unpaid part-time intern at a gallery. I worked for a couple of galleries in Los Angeles, and then I opened my own in 2004. I always wanted to work for a nonprofit, and then the curatorial position became available at the ICA with a program I long admired. I had wanted to move to the Bay Area for a while, so it was a perfect fit.

Gheith: I also had a circuitous path to working in the curatorial realm. As an undergrad, I was a humanities major with a focus on literature and piano performance and landed in art history at the very end of my senior year when I studied in Florence. I graduated, moved to San Francisco, and worked for the first time with living artists at the SFMOMA Artists’ Gallery. I considered teaching yoga when I got into graduate school at SAIC. In Chicago, I decided to focus on curatorial work and completed several internships in curatorial departments at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. After that I was hooked, and some of my favorite moments still are when I have time to just look at a work and write about the person who made it and why it matters.

What Do You Care About?

Dena Beard

Dena Beard.

Gerrity: Early in my career, I often focused on work that was social or political, and I still am particularly interested in promoting the work of people who have been under-represented, such as artists of color and women. But recently my outlook has become a little more nuanced. I would say that I’m interested in work or artists that are posing questions to audiences and provoking critical discourse on contemporary crises or contemporary moments that can’t be articulated in any other form.

Moss: I’m interested in postmodernism and technology and where we’re going in a twenty-first-century context. I’m less interested in the baggage of twentieth-century art history, even though, obviously, the language and concepts that define postmodernism are pushed back to this twentieth-century modernist legacy. And I’m also very interested in free culture and open source. If you were to shake me in the middle of the night and ask, “What do you care about?” I would answer, “I care a lot about postmodernism. And feminism, always!”

Linden: I’ll start with feminism, but more broadly, I’m interested in looking at where the focus on subjectivity has come to today and what artists are still doing with that. I think about public space and how people define each other and their relationship to being in public in different ways. I’m interested in both works that live in public and works that examine and take apart notions of the public.

Owen: My primary interest is in working with and learning from artists. Through that, I’m in an ongoing phase of exploration. I have a deep interest in interdisciplinary practice and specifically in the overlap between architecture and contemporary art. Also, the notion of expertise is something that’s really interesting to me, especially in thinking about more socially engaged practices, in which an artist has license to masquerade as different entities.

Beard: I’m interested in serving as an example of someone who can live in a rigorously democratic way, and that’s often very painful and defiant. I’m obsessed with the poetics of Jean-Luc Nancy and the idea of how language is a medium for being with other people and remaking the world. That extends to the visual arts very naturally for me, which extends into this interdisciplinary practice made legendary by artists in San Francisco.

And even more than San Francisco, Oakland now channels ideals of being anarchic and democratic and figuring out how to assume proxy roles while still embodying another, unofficial kind of practice. People who can do that are the people I’m interested in.

Harding: I’m a curator working in the context of an institution with a long history, and any narratives that I might take on within that role are very much in response to the mission of that institution. At the moment, they have to do with rethinking what Asia is, how we define Asia, and how we reappropriate certain aspects of that region into our dialogue.

But, on a personal level, I find that I tend to respond more to the artists and let the artwork or the artist dictate the tool I take out of my tool kit, so to speak. At the end of the day, I’m interested in being a translator between the artist, the artwork, the public.

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