This article was originally published in Cultured Magazine, authored by Jacoba Urist.
Curators wear different hats—advocate, project manager, fundraiser, friend, producer, writer—but the most successful ones are able to balance them all at once. Over the last year, we’ve kept tabs on the curators who are most successfully merging rigor and vision, from the most established institutions to experimental non-profits. Meet the curators who are shaping the way we view art now and into the future.
Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum
Ashley James. Photo by Andrew E. Dowe. Image courtesy of Cultured Mag.
What was it like working on the Museum of Modern Art’s current Adrian Piper retrospective?
Writing the didactic texts for “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965–2016” was an honor. It was kind of surreal to contribute to an exhibition of an artist that I deeply admire.
Can you talk about your first big exhibition this fall in your new curatorial role?
I’m very excited to bring “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” to the Brooklyn Museum in September. The show originated at the Tate Modern, where it was curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, and has since traveled to Crystal Bridges in Arkansas where Lauren Haynes organized its presentation. “Soul of a Nation” features extraordinary work made by more than 60 black artists during a time of rapid political, social and aesthetic change—art born of various kinds of urgency. It’s particularly exciting to bring this show to New York, where much of the work was created,and was first shown in various spaces that artists both founded and fought for.
What in your educational background prepared you for your current role at the Brooklyn Museum?
Above all, pursuing my PhD in African American Studies at Yale really taught me how to be a critical reader and thinker—in the productive rather than negative sense. For me, this means learning to ask particular kinds of questions and understanding things as parts of systems with long histories. With that, I’m always on the lookout for patterns. Not just in art, but in everything.
On a more specific level, the opportunity to curate a museum show while still a graduate student was a particularly formative experience for me. I credit the Yale University Art Gallery’s visionary director Jock Reynolds and Pamela Franks, who has been named the new director at Williams College Museum of Art, for recognizing the importance of those kinds of opportunities for breaking into the field.
Curator, The Shed
Emma Enderby. Photo by Scott Rudd. Image courtesy of Cultured Mag.
I also want to mention “Commercial Break,” a group show of 23 artists I co-curated with Daniel Palmer for the Public Art Fund. We started planning it before the 2016 presidential election. But days after November 8, we started getting calls from artists. They felt the weight. Some wanted to change or adapt their artworks, which we supported. It was serendipitous that during that emotional time we had something to work towards that felt both urgent and cathartic.
What is the biggest challenge as the The Shed’s inaugural curator?
My exhibitions at The Shed don’t open until 2019, so I’m having to make decisions before seeing the final space. I can’t physically experience the scale, the colors of the ceiling and floor, or how light reacts. One learns from seeing how spaces have previously been used by curators, which isn’t the case at The Shed. I am the first curator. This is the first time I am not working with fixed architecture within a gallery setting. It’s 13,000 square feet of columnless space. On the one hand, it is a total dream and privilege. On the other hand, the space offers no constraints, nothing to push against or plan around. I am really thinking carefully about how it’s going to feel, how we are going to divide that space up. Temporary walls have now become a fixation of mine when I see other exhibitions.
Associate Curator of Photography and Digital Media, Yale University Art Gallery
Judy Ditner. Photo by Jessica Smolinski. Courtesy of Cultured Mag.
How does YUAG’s teaching mission and position within a larger research university affect your approach?
Since the Yale University Art Gallery is an encyclopedic teaching museum, I’m responsible for developing exhibitions that explore the full extent of photography’s history. For me, that also means connecting photography’s first 150 years with contemporary photo-based practices along with ones outside the art historical canon, like digital media or even scientific, diagnostic or architectural imaging. These things aren’t always or necessarily considered art, but they expand photography’s ability to reveal things about the world around us, offering new stories, perspectives and interpretations.
What is a YUAG acquisition you’re particularly excited about this year?
One major project of 2018 is the acquisition of a set of nearly 700 photographs by David Goldbatt, covering daily life in Apartheid-era South Africa in both black and white communities through the country’s transition to democracy. Another exciting addition this year that presents opportunities for exhibition, publication and research is a diverse selection of 19th-century photographs of the Civil War, drawn from the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
What is meaningful engagement with a photographic image or photography exhibition?
Art is rooted in asking questions. Responsible viewership should be an active process where we have our assumptions challenged. This applies equally to curators, where a sense of uncertainty or discomfort can be crucial to discovery and learning. I firmly believe that encountering artwork shouldn’t be passive. It should prompt us to think about our involvement in the processes, system and politics that surround contemporary art-making.
Piper Marshall. Photo by Torbjorn Rodland. Image courtesy of Cultured Mag.
What in your personal and educational background stands out as something that prepared you to be an independent curator?
I grew up in the sticks of New Hampshire and worked to get out of there and to the city. I applied to one school, Barnard. My first week of college, Julia Turshen took me to an art history class taught by Keith Moxey. Before that, I didn’t know it was a field of study or that the arts offered jobs. An accident and the kindness of a fellow woman opened up this world of potential.
What kinds of work in the arts did you do early on?
I didn’t have the fortune to go to curatorial school, but while at Barnard I did every internship I could: Artists Space, Parkett magazine, Cabinet magazine. And I met good people: John Miller, Jennie C. Jones, Amy Sillman, Christian Rattemeyer, Collier Schorr, Branden Joseph, Felicity Scott, Lawrence Weiner, Karin Schneider. Their openness to dialogue helped me to form my idea of how to work. And they continue to be generous with their time and thoughts.
What is one of the greatest challenges for curators today?
My generation is defined, in part, by a notion of corporate collaborations, which seems to offer an intersectional public. Yet those intersections are branded and geared to consumption. By ingesting these collaborations, one is co-opted by the host. I think about this a lot lately and how to navigate this reality in an honest way, day-to-day and within my work. I think a lot about how we’re living through an age of incredible, shimmering creativity—and how we’re living in an age of crushing violence.
Executive Director, Creative Time
Justine Ludwig. Photo by Nick Glover. Image courtesy of Cultured Mag.
What in your background prepared you to be a curator of public art?
I studied sculpture and art history as an undergrad and theory in graduate school. I believe this provided me with a strong understanding of art, from the practical side to the more philosophical aspects. More than my education, though, I see my life experiences as valuable. I have had the honor of living in such diverse places as Cincinnati, London, Dallas—to name a few. Through these moves, I have learned and grown so much.
How do you view public art and social media working together?
Ownership and involvement are important elements of art viewing, and they are organically generated by social media. When someone takes a photo, they’re establishing a personal stake in the piece. When it’s posted, that stake is amplified and crystallized. I am admittedly old school, but younger generations use technology as an extension of the self. As technology has a place in the quotidian, it has a place in the museum.
How do curators speak truth to power?
I see creating discursive space as the responsibility of curators. The openness of artistic practice allows for challenging discussion. I have witnessed firsthand the freedom of interpretation and exchange that can be afforded to the public through art. I am fascinated by educational theory and methodologies, such as visual thinking strategies that empower the viewer to drive interpretation.
I have also seen that art can function as a tool of seduction. Beauty is often underrated. Take the work of Sara Rahbar, currently on view at Dallas Contemporary [where Ludwig was formerly deputy director and chief curator]. Her exhibition looks at the legacy of war and the construct of homeland. While taking on some of the darkest issues that we face today, Rahbar produces profoundly beautiful objects. They pull you in and once you engage, they do not let go.
Curator, The Kitchen
Lumi Tan. Photo by Sanya Kantarovsky. Image courtesy of Cultured Mag.
How would you describe The Kitchen’s curatorial approach?
I’ve been at The Kitchen for almost eight years now, so its history as an interdisciplinary site of production and the artist-centric approach to making new work has been crucial to my overall curatorial methodology. When working with artists at any stage and in any discipline, I give them conceptual space to create a project that marks a turning point in their careers, or for which The Kitchen can offer a singular opportunity.
What is the project at The Kitchen you are most looking forward to this year?
We are collaborating with The Racial Imaginary Institute, the organization started by Claudia Rankine, calling on a wide group of poets, playwrights, artists and art historians to think critically about the construction of race in America. The project, “On Whiteness,” opens this month, aiming to disorient the habits of “bloc” whiteness—where whiteness is seen as neutral or standard. It consists of a group exhibition, symposium and theater residencies with incredible participants ranging from visual artists such as Glenn Ligon, Baseera Khan and Rodrigo Valenzuela; playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury; poetry collective Dark Noise; composer Vijay Iyer and scholars Linda Alcoff, Lauren Berlant and Sarah Lewis.
Are you ever concerned that social media detracts from The Kitchen’s programming?
As a curator working between disciplines, I have really felt the impact most with performance. While I do take part in social media within exhibitions and it has undoubtedly benefited my own work—I’m absolutely reliant on Instagram to learn what’s happening around the world—I have a much more conflicted relationship with social media around performance, in that performance has to then contain a concrete image, or even language with which to promote itself. Not to mention the disruption people’s phones cause during performances. At the same time, social media gives meaningful access to those who can’t attend performances or exhibitions for financial or geographical reasons.
I think of it in the same way as mass distributed materials, like a Keith Haring calendar or Warhol postcards, functioned before the internet. I wouldn’t have necessarily felt a connection to art from an early age if it weren’t for what I could find at the mall and buy with my allowance.
To read on for more interviews with this year's hottest curators—click HERE to visit Cultured Magazine.