What is your job, what does it mean, and what does it entail on a day-to-day basis?
I am the associate director of exhibitions at ICI. It basically means that I oversee the exhibitions program at ICI, which is probably about 1/3 of what the organization does. We work on approximately 12 to 14 exhibitions at a time, with 7 to 8 of them actually travelling at any given time. So my position basically involves managing all of the logistics to make that happen. It also involves seeking out new partnerships as well as opportunities for curators to propose exhibitions, and making a selection in terms of finding projects that fit within the trajectory of what ICI wants to do.
What is ICI (Independent Curators International)?
We are a nonprofit. We have been around since 1975, and when we first started we actually were an organization that primarily did travelling contemporary art exhibitions, because in the 70s there really was sort of this need, or gap, in terms of being able to bring contemporary art curating to certain places of the country and the world. That has always been a big part of what ICI does: bringing contemporary art curating through exhibitions to venues all over the world. That’s something we still do, but more recently we’ve also included a public programming and an education sector to our organization, so that now we actually are more accurately fitting the needs of independent curators internationally. So we now also do training programs for emerging curators, organize public programming here in New York, public programming here in the space that we’re sitting in right now, that are sort of meant to be opportunities for younger curators to present their ideas and work in more of a “think-tank” type of situation. So really the organization’s mission is to serve and be a network for independent contemporary art curating.
Are you the only organization that does something like this?
I think we are the only organization that does specifically that. I think that a lot of people look to us as sort of a resource in terms of what is happening in contemporary curating. Because of all the things that we do, we’ve built this incredible network of curators and of contemporary art spaces. Through our exhibitions and public programming, we work with a lot of spaces that people may not be familiar with, so I think that’s what really makes us unique.
How did you end up where you are today and what has your career path been like? Have you always had an interest in the field of curating?
I’ve always had an interest in studying art history that probably started at a really young age, like when I was in junior high. I was really lucky in the fact that I lived outside of LA so I had access to really great museums. It was probably in high school that I started to have more of a specific interest in modern and contemporary art, and also really started to realize that there were careers within the art world beyond just being an artist or an art historian. So I went to do my undergraduate program already knowing that I was going to major in art history, and I went to Georgetown and majored in art history and minored in Italian. And really, it was through summer internships that I kind of narrowed my options and figured out what kind of institution I wanted to work with. So the first summer I worked in a community art space, [which] was very small.
In DC or here in New York?
Actually in LA through a Getty Internship Program, because I went back home for that summer. The space had a very specific audience; it worked mostly with the local artists, and it showed exhibitions that were basically like landscapes, watercolors, by the local artists. But it was a great way to start looking into how exhibitions are made, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. The next summer I came to New York, and I got an internship working at the Robert Miller Gallery, which is a commercial gallery. So that was my first experience with a more internationally known contemporary art world. The first place was a nonprofit and it was very local, and the second place was commercial, much more broad, and [I was] working with big names and the well-known artists that they represented. It was a really good learning experience that also was my first experience specifically with the New York art world… but it also made me realize that I really preferred the nonprofit setting. For my third internship I interned at the Corcaran Gallery, which is in Washington DC., my first experience working for a large museum. I was specifically working with the travelling exhibitions department at the Corcoran, which is what solidified my interest in coordinating and putting together exhibitions. I came to NYU to get my masters in Museum Studies, I did an internship at the Whitney in the curatorial program, I was a research assistant for an independent curator, and all those things combined made ICI the perfect place; it’s a nonprofit really focused on contemporary art at an internationally well-known level, but it also works with museums. It was kind of the perfect amalgamation of everything I had done.
How long have you been at ICI?
I’ve been here for almost seven years.
In what you do, do you get to travel a lot to the numerous travelling exhibitions that ICI plans, or do you plan and run everything mostly from here?
Mostly we plan them all from here. When I first started I was the curatorial assistant, so I had the entry-level position here in the exhibitions department, and I was allowed to go to one place every year. But I think that the attitude in this organization has changed too, more recently, where it has become more important to travel. Recently, I have been traveling more; anytime a show goes somewhere that I can reasonably travel to, I make a point to try and go, and not just because I should go to see [the exhibition], but really to create more of a connection with the institution, and to also better understand that institution.
So before, were you based from New York more and travelled out to the exhibitions less? Or have you been focusing more on an international scope recently that has made you travel more?
It’s a combination of both. I think there’s a change in terms of the attitude; I think that when I first started we had been doing travelling contemporary art exhibitions for a very long time, and that had been the only thing that we were doing, so we got into this rhythm of the way in which we did them. It was just the same process over and over again, and I think more recently we kind of… refocused our mission. We realized that actual face-to-face interaction with venues was a much better way in which to work with them.
How have technology and today’s general hyper-connectivity affected ICI’s shift towards becoming more directly international?
I think it’s played a huge role in the shift. One of the reasons for shifting our mission is the fact that you have to be reactive to what is happening in the rest of the world, and I think that technology, especially social networking, has been a huge turning point in terms of how everyone communicates. For instance, we have a curatorial training program that we’re doing this year for the first time completely online. It culminates in a meeting in Istanbul, and leading up to it are all sessions online. That’s just one example, but I think that a lot of what we’re doing is for sure part of this whole change in terms of access people now have.
Do you think the field of curating and the general production aspect of exhibitions is being changed by new technology? For example, with this new all-online program that ICI is starting, do you think the dynamic will change between curators as opposed to traditional in-person collaborations?
Well I guess we’re about to find out. It hasn’t started yet. I can’t imagine that we’re the first ones to do something like that, but we’ll see. It’s exciting, and that’s also the thing with working with contemporary art and contemporary curating, it’s that everything is in the now, and we get to experiment and make things up as we go along. Some things will work, some things won’t, but everything is a learning process I think.
What are you working on right now at ICI? There are probably a lot of projects, but what are some examples of what is going on right now?
We just launched a new book, called Do It: The Compendium, and it’s with [the curator] Hans Ulrich Obrist. It consists of 250 artists’ instructions, and then for venues to present the exhibition, they select about 20 instructions and they do them. So the book has come out and we are now in the phase of working with venues to produce the exhibitions, so that’s really exciting. This [other] exhibition, State of Mind, on California conceptualism, has been travelling for about a year now, but it’s going to open this summer in New York. Not all of our shows always get to be shown in New York, and when they do we try to make a big emphasis on those openings, because a lot of our supporters and ICI fans are based in New York, and it just gives them an opportunity to see these travelling exhibitions that we do. We have other exhibitions opening this summer, including one called Performance Now that’s opening in Moscow, Martha Wilson opening in Milwaukee, and Create opening in Boca Raton, and we’re also working on developing new projects that will open in the fall.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you regularly face in producing these shows?
I think that when you’re a hub or you serve as sort of a center of a network, you end up working with lots of very different personalities and you have to be very diplomatic. There are lots of different moving parts, and I think that that is always the most challenging part of what we do.
Is there an example or something that sticks out in your mind, or an exhibition that you have worked on that has been the most challenging?
I can give you an example of an exhibition that we did called People’s Biennial. It was shown in 2010, 2011, and 2012, and now there’s been enough time since it closed that I can kind of reflect on everything that happened. It was a challenging exhibition because it was a model that we had never worked with before. The way that that show worked is that we had to find five venues who were willing to engage in this curatorial experiment with us, so we had to convince them that this was a good project for them to sign onto, sign contracts for, and pay exhibition fees for. So they signed on not knowing who the artists are in the show, what the checklist is, all they knew was the concept, and the concept was that we had the curator Jens Hoffmann and the artist Harrell Fletcher go to each of these five venues, go to the cities in which these venues were, spend a week there, and look for artists who worked within those regions, and basically pick their checklist from there. Within each region there were maybe eight artists selected, and from there, works were selected. The venues had to be in cities that were outside of the contemporary art world, so they couldn’t be in New York, or LA, or Miami.
And did they have to be spread out over the world?
Over the country, it was national. It ended up going to Philadelphia, Scottsdale, Arizona, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Rapid City, South Dakota, and Portland, Oregon. So that was really the most challenging because ICI took a huge risk in doing it, but it definitely paid off. Along the way, there were a lot of reactions that we never anticipated, like local artists who got really upset when their work was not selected, and the conversations that sparked up in that process were really interesting but also really challenging at the time. Generally when a venue takes a travelling exhibition it’s because they want to give their staff a break, they want to take a show that someone else has organized and they can then focus on their own curatorial projects, but they will still have something that will fill the gallery space. But for that, it probably required way more work from the presenting venues, because they had to be the ones to organize getting the works packed up and picked up and coordinate with the artists.
So you would say the most challenging aspects would be the unexpected ones?
Probably, like the unpredictability of everything, and not knowing how people are going to respond or react to the things that you do.
In your opinion, what makes a good curator and what are some examples of curators that you admire?
I think what makes a good curator is someone who is really knowledgeable in the contemporary art world, but not just based on what you read in Artforum or what everyone else talks about, curators that really think outside of the box and are really hungry to look for new ways of thinking, new ways of looking at art, and new ways of finding art. Some really great curators that I have worked with recently… one is Joao Ribas. He did an exhibition with us called FAX. He’s now at the MIT List Center… There’s a young curator named Michael Connor, who just became the new curator for Rhizome, and he does really interesting things and in a thoughtful way. And Connie Lewallen is a curator who I think really emphasizes the importance of passion and research in curating.
Since you work in the art world internationally, what are countries that stick out in your mind that are doing interesting things right now in terms of their art or their artists or their overall artistic expression?
Well I think I can speak more about what countries have institutions that are doing interesting things, because in my job I mostly work with institutions. Recently I had the opportunity to work with an institution in Dakar in Senegal, run by a curator named Koyo Kouoh, and she is just doing really interesting things there in a region that really has no art institutional infrastructure. So it’s amazing to see what people can create without the support that you might be able to find in New York or another major art city. She’s opened up a contemporary art space, an artists’ residency, and a café all combined in Dakar, and it’s really great. I think in Eastern Europe there are some really fantastic spaces and curators. There’s a space called KIM? Contemporary Art Center in Riga, Latvia. They have a lot of really fantastic ideas, and I think that that region in general is becoming better-known, hopefully, in terms of their impact on contemporary art curating.
Even though you work more on the conceptual side of art in producing these shows, you have experience working with art all over the world. How do you think the art market differs in New York from other global capitals of the art world?
Well, based on my experience, it’s hard to find many other art markets that exist.
So would you say that New York is the center of the art world globally?
No, I think it’s one center. I think there are many centers, but New York is definitely a major one.
This may not relate directly to what you do either, but do you think criticism that the art world has been shifting recently to focus too much on its commercial aspects is valid? Or do you see a different side of that completely?
I think that will always be a criticism that takes place, especially as long as we live in a capitalistic society.
So do you think that reflects on the art world?
I think that where the art market is now is not just a reflection of where the art world is now, but also of where the economy is. I think that the best that we can do is just continue to be critical and question things, but sometimes also accept that there are things that are going to happen that you just have no control over. No matter what, there’s always going to be an art market. It’s an important part of the system, and you can’t avoid it.
What has been your best memory in your career and working in the art world?
That’s a good question… I hate to bring up a similar example, but for People’s Biennial, a huge part of the exhibition was going to these various communities, so we would spend a lot of time in each of the spaces. One of them was in Rapid City, South Dakota. I’d never been to South Dakota before, I had never been to anywhere even remotely close to what Rapid City, South Dakota is like. Going to the opening of the show was a really fulfilling experience, because it really felt like we were fulfilling our mission. Being in South Dakota, and seeing the impact that the show had on the artists that were selected, and speaking to them in person, and even having one of the artists’ daughter come up to me and say this show completely changed her dad’s life and has given him a new sense of purpose, that was the moment that kind of took away all of the cynicism, and put things in perspective. You realize how important contemporary art is, and not just for a very select one-percent, it’s important for everyone.
What do you think is art’s place in everyday life?
I think that the importance of art is to allow people to think about things differently and in a new way. Whether it’s figurative or abstract, or whether it’s conceptual, a painting, or an installation, it’s meant to make people think about things in relation to the world around them. I think it’s important that people have those discussions and question the world around them, and art is a creative way to do just that.