This is the second column in a series of three articles discussing the process of curating at various types of exhibition venues. In this installment, I have chosen to focus on the process of curating at alternative exhibition spaces with not-for-profit status. To do so, I have asked Jenelle Porter, Curator at Artists Space in New York City, to share her experiences and views on curating from a non-profit organization's perspective. The discussion that follows includes a wealth of information about non-profit curating.
Matthew Deleget: Let's begin by defining the process of curating.
Jenelle Porter: Logistically speaking, the process of curating for me involves a series of questions and problems that need to be addressed. This could mean there is an artist deserving of a one-person show, or an idea to highlight with a group show. I always say curating comes from both the head and the gut. The process of curating can be learned, from exposure and experience, but I believe it's mostly instinctive, especially when showing untried work as we do at Artists Space.
Matthew: How did you begin curating? What is your background?
Jenelle: I worked at the Whitney Museum for Lisa Phillips when she was a curator there. As her assistant I did everything from answer phones to manage catalogues and coordinate exhibitions. During my three years there, I worked on a few major exhibitions: Beat Culture and the New America, an Edward Kienholz Retrospective, and the 1997 Whitney Biennial. These were tremendous, invaluable experiences—curatorial training I could have received almost nowhere else. I then worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for one year in their curatorial internship program—another great experience that allowed me to work with the entire curatorial staff as a junior curator. There I worked on several exhibitions simultaneously, and was also assigned my own show. I came to Artists Space directly after the Walker and have been here almost three years.
Matthew: How has the role of curators at non-profit exhibition spaces changed over the past decade?
Jenelle: Speaking about Artists Space specifically, I've seen changes even in the short time I've worked here. When I started, more emphasis was placed on ferreting out new talent and showing only those artists unaffiliated with New York City galleries. With the proliferation of galleries to show in and collectors to buy art, it has become more and more difficult to discover "new talent." We've thought about how this affects our mission of working with emerging artists and have shifted slightly to place more emphasis on ideas, themes, trends, rather than just discovery for discovery's sake.
Matthew: How long does it take for an idea to become an exhibition? What are the steps involved?
Jenelle: Planning a show can take anywhere from a month to a year. We don't plan our program farther than one year in advance, as our goal is to keep fresh the ideas presented in the gallery. I've curated a show in a few weeks, that is, from concept to invite deadline; and I've worked on a larger, one-person show that took nine months. The immediacy is both an asset and a hindrance. On the one hand, I can act on an idea very quickly; on the other, the constant turnaround can be draining. The steps usually involve brainstorming new ideas, or selecting one that I've been thinking about; talking to colleagues and artists about the idea; doing studio visits (though this might work the other way around, as I often get ideas for shows from studio visits); inviting the participating artists; keeping in mind budgets and timelines; working with the artists to create new work; and that's that. This is a simplistic explanation of an often complex thought process, but the steps are there.
Matthew: You are the sole curator at Artists Space; however, many of the exhibitions at Artists Space are curated by guest curators. What is the process involved in identifying and inviting guest curators?
Jenelle: We have always invited individual artists to curate exhibitions; however, we are now beginning to open up our program to emerging curators as well. With regard to artists, we often invite someone who we think will do a good show. For instance, I invited Michael Joo to curate the show Deterritorialization of Process, as I just knew, judging from his work and ideas, that he would come to us with something great—and he did. With curators, we invite them to make a proposal, and then select the best, most feasible show. It's a difficult process since we never have the space in our schedule to work with everyone we'd like.
Matthew: What are the benefits/difficulties of producing exhibitions with guest curators?
Jenelle: The benefits are that they come to us with fresh ideas and new artists. Inevitably, they select artists of whom I've never heard. In that sense, inviting guest curators is invaluable. The only difficulty is often with the budget, as guest curators are not used to working with our modest budgets. But I can honestly say we've never experienced any dire problems.
Matthew: How do exhibitions at other venues/institutions affect the current/future exhibitions on which you are working?
Jenelle: I wouldn't say that there are any specific repercussions; however, if I see that an idea has been played out, and this happened to me recently, I may decide not to do a show I was working on. We make every attempt to keep our program timely and challenging. Part of curating is finding that hole, that little piece that's missing, and address it in the most meaningful way possible.
Matthew: What role does funding play in the types of exhibitions produced or artwork exhibited?
Jenelle: We work with very modest budgets, so I would say that each exhibition we do is affected somehow. But I'm proud of what we do with little money, especially with regard to our Architecture and Design Project Series, where we're commissioning projects. We give each artist an honorarium for showing, and if we have enough lead time we can usually raise additional funds or seek donations. Like other institutions, we don't let funding lead our programming. For instance, I invited Uri Tzaig to do a one-person show in our entire gallery, something we rarely do. Because we worked about nine months out (and that's short compared to a museum), we were able to raise a significant budget and publish a stunning catalogue.
Matthew: Are any mandates placed on exhibitions that specify artist quotas by age, sex, race, or otherwise?
Jenelle: None at all. We have a lot of freedom of choice here. That said, in that we have no specific mandates, we try to show work by artists from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, gender, age, etc.
Matthew: Are there certain issues or media (even artists) that you tend to personally champion? What issues are you exploring in your current curatorial projects?
Jenelle: I find myself drawn to work that is conceptually strong, as well as finely crafted and beautiful. If the idea is there, and, this is key, it comes across without an explanation, then it succeeds. There is not one medium that I am specifically drawn to, especially since I know so many emerging artists who are using anything necessary to convey their ideas to an audience. I came to Artists Space with very specific types of shows I wanted to do. I'm bored with the standard group show, so I wanted to do a three-person show where we commissioned the work, and a one-person survey, which I did with Uri Tzaig. I also wanted to do an historical show, which I'm doing this summer in recreating Pictures, an exhibition Douglas Crimp curated for Artists Space in 1977. It was a show whose theories marked the beginning of appropriation, and it featured Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. It's sort of a twisted way of doing a history show, but I'm very interested in how we might perceive this show after almost 25 years.
Matthew: Describe the constituency of artists exhibited at Artists Space?
Jenelle: I would say our constituency is comprised of artists of all ages. Artists Space has the luxury of a 27-year history at this point, and over the years we've created quite a support system. We've shown over 5000 artists. Students, curators, collectors, the art audience—I believe that is who comes to Artists Space. I never cease to be amazed at how crowded our openings are.
Matthew: How do you learn about the work of new artists?
Jenelle: Mainly through conversations, submissions, both solicited and unsolicited, and gallery visits. I make it a point to ask artists, curators, and dealers about interesting work they've seen. Artists who teach are especially key in finding new talent, and they often call me to recommend people. There is certainly no shortage of new artists in New York City.
Matthew: Does an artist's affiliation/lack of affiliation with a commercial gallery play any role in including the artist in an exhibition?
Jenelle: Artists Space has always geared its program to unaffiliated artists, and some directors in the past have been very strict about this. However, our mission does not explicitly state this, but rather focuses on new and untried art, and creating dialogue. During my first year at Artists Space, I noticed that hunting down only unaffiliated artists was a waste of energy. In this market, and with the abundance of Chelsea and Williamsburg galleries, it's nearly impossible to find good work that has not been seen somewhere. Now, the difference is that, although an artist may have shown in a group show at a commercial gallery, it rarely means that the gallery is representing them. In fact, a gallery's summer show functions an awful lot like a non-profit's program. When our director Barbara Hunt started at Artists Space last year, the very first thing we discussed was this question of affiliation. We decided that it was most important to curate an effective show that included new work and emerging artists, and that it did not rule out the need to illustrate an idea with work that may have been previously seen. That said, I would not immediately look to more established galleries for work, but I could feel free to poke around at galleries that show emerging artists.
Matthew: What should artists do to get in touch with you? Should artists be proactive in submitting portfolio materials or setting up appointments with you? What should the artist expect to happen (positive feedback, exhibitions, purchases, any/none of these)?
Jenelle: Artists should always feel free to mail or drop off submissions (slides, statement, and self-addressed, stamped envelope) at any time. I review material constantly. If I'm interested I'll try and do a studio visit at some point, though I can't possibly see everyone, as I receive 10-20 submissions per week. It's staggering at times. I also greatly appreciate people not calling me, but rather waiting for me to contact them. If I like the work, I will make contact. Sadly, I don't think artists should expect anything specific from submitting their work. If it's good they will receive a studio visit, and though that does not always result in an exhibition, the knowledge is out there. I share good work with colleagues and vice versa.
Matthew: What mistakes do artists make when contacting you? What should artists avoid doing?
Jenelle: The only mistake is receiving a submission from an artist who has clearly never been to Artists Space, nor really researched matching their interests to ours. While I appreciate the efforts artists make in trying to get me to their studio, I generally only contact someone I'm interested in seeing. If you don't hear from me, it either means I'm not interested in showing the work, or I can't fit it into a show at the moment.
Matthew: Curators are often viewed by artists as professionals who could potentially either make or break their careers. How do you respond to this perception? Please elaborate on the idea of "accepting" or "rejecting" artists and their work.
Jenelle: It's a tricky notion, but there is truth to it. Creating an art career is about exposure, and curators can give that to artists. I tend to shy away from this notion because it adds unnecessary pressure to an already stressful situation. I have decided not to show certain artists who have then shown at other non-profits or commercial galleries and are doing just fine. In that case, it's a matter of taste. I don't think a curator can really make or break a career, as careers are created over time and with frequent exhibitions. In my position I just can't provide that like a freelance curator can. Let me give an example of two different experiences I've had here. I gave Justine Kurland her first solo show here, but her work wasn't necessarily noticed here. Because she went to Yale, there were many other people aware of her work, one of them being Gregory Crewdson, who included her in the show Another Girl, Another Planet. Her Artists Space show got a lot of attention, and although Justine showed the same work, that show got her loads of attention. So there is a situation where I didn't have much to do with making or breaking anything. On the other hand, there are a handful of artists who have been seen here by curators and dealers, and who have subsequently had great gallery shows, people like Lane Twitchell, Jude Tallichet, Carlos Ancalmo, Heidie Giannotti, Katrin Asbury, and Matthew Bakkom, for example.
Matthew: How does Artists Space's relationship with artists you have exhibited continue after the exhibition comes down? Do artists continue to be supported? In what way(s)?
Jenelle: I'm in contact with many of the artists we've shown. I think we do continue to support them in that I try to introduce their work to other curators, I call them for artist's names, and they always come to openings and events. I make sure to keep certain artists apprised of grants, public sculpture submissions, and studio programs. Another way we support artists is through our limited editions, which we publish to raise funds for our programs. The artists we invite have exhibited here in the past or are somehow affiliated. For instance, this year we are publishing a photograph by Justine Kurland, whom I mentioned above, and a print by Matthew Ritchie, whom I met while working on the 1997 Whitney Biennial.
Matthew: Does Artists Space collect artworks for a permanent collection?
Jenelle: Artists Space does not maintain a permanent collection. We are strictly a non-profit, temporary exhibition space.
Matthew: What can artists do to support the programs at Artists Space?
Jenelle: The best support is to keep coming back. It's always nice to fold artists into the family, so to speak. Financially speaking, we host an annual drawing sale called Night of 1,000 Drawings in December of each year, and we call in every artist we know to donate drawings that are in turn sold at very affordable prices to benefit our programs. We also always need volunteers; a lot of our interns are artists. And spreading the word about Artists Space's programs is always good.
About Artists Space
A pioneer in the alternative art space movement, Artists Space was founded in 1972 as a non-profit institution supporting unaffiliated contemporary artists working in the visual arts, including the media of video, performance, architecture, and design. The mission of Artists Space is to encourage diversity and experimentation in the arts, to provide an exhibition space for untried art and artists, and to foster an appreciation for the role that artists play in our community as reporters, provocateurs, commentators, and peers. In its 25 year history, Artists Space has presented the work of over 5,000 emerging artists. In addition to its exhibition program, Artists Space also operates the Irving Sandler Artists File, a digitized image database and slide registry that is open to artists in all media. It is available to the public free-of-charge, and is regularly used by curators, artists, gallery owners, collectors, consultants, and students to discover the work of emerging and unaffiliated artists. It is one of the largest and most comprehensive artist registries in the country. The Artists File is also reviewed periodically by Artists Space's own curators for in-house exhibitions, and for monthly virtual exhibitions on the Artists (Web) Space. For further information, please contact: Artists Space, 38 Greene Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10013; phone (212) 226-3970; fax (212) 966-1434; email email@example.com ; or online at www.artistsspace.org.
This article originally appeared as part of the Dr. Art series, written by Matthew Deleget for the New York Foundation for the Arts. www.nyfa.org. It is for informational purposes only and should not be understood as business/legal counsel. It is reprinted with permission.