An interview with Marysol Nieves, Senior Curator of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, by Matthew Deleget, courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts.
MD: Let's focus on the process of curating exhibitions within a museum environment, and begin by defining the process of curating.
Marysol Nieves: I believe curating is both a creative and an intellectual process. As a curator I feel my role is to facilitate a dialogue: to bring artists together around a particular theme, issue, or concern; to make connections and associations between the work of different artists; and to provide new or previously unexplored contexts for examining their work. I think it's also important to develop monographic exhibitions that provide new interpretations or ways of thinking about the work of a particular artist. It's extremely rewarding to develop a project about an artist whose work has typically gone unnoticed or undocumented within the field. I think these types of projects can provide an important service to the field.
MD: How did you begin curating? What is your background?
Marysol: I first got involved in the curatorial field while I was still in graduate school at SUNY Stony Brook, in the master's degree program in modern and contemporary art history and criticism. After completing my first year at Stony Brook, I participated in a curatorial internship during the summer at the Bronx Museum. Later, after completing my graduate work, I was offered a curatorial internship in the twentieth-century art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both internships were extremely useful to me in terms of helping me narrow or focus my curatorial interests. Each internship provided important insights into curatorial and museum practices. I was immediately attracted to the possibility of working for a small or mid-size museum because of the ability to be more involved in both programming as well as broader institutional development issues. I started at the Bronx Museum as an assistant curator in 1991 and was given the opportunity to curate my first exhibition shortly thereafter. That opportunity would not have come along so quickly in a larger museum.
MD: How long does is take for an idea to become an exhibition? What are the steps involved?
Marysol: It really depends on the scope and complexity of the exhibition. A larger exhibition requires more time for planning and research, as well as fundraising. I've worked on exhibitions that have taken as much as 3-4 years from conceptualization to realization.
When you work for a museum, you go through a process of presenting your exhibition concept and proposal to an internal committee that reviews and approves all exhibitions. At some museums, exhibition proposals are also presented to the Board of Trustees for final approval.
Once an exhibition is approved and placed on the exhibition schedule, the curator develops a final exhibition narrative and budget. Artists are contacted and studio visits arranged to select artwork. The checklist is finalized; artwork loans are identified and secured. Packing, shipping, and insurance needs are assessed and coordinated. Planning is conducted to develop exhibition design and layout, interpretive, education, marketing, outreach, and fundraising initiatives. If a publication is planned, such as a catalogue, both the content and the overall look or design must be considered and developed. A production schedule is created to account for each step and the timeline from planning to implementation.
There are also less complicated projects, which can be established in a much shorter timeframe. We have an exhibition series titled Critical Points that provides a unique venue for the presentation of experimental projects and new works by individual artists and artists' collaborations, as well as small thematic exhibitions. The series focuses on recent artistic developments and timely issues of concern to contemporary artists today. These projects by their very nature are meant to be developed and implemented within a much shorter timeline of about 6-12 months.
MD: The Bronx Museum employs several curators with various responsibilities. What are the distinct responsibilities of each curator?
Marysol: The Bronx Museum's Curatorial Department is comprised of a senior curator, curator, and assistant curator. The senior curator is responsible for all administrative curatorial affairs, as well as developing and/or overseeing all aspects of the Museum's temporary exhibitions and permanent collection programs. The curator conceives, coordinates, and implements temporary exhibitions, as well as other curatorial-related initiatives. The assistant curator provides support and assistance to the senior curator and curator, and conceives, coordinates, and implements temporary exhibitions under the supervision of the senior curator.
MD: What are the benefits/difficulties of collaborating on exhibitions with other curators in the same institution? Describe the group curatorial dynamic.
Marysol: I am extremely fortunate to work with a group of individuals with whom I have developed a very close working relationship and with whom I share very similar values in terms of our approach to curatorial practices and contemporary art. We typically work separately on our own projects; however, one program on which all three of us collaborate annually is the Bronx Museum's Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program.
AIM is a 12-week professional development program that each year provides 36 emerging artists access to information on marketing and networking, portfolio development and presentation skills, curator and gallery cultivation, legal, copyright, and tax issues, etc. The program culminates with an exhibition and catalogue.
The curatorial staff works as a team to select the artists and to coordinate the exhibition and accompanying catalogue. It's a great experience for each of us. We each have our own perspectives and preferences and that really enriches the process. We clearly share some of the same views on contemporary art, but each of us also brings our own unique perspectives that can't help but make the final product stronger and more inclusive.
We've also worked collaboratively with guest curators, which is a great way of bringing in new ideas and fresh perspectives. I think it's important that an institution be supportive of its artistic and programming staff, but it's also equally healthy to encourage collaborations with guest curators as well as with other institutions. It keeps the dialogue fresh and dynamic.
MD: How do exhibitions at other venues/institutions affect the current/future exhibitions on which you are working?
Marysol: I think it's important to be aware of what's happening in the field, to keep up with exhibitions at other museums and art spaces. However, each museum or institution has its own exhibition policy and mission which shape and define the nature of its exhibition program. Nevertheless, an exhibition at another museum can be the initial impetus or trigger for an in-house exhibition.
For example, a few years ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, invited the Bronx Museum to participate in the national tour of the traveling exhibition Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage. The exhibition's theme had a strong connection to our immediate audience because of the Bronx's connection to the early development of hip-hop music and culture. However, the exhibition's focus on artifacts and ephemera made it less interesting to us given our role as a fine art museum.
Shortly thereafter, our curator Lydia Yee invited curator and writer Franklin Sirmans to work with her to develop an exhibition examining the impact of hip-hop culture and music on the work of contemporary visual artists. The latter concept seems more appropriate for the Bronx Museum because it combines an important cultural phenomenon that developed within the Bronx with our role as a contemporary fine art museum. The exhibition is titled One Planet Under a Groove: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Art and is scheduled to open in fall 2001.
MD: What role does funding play in the types of exhibitions that are produced, or artwork that is exhibited?
Marysol: When you work within an institutional framework, there are many issues one has to consider when developing an exhibition: the relevance of an exhibition to the institutional mission; its contribution to the field and to scholarship, education, and interpretive potential; and its application to audience(s) served and to larger institutional goals or priorities pertinent to marketing and audience development. No doubt funding can be a factor as well because non-profits are always strapped for funds and an exhibition that is unable to attract funding can contribute to an organizational deficit. However, funding should never drive programming. I think that it would not only squelch creativity, but also seriously jeopardize an institution's professionalism and artistic integrity.
MD: How are traveling exhibitions arranged?
Marysol: The museum hosts traveling exhibitions as a way of balancing its own exhibition schedule and in order to be a venue for exhibitions that oftentimes wouldn't have a New York City location otherwise, and that we feel are important and relevant to the museum's audiences.
For example, the museum is currently hosting two traveling exhibitions: Leonardo Drew, organized by the Madison Art Center; and Carlos Garaicoa: The Ruins, The Utopia, organized by the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango in Bogota, Colombia. The Bronx Museum is the only U.S. venue for the Leonardo Drew exhibition aside from the Madison Art Center. Likewise, the Bronx Museum is the only U.S. venue for the Carlos Garaicoa exhibition. In spring 2002, we will host the traveling exhibition The Dream of an Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 1951-1982, organized by the Berkeley Art Museum, University of California at Berkeley. Prior to her untimely death, Cha developed an important body of work, including film, video, performance, mail, stamp, and artist's books, focusing in large part on issues pertinent to geographic exile and cultural and linguistic displacement.
MD: Are any mandates placed on exhibitions that specify quotas of artists by age, sex, race, or otherwise?
Marysol: No. I am extremely fortunate to work for a museum where diversity (of all kinds) is part of the institutional culture. It is not an afterthought or something we do because it looks good on funding proposals. Quite simply, it is who we are. As a public institution that is accountable to its constituents, the museum understands that in order to serve its many constituents it must be inclusive and sensitive to their needs. The latter translates not only to programming, but to ensuring diversity among those in key decision-making roles, including board and staff.
MD: Are there certain issues, media, or even artists that you tend to personally champion? What issues are you exploring in your current curatorial projects?
Marysol: I am interested in work that is oftentimes rooted in some of the ideas behind abstraction, minimalism, and conceptualism, but that pushes those ideas further and places them within a more contemporary context. The works of artists like Janine Antoni, Leonardo Drew, Byron Kim, Maria Elena Gonzalez, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, and Lynne Yamamoto, just to name a few.
I am currently working on an exhibition of work by Willie Cole that is scheduled to open in April 2001. Cole's work explores the often hidden narratives and stories embedded in old and/or discarded objects. I am interested in the work of artists who are engaged in a process of recuperation and the reconstruction of lost histories and narratives, be they personal or collective. For another future exhibition, I am researching the prevalence and persistence of religious imagery (both western and non-western) in contemporary art.
MD: Describe the constituency of artists that the museum exhibits?
Marysol: I think a large constituency of artists we serve are emerging artists, primarily through the Museum's Artist in the Marketplace program. Additionally, I would say that another important part of the artists community we serve are artists who are under-served or under-recognized within the larger field—artists who have developed an important and mature body of work and made a significant contribution to the field, but who have not yet received the level of critical recognition an exhibition and publication can provide. For example, in recent years we have mounted solo exhibitions of the work of Tomie Arai, Rimer Cardillo, Albert Chong, Liliana Porter, and Juan Sanchez, among others.
MD: How do you learn about the work of new artists?
Marysol: I am fortunate that as a member of the selection committee for the AIM program I review over 150 slides and applications each semester. The review process allows me to see the work of many new artists and keeps me informed about recent art and new developments. Additionally, I receive and review slide submissions on a regular basis, visit alternative spaces and other art spaces, and visit artists' studios. I am also invited both locally and nationally to participate on panels for residencies, fellowships, public art commissions, grants, etc. This is often a great chance to see unfamiliar work, as is the opportunity to travel nationally and internationally. I just got back from the Havana Biennial, which exposed me to the work of many new internationally-based artists.
MD: Does an artist's affiliation/lack of affiliation with a gallery (commercial or non-profit) play any role in including the artist in an exhibition?
Marysol: No. The only rule we have against gallery affiliation is in conjunction with the AIM program. The program is intended for emerging artists who are starting out in their careers, so they may be somewhat overqualified for the program if they already work with a commercial gallery. However, other than that the issue of gallery affiliation is not a consideration one way or the other.
MD: What should artists do to get in touch with you? Should artists be proactive in submitting portfolio materials or setting up appointments with you?
Marysol: I think the best thing for artists to do is to get to know the museum, learn more about the exhibition program, visit the museum often, and get a feel for the type of work that is exhibited. If they feel their work fits in, then find out what the specific guidelines are for submitting materials. Keep in mind, however, that there are many factors that go into selecting an artist for an exhibition. The work may be of interest, but if it doesn't fit into any of the upcoming exhibitions, then we may just ask to keep it on file for future reference. Unfortunately, I don't get a whole lot of time to go on studio visits, unless it's specifically related to a project I am working on.
MD: What mistakes do artists make when contacting you? What should artists avoid doing?
Marysol: Oftentimes the biggest mistake artists make is not doing their homework. Not really knowing much about the exhibition program or making assumptions about the exhibitions because of something they have heard or perhaps based on one exhibition they may have seen. This is why I really think it's important to get to know an institution over a period of time. Come to openings, attend public programs and events, and talk to other artists who have exhibited at the museum.
MD: When an artist submits a portfolio to a curator, what should the artist expect to happen (positive feedback, exhibitions, purchases, any/none of these)?
Marysol: We receive hundreds of unsolicited artists' materials each year. Each package is reviewed. If the curatorial staff is interested in the materials, then we request permission from the artist to keep them on file for future reference and exhibition opportunities. The museum maintains an extensive artist registry that is used by both staff and outside curators and researchers. It's unlikely that we would offer an artist an exhibition or purchase their work for the collection from just reviewing their slides. These types of opportunities come from following an artist's development over a period of time.
MD: 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.
Marysol: I think it's a mistake to give curators that kind of power. It buys into the myth of the starving artist working in her or his studio waiting to be discovered by some powerful curator or dealer. Artists need to take control of their own careers, be proactive, and create opportunities outside of the traditional venues or structures. I don't believe a curator can make or break your career. It's more about a combination of circumstances that come together over a period of time. A curator may "champion" a specific artist, but it takes more than one person to make and sustain a career.
MD: How does the museum's relationship with artists you have exhibited continue after the exhibition comes down? In what ways do artists continue to be supported?
Marysol: We encourage artists with whom we have previously worked to keep us posted about their artistic and professional development. This includes sending us updated slides and materials and invitations and announcements for upcoming exhibitions. I try to see as many of these exhibitions as I can and also make studio visits whenever possible. \
We are also asked frequently to provide recommendations and references for fellowships, residencies, graduate school, etc. There are several artists who have graduated from the AIM program and have later been selected for a group exhibition. Several artists have also had solo or two-person exhibitions, such as Tomie Arai, Cathleen Lewis, Ernesto Pujol, and Michael Richards. Additionally, we have collected the work of many artists who have exhibited at the museum over the years, including artists like Tomie Arai, Melvin Edwards, Byron Kim, Glenn Ligon, PepÃƒÂ³n Osorio, Liliana Porter, Tim Rollins & K.O.S., and Lynne Yamamoto.
MD: How does a museum collect art works for its permanent collection?
Marysol: Collecting museums typically have very specific mandates that define or guide the parameters of its collecting activities. This helps ensure for a cohesive and focused collection that takes into consideration the museum's overall mission, audiences, and resources.
The Bronx Museum's permanent collection policy was developed in 1986 and provides for the collection of twentieth and twenty-first century art by artists of African, Asian, and Latin American ancestry. Additionally, the museum collects works by artists who live (or have lived) and/or work(ed) in the Bronx and for whom the Bronx has been critical to their artistic practice and development, either through their engagement with the Bronx as a primary source for their subject matter, or through the development of a significant body of work that reflects a meaningful and ongoing dialogue with communities in the Bronx, or issues of contemporary or historical relevance to the borough.
At the Bronx Museum, potential gifts or purchases are reviewed by the Permanent Collection Committee of the Board of Trustees which meets on a quarterly basis to examine the objects with the Executive Director and Senior Curator. The review criteria includes: the artist's contribution and/or significance within the overall history of contemporary art; the artistic merit of the object; appropriateness to the museum's collecting focus and its relation to other objects and/or artists represented in the collection; the object's overall physical condition; and the museum's ability to adequately maintain and store the object.
About the Bronx Museum of the Arts
The Bronx Museum was founded in 1971 by a group of community leaders and activists committed to providing quality arts programming to the diverse audiences of the Bronx and the greater New York City metropolitan area. The museum's early history may be seen within the context of other cultural institutions in New York City, as well as nationally, that emerged from the civil rights movements and grass roots activism of the 1960s. These institutions shared a commitment to reinventing the very concept of an art museum, from what was perceived as elitist and often exclusionary institutions, to community-based organizations engaged with and receptive to the specific needs of its constituencies, as well as committed to supporting and nurturing the careers of artists typically excluded from more linear art historical accounts. Thirty years later, this mandate is still relevant; however, in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive marketplace, these institutions must continue to reinvent themselves and propose new programmatic and institutional models that are grounded in its core values, yet cognizant of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the new millennium. For further information, please contact the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse (at 165th Street), Bronx, NY 10456; phone (718) 681-6000.
Further Questions? For additional information about museum curating, please contact NYFA Source at our toll-free number (800) 232-2789, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
This inverview appears courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts, www.nyfa.org