Posted on Monday, September 14, 2009 by Lindsey Westbrook
I imagine Mike Bianco (MA Curatorial Practice 2007) planting a flag in the ground in Marfa, Texas, like some kind of Arctic explorer. It's not the greatest metaphor—Marfa has been an art destination for decades, after all. But Bianco's decision to head there, of all the possible places, to establish a gallery and residency program makes him a great example of CCA's curator alumni, who are relentlessly staking out new territories.
Traditional museums and galleries certainly aren't going away, but the envelope of curatorial possibilities—both geographical and conceptual—is expanding all the time.
The Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice
Now in its seventh year, the Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice has quickly established itself as a training ground for tomorrow's curators, and its alumni are doing exciting work around the world. The focus, says chair Leigh Markopoulos, is on operating outside traditional institutions, which not only opens up all sorts of creative possibilities but also liberates curators from dependence on institutional jobs, which tend to be few and far between. In the new millennium, diversification is key.
Markopoulos stresses the differences between CCA's program and more academic models that offer students little practical experience and few professional connections. CCA's professors are all practicing professionals (as are many of the college's faculty in architecture, design, and other fields) and the students benefit immensely from those contacts.
Another advantage of CCA's program is its situation in an art school, where tomorrow's curators can interact constantly with tomorrow's contemporary artists. This is crucial, as curating as a discipline is evolving to become less about collecting and displaying and more about creating—actually making something new with each exhibition, and also enabling and encouraging artists to make new work.
Going to Marfa
While Mike Bianco was a student in the program he was deeply involved with the experimental artist-run exhibition space Queen's Nails Projects. Under the direction of Bianco and the well-known artist-curator Julio César Morales, it was part of such prestigious exhibitions as Bay Area Now 5 and the 2008 California Biennial.
In 2006 Bianco established another alternative space, the Waypoint, in Marfa, a town best known as the former residence of the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd. After he graduated he moved there full-time and began ramping up both the exhibition program and what he hopes will soon be a successful residency program. He just finished renovating the vintage Airstream trailer where each resident will live.
Marfa, he says, is the next frontier: population 2,000, 45 minutes from Mexican border, a major hub for the United States border patrol, and a world-class art destination. "There are a lot of interesting cultural issues going on," he observes. "The old population of ranchers is peppered with a growing community of telecommuters, artists, actors, and athletes: people who live here because they're into art and love the landscape. It's got a beautiful historic downtown, a five-star restaurant, an annual film festival, and one of the most important art collections in the world. I see it as a great model for the way rural America could be revived."
Triple Base: Spreading the Love
Codirectors Joyce Grimm and Dina Pugh (both MA Curatorial Practice 2006) call Triple Base "a labor of love that has taken off." Located on 24th Street in the lower Mission District, it is staking out ground in more ways than one. Not only is it luring art-world movers and shakers down into a neighborhood far removed from 49 Geary, but it also has a hybrid business model that enables it to be both financially robust and artistically adventurous.
Grimm and Pugh put a special emphasis on their flat file program, which promotes San Francisco artists specifically. They put on a regular dinner lecture series, in which a variety of local art people come together for food and discussion, in various locations. They're even staking out new territory in their own building, having recently opened up their (somewhat low-ceilinged and damp, but with potential!) basement as a kind of annex, the Triple Basement.
They are also expanding their operations out into the neighborhood and beyond. "When we moved in, one of our very first efforts to make friends on the block was the 24th Street Promenade. We arranged for 10 artists to create installations in 10 businesses, working closely with the shop owners."
Their upcoming Art in Storefronts project is even more ambitious, reaching neighborhoods across the city. A collaboration with the mayor's office and the San Francisco Arts Commission, it will enable them to operate on a much bigger scale than they could alone, and the applicant pool will be huge, putting hundreds of new artists on their radar.
Pugh and Grimm say they are continually inspired by San Francisco. They praise it as fundamentally cooperative, supportive, enabling new premises of what a gallery can be. "The Bay Area art community has a definite purity of intentions, which propels us to provide an experimental space for emerging artists.
"We also want to shake things up a bit."
Staking Out 14th Street
You can't talk about San Francisco's contemporary art scene without also mentioning Ratio 3, owned by Chris Perez (Individualized Major 1999). He doesn't wax poetic about San Francisco as some kind of haven of artistic freedom; it's just a city he loves, and for him, a great place to run his (very successful) gallery business.
Perez makes it clear that he is an art dealer, not a curator, but he acknowledges that there is definitely some overlap between the two. "At CCA I learned the skill of looking. I learned the importance of being involved, speaking up in the studio and in critiques."
Perez was at CCA when the college was just opening its San Francisco campus, and Larry Rinder had just come on board as curator of the newly established Wattis Institute. He worked with Rinder on several exhibitions, and when Rinder went to New York to be a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, he asked Perez to come along and be his assistant.
After a few years in New York and the making of numerous valuable professional connections, he came back to San Francisco to open his own gallery. It has evolved into one of the most-watched art spaces in town, with a presence at Art Basel Miami Beach, the Armory Show in New York, and other high-visibility international art fairs. His gallery is off the beaten path but it's a place to see and be seen; a recent opening for photographer Ryan McGinley was attended by Mayor Gavin Newsom, filmmaker John Waters, designer Todd Oldham, and current Wattis Institute director Jens Hoffmann. His current artist roster includes five CCA alumni and two current or former faculty members.
Almanacs and Archives
Joseph del Pesco was part of the first Curatorial Practice graduating class, in 2005, and he clearly took to heart the program's mandate to look outward in all ways, from the very definition of art to the delivery of the experience of art. For the last two years he was "curator-at-large" at Artists Space, a nonprofit in New York. Now he is working with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Pickpocket Almanack, a "school without walls" in which participants attend a prescribed itinerary of exhibitions. And coming up this winter is a residency at the Banff Centre, a kind of creative think tank that brings together artists, scientists, and businesspeople.
On his own he's building what he calls the Anecdote Archive, a series of short digital films of people recalling their experiences of particular artworks. (They are available on YouTube.) "It's a journalistic project that thinks beyond text," he says, acknowledging, with no little ambivalence, the fact that people just don't read as much as they used to. "It registers word of mouth—people sharing stories about artworks that were ephemeral or temporary."
Oakland: Another New Frontier
Rowan Morrison Gallery, located in Oakland’s 40th Street corridor, is another pioneering outpost for new art. Owners Pete Glover (Film/Video/Performance 2000) and Narangkar Glover (Film/Video/Performance 1999) met at CCA and married in 2005. "We're not dealers," they make it clear, "we're gallerists. The priority is the artwork, not the selling of the artwork. We let sales happen from an authentic place."
They opened the gallery in 2006 mostly because the space fell into their laps (the Women's Christian Temperance Union had just moved out, and the rent was cheap), but also because they realized it would fill a clear gap in Oakland's art scene. Their programming is exclusively devoted to solo shows by emerging artists (an important early step in any serious art career). Many of the shows feature their former CCA classmates.
The gallery is the storefront, their living quarters are upstairs, and their personal studios are in the basement. They’ve also got an online store that generates a surprising number of sales. They have day jobs they enjoy to fill in the financial gaps (Pete works at the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse). This fall Narangkar entered the MFA program at UC Berkeley. They hardly feel like slaves to their many hats. On the contrary.
A few other alumni with curatorial endeavors of note:
Maiko Sugano is a cofounder/cohost of Yomoyama-So, near Tokyo, a residency program in which the visiting artists actually live in the same house as the host artists. The residents are invited to reconsider, and engage with, daily life and domestic space as they go about making art. The resulting work is exhibited at the site once a year.
"I came to this with numerous tools, many of them developed at CCA," Sugano reflects. "I have woodworking skills. I understand ways of thinking about activating the art world. I understand ways of thinking about how to live well. And I have an attitude of artistic initiative! This project is about stimulating a cheerful life, an arty life. Discussing and practicing, with artists, how to make a life with contemporary art."
MA Curatorial Practice 2009
As curating becomes more defined as a practice, says independent curator Chris Fitzpatrick, it becomes correspondingly more important to look for inspiration and intrigue beyond the art world and art history. So while he is indebted to renowned curators such as Harald Szeemann, Seth Siegelaub, and David Wilson, he also looks to "the dinner table, the newspaper, construction sites, strange noises, outer space, philatelists, and squirrels" for new models and perspectives. "Maybe a good curatorial philosophy is simply that people are wonderfully strange and life is interesting.
"I've been working closely lately with the Oakland Museum of California staff on Mark Dion's upcoming project-exhibition The Marvelous Museum: Orphans, Curiosities, and Treasures from the Oakland Museum of California, and I've become really fascinated with the specific practices of registrars and preparators. Theirs is an art that goes unsung most of the time. I like being around people who are excited about what they do, whatever it is."
Sarah Robayo Sheridan is the director of exhibitions and publications at Mercer Union, a center for contemporary art in Toronto. "Before CCA," she says, "my training, my knowledge, my colleagues, and my peers were very tied into Canadian cultural politics, and Toronto specifically. My studies at CCA provided critical international exposure and an expanded sense of my practice. A key benefit of CCA was the great influx of visiting artists and critics, whose ideas continue to fuel my own projects. I wanted to be at an art school, in close proximity to studio practice and production."
Robayo Sheridan is currently preparing the show We Interrupt This Program: Print Ads and TV Spots by Artists, which will reach far beyond the Mercer Union galleries. "Much of the original energy of the artists' ads and TV spots derived from their surprise presence in a commercial arena. I'll replicate that by airing an interruption on Toronto subway monitors."
Jessica Brier is the program coordinator at Headlands Center for the Arts and a curatorial assistant in the Photography department at SFMOMA. She's also got her own projects going on. "Independently, I'm beginning to work on a show about amateur collecting practices that would showcase contemporary works that are rarely seen because they are owned by people who only display them in their homes. I'm fascinated by collecting as a professional practice, like dealing or curating, and I want to tease out the differences between amateur and professional collecting.
"Studying the practice of curating in the context of an art school made me very aware of the way I talk to and about artists. Thinking about art making as a profession was a major part of my graduate experience, and I now put that notion into practice on a daily basis."
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