SFMade: Aimee Le Duc

Aimee Le Duc (center) with artists Jenifer Wofford and Stephanie Syjuco at the SFAC’s Passport 2012 event

The San Francisco-based curator, writer, and arts administrator Aimee Le Duc (MA Visual Criticism 2003, MFA Writing 2004) resists the concept of the curator-as-itinerant-worker, traipsing around the world, dropping in and out of various local situations.

Rather, you might call her a homegrown talent, with deep roots in a particular place. CCA, the San Francisco arts community, and the city itself have shaped her and her career. And now Le Duc sees her role as galleries manager at the San Francisco Arts Commission essentially as giving back.

"I feel very, very lucky. I've got a network that I use every day, and it includes many teachers and peers I first met at CCA. This network has sustained me, and I now see my role as sustaining it."

A Time of Transition

Le Duc started her career at a time of transition in CCA's graduate programs. The college was among the first art schools to offer a master's program in Visual Criticism (now Visual and Critical Studies), and Le Duc was one of the first students to earn a dual MA/MFA degree in that and Writing.

It was also the beginning of the Social Practice emphasis in the Graduate Program in Fine Arts, and in general a moment in which social practice was becoming institutionalized.

"There was already a long trajectory of 'social practice' work in the Bay Area, from Tom Marioni onward, but I cannot overemphasize how dramatically its 'official' adoption by colleges and museums affected the local arts community," Le Duc remembers. "The same could be said for the rise of curatorial practice. Numerous alternative and underground art spaces had been operating for decades, from Intersection for the Arts to Southern Exposure, SF Camerawork, the Lab, and the Luggage Store.

"Now, the past 10 years, CCA and SFAI grads have been creating one-off events, mostly in alternative and underground spaces, supporting countless projects and artists, and it's wonderful."

The names of faculty who helped her at CCA trip off her tongue: Lydia Matthews "pushed us." Tirza True Latimer "was an amazing mentor." And Mabel O. Wilson’s advice "to write as if to get published" still resonates.

A Who's Who of the SF Art Scene

Le Duc's résumé is a bit of a who's who of the local arts scene. She started out at New Langton Arts in a temporary position. She then interned at SF Camerawork with one of her most valued mentors, Chuck Mobley, who taught her about photography and "challenged me daily."

She eventually became gallery manager. From there she moved to Southern Exposure and served as its associate director until leaving to take the galleries manager position at the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2008.

She's also got an impressive list of venues in which her critical writings have appeared:

Art Practical
Contemporary Art Quarterly
Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
Camerawork: A Journal of Photographic Arts

At the San Francisco Arts Commission

The Arts Commission's programs focus on three spaces: the main galleries on Van Ness, the storefront window on Grove Street, and the public spaces of City Hall.

"I really take pride in our exhibitions. I want the artists to feel like their work is being represented in the most effective way, and I want to create an environment where viewers can experience the exhibition in clear and interesting ways.

"It's not intended as an experimental lab. One of our key aims, really, is to give local artists a formal experience of working with a traditional and professional, rather than alternative, gallery space. Also we help them make lasting contacts, which builds their professional framework.

Many of the artists who show with us go on to be featured in Bay Area Now (an exhibition organized every three years by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) and the SECA Art Award exhibition (organized every two years by SFMOMA), or are able to secure commercial gallery representation.

The Evolution of a Curator

Le Duc's role at the Arts Commission has evolved organically. In her first year, she didn't curate. In her second she began to work on public programs, and by the third she was organizing her first exhibition. Working alongside her boss and mentor Meg Shiffler, she has developed her own style of what she calls "curating from the bottom up," meaning that her curatorial premises emerge out of dialogues with the artists in whatever show she is organizing.

"From these interactions I form my thesis, and that is what brings the show together, as opposed to me making my curatorial statement first, and then looking for artists whose work supports my idea."

Her first curatorial credit was Isn’t It Obvious in 2010. Drawn to "the deadpan of conceptual art," she featured local artists such as Chris Sollars and Lindsey White.

"I was so excited to implement a curatorial vision, especially with this particular group. I understood that the topic itself wasn't new, but these artists were using their practices wisely, being critical not only of the banal but also of how we consume the banal: by reusing common materials, for instance, or rephotographing ordinary landscapes. They were looking at the obvious in a less-than-obvious way, and being pretty funny in the process.

"We created an online component to the exhibition called The Clog. It was a combination of a catalogue and a blog. Some great writers participated, and we hosted a one-night event that chased all the pretension and hyperbole out of the room via performances that asked, 'Isn’t it obvious?' in different ways."

Coming Up . . . Sabine Reckewell, ArtSpan, and Pirkle Jones

Although the Arts Commission's main gallery is closed until 2015 for retrofitting and expansion, the program is still very active. Soon Le Duc will be curating an installation in the Grove Street space featuring work by the Napa-based artist Sabine Reckewell, who is represented by Chandra Cerrito Gallery in Oakland.

She is also working on a print show for the City Hall space in partnership with ArtSpan.

One long-term project involves working with the Pirkle Jones Foundation to bring a Pirkle Jones (and perhaps also Ruth-Marion Baruch) exhibition to City Hall. "Jones and Baruch played a tremendous role in photography in the 20th century, and their images of the Black Panthers taken in 1968 are of particular relevance, especially right now.

"There are so many threads in the work that can help us understand the racial tensions in our own country, and of course what is happening in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East."

SECA and More Adventures

Le Duc has been a SECA member for years now, and earlier this year she was honored with an invitation to join the SECA council as co-chair of the award committee.

And she is still very much involved with CCA, both professionally and personally. She introduced the Visual and Critical Studies Thesis Symposium this past spring, reporting that it was a poignant reminder of when she herself was on the other side of the critiques.

And she’s getting married next April . . . to someone she met at CCA. "We were set up on a blind date by fellow alum Berin Golonu (MA Visual Criticism 2003). And the rest was history!"