Photo by Makenzie Goodman.

Centering artists’ visions from Marfa to San Francisco

Meet Daisy Nam, the new director and chief curator of the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts.

This spring, Daisy Nam began her new role at CCA, most recently serving as the executive director and curator at Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, TX. We sat down with Nam to learn more about her plans for the Wattis, her Bay Area bucket list, and how her fascination with visual culture and history shaped her journey here.

What excites you most about joining CCA and the Wattis at this moment in time?

It's a really exciting moment, with the new building completion this fall and having the Wattis be a part of that building. It feels like a new chapter that CCA is embarking on, including new leadership with David Howse joining as president. I’m also so excited to build upon the Wattis’s legacy and history of exciting exhibitions and artists who come through the space. I’m really looking forward to seeing what these artists can do in this new location, and how they will engage with the campus, the buildings, and the students.

Do you remember a particular event or experience that inspired you to work in the arts?

I never grew up going to museums, but my mom would buy me art books. I just loved looking at them. I knew then that I would be studying art, especially after an art history class I took in high school. In college, I continued to study art history and then went to grad school, both in New York. CCA will be the third school I’ve worked for. I deeply believe in pedagogy and knowledge sharing, it can really change someone’s life path. I don’t know what else I could do if I weren’t in the arts.

Do you have an art practice outside of your day job?

I don’t—I've been a failed artist since second grade! I was never a maker, yet I was always fascinated by people who could make. Once I learned how to study art, I knew that visual culture and history was something that I was interested in.

If you had the opportunity to take a class at CCA, what would you choose?

I think I would choose ceramics. It seems so therapeutic; it's so visceral and relaxing. Visual artist Trisha Baga runs a ceramics club, and brought it to the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University when I was there. She led a workshop making protest signs out of clay. It was both relaxing and activist-oriented. I love that it’s a medium that you can touch and squeeze.

What is one thing on your bucket list to experience as a newcomer to the Bay Area?

Seeing all of the art museums—there are so many museums and art spaces! I’d like to try and meet many artists who have a practice and studio here. Coming from Marfa which is much smaller and remote, I’m so excited to have a whole city that is dedicated to culture and museums. There are so many kinds of museums that I’m excited about.

I grew up in California near the ocean in Los Angeles and I just spent the past four years in the desert, so I’m also so excited to be near the ocean again. I took my dog Kiwi to the ocean for the first time and she loved it.

What is one surprising thing that most people don’t know about you?

I don’t love to cook, so I’m so excited for the opportunity to eat at all of the restaurants in San Francisco, with so many kinds of food from different parts of the world. I recently visited the Richmond District, there were so many delicious places to try.

What was your favorite thing about college?

I went to NYU so I went to a school right in the heart of the city. There wasn’t a lot of space, so the campus was the city. I got to experience so much. Some of my classes were at museums—Thomas Campbell, current director at the de Young Museum, was even one of my professors. We had classes at the Met in the Ratti Textile Center. Having the city as your backyard and campus is something that many other students don’t have. Especially for art students, there’s so much nature, restaurants, museums, and things to be inspired by. San Francisco also feels so unique, and students can use the city for their artistic inspiration. I see a lot of parallels between New York and San Francisco.

Are there any specific artists, themes, or subjects that you’d like to focus on at the Wattis in your first few years, especially in the new location?

I feel like I will need to immerse myself in the environment before I start programming and I am excited to work with the team who is at Wattis now to brainstorm ideas. There has been a shift in the art world and culture, and I’d like to bring in more of a non-Western point of view, including artists who are grappling with various histories. San Francisco is a portal for people, migration, and the exchange of ideas.

I’ve always been the type of curator who is artist-focused and in tune with the artists’ visions. Being centered in an art school is even more exciting because the vision of the artist is always at the center of what we do.