Eungie Joo: When NYFA Quarterly editor Alan Gilbert approached me to do a piece on independent curating, I thought we should have this conversation together, because we’re all doing related work and our practices appear to be linked—we often write about and work with the same artists, we’re all about the same age, and each of us is publishing a bit. But we each have very different emphases and starting points, and I want to talk a little about how we all began in this field.
Franklin Sirmans: Well, there’s a different academic stance that we’re coming from. Lauri was at Harvard for graduate school, and Eungie, you’ve done your thing at Berkeley. When you were thinking about doing curatorial work—is that something that you always saw had to be there?
Lauri Firstenberg: When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, I had internships at galleries in Los Angeles and museums in New York, and I was surrounded by women who had Ph.D.’s. I had mentors who told me that this was my only option. So I applied to graduate school without any other models, really thinking that this was the only way to curate. So basically, I was silent about the fact that I wanted to curate when I was in graduate school, and masqueraded as an academic, then defected. (Laughter.) However, I will finish my dissertation, of course.
EJ: I’m sort of the opposite, because curating helped get me out of academia. When I was doing my graduate work, I worked as a teaching assistant to Elaine Kim, and she was working across disciplines in literature and art, and teaching Theresa Cha’s DICTEE and her video work. And this whole dilemma between the ethnic studies/cultural studies model versus the art historical model—how Cha’s work was being considered intrigued me. At the same time, I was involved in the progressive Korean American community, and we were doing these arts festivals in 1992 and 1994, and in the process of participating in the steering committee for the festival, I became really annoyed with that racial identity model. It didn’t seem to be raising the same level of intellectual questions addressed in literature. I became interested in the deficiency. Curating sort of happened accidentally as I was doing other things, and certain contingencies overlapped or conspired to make me think that maybe the museum was a public space worth going for. And that’s why the project of being independent is surprising even to me. With an institutional affiliation, curating seemed to make sense, but without one, it sometimes doesn’t; and I do think that that’s something I’ve been trying to negotiate—what it is I am doing and for what audience, to refine my overall project. What about you, Franklin?
FS: It’s always been about both writing and curating. It’s always been intertwined for me. The writing was there before the art, but the art was a point of takeoff for discussions that I found intriguing. I had an interest in art; I liked it, but nothing beyond that. When I first got out of school, I was writing about music and books. I did an Art History and English degree. So, I guess it was always the idea that they would go together somehow, and now they do. My first job at the Studio Museum in Harlem was as an intern during my freshman year of college. After school, I was in the registrar’s office, and then it turned into a curatorial gig, as an assistant. Like so many other people of color in this game (Kellie Jones, Thelma Golden, Pam Tillis, Ethon Hall, etc. . . .), I got my start there. I began working at Dia Center for the Arts in 1993 in publications. That position shaped a lot of what I do now. It meant working with a top editor, Karen Kelly, who taught me a lot, and also working with a special curator, Lynne Cook. It occurred to me then that it was really about how to amplify that experience, both of those things at the same time—writing and curating. And it still is.
LF: I went to go work for Thelma Golden at the Whitney, and it’s so bizarre really, because I was always sure I wanted institutional security. Thelma’s departure happened immediately after my arrival, and that shattered my entire idea that you could work in a museum and benefit from institutional support and infrastructure. Concurrently, Okwui Enwezor was appointed to Documenta11, and suddenly I’m working on that project from a small office in Brooklyn. Working as an independent curator versus working in a more slow-moving institution is an endless negotiation on my part. I’ve been vacillating, trying to locate a suitable and comfortable context for my work.
FS: It seems like you obviously still want a tie to an institution—that you want both.
LF: You’re always fantasizing about what other people are doing, what you can do at an institution. I walk into Laura Hoptman’s drawing show at MoMA, and the machine behind it is shocking and a bit foreign to me. Even when I was working on Documenta11, or the Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994, I was working primarily in an isolated fashion. Working from institution to institution without being grounded creates some anxiety for me. Being at a major institution like MoMA or the New Museum or the Whitney is also a bit daunting in that a junior curator rarely has the freedom to program frequently. And very few curators have the opportunity to travel within larger museums. I think independent curating is so interesting because it provides other spaces and temporalities for practice. It can function as a bridge or a threat to these more slow-moving institutions, but the institutions are still primary in terms of . . .
EJ: The resources.
FS: Which still sort of amazes and baffles me why people want to talk about doing something creative and aesthetically-based that has a three-year lag. It seems impossible. It seems completely contrary to everything our cultural moment is about. It’s not about that.
EJ: I know we are all crazed lately. I want to hear about your most recent and current curatorial projects.
LF: Painting As Paradox, which just opened at Artists Space, represents various contrary practices that gesture towards tradition while concurrently redefining one’s relationship to the media in light of new technologies. The show is divided into genres in order for the contrary propositions within those sections to be animated. In the landscape section, Ellen Altfest’s realism competes with Milree Hughes’ abstracted digital print. Jane Callister’s abstracted landscapes appear to be digital but are hand painted. Michael Phelan’s “watercolors” appear painted but are digital. These are the kinds of relationships I wanted to put forth. Actually, I am trying to take a break from extra-curatorial endeavors for a while. I have a number of projects on the calendar at Artists Space, including Body and the Archive, an exhibition of contemporary photography from South Africa that will open in January. I am working on project spaces with Oscar Tuazon, Sebastian Romo, and a show with Zaha Hadid. After that I want to pull back for a while in order to finish my dissertation.
FS: Independent curating often feels like a crap shoot or a card game and the projects inside your head or on a piece of paper are your self-dealt hand to be played. Right now, I have three exhibitions up at the same time. One of them, Mass Appeal, is at Gallery 101 in Ottawa, and is a kind of follow-up on the traveling exhibition One Planet Under A Groove that I co-curated for the Bronx Museum last year with Lydia Yee. The show takes off from the hip-hop theme with a smaller group of artists, and a broader lens, and focuses on musical elements of contemporary popular culture and social commentary in varied forms. A Moment’s Notice at Inman Gallery, Houston, is a bit of a slowing down for me and my thoughts looking at art. The title comes from a jazz tune by John Coltrane. Constructed around themes of romantic and cultural memory, the show was another opportunity to work with a diverse group of “younger” artists, including Edgar Arceneaux, JonMarc Edwards, Janine Gordon, Deborah Grant, Satch Hoyt, Adia Millett, Vickie Pierre, Jessica Rankin, Ellen Ross, and Dario Robleto. I’m also working on a show called New Wave for Kravets/Wehby Gallery in New York. The show is inspired by the exhibition New York/New Wave organized by Diego Cortez at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in 1981. The exhibition is about a return of sorts to representational imagery and the spirit of crossover increasingly prevalent between music and art. It’s about what these artists do in their daily lives living in cities as much as it is about the specific work on view, and I think that’s something that comes out in the art. I’m also curating the Atlanta Biennial in March at The Contemporary, formerly known as Nexus. Otherwise, I’m holding my hand, looking to ante up.
EJ: I’m curious who you each think are the most interesting independent curators working now? And what do you admire about their work?
LF: I am incredibly impressed by Tobias Berger, formerly the assistant of René Block at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, more recently the curator of Centers of Attraction, the Baltic Triennial in Vilnius, Lithuania. I am really interested in these rigorous international exhibitions held in the most obscure places, and, in the case of Berger, his highly self-conscious negotiation of local cultural production and a global conceptual framework. The discourse around the show focused on what it means to work internationally in peripheral spaces. And Thelma Golden, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and of course Okwui Enwezor provide disparate inspirational models for working within and outside of the institution.
FS: I’m looking forward to Trevor Schoonmaker’s Fela Kuti exhibition at the New Museum next year which I believe will harness much of the energy of a show like New York/New Wave, taking the impulse on similar subjects, with residual effects to be felt for some time. Trevor’s on point. When he had problems with the first possible venue for the exhibition, he initiated weekly afro-beat parties at a major club, enlisting the best NY DJs, including Language and Rich Medina. The crowd is not your usual art exhibition suspects. And, there’s a certain level of democracy and mass appeal to such an endeavor that is something that I think we share. Who else is really independent? You, David Hunt, and . . . No one is independent. The people whom we may have admired at one point as independent curators are now all on lockdown with institutions: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Betti-Sue Hertz, Francesco Bonami, Dan Cameron. . . . I do appreciate the work of Harald Szeemann, but we’re talking about a guy who basically created the field of independent curating. I greatly admire Dave Hickey, who is more of a writer; and though I’m not feeling what he usually espouses, I admire the whole package . . . write songs, then open a gallery, write about music, then art . . . and live in Las Vegas! Back to the casino, which is where we never left.Eungie Joo is a curator and writer. She is co-founder with Kehinde Wiley of Six Months: Crenshaw, a temporary space for critical discourse in Los Angeles, and co-curator with Doryun Chong and René de Guzman of Time After Time: Asia and Our Moment at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (April-July 2003).
Lauri Firstenberg is the curator of Artists Space in New York City and a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. She is a contributor to various art magazines and a host of forthcoming exhibition catalogues. She was the associate curator of Okwui Enwezor’s The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994.
Franklin Sirmans is a freelance writer, editor, and independent curator based in New York City. He has edited and contributed to numerous catalogues and monographs on contemporary art, and has curated exhibitions in Europe, Asia, and North America, including One Planet Under a Groove (co-curated with Lydia Yee at the Bronx Museum of the Arts). His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Essence, and regularly in Time Out New York.
This article originally appeared in the New York Foundation for the Arts' NYFA Quarterly (Winter 2003, Volume 19, No. 1)/website, NYFA Interactive: www.nyfa.org. For additional information about NYFA and its programs, please visit the NYFA Interactive website at www.nyfa.org. For information on NYFA Source, a national directory of programs for artists in all disciplines, go to www.nyfa.org/source, or call live technical assistance for the visual and performing arts at 1-800-232-2789, or email for firstname.lastname@example.org (visual arts), or email@example.com (performing arts).