By Jesse Butcher
How did you become a curator/gallery Director?
I’ve loved art and museums since I was a child, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I wandered into the curatorial world. Maybe it was the recession or just a desire for change, but I felt this urgent need to develop skills beyond those traditionally garnered in academia.
I began working as a curatorial assistant in contemporary art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) in 2008. This was my first museum position so I came in very green, but I was ready to absorb new information like a sponge. I went on to work for six years for Julie Joyce, Curator of Contemporary Art at SBMA. Julie was a fantastic, visionary mentor and the experience of working in a mid-size museum exposed me to a range of skills that I constantly rely on as Director of the Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art.
The first exhibition I worked on was Yinka Shonibare: MBE: A Flying Machine for Every Man, Woman and Child and Other Astonishing Works (2009). It was Shonibare’s first solo exhibition in the western U.S. and threw me headfirst into the deep end of the curatorial pool, so to speak. I had to learn the intricacies and challenges of exhibition planning very quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better show to work on, as it so closely mirrored my own interests in the visual dimensions of race, colonialism, and cultural appropriation.
During my time at SBMA, I was given the opportunity to curate my own exhibitions. My first show, Myth and Materiality (2013), was a large-scale survey of modern and contemporary Latin American works from the permanent collection. This was followed by Living in the Timeless (2014), a more intimate survey of Beatrice Wood’s drawings. From this, I realized that I was drawn to the way in which organizing exhibitions provided a different means of expressing my passion for research and education outside of academia. Now, as director of the Fogelman Galleries, I’m able to further pursue these interests by working directly with students, faculty, and invited artists.
Are there any precedents in the curatorial field whether it be exhibitions or curatorial careers that directly inspire your personal process?
Personally, I find exhibitions to be most compelling when works of art and exhibition design are in a harmonious balance. It’s important for me to consider how art can exist in a particular environment. Ultimately, an exhibition should be about the art, so anything that detracts or distracts from that seems superficial and unnecessary.
Thorough research is always impressive to me and it’s something I generally only want to feel instead of see in an exhibition. Beyond the obvious gallery wall text, it more intangibly informs the selection of works, the roster of artists, and the installation of the works. As an example, I really enjoyed Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 at the Hammer Museum (2011) curated by Kellie Jones. This exhibition brought to light the impact of the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles and combined the work of renowned artists with those who have historically been overlooked.
I also find keeping an open mind critical in developing a curatorial voice. Certainly there are real-world constraints from budgets to space, but in theory, it never hurts to think the sky’s the limit. In 2015, right before moving to Memphis, I had the opportunity to visit Inhotim, a massive contemporary art park in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Works of art from noted Brazilian and international artists are housed in pavilions and nestled directly into manicured botanical gardens and lush forests. It truly was like Alice in Wonderland for art nerds.
When approaching an upcoming exhibition is your mentality more stimulated by a conceptual/writing based process or visual image(s) of executed works? Can these be one and the same?
It depends on the kind of work and the kind of exhibition. Generally, for me, these do tend to dovetail. I think the most “successful” art simultaneously intrigues visually and conceptually in a mutually reinforcing kind of way. Experiencing exhibitions or individual works of art that do this is so satisfying.
For the past year, I’ve been working with the Los-Angeles based artist Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers) on his upcoming exhibition at the Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art titled The Belhaven Republic (A Delta Blues), 1793-1795. Since becoming director of the Fogelman Galleries, I’ve been able to work even more closely with individual artists when curating exhibitions. Umar has been making all new work for this exhibition, his first solo show in the South, and it’s been really exciting to collaborate in his creative process.
What advice would you give to aspiring curators?
I still feel aspiring myself, but I suppose I have learned a few things along the way! I would tell them to be patient and keep your eyes and ears open. Curating is really a process in the fullest sense. A successful exhibition involves so much more than incredible works of art and interesting ideas. Those are of course essential, but having a grasp on the big picture, on the not so attractive behind-the-scenes elements, is what holds everything together. Other than that, like any career, follow your gut and do what is meaningful to you.