Break It Down, Make It Better Compares Curatorial Practices

by Aaminah Shakur

On Saturday, February 28, Avenue for the Arts, ArtPrize, and the UICA convened creative-minded folks from West Michigan for the Break It Down, Make It Better event. This is a series that includes a moderated panel discussion followed by community roundtables to discuss issues that the local arts community has selected as priorities. The theme for this event was “Comparing Curatorial Practice.” Unfortunately Sabrina Ott , founder and curator of Terrain in Chicago, was unable to make it and has been invited to come share her expertise at an event later in the year, so the discussion was held with three panelists, Ron Platt, Chief Curator at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), Ryan Myers-Johnson, Founder and Curator of Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts in Detroit, and Tim Lane, Director and Curator of (SCENE) Metrospace in East Lansing.

Kevin Buist, Exhibitions Director for ArtPrize, is usually an excellent moderator, but in this case there didn’t seem to be any significant purpose to the questions he posed and they didn’t draw out unique information. An acquaintance later told me it “lacked any focus.” The panelists talked about what they do, but there wasn’t any meat or excitement. For someone like me, having only curated once, the panel was interesting because it is good to hear what more experienced curators have to say at all about their methods. For anyone who has any experience with curating, however, this discussion probably left a lot to be desired. Avenue for the Arts and Art Prize are quite supportive of artists trying their hands at curating. I imagine most of the attendees have curated at one time or another, most likely in non-traditional spaces, and were looking for more depth and skill sharing. Nonetheless, I took four pages of hand scribbled notes and will try to condense the advice and information for those who did not attend.

Ron Platt said, “Curiosity drives me.” He shared that his personal style is to try to give artists the opportunity to do things they haven’t been able to do before and “give viewers what they don’t know they want,” while respecting the mission of the institution he is curating for. To curate a show, he starts with an artist or a couple of artists he is personally intrigued by and then develops a theme out of the work. He also stated it is important to not let artists push you to show work that you don’t think fits with the show. In regards to how to expand the institution’s audience, he says you have to expand the programming by asking, “Who do I want to be here that isn’t?” Most valuable takeaway: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know what someone is talking about.”

Ryan Myers-Johnson said that she views her role as “elevating voices of artists making experimental, site-specific, and performing art.” Success is determined by how engaged people were with the work. Because the work is done in specific neighborhoods, is free, and is public, it is important to document the process, interview artists and audience members, and survey the neighborhood. Part of what determines success is always “is the art socially relevant and accessible?” She says she never tells artists what to do but guides them for site-specific work and audience needs. For this kind of show, it is imperative to partner with local and neighborhood organizations and go door-to-door in the neighborhood to connect with and engage people. Most valuable takeaway: You can pursue more than one kind of art and you can also produce/curate at the same time. “Value the space you are in as an artist or curator. People will challenge you, but make where you are exciting and interesting. Establish your own scene.”

Tim Lane spoke at length about how (SCENE) Metrospace gallery started and came eventually to be fully funded by the city. Lane says the question of success should be quality vs. quantity, and that it isn’t about how many come to a show, but how they engage with the work and feel about the show. In his case, however, he is the curator and director and therefore has to balance the concern of generating revenue for the space. Lane sees his role as incubating and championing community artists by offering them a place to start, often providing their first show. He curates first by finding an artist whose work he is excited by and then finding another artist whose work either complements or totally contradicts the first. He also uses guest curators extensively, but cautions that you must fully vet them, build relationships, and keep excellent contact with them throughout the process. Most valuable takeaway: “You can be a working artist. There is work to do for artists, curators, and art historians. Arts education is important and viable.”

The discussion felt a bit on the long side for producing no significant information for seasoned professionals, and it is probably just as well that the fourth panelist wasn’t available. Additionally, insufficient time was given to audience questions (only two were allowed). After traveling to be here, panelists should have had more opportunity to interact with the audience, and given more time for audience questions, we may have learned some more relevant and valuable information. It was great that the panelists stayed around and participated in the roundtable talks where their experience added a nice layer to the discussions.

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