Welcome to HERO Art Month, our cross-sectional study of the international contemporary art scene during which we look at the key gatekeepers, from artists to gallerists, architects and curators, the established and emerging feature side by side as part of our month-long investigation into some of the most influential figures in the scene.
Writer, curator and photographer Antonia Marsh is never one for convention. Having founded the curatorial collective Girls Only in 2014 as a means of both uniting female artists and bypassing the commercial bureaucracy of London’s gallery scene, she recently took her DIY approach one step further with the launch of Soft Opening – a gallery inside Piccadilly Underground Station designed to subvert the restrictive orthodoxy of four white walls.
Here, as part of HERO Art Month, Marsh interviews Chrissie Iles, curator at the Whitney Museum and a major proponent for the support of fledgling artists. Together, the pair discuss how museums and galleries are shifting in tune with a new audience and how an institution such as the Whitney helps develop nascent talent.
Antonia Marsh: The important connection between museums and galleries is often overlooked, these relationships that look after artists’ careers often develop over years. That’s something I didn’t see before, and now as I develop the programme of my own gallery, I’m beginning to understand just how important it is to have a consciousness of how my artists might someday work in an institutional context. One avenue where it might seem that museums and galleries differ is in terms of their audiences. How does the museum cater to its audience?
Chrissie Iles: At the Whitney we cater to many different audiences, from artists and the core artistic community of New York City and beyond, to the general public and tourists visiting New York City, often for the first time. We collectively create a programme of exhibitions, screenings, talks, performances and other events that we feel communicates the richness and diversity of artistic production in America both now and in the past, in ways that will speak to different audiences in different ways.
AM: In terms of museum shows, the curatorial methodologies and frameworks for display seem to be shifting in line with a new audience and new desires from their public, perhaps towards more ‘experience’ driven formats.
CI: It has been interesting to observe the evolution of the museum into a shared collective space that the public are increasingly enthusiastic about visiting. I think the public are so saturated with information that there is a desire for a collective experience in real time, in places where physical, material objects can be seen, and ideas exchanged. Technology can only facilitate communication remotely, via a screen. Museums offer a space to share experiences in a very tangible way.
AM: What do you believe the public want from a museum now?
CI: Museums are scholarly archives of cultural objects and artworks, and their form will always be shaped by their primary responsibility, which is to care for, preserve, display, and build scholarship around the artworks in their care. We are always thinking into the future as well as responding to the present and mapping out and re-thinking the past. We are always thinking about who our audiences are, and how to reach a more inclusive audience and how to communicate the artworks in our care through direct experience with them. A major priority for us is to integrate the work of African American and indigenous artists more extensively into both our exhibition programming and our collection, and our curatorial staff now includes two African American and one Latin curator, all women; they are all making major contributions to the program and the collection, and transforming the way we work together.
“It is crucial artists have access to affordable studios and apartments, they need to be left alone to work, at their own pace, and to evolve in ways that are not short-circuited by market pressures.”
AM: How would you like to see museums change and progress in the future?
CI: I’d like to see museums think creatively about how to show more of their collections, and how to give both scholars and the general public greater access to them.
AM: I wonder what will need to change in order for the art world to become more accessible.
CI: It is crucial artists have access to affordable studios and apartments, they need to be left alone to work, at their own pace, and to evolve in ways that are not short-circuited by market pressures. It is also important that art is able to be shown in different kinds of spaces, and that independent spaces are able to receive financial support and evolve programmes that reflect the developments that are occurring in contemporary art in ways that are not too neatly packaged, but allow space for discussion, questions, exploration, and learning.
AM: Galleries need help too – a broader range of financial support for young galleries and curators, who are often overlooked. Sliding costs of booths at art fairs are also a big one for me. It’s a real challenge to commercialise and meet collectors if you don’t come from an advisory or dealing background or don’t have experience working in a commercial space. Galleries often seem to respond to developments in contemporary art faster than museums are able to, for various reasons.
CI: Commercial galleries can take risks and respond quickly to ideas, and some have been very creative in their approach to making exhibitions. Museums are traditionally slower, but have understood the need to be able to respond more quickly in the rapid and competitive pace of the contemporary art scene, in which an increasing number of museums, galleries, biennials, and independent spaces are offering artists opportunities to make exhibitions and show work.
AM: I’d also love to focus more specifically on your role as a curator at the museum. Your last exhibition, Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016 examined the ways in which artists reimagine the conventions of cinema. The exhibition boasted numerous immersive spaces that came to exist as a result of developments in technology that augment our viewing experience. How has technology affected your curatorial work?
CI: Technology has changed my work at the Whitney in two ways – it has increased the efficiency and depth of my research and access to scholarly articles and books online, as well as information about exhibitions and collections around the world. Sophisticated video equipment allows me to make exhibitions in a new way, showing moving image installations in group shows in ways that would have been impossible before, with technical innovations like increased keystone correction, which dramatically increases the ability to show certain larger projections in smaller spaces, which viewers take for granted, but which would have been impossible only a few years ago.
AM: What about social media? I am always asked to what extent this affects my research process.
CI: I post on Instagram almost daily, in a personal way, as a visual diary of what I see and experience in life that I share with people. The people I follow reflect my immersion in the art world, particularly emerging artists, galleries and spaces, as well as other personal interests, from medieval and Roman art, climate change and organic farming to a reporter living and working in Afghanistan, photographers working in remote areas of Siberia and Moldova, history, and fashion.
AM: You are immersed in a fascinating network of young artists, you always go to so many shows it never ceases to impress and amaze me. How important are these connections to you? How do you discover new, exciting work?
CI: I discover young artists in several ways. I have an ongoing dialogue and in many cases friendships with emerging artists, and go to as many of their shows as I can, not to ‘discover’ new talent, but to support, learn, engage with, and listen to their work and thinking, and the dialogue that takes place between them, and with emerging curators and writers. For me, listening to, seeing the work of, and supporting emerging artists is a deep responsibility, and I cannot imagine doing my work without it. How would I understand the present otherwise? I also teach at Columbia University, doing studio crits with artists there regularly, and go to as many degree shows as I can. I’m part of a reading group consisting mainly of young artists, and I find the discussions we have together, which have no agenda beyond sharing ideas, very meaningful. Artists tell us everything we need to know.
“At a moment of dramatic political polarisation across the world, this kind of deeply engaged curatorial work is more important than ever.”
AM: While these experiences of – and interactions with – young artists and their work do feel very personal to you, they do appear symptomatic of a new kind of curator.
CI: The role of the curator has become more professionalized in the past fifteen years, with curatorial courses now shaping the way in which curators are trained, and young curators emerging into an art world that is more dominated by the art market and art fairs than ever before. Curators have to exercise careful judgment in the decisions they make about which artists to show, and understand the responsibility they have in making meaningful exhibitions that are collectively building the cultural climate around us. At a moment of dramatic political polarisation across the world, this kind of deeply engaged curatorial work is more important than ever.
AM: As museum collections don’t tend to include works that do not go through the gallery system, how do you manage to reconcile that with uncovering new talent, that maybe hasn’t seen a gallery?
CI: In building the film and video collection at the Whitney, I regularly bring in works that do not go through the gallery system. The galleries are only one way in which artworks are shown, and whilst they form a very valuable and important part of the art community, it is my task to build a rich and deep history of the moving image in American art, and the moving image is not a priority for most collectors, who are not able to show it. My concern is art historical value, not market value. I acquire works by both emerging and established artists and filmmakers from galleries, art fairs, the artists directly, and film archives.
AM: What do you see as the differences between the art scenes in London and New York?
CI: Both London and New York have vibrant art scenes. New York is the centre of the art market, so the collector base here is larger than London. Both cities have strong museums and independent spaces. I think there is a more collaborative artist community in New York, as the specifics of the real estate situation here and the large number of artist residency programs make it a little easier to find studio space, and to share resources. I find artists to be very generous here, often recommending their friends, and supporting each other in different ways, and turning up to each other’s shows. There is a very strong group of smaller galleries supporting younger artists here, as well as important independent spaces all over the city, in Brooklyn, Queens, Sunset Park, Ridgewood, Red Hook and beyond. At a moment of unprecedented real estate development and gentrification, a form of resistance has appeared in shows organised by artists in apartments, rooftops, back yards, storefronts, their studios, warehouses and one-off events in all kinds of spaces, and this has been very important for the artist community, and says a lot about their determination and commitment to each other and to their own work and ideas.
AM: I’ve found the same in London recently. Lots of artist-run and project spaces are getting much more foot traffic and deserved attention as the commercial galleries feel even more unreachable. Of course I’m biased because I run a gallery in a tube station, but I also see the art scene in London becoming much more resourceful in terms of their exhibitions locations. I really believe that artists will always find ways to show their work.
CI: It is always the artists who shape the art scene. Everyone else follows. The artists do, and should, drive everything we do.
Keep up-to-date with Soft Opening here.