Curating in an Era of Change: In Conversation with Jackie Clay by Ashley Stull Meyers

PHOTO CREDIT: Suné Woods

PHOTO CREDIT: Suné Woods

Jackie Clay: It’s great that you’re talking to arts administrators for this, by the way. That’s unusual. At the moment I’m an arts administrator in a more straightforward way than a curator and feel that that’s not only important to say, but also to recognize in others. Administrators get slept on, you know? There’s no shame in working with creative practices and not personally doing the creative work.

Ashley Stull Meyers: It’s been a trip, trying to find candid ones! It's obviously important to speak to artists, but there is also a lot of ignorance about the “behind-the-scenes.” Being on the other side of institutional support and exhibition making, I know first hand how often there is artist content one would love to grapple with, but the administrative roadblocks are tremendous. Radical programming doesn’t always make it all the way up the ladder. Even when you can push for things to be shown, often you’re guided into compromises that make the final product a far cry from what you and the artist both would like to have done. There are a lot of layers to how things get made.

JC: So many layers.

ASM: I want to kick this off by laying the groundwork for what The Lab (San Francisco) is and does. I know from speaking to your Director,Dena Beard, in the past that, in many ways, you guys have intentionally divorced yourselves from traditional white-cube spaces in hopes of being one alternative for what arts institutions can look and feel like. You’re dictated by what artists need from you, rather than the reverse. That’s powerful. Can you lay out some of the basics of what you all are trying to do?

JC: Yeah. I’ll go general to specific. We’re an arts space in the Mission district of San Francisco. We’ve been in the Redstone building since about 1994, but the space has existed in a couple different iterations. When I got to the Bay in 2008, it was a more traditional exhibition space. It was still a non-collecting institution, but not necessarily unlike a lot of other small to mid-sized galleries operating outside of a narrow curatorial focus. It would be hard to neatly categorize the programming. And that’s not a dig—that serves a purpose within the community. In the last two or so years since Dena has taken over, there has been a real interest and effort in making the institution more bare. That has shaken out in some really interesting ways for me. As the Special Projects Manager I’m not necessarily “curating.”

We are extremely transparent about our budget and the things we can’t do. Also, rather than creating a bigger institution with the bulk of our budget going to staffing, we’re using a model where we operate as minimally as we can while still being effective. It allows us to pay artists a living wage. We’re light and efficient in so many ways. We also have far fewer exhibitions in terms objects and hanging works. We have a real emphasis on experimentation and that manifests through a lot of one-off events. The downside of that is there are going to be some things we just can’t afford to do. I like that we are honest and real about that. The trend too often is to say instead, “We really want this to happen, but you’ll have to do it for us for free.” That’s not happening here. We have a lot of thoughts about respecting labor that too many larger institutions neglect.

Right now we are working with Brontez Purnell, who is traditionally a musician, dancer and choreographer, but at the moment is working on a documentary. That work will likely manifest in some events, but doesn’t have to. There’s no requirement that residencies be prodigious. Nothing has to be produced with the hopes of turning a profit. We are giving money with far fewer expectations. Its nice to see what comes out of that.

ASM: Taking those tenets as your standard, it feels like you have a beautiful sort of flexibility. The logistical and curatorial structure of many of institutions ties their hands on matters of urgency. Has it been an explicit part of the thinking to free yourselves from that?

JC: Yes. It also means we can be heartily engaged with emerging artists. When you’re planning two and three years in advance, which many do, you’re not able to invest in people who are fresh from graduate school or not yet “established.” But, when you’re doing one-off events with moderate overhead, more is possible.

ASM: And that neglect is especially dangerous around makers of color! You mentioned Brontez, and I know you worked with M. Lamar fairly recently. Working with POC is important to you and Dena personally, but is it important to the history of the space considering you’re located in the Mission? Is it a responsibility?

JC: Well, 1) I try to resist the thinking that we work with artists of color solely with the hope of attracting bodies of color. That’s a great consequence, but my curatorial sensibilities are far more broad than those considerations of numbers. And, 2) there is a lot bound up in what kind of practices the artists have. It can be difficult to monetize a performance practice, particularly if you’re of a more punk aesthetic. There’s an art world where people need and deserve to be making a living off of their work, so we’re actively experimenting with how to reconcile those two things thoughtfully.

ASM: Are there boundaries regarding who can present content that speak to Black lives, and specifically, Black pain  or is it fruitful in any light? Should we be creating wholly other spaces for it to live so we aren’t compiling problematic history on top of problematic history?

JC: It’s hard for me especially because I don’t know if you know this, but I’m from Alabama. I grew up in Birmingham and the first museum I worked at, and the museum I attended as a kid, was the Birmingham Museum of Art. It’s a municipal museum and technically the city owns the collection. And it was segregated. Before that Black people were allowed to attend once a week on “Negro Day.” The museum space was and I guess probably is an incredibly loaded institution.  That’s my root.

ASM: And that’s a large part of why I wonder: Is the entire thing fraught past the point of return?

JC: I think contemporary art practice right now is completely in bed with capitalism, and is helmed by too significant a portion by white folks. I think that contemporary art practice attempts to innovate in a way that I think mainstream film and music no longer does at all.  So, I love art, and I respect it. But, I’m not completely convinced it can change the world in the way we’re hoping here.

ASM: Let’s talk about Donelle Woolford. I know you have thoughts about that work.

JC: I find Donelle Woolford and Joe Scanlan equal parts irritating, frustrating, and astounding. I went to their performance Dicks Last Stand in Oakland 2014. Actually I took a date — a non art person. The great part was that it was at SoleSpace and there were several audience members that came eager to see a Richard Pryor restaging, including a Pryor biographer. The Q&A went completely off the rails. I think it shaded my date’s opinion of me.

Part of me wants some form of metaphorical stoning. I know we have to do the work of unpacking the world that allows Scanlan to show as some comment on race while continuing a long history of white folks displacing people of color, but why do we have to do it, Ashley? Why can’t white folks wipe up their own shit.

ASM: Even trying to justify a sort of critical apathy is exhausting. In the vein of a Joe Scanlan, Vanessa Beecroft is also tap-dancing my very last nerve in her work with Kanye West. Is the co-signing of her practice more dangerous than Woolford’s?

JC: I mean, I don’t even like Scanlan’s work. It’s not interesting. It asks no questions and is one note. Beecroft and West are a bit more challenging because I was a Kanye fan. I miss the “George Bush doesn’t care about Black People” Kanye. And, as you may know, I’m a pseudo Beecroft “enthusiast.” I want to say enthusiast, but really it’s the academic equivalent of a petty ass cackle. My graduate thesis was about an early performance VB19 at the Renaissance Society.

They are both capitalist in a way that is difficult to watch, but also tells us some truths about ourselves. I guess it’s dangerous in that it seems to implicate us.

ASM: That’s a widely shared sentiment which is part of my impulse for these conversations. I can simultaneously subscribe a value of contemporary Black artists having these mega - institutional solo shows, and recognize the million compromises they took to produce and the criticism that deserves afterward. So, I wonder if the only recourse left is to be operating our own spaces and disseminating our own images in ways that are more generative and earnest.

I feel a tremendous urgency as of the past three to five years to champion artists of color. It’s not as though issues of diversity and visibility aren’t considerably older than that, but I can’t help but to get scrappy about fighting erasure in an increasingly brazen capitalism art system.

JC: Visibility is important. That’s very true. But, another component to that is when you look at the institutions, there’s very few Black people working there. I can at least say that’s true in the Bay Area. I want us to do more than just be visible.  If visibility is all there is, then I think that’s also a way for us also to be used, you know?

Many institutions feel like, “We’ve shown these four Black artists in the last six years—look at what we did!”  But the institution, the folks they employ are 90% white, mainly straight, 100% Cisgendered.  Four artists are not and should not be a counterweight. I want expansive and consistent accountability.  It can’t be solely white curators and writers speaking about Blackness.  It can’t even be just a handful of Black curators being advocates. There should be more people of color all around, in all aspects of the work.

ASM: Another unfortunate postulate is that museums founded upon a mission of cultural diversity are the only ones specially equipped  to handle it all.  Is that what we’ve come to? Touching on what you just said, they likely have the most staff of color and are structurally minded toward the things we’re concerned over. How deep does it go? And does the “art market” and collectors strategy play too much into institutional planning?

JC: I think the economic portion is really pronounced with not only artists of color but also for women artists. Its why I’m interested in museums that are municipal, and that at least, in theory,  they are beholden to the public. They will have to hold themselves accountable in particular ways in the future. People would start to realize how tenuous and problematic arts funding is if we do a better job with transparency. With a museum that’s private ultimately, it does feel a little weirder. It gets sticky to consider which museums get a significant amount of public money.

Art institutions have to address how closely aligned they are to the 1%.  There needs to be a reckoning about how narrowly they’ve aligned themselves to white, straight, Cisgendered, normative ideas of art practice. All those things have to change, because the world is changed and that model is not sustainable, you know?

ASM: That’s also reflected in the fact that artists of color are largely excluded from the canon.  There’s very much this sense like maybe “fine arts” makership belongs to cis, white, men. We’re beginning to do better within academia, and are slowly starting to include characters of color that were pioneering in performance or this, that, and the other.  But, I don’t think that’s gotten all the way to money. I don’t think that’s gotten all the way to financial support or collections, thus far.

JC: I think for those of us intimately involved it is disappointing, because I think we know more and we have a higher expectation. But it's so difficult to overthrow these old models. Taboo or not, we’re still dealing with these robber barons and their old money endowments. Some institutions are still working with money and families from back when we were considered 3/5ths a human.

ASM: So, what sorts of hopes do you have for the future of museums?  Flexibility for me is huge. I feel like lots of museums struggle not to be cold, dead spaces.  Everything moves at the speed of molasses and that’s not the makings of a live cultural conduit.

JC: I don’t know if I hold large institutions to that standard. I don’t see flexibility in their future. It’s almost a “too-big-to-fail” kind of model.  For them to be flexible would sometimes also mean they would have to trim down a little bit, and who wants to lose their job? Honestly they’re tourist traps and not community spaces.

I do hope though, that we have better funding for a variety of institutions of all sizes.  And I say that, not just because I’m at a smaller not-for-profit, but also as someone who’s not from a big city. I want to believe that people want to have this conversation in Vidalia, Alabama and it doesn’t have to be a in church.  And it doesn’t have to be at MoMA, or at a university. The flexibility can come from elsewhere.

ASM:Name some Black artists and art workers who need a moment in the sun.

JC: I want to shout out Emily Hanna, the Curator for Arts of Africa and the Americas at the Birmingham Museum of Art. When I was in my early 20s, she took me aside and said, “You can be a curator.” She encouraged me to think more broadly about becoming an academic, that I didn’t have to be a capital A, capital H “art historian,” that I should consider Women’s Studies programs, and non-traditional degrees. That’s my public thank you to Emily, because she expanded the way I thought about curatorial practice.

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Originally from Alabama, Jackie Clay is  an Oakland-based writer and curator. She is the Communication Manager for the Bay Area-based online magazines, Daily Serving | Art Practical (DASP). She is the Special Projects Manager at The Lab in San Francisco’s Mission District. Current upcoming projects include The Zz Show with The Rocca Family (artists and curators Ola El-Khalidi and Diala Khasawnih). 

A graduate from California College of the Arts with dual-interdisciplinary degrees, her intellectual practice centers on black visual culture – which is not limited to work produced by people of the African diaspora – and takes on less explicit uses of race in contemporary art and criticism. She writes and researches performance and video, particularly work by women from the late 1960s to 1990s. She is in the process of curating two independent projects one in gallery, the other in West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms.