The Guerilla Curators

by Christina Rees November 21, 2011

Kerry Pacillio's work in Modern Ruin II.

This last April I attended a curators’ symposium in Austin during the Texas Biennial. It was a day-long series of panel discussions and presentations hosted by Arthouse, right around the time Arthouse was enduring some serious criticism over its censorious and/or irresponsible treatment of two prime exhibitions and of its own confused and confusing treatment of its own (now former) curator. Odd vibes all around that day. (If you want to research the brouhaha, be my guest. The fallout in Austin has been tangible.)

Dozens of curators from every corner of Texas showed up at the behest of Biennial curator Virginia Rutledge to meet and greet and gripe and inspire. During one of the panel discussions, I spoke out about the influence of boards and committees. I said that curators at larger and more bureaucratic institutions can feel a bit shackled by the expectations of conservative or cautious governing bodies and board members. But I argued that we should still try to set an example for emerging artists and the art-loving public by finding alternative spaces to curate more experimental or risky shows outside of the places we formally work.

RJP 2.0 Gallery Kit (Click the image for a video of the Rider Jon Piotrs kit in action.)

I think I acknowledged that most or likely all of us are overworked and/or underpaid, but said that I’d like to think we all got into this because we love art, and want to be around it and around living, breathing artists (most of time, anyway) and to generate great dialogue and just generally light some fires. Being gainfully employed by a large. conservative bureaucratic institution can be wonderfully stable, but it often comes with some political baggage. Obviously.

(At this point, a woman in front of me turned around and said, in a bitchy, soap-opera condescending tone: “We’re all already doing that.” I thought, “Really? Curators from major conservative institutions are mounting guerrilla shows right and left? Because I don’t see it.” “They sure aren’t in Dallas and Fort Worth,” I told her. I don’t know what magical fairyland of curator superheroes she comes from, but it must be one awesome place.)

But it is hard. It’s hard to find the time and energy to generate shows from scratch and with little to no money. Even so, curators, just by their title, often have some credibility that emerging artists and struggling artists are striving for, so it might be easier for us to do the asking and fill out the paperwork, so to speak (most of us can fill out loan forms in our sleep). We hope all these young artists and art historians fresh out of grad school will take the initiative and do what we’re all begging them to do: “Don’t wait for galleries to pick you up or ask you to curate. Organize your own shows. Do it yourselves.” Houston and Austin are ahead of the curve on this front, with young artists showing a resourcefulness even the most type-A curator could envy.

There’s also the question of contracts, in which a curator may be bound to his or her institution in way that discourages curating outside his or her primary employment without express permission. But I queried a handful of major curators at big institutions, and they all said they were allowed to curate outside their main jobs. And loopholes abound. Work with collaborators/partners in crime, and there is always creative language and titling that can snake around obstacles.

For me, one of the most agonizing things about institutional curating is the long lead time. Large shows have to be organized so far in advance that there’s no room for spontaneity or the impulse to go with the thought that woke you up in the middle of the night. I get some flexibility at my venue, though the luxury of spontaneity disappears with tighter budgets and higher expectations. But you can find a way to show what you want to show, for the most part, in another venue. You just can.

Today’s economy has afforded the keen-eyed curator plenty of abandoned buildings to pester landlords about: I doubt many slumlords would turn down a bona-fide curator looking to use and even improve their space for a week or a month. Obviously you can’t put a delicate, brittle Rauschenberg in a space with no current museum facility report, but you can sure show 90% of the most interesting art that’s being made right now in your own backyards.

Modern Ruin

Here’s the deal: Temporary non-profits, pop-ups (yes, we’re tired of the term but it’s accurate), apartment galleries, house galleries and all manner of new types of alternative spaces are where the energy is right now.

Ryder Richards and I were recently guest speakers in a class for MFAs at TCU. We were asked by Eric Eley, the class professor (and a good artist new to Dallas) to talk about how we got into curating, but really, in the two hours we talked (Ryder talked, I rambled), the only time I felt myself get really excited and wired was when I was imploring the students to strike out on their own, find unexpected venues and mount their own shows. Commercial galleries are strapped and scared; young talent isn’t being snatched up at the rate it was pre-recession. (That was all mostly a myth anyway.)

Of course I had to bring up the Good/Bad Art Collective—I’m like a broken record that way—but that legacy is just so valid right now. Luckily, TCU does have some sophisticated MFAs who are taking charge of their own fates with a new project called “Homecoming.” It launches in December. I’m sure you’ll be reading more about them on Glasstire and elsewhere in the near future.

Chris Powell's work in Modern Ruin II.

Indeed, in Dallas/Fort Worth, not-for-profit and spontaneous curating is enjoying a mini boom. Maybe not by the curators of the largest institutions—though here I’ll give a major shout out to Jeremy Strick and company at the Nasher, who is making that place the most interesting and lively museum in the region by curating shows in unexpected parts of his building and programming the hell out of it—but some smaller and quieter things are happening in dignified and impressive ways.

Michael Corris, chair of the Division of Art at SMU, maintains the Free Museum, an ongoing series of smart shows, in his own office. Karen Weiner took her art interest to the next level by opening the Reading Room, a permanent space that works like a much-needed salon for discussion and shows. There’s Subtext Projects, run by some very smart young women in Fort Worth who find spaces and cook up some great stuff, and recently Brand 10 in Fort Worth opened as an artist-run permanent space.

There’s plenty of buzz on the non-commercial Oliver Francis Gallery in Dallas, with the guy who runs it, Kevin Rubén Jacobs, saying he’ll curate outside his new space, too. Stephen Lapthisophon and Anne Lawrence are curating independent shows; Ryder Richards has been curating two (at my last count) worthy ongoing projects outside his job at Richland College the whole time he’s been around. I’m sure I’m missing a few. But, more of this, please.

In the classroom talk with the TCU MFAs, the original Modern Ruin came up as well. It wasn’t easy for me and Thomas Feulmer to organize that bank show outside of our full-time employment, but damn, it was worth it. And we did something like it again, just a couple weeks ago. Quick and dirty. It lasted one night, in a borrowed and cleaned-out Fort Worth bungalow, and we and the artists turned it around in a couple of weeks. The art was great—even stronger than I had expected, actually—and the crowd and the energy followed. Now I’m sitting here wondering about a hat trick.

So that’s my message for the week. Curators, high and low, for major institutions and minor non-profits: get cracking. The artists and your local scenes need you more than ever right now, and you will be a happier person when you do the right thing.

Still from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."


Christina Rees was an editor at The Met and D Magazine, a full-time art and music critic at the Dallas Observer, and has covered art and music for the Village Voice and other publications. She was until recently the owner and director of Road Agent gallery in Dallas. Rees is now the Curator of Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, TCU.







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Ryder November 21, 2011 - 14:18

Thanks for the article Christina. This last weekend UNT and UTA both had truck galleries on Dragon St, Dallas. I think these things spring from ambition and necessity: if the curators don’t make it happen, the artists will.

Sarah Fisch November 21, 2011 - 15:42

Sometimes it’s an artist-side problem, with artists not wanting to (or being discouraged from) exhibit outside their gallery representation. Which is understandable. But I think it behooves gallerists and “established” curators to advocate for this kind of curation. Also, it’s interesting to see an arts writer curating and handling a gallery, it seems like that’s happening more and more, and has to.

Sarah Fisch November 21, 2011 - 15:43

Poorly worded but you get the gist.

reading up | Art by Jennifer Barron November 21, 2011 - 16:03

[…] colleague of mine passed on this article from glasstire about some current trends in independent art curation in […]

Ricardo Paniagua November 21, 2011 - 18:15

Okay, Ill see what I can do in April with 8 statewide mid career artists at the old South Side on Lamar Buildings own Jeanette Kennedy GALLERY. PLUGGED.

Ariel Saldivar November 22, 2011 - 10:01

Thank you so much for writing this article!

Rainey Knudson November 22, 2011 - 10:24

I always tell young artists that the media is always hungry for a story about a great show that’s off the beaten path. It’s not hard to get our attention when you do something great. Emphasis on the great.

Same goes for curators.

Janet Tyson November 22, 2011 - 16:14

Something else the media and people in general like is the idea of artists pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and doing shows themselves. There’s a more direct sense of connection to the artists, which a lot of people really need before they can hone in on the work.

Celia Eberle November 23, 2011 - 18:25

There really are far more artists than the system can possibly support. I think the ability to get attention is the real commodity-

Chad Davonport November 26, 2011 - 09:37

Why is it Christina, that you seem to always parade around touting the greatness of groups and collectives when YOU seem to show and exhibit the same tired group of brown nosed artists from DFW in your inner group?

Are you the one who needs to stretch or do you just want everyone else to?

Oh yea, and try to see the the forest AND the trees. The trees being artists. It will be hard but we know you can do it.

And by golly Christina, put your money where your mouth is and go out more in Fort Worth (you know, the spaces that you think are the opposite of “cool”) because a lot of people were excited when you arrived there but not so much any more . . . for all the reasons stated above. If you do this we’ll do our best to brown our noses on this end.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Chad Davonport November 26, 2011 - 10:26

And there is no reason to take any of this personally because as you know it really does take two to tango. Let us unload that one: you know how this one works Christiana – controversy garners attention and attention (really pay attention to this one) ATTENTION if directed properly, and we can’t stress this enough, can lead to fame and fortune. This is what we are truly after, isn’t it? Real recognition and possibly and a higher paying more powerful job in the future. We know you can do it! Just be careful of the toes being stepped on, sometimes there are big hairy monsters attached to them.

Dixon Steele November 28, 2011 - 20:26

Maybe we should just get Christina to put a bunch of tcu frat guys in a glass box with a shit ton of beer. Fuck shit up.

Christina Rees November 29, 2011 - 01:05

Hi, CD/DS/RB. I did show you. Solo show. Remember? Sorry you’re feeling so left out right now. Kinda weird you choose to characterize your own friends as brown nosers.

real name November 30, 2011 - 16:14

@dixon steel

i saw that exhibit in denton.

did xtina do that show ?

real name December 1, 2011 - 09:34

hey, you need to calm down.

i was curious about that frat/beer installation show in denton. thought it was cool. i wrote an alias as a reference to your comment about real names. i’m not the guy you are feuding with. and plus, you look like an idiot when you respond to criticism like that. didn’t you write this article ? grow up. unless someone is posting with your name, and in which case, that would be insincere.

Christina Rees December 1, 2011 - 09:44

You need to post comments using your real name. Your sanctimony under an pseudonym is ridiculous.

Netochka Nezvanova December 1, 2011 - 10:43

you can’t possibly be the same person that wrote this article. you sound like such a fool.

Christina Rees December 1, 2011 - 12:18

You’re pathetic. You call me a fool from behind some stupid wall you’ve built to protect yourself. From what? People interested in art. Wow. Scary art people.
It’s a visual arts website, for god’s sake. Why use a pseudonym? Just be part of a real dialogue in an upfront way. Why have a visual arts website in Texas if genuine dialogue isn’t a huge part of its purpose?

Anonymous commentors on Glasstire seem to be treating the site as both more and less than what it really is. Certainly there are politics involved. Everything is political. But we aren’t writing about abortion or immigration or civil liberty. We’re writing about art. Texas art faces enough antagonism from the conservative right; we need real discussion between real people working on solving problems. Not this pseudonymous nonsense.

Netochka Nezvanova December 1, 2011 - 12:58

your view point is valid. but you don’t have to force it on everyone else. some people may not see things the same way you do. my view point is that i can post with whatever identity i choose. i am not trying to force that onto you. so. . . you can stop preaching. discussion is good. dogma – bad.

Christina Rees December 1, 2011 - 13:27

Your ‘viewpoint’ is that you enjoy posting behind a pseudonym. Heavy stuff. Yes, of course you’re free to leave burning dog shit on the doorstep of Glasstire and then run away, with no accountability whatsoever. Congratulations. Have fun with that.

Netochka Nezvanova December 1, 2011 - 14:13

wow. are you still ticked off about what CD, and DS said about you ? why is your skin so thin ? how are we , in the arts community, supposed to have any discussion, if all you are capable of is ranting, proselytizing, and throwing temper tantrums ? that doesn’t lead to the exchange and or sharing of ideas, which you are clumsily defending.

Christina Rees December 1, 2011 - 14:37

Take a look at yourself. What have you contributed to this at all? I’m not thin-skinned or clumsy, in writing or life. I’m certainly taking a strong stance on anonymous comments on Glasstire, right here. I made a decision to jump in while the water is hot. I’ve actually presented a tangible defense for my stance, too. You haven’t.

Raeh December 6, 2011 - 11:53

You should check out Paul Horn’s “Cheeseburger Cheeseburger” show this Friday at McDonald’s on N. Main and I-45. Should be just what you are looking for! Art is being smuggled in disguised as birthday presents. Dec. 9th, 6 til we get thrown out. Free happymeals.

Kirk December 6, 2011 - 15:50

You Ft Worth people like to chase your own tail

paul horn May 2, 2012 - 01:37

why is so many people upset with your article..?

paul horn May 2, 2012 - 01:40

Art should be fun like it was in the third grade.

paul horn May 2, 2012 - 01:50

We smuggled a band into Cheeseburger Cheeeseburger. we wrapped there instrument up like presents to smuggle them in


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