At the end of December, journalists at Artnet surveyed the international art world to determine the last decade's most influential curators. SFR undertook a slightly less vigorous process for this week's cover story. We just asked around to find out which local curators others thought were bringing a unique vantage point to their work.
From there, we assigned the four interns who were accepted into the fall training cohort for the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism, SFR's nonprofit partner, to spend time with them and learn about what guided their work.
The answers? Diversity, activism, collaboration and deep research, to start. This week, we include profiles of curators from the Museum of International Folk Art, Vital Spaces, SITE Santa Fe and form & concept gallery. They shared their art career journeys, as well as how they now hope to represent all types of artists in Santa Fe.
Student journalists not only get on-the-job training, but they also get paid to learn and report. The Journo Fund will open for a new round of interns in the spring. Check nmjournalism.org for more information on this program or to make a donation to support it.
— Julia Goldberg, president, New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism and intern mentor
Storytelling through Art
Felicia Katz-Harris’ curiosity guides her curatorial work
By Tintawi Kaigziabiher
Felicia Katz-Harris' brown wavy hair grazes her shoulders as she sits behind her desk in the lower level of the Museum of International Folk Art on Santa Fe's Musuem Hill. Small displays of Asian artwork are scattered throughout her softly lit office. An accordion book featuring Japanese monsters in the form of floppy disks and outdated computers accents the border of her desk. On the opposite side of the room, familial photographs sit among miniature Japanese monster figurines. The museum's senior curator and curator of Asian and oceanic art, Katz-Harris has been at MOIFA for 14 years. Her younger years were spent absorbing images of textiles, dinosaurs, pottery, artifacts, religious items and animals from around the globe. She carries these early sights in her memory.
Katz-Harris grew up an hour north of Manhattan, New York. Her father drove a taxi in New York City. Some days he would drop her off at museums where she would spend the entire day observing the exhibits. "Maybe one day you'll be a curator," she remembers he said to her. "At the time, I didn't know what it meant to be a curator." She remembers the spacious displays of both animals and humans at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and how these trips to the museum broadened her awareness of the vast traditions that blanket the earth.
As a junior at the University of New Mexico, Katz-Harris pondered which discipline she would pursue. While she ruled out art history, cultural anthropology drew her in with its capacity for storytelling through art and artifacts. Following her undergrad at UNM and graduate school at Arizona State University, she went on to study at the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, India. While abroad, she learned the importance of seeing people within their own cultural framework. In this way, Katz-Harris says she began to appreciate the values and traditions of her fellow humans through a new lens.
Now, at MOIFA, she has the freedom to create public viewings featuring the cultures in which she has immersed herself.
"You have amazing experiences, like holding an old coffee pot and taking pleasure," she says. Like the stories contained within the bellies of those pots, Katz-Harris also embodies a wealth of knowledge. "It begins with basic internet research. That usually leads to talking to people about the ideas, then one thing leads to another."
Katz-Harris' most recent exhibit, "Yokai: Ghosts & Demons of Japan," followed three years of studying and collecting, including three trips to Japan conducting field research; encountering and observing people; and understanding how they live and interact with their surroundings. For the exhibition, Katz-Harris directs the narrative, while collaborating with others in academia for their perspectives, as well as staff and designers for the layout and temperature control of the glass cases housing the artifacts.
"I admit I think I pushed the staff to their limits," she says when considering the amount of work that went into producing the exhibit, which opened Dec. 8, 2019, and will run until Jan. 10, 2021. It features monster-like creatures and spirits, as well as a recreation of a traditional Japanese obake yashiki haunted house. Strange sounds, ghost stories and bizarre sights stimulate the senses.
By immersing herself in the culture and allowing the story to unfold, Katz-Harris saw yokai in a variety of contexts from crocheted dolls to action figures, visiting places such as Yokai Street and the Manga Museum in Tokyo. The art collected for the exhibit is a thoughtfully selected blend of Edo Period yokai (1603 to 1868) and modern yokai, like the well-known Pokémon.
For Katz-Harris, curating was the answer to her life-long inquisitiveness. Building bridges and making connections is the foundation of her work. The process of discovery: meeting people, making friends, and the generous sharing of information," create her multi-media, multi-layered exhibits.
"I have never had so much fun," she says.
Amber-Dawn Bear Robe aims to ensure Indigenous artists are heard and seen
By Franco Romero
"My driving goal, my driving factor in this is to make sure the contemporary Indigenous voice is represented beyond just a market value," Amber-Dawn Bear Robe says as she sits beside a window in her office on the north side of town that faces away from the Santa Fe Plaza. She speaks solemnly, clarifying her statements. "I want to see this. I want to see an artist-run culture center in Santa Fe with a strong Indigenous voice. And lots of times I'll talk to people and they have no idea what that even means."
One of the ways Bear Robe works to support the Indigenous voice is through her work on the volunteer-run curatorial committee of the nonprofit art initiative Vital Spaces (vitalspaces.org). Bear Robe says she became involved with the organization right away because she saw Vital Spaces—which provides studios, exhibition spaces and workshop opportunities, among other benefits—as having the potential to establish itself as a major arts organization and wanted to make sure the Indigenous voice was represented from the start.
Bear Robe says Santa Fe often provides people who are seeking a "native experience" with a market experience based on consumerism. While nothing is inherently wrong with this, she says, she feels this perspective is limited.
"This is a native art bubble and some people never get out of that. They think that Santa Fe is what represents all of Indigenous arts in Canada and the United States," she says.
Bear Robe was previously the director and curator of Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, the largest Indigenous, artist-run center in Canada. Bear Robe describes being a curator at an artist-run, not-for-profit center as "wearing many hats." This included hosting events, working with the budget and even writing grants, since the center was primarily funded by the Canadian federal government. When she moved to Santa Fe, she envisioned bringing Urban Shaman to the area by setting up a satellite space for the center. Vital Spaces offered the opportunity. The organization provided two programs for Urban Shaman and, after taking a break for the winter months, will be doing so again in the spring through the summer of next year using one of its venues.
"It really is encouraging a dialogue, not only with Canadian and American artists, but also with Canadian-Indigenous artists with the Santa Fe arts community, with all of its diversities," she says.
While Vital Spaces is not an artist-run center like the ones in Canada, Bear Robe says she hopes it will support the types of communities those centers support. Her work with the volunteer-run curatorial committee is collaborative. The committee members meet as often as they can and review applications from artists for performance spaces, installations, studios and other amenities. Bear Robe says everyone on the committee brings something different to the table. For her part, that's two graduate degrees: one in American Indian studies focusing on contemporary indigenous art and a second one in art history. She says she felt it was important for her to know about art history outside of the "Indigenous bubble." This background, she says, as a Native art historian and a curator focused on contemporary Indigenous art, is one of the strengths she brings to the curatorial committee.
"Or at least I hope it's one of the strengths I bring to the curatorial committee," she says. "Just to make sure that Vital Spaces has a diversity of artists from diverse communities, including the Indigenous community."
In terms of her approach to curation, Bear Robe says it is site-specific, but calls it "a process of research" and mentions speaking with artists and visiting studios. Institutional support makes all the difference in curating an exhibition, she notes, as well as connections with artists and other people in the field. When it comes to curating for Indigenous artists, Bear Robe adds that people are paying more attention to contemporary Indigenous art, but change is happening very slowly in the United States in terms of supporting Indigenous voices not driven by a market value.
"Some people will protest that," she says, "and say that's not true, but the support for Indigenous art in the United States is really lacking when you compare it to what's happening in Canada."
In addition to her work with Vital Spaces, Bear Robe has organized the Annual Indigenous Fashion Show with the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) since 2014. Shortly after she moved to Santa Fe in 2012, she was contracted to produce a fashion show for the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. She says she saw this as an extension of her curation and has produced a fashion show every year since then. She now also teaches the history of contemporary Indigenous fashion at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
"In terms of my career, I really have married the two, integrated the two, in terms of Indigenous fashion and contemporary Indigenous art," she says.
Bear Robe says it has been made clear to the artists of Vital Spaces that they are responsible for the organization being "grassroots." She specifies that it is the intention of the organization for artists to be the ones who are doing the programming and making events happen "from the inside-out." When she is asked what people should know about Vital Spaces or her ongoing work on the organization's curatorial committee, Bear Robe speaks slowly and pointedly.
"It is meant to be a meeting place. It is meant to be a place for artists to feel free to explore their creativity and not to be limited to what people or galleries or buyers are expecting of them."
Bear Robe will be curating a show in 2022 for the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts focusing on textiles and fashion and an exhibition for the San Diego Arts institute.
Activism through Art
Curator Brandee Caoba brings her life-long passion for art, activism and alternative perspectives to her work
By Maya Aronson
Brandee Caoba, assistant curator at SITE Santa Fe and an independent artist, strives to use the curatorial platform to provoke change, evoke feeling and promote dialogue in the local community. Her experimental nature, contagious confidence and activist leanings emanate through her personal art projects as well as her impactful curations.
Caoba received her bachelor of fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2013. For years, she has experimented with a vast palette of mediums and methods, including collage, photography, sculpture, painting and printmaking. Her art boldly explores the intricacies of her own inner shadows as well as the shadows in society.
Over the past six years, Caoba also has worked intensively with the collaborative puppet film group The Human Beast Box. Using recycled materials to create wild and elaborate puppets and sets has helped Caoba learn how to balance the more academic and research-based aspects of her work with something much more collaborative—what she calls "a wild anarchy with no authorship." The Human Beast Box is responsible for the film series The Love That Will Not Die, which is comprised of three episodes, including A New Zombie Puppet Musical, Synthesize Me and their most recent film, Mary K Pop.
Caoba believes all artists run the risk of taking themselves too seriously. She's found puppetry to be particularly freeing from conventional pressures. "When you're building Jabba the Hutt, there are no directions. No one's ever made one before. You don't know how it works. You can't really fail, so you keep trying," she says. Because Caoba has found this kind of work so liberating, she encourages experimentation, courage and risk-taking in the artists she curates.
"Visual language is easy for me…to understand and relate to," she says. "I understand what the artist is asking for." Because she understands the creative process, she loves coming up with "out-of-the-box ideas" for her artists and taking risks right alongside them. Especially at the beginning of a project, with a new artist who's been commissioned to create a work that doesn't yet exist, she finds it rewarding to say, "Hey. What do you want to make? I'm gonna help you."
Caoba says she has come to view the role of curator as one of privilege that comes with responsibility to give voice to the voiceless and tap into the human heart. She is determined to take advantage of her influential role and wants to do more than highlight beautiful or impressive works. She began at SITE in the first class of the SITE Scholars program in 2012. From there, she was hired in 2015 as a part-time curatorial assistant and promoted to assistant curator in 2017.
Caoba believes "activism through art" has the power to evoke emotions—and a kind of empathy—that other forms of activism don't. "I think that artists have an ability to take current events or information that isn't palatable, or is difficult for people to digest," she says. "We're all so saturated. It's on our phones, it's on the television, it's on the internet. I think that people get so saturated that they detach emotionally."
This is why Caoba chooses to spotlight artists like Sylvia Johnson, who tell stories that "create empathy and tap into the emotional core of a human being." Johnson's exhibit "Seeking Refuge," (which showed from Oct. 5 to Jan. 5 in the SITElab at SITE Santa Fe), intimately depicted the refugee crisis in the US and the way the privatized prison systems in New Mexico and across the country painfully impact people seeking asylum in the United States.
With a strong belief in art's ability to illuminate crucial yet under-represented issues, Caoba has always looked for ways to circumvent common limitations set by formal art institutions. In the early 2000s, she had her own nonprofit art space where she curated shows for activist artists such as Maureen Burdock. Through her work with nonprofits and at a museum like SITE, Caoba has learned that eliminating money from the agenda creates space for creativity, freedom and a deeper meaning for the artist and the curator. "We're not collecting. We're not selling. We're just here to support artists and to bring dialogues and culture and new ideas into our community," she says.
Caoba co-curated, with SITE's Phillips Director and Chief Curator Irene Hofmann the upcoming show, Displaced: Contemporary Artists Confront the Global Refugee Crisis, opening to the public March 21, 2020. This catalytic show will feature 10 different artists and 11 different projects and will take up all of SITE's gallery spaces. Caoba has gathered voices and stories from across the globe surrounding the topic of human displacement. "We've been working on this show for almost two years, so I'm very excited for it to manifest," she says.
Fortunately, Caoba is not about to stop doing her thing any time soon. "I think for all artists, we'll never retire. We're gonna make forever."
Challenging the Status Quo
form & concept Director Jordan Eddy seeks to break traditional art narratives in favor of inclusion
By Tristan Van Cleave
The form & concept gallery is bustling as artist Todd Ryan White and a team of others move prints and sculptures from sky-lit atrium to storage room. Director Jordan Eddy appraises the scene from the frosted glass staircase, arms crossed and an introspective palm under his chin. White's first solo exhibition at form & concept, Rainbow Eater, debuted on Nov. 29 2019 and runs through Jan. 25, 2020. The exhibition, a stunning, mixed-media sensory-overload, challenges notions of material culture—as does Eddy.
A trained journalist, Eddy began his career with marketing and arts writing (including for SFR). That work lead to a position at Matthews Gallery, where he curated a vernacular photography show. Shortly thereafter, Eddy would co-found Strangers Collective in 2014—a collaboration of emerging artists and writers. Among the many hats he would wear for Strangers Collective, Eddy acted as curator and director of pop-up exhibitions all over Santa Fe. His talents took him to Zane Bennett Contemporary Art in 2016, where Eddy became the marketing director for the new gallery form & concept, launched by owner Sandy Zane and overseen by founding director Frank Rose.
When Eddy became form & concept gallery's director two years later, he brought to his work the central philosophy of intersectional feminism. Intersectional feminism widens the discussion of womanhood to encompass race, religion, orientation and class. The gallery similarly aims to widen the discussion of art. As Eddy explains, form & concept is concerned with "looking at hierarchies of material culture and challenging some of these intrenched narratives about how we've sorted objects and therefore people … the easiest entry point is … gender, when you talk about craft media, certain images pop up in certain people's minds around that and how do you get someone to completely rethink that?"
Materials are associated with gender, class, and ethnicity among other facets of personal identity. Leather, for example, is a luxury material in the context of furniture and vehicle interiors and "luxury" as a designation speaks to a certain economic class. Leather in the context of clothing can range from a practical material used for protective garb—prompting images of blue-collar men and motorcyclists—to a soft luxury suede associated more often with wealth and femininity.
Just as the materials used to produce consumer goods (such as leather) elicit ideas about the consumer, the materials used to produce art elicit ideas about the artist. Challenging these ingrained ideas about material culture isn't new to the contemporary art world, but that doesn't make the task of reaching the uninitiated easier. Eddy seeks to combat the resistance to new narratives with audience inclusivity:
"I think a big challenge is that not everyone is connected to the contemporary art scene, and sometimes people feel extremely alienated by that world, and so how do you welcome someone into a space and really get them to look at that in a way where they don't feel attacked or lesser based around some of the conceptual ideas?" he says. "I think that art can do that, but you have to try to help a visitor have that experience where they come out of it and…they don't immediately rule out their own experience."
form & concept is a space dedicated to challenging preconceptions. As the gallery challenges material culture, its director challenges what it means to be a leader and curator: "I became overwhelmed with this idea of a single curatorial voice and realized I had to split that open and interrogate that in various ways," Eddy says. "Now, as director, my real job might be to collaborate with a lot of different types of curators…I think, in so many ways right now, leadership in the arts is going to have to adapt to changing economic climates and ideas around power structures and how they can be subverted or broken apart in different ways. So, that might be my real job in this space, challenging that, if we're truly going to do what we say we're doing."