Ruba Katrib was appointed curator at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City in 2012. Previously associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, she spoke to ArtReview in 2012 about cultural and financial tensions surrounding the display of art in Miami and beyond, and looks at the role of the curator today.
Miami frightens me. Or perhaps ‘concerns’ is a better term. It seems like a microcosm of what is happening, or may have already happened, to art and its circulation in the past decade. I’m not sure if it’s a symptom or the cause. You were associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art there for the past four years, until coming to New York, and so have quite a unique perspective on the city’s arts scene. Of course, for most of us it’s just a week in December. Am I wrong to be concerned?
No need to be frightened, Miami is a sunny place with beautiful beaches. Concern, though, is more understandable. Miami has a unique set of factors that determine the landscape of contemporary art, and I am not sure of any place in the world that could match them exactly, so I don’t think Miami is contagious. But what I think you’re getting at is perhaps a disconcerting rearrangement of roles: curators are dealers, collectors are curators and dealers are collectors. When these professional roles (and institutions) are always shifting, they tend to skirt responsibility and a deeper engagement. Also, critics are largely missing in this picture. But there are a few people in Miami who are working hard to fill these gaps. It will take time to make the scene more dynamic, but still I don’t think it will ever look like a ‘traditional’ art city. Miami is continuously being formed and reformed in the present moment. The city isn’t burdened by history, which can be both positive and negative, and this is perhaps also why it seems to demonstrate shifts in art around the world, but with a more disconcerting sense of insouciance and speed.
From an outsider’s perspective, there appears a dominance of ‘mega- collectors’, who we all know have built some incredible spaces in which to display their artworks, while the so- called public sector appears somewhat secondary in terms of cultural production and reception. That fragmentation you speak of is also manifested in a kind of endemic possessive individualism that has found its form in Miami’s cultural life. I have nothing against collectors, but I do question the ‘display of capital’ as an organisational mode of cultural display in the public sphere…
RK Maybe we are just in an awkward time, and witnessing the early formations of new institutions. Most of the major museums we know today started as an individual’s or family’s ‘display of capital’. I’m not really sure whether this was more or less ostentatious in the past, but we can hope that these major collectors will have some philanthropic spirit and invest in institutions beyond themselves. That would make Miami, and other cities, very rich culturally. Of course the fear is that these collections are just for the owners and just for their lifetimes. We can’t depend on them; meanwhile, existing public institutions are flagging. This tension and anxiety is certainly palpable within Miami, and probably elsewhere.
From the programme you developed at MOCA – which included symposia like ‘New Methods’ , examining the practices of alternative organisations with educational components for working artists in Latin America, and ‘Open Process’ , which invited local artists to research and develop new projects for the museum, and even a seminar series for people interested in theory and criticism – it seemed that you were well aware of a cultural deficit in Miami. There’s no art school, for example, though there were some efforts (primarily private) to start one a few years ago. Is there an ‘alternative’ artworld in Miami? If there is, I’ve never been aware of it during the art fair…
RK Well, the interesting thing about Miami is that there are still many things to do. I felt like there were very specific things I could bring to the local art community, which could be very satisfying, but also frustrating at times. And there is an art school – I actually taught there for three years – but there isn’t really a relevant MFA programme in Miami. After four years in the city and many attempts and shifts in strategy, I think that while the scene is very small, it is also too fragmented. I met people who thought that reading critical theory, or anything really, would ruin the ‘purity’ of their art. I also met people who were very excited to engage with and initiate independent projects. There are many alternatives and distinct groups of artists, but often they are made up of only four to ten people, and sometimes even just one individual. If there were ways to bridge these gaps, to find commonalities and work together, I think Miami could transform even further. To be in Miami is to continuously work on building the local art scene and a sense of community, something that can be both exhilarating and exhausting. And it takes a lot of time to understand Miami. One week in December isn’t enough, and of course, there are so many other things going on during that week that have very little to do with the city year round.
This ‘awkward time’ is bang on. That conflation or even deliberate confusion of roles that you mentioned earlier is really true, not only in Miami but throughout the so-called artworld. I remember last year at Miami Basel waking up to a full-page open letter in The Miami Herald criticising the renaming of the Miami Art Museum (the city’s major ‘public‘ museum, with $100 million in public financing ) as the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County thanks to a $35m donation. I remember catching myself offering a somewhat disinterested shrug, thinking, ‘Well, he gave them $35m.’ Is that where we are right now? Ambivalence at best?
RK Were you ambivalent about the amount of money he gave or the institution’s shift in identity, by taking a new name? I don’t know enough about that particular situation to speak knowledgeably about it, but from the outside it appears more like an act of desperation than ambivalence. Although I am fairly sure it was a more strategic move.
Actually, what concerned me was my own ambivalence. What would have seemed preposterous some years ago now appeared to be just the way things go these days. An article in last week’s New York Times entitled ‘The Art World, Blurred’ quotes curator Peter Galassi as saying: “For 30 years at MoMA, I worked with dealers every day and a lot of them were more serious than museum curators, partly because they’re putting their own money on the line.” As a younger curator today, what are the stakes for you? Or perhaps a more normative question might be: what do you think the stakes should be for your generation of curators?
RK Are you asking me to be the voice of my generation?! In all seriousness, this has come up at many times (with established curators lamenting new generations and by younger curators trying to escape from the vicious cycle of hype). I am not entirely sure how to answer and I can’t fully articulate much in the space we have, but I will attempt some semblance of an answer. For me, money isn’t at stake, although earning a salary and putting cat food on the table is something I have to think about. But I don’t follow money in the artworld, which might be foolish, but this speaks to what is at stake for me, and I think for many of my colleagues: how to remain invested, stimulated and engaged when so much value and interest in the artworld circulates around money?
Personally, I am driven by the moments when I’m working with artists, when there is a real exchange and some urgency and energy around a project. In my work, I am trying to sustain the possibility for those moments to occur, despite external factors. I think this gets at the multiplicity of experiences and conversations in the artworld, increasingly few of which manage to escape talk about auction prices and gallery sales, but some of which do get beyond these fixations. For me, a larger question becomes: how to proceed with integrity and professionalism when these very concepts are being redefined (often by more established curators)? Is it possible to slow down and increase the intensity of work with artists without the attention-deficient artworld totally losing interest? If I avoid working in certain arenas, am I just being conservative and outmoded, or am I sticking to some kind of principle? Is there a way to maintain the utmost care for artworks and artists as a curator while blurring institutional boundaries? How does a gallery work with an artist, versus a museum? What happens when these lines completely disappear?
In the same article another former MoMA curator who now works with Gagosian Gallery, John Elderfield, is quoted as saying, ‘I wonder at what point a gallery and a museum will do a show together?’ Without a doubt, John has organised ‘museum-quality’ shows within the private-gallery setting. Can you suggest a difference between the museum and the private gallery that you believe will stand the test of time?
RK I could say that the difference is money, but if you peel back the layers, it’s all money and it’s all the same money, for the most part, which supports the gallery and the museum. It’s just how this money is presented and distributed that makes the difference. Importantly, galleries don’t receive ‘public’ or government money, but there is less and less of that funding available. I think one of the key differences is how they work with artists, which artists and why. There is a structure in a museum that allows for some divergence from the beaten path, while I think in a gallery this possibility is significantly less because of an individual’s financial investment. The sad thing is that institutions across the country seem more and more afraid to take the liberties that their structures allow them to take, so it’s increasingly difficult to see the distinction.
You talked about a ‘disconcerting rearrangement of roles’. This is particularly apparent in Miami, with some stunning and not always predictable results. The Rubells, who I actually admire for their ambitions and their honesty about what they are doing, make perhaps the boldest statement for their programme: ‘We only show art we own. That is a founding principle of the Rubell Family Collection, a principle that gives us tremendous freedom and enormous constraints. When we set out to conceptualize a new exhibition, we know we will only get the depth and quality we seek if we already have a strong foundation of works by a core group of artists. Once the exhibition is determined, we then collect into it, buying works that we consider essential right up to the closing date for the catalogue, just one month before the opening of the show.’ Their 2008 exhibition 30 Americans, for example, featured works by 30 African Americans of the last three decades. It’s now travelling to museums throughout the United States. That is quite new. In this sense I do think Miami is beginning to set the pace for others. This is also true for Art Basel Miami Beach. Art fairs are the new biennials. You just came back from an art fair in Bogotá, Colombia. Do you think these are seismic shifts or am I exaggerating?
RK I am not positive that the Rubells only show work that is in their collection, actually, but in any case, this is a guiding principle even as they act ‘curatorially’. They do mount thematic exhibitions with big publications, and they take risks that perhaps only they can take. I think they are contributing a voice, but I don’t think this is in any way supplanting museum/curator- organised shows. It is new, but I also don’t believe this is a widespread phenomenon. I was just in london for Frieze and the following week went to artBO, which was really refreshing, even though art fairs tend to get the brunt of scepticism. I think the major fairs can be predictable at times, but they can be a great way to prompt further research into an artist. Of course, they can’t really articulate much that is in-depth, but should they? For me, visiting fairs can be helpful in order to get a superficial picture of something and perhaps stumble onto work by an artist I didn’t know about, but they are all experiences I have to follow up on and evaluate outside of the fair context.
More specifically, artBO is an interesting event and creates a productive time to visit Bogotá. There is a dynamic art scene there, and during the fair it’s just a little easier for outsiders to get a programme. Galleries are open, shows are up and artists are out and about. I think that in cities like Bogotá, the art fair is an easier model than a biennial. It’s less expensive and taxing on the city, but functions in the same way many of the biennials across the world do: they introduce people to a place and its art scene. The fair might even be better, since biennials tend to show so many of the same artists; it’s like globetrotting just to see the same exhibition over and over. Certainly this isn’t true for all biennials and all art fairs, but I think for many cities, art fairs may be more sustainable ways of connecting internationally.
How do you think biennials might adapt to the new reality in which it is now almost impossible to provide information that’s not already readily available?
RK I have no idea. Is that the point of a biennial? It seems many current mega-exhibition strategies are about moving away from the new, but are, as a result, fetishising the old. Old information is the new information?