Survival Tip: (On artists meeting with curators) “Be prepared. Recognize that time is precious. Plan three things that you want to get across in advance and don’t rely on the winds of conversation to lead the way.”
In the fourth interview in the “Survival Guide” series, Raina Benoit talks with curator Miranda Lash. Lash moved to New Orleans in 2008 to become the New Orleans Museum of Art’s first dedicated Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. She has since become a driving force in the expansion of the city’s contemporary art scene, connecting local artists to national and international dialogues in the field.
Raina Benoit: Artists are increasingly thinking creatively outside the studio, perhaps motivated by frustrations with the economic climate and less governmental support for the arts, or simply the desire to connect with their audiences in new ways. In formulating the “Survival Guide” series, I was interested in talking to you because your job is at the crossroads where artists and the art institution meet.
Your current position as Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art was created at NOMA right after Katrina during a time of major confusion and turmoil in New Orleans. Do you have any thoughts as to why the institution would be interested in adding these areas to its mission at such a chaotic moment?
Miranda Lash: There was a confluence of variables. I think the whole city was looking for a rebirth; the museum was also looking for a change. I know that in seeking out recovery funds the then director and high-level board members traveled around the country visiting different museums and witnessed various programs firsthand. The national museum community responded generously with all kinds of support. It was really a beautiful and special time. Another factor may have been the sculpture garden, which had come to be an important part of NOMA’s mission and there wasn’t a curator to oversee it.
RB: It takes a unique curator to embrace both modern and contemporary art. The range of work that you’ve exhibited shows that you love and understand both worlds. What has been the general response to the contemporary artwork in particular?
ML: As full a spectrum as you can imagine. I’ve had people say it’s the greatest thing that they’ve experienced. I’ve also had people say that they’ve walked through the door just to turn around and leave.
Part of being a curator is having faith in your decisions. You can’t be discouraged every time someone says what you’re doing is crazy. Instead you have to listen to what the collective voice is saying, what people are responding to and what’s concerning them. I want to open up the museum to many types of experiences. If you want a meditative experience with a sculpture, you can have that, and if you want to see how a living artist is creating participatory artwork, then that is also possible.
RB: You’ve had a select number of local artists exhibit at the museum. As a curator, have you observed any stylistic or conceptual themes that are unique to the New Orleans contemporary art scene?
ML: It’s a debate that I have all the time with colleagues who are trying to figure out how an artwork relates to New Orleans. When they look for the “Louisiana-ness” in the art that’s when I have to say, “Are you looking for a saxophone and a crawfish?” If you’re looking for something specific then you’re probably not addressing the artwork on its own terms. So I don’t look for the “New Orleans-ness” in New Orleans artwork. I feel that it pigeonholes the artist. Lynda Benglis is a great example. She’s clearly influenced by Mardi Gras and parades but the work still belongs to a larger dialogue about feminism, process art, and the use of materials. I’m interested in artists who are engaging with the city’s history with their own vernacular like Skylar Fein’s Black Flag (Elizabeth’s) or Dario Robleto’s Survival Does Not Lie in the Heavens, where he reconfigured the stage lights from live album covers to look like stars. These works I find really interesting because they are based on historical research but use it in a new way. What I look for in great art is an independent voice.
RB: How do you find these artists? Where do you look? And what are you looking for?
ML: I go everywhere and anywhere. I’m always looking. I go to local galleries and I travel a lot. On a busy month, I could be traveling three weekends out of four. Even if I’m doing research on a project, I set aside a day or two to see galleries and just look with no express purpose. I do read magazines, but I find that the strongest impressions are always from seeing artworks in person. I’m looking for how the work is going to translate into the actual museum experience.
RB: What are some “dos” and “don’ts” for artists when approaching a curator?
ML: Don’t bad mouth people (laughs). Keep the focus on your art and your profession. Be direct, strategic, and prepared. It always amazes me especially for studio visits with graduate programs where I’ll visit 12 studios and the students know that we only have 10 minutes and yet they will have no idea what they want to discuss. Also just being a nice, decent human being counts for a lot. Some curators are interested in working with difficult people. I’m not one of them. That doesn’t mean that I won’t work with difficult art. I’m happy to take on challenging artwork, just not any drama.
RB: I’ve attended a few Creative Capital professional development workshops where artists are encouraged to think of themselves as their own private enterprises. It’s hard to know your creative rights especially in a culture that can easily take your services for granted. Many artists have talked about learning their rights the hard way, for example, work not being returned to them or being returned damaged. How would you describe NOMA’s role as an institution and its relationship within a community of young professionals?
ML: In regards to the development of artists professionally, I am happy to give advice one-on-one, but NOMA doesn’t have the means to take on city-wide artist development and I’m not convinced that is the role of a city museum. Our role is to mount exhibitions, create publications, and to promote shows and the collection. I think artist development can be better tackled by a contemporary arts center or an alternative art space.
On the topic of artists’ rights, I’m very opinionated. Whether you are a small gallery or a large institution, if you agree to exhibit you have to take care of the artwork. So if the roof is leaking, don’t ask someone to do a show until it’s fixed. It has to be 100 percent transparent and clear. Handshake deals are very common in the art world on every level. Trust is important but there’s nothing wrong with following up with an email to recap what was discussed and agreed upon during your conversation. I think when tensions arise it’s due to a lack of clarity. For example, when I’m working with an artist I’m very open about the budget so that we can work together on how to spend the money—on shipping, promotion, or a publication. Artists shouldn’t assume anything unless it’s been said and ideally confirmed in writing. There is a lot of talking involved. I am always an advocate for artists within my institution.
RB: The process sounds very collaborative.
ML: It is.
RB: You mentioned the role that contemporary arts centers can play in helping develop artists professionally in their respective cities. In recent years, many New Orleans artists have done an excellent job pulling together, opening up their own spaces, and pumping some lifeblood into their neighborhoods and each other’s work. Although their passion and hard work has gone a long way, refreshing a once perceived insular art scene, they can’t bridge all the gaps. At the same moment, the city’s Contemporary Arts Center has been going through its own series of transitions. It still has not recovered from the resignation of Amy Mackie earlier this year, with no long-term replacement announced for her and no replacement for Executive Director Jay Weigel, who also resigned this year. What do you foresee as being a consequence of this turmoil at the CAC? Do you see it affecting your colleagues, NOMA, or the local artists that you work with?
ML: It’s hard to say what it will be at this point. If you live in a city with this much artistic production there should be an outlet to display and I think that’s something that everyone can agree on. I think my job would be different if there was no Contemporary Arts Center. Right now I try to balance local, national, and international artists but if there is no institutionalized venue showing New Orleans artists, then I would have to shift the way I do things. I feel like the CAC could provide a good context and they have a lot of space to work with. Also, if you think of my museum as a pie, it is shared across many artistic genres, whereas the CAC’s whole pie is contemporary art. There is a great deal of potential there, and I hope it can be harnessed in the best way. My goal is for NOMA and the CAC to continue working collaboratively and in tandem. If the CAC is strong it makes us all stronger. It brings more people to the city and people will care more about contemporary art locally. We have to convince curators from out of town to come visit and the more places they can go to view work the better. I believe the rising tide lifts all boats. Whoever steps in to fill Amy’s role will have an immense task before him or her, but I would hope that we can support each other and learn from each other’s ideas.