The past 18 months have been a strange time for art lovers. Museums and galleries have sat empty. Artistic communities have, like all of us, learned to live in isolation. At the same time, though, there’s been a revolution in how we think of public space in our cities and towns. Streets, parks, and even alleyways have turned into our storefronts, our classrooms, and our museums.
What do these changes mean for the art world, and for arts’ relationship to the rest of the world?
On this episode, Trending Globally partnered with ‘Providence Curates’ to explore this question. Providence Curates is a nonprofit made up of artists, writers, and curators, dedicated to expanding and diversifying artistic communities in the region and to reimagining how art can enter the public realm.
This conversation was put together for PVDFest Ideas 2021, an Arts and Ideas festival in Providence, Rhode Island.
Guests on this week’s show:
‘Providence Curates: Cultivating a Transformative Experiment,’ is an offshoot of the Providence Biennale. You can learn more on their website, and contact them directly at email@example.com.
Special thanks to Stephanie Fortunato, Director, and Dr. Micah Salkind, Special Projects Manager of the City of Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism (ACT) PVDFest Ideas 2021, for making this collaboration possible. You can find a list of all of this year’s PVDFest Ideas events (both live and virtual) on their website.
[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. The past 18 months have been a strange time for art lovers. Museums and galleries have sat empty, artistic communities have, like all of us, learn to live in isolation.
At the same time though, we've seen a revolution in how we think of public space in our cities and towns. Streets, parks, even alleyways have turned into our storefronts, our classrooms, and our museums. What do these changes mean for the art world and for art's relationship to the rest of the world? On this episode, we're going to look at some of the ways the art world has changed over the past few years and at its relationship to larger political and cultural issues from Black Lives Matter to COVID-19.
We've had artists on Trending Globally before. But for this topic, we wanted to hear from the people who helped connect and promote artists and bring them into conversation-- curators. To do that, we partnered with Providence Curates. Providence Curates is a non-profit made up of artists, writers, and curators based in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts. This conversation was put together as part of PVD fest ideas and arts and Ideas Festival in our hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.
To start, I have in the studio Judith Tolnick Champa. Judith is a contemporary art curator. She was the co-founder of the Providence Biennial and is one of the founders of Providence Curates. Judith, thanks so much for coming in today.
JUDITH TOLNICK CHAMPA: Thank you for having me.
SARAH BALDWIN: So Judith, you reached out to us at Trending Globally about a collaboration looking at visual arts through a sociopolitical lens and exploring the process that brings art into the public. What made you interested in this kind of collaboration?
JUDITH TOLNICK CHAMPA: Well, I'm a big fan of Trending Globally, first. I love how your show looks at politics through a bunch of different angles-- history, culture, the social sciences. Providence Curates often deals with political questions through the arts. So we thought it would be great to have a conversation together.
SARAH BALDWIN: Providence Curates specializes in something you call activist curating. Can you explain what that is?
JUDITH TOLNICK CHAMPA: Yes. We bring together works by artists that explore and pursue themes like social and environmental justice. At the same time, we aim to be good citizens. We see art as community building. We do that by creating thoughtful but bold exhibitions, then by connecting with people seeking to learn the practice-- what I call the art of curating.
SARAH BALDWIN: So Judith, you brought together three people of different backgrounds with very different experiences in the visual arts to talk about all of this. Could you introduce them briefly?
JUDITH TOLNICK CHAMPA: Sure. I'm pleased to do that. Two board members of Providence Curates appear on today's podcast-- Spencer Evans and Jonny Skye. Spencer was born in Houston, Texas, and is currently a drawing professor at RISD. A practicing artist-- he works in drawing and painting, sculpture, illustration, and public art.
Jonny is from Beaverton, Oregon. She attended Brown and RISD and founded the Sky Gallery in Providence in Twenty-Seventeen. It was a contemporary art gallery whose mission was to challenge the dominant narrative. Their conversation was led by Melaine Ferdinand-King. She's a fourth year doctoral candidate in Africana Studies at Brown. Her work explores aesthetic expression and political action in the 21st century.
They started by unpacking that pesky word, curation. A word your listeners might know has something to do with museums and galleries. But there's more to it than that. Here's Melaine, Spencer, and Jonny.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: Jonny and Spencer, thanks so much for coming on this podcast.
JONNY SKYE: Happy to be here. Thanks, Melaine.
SPENCER EVANS: Thank you for having us.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: You both talk about being very community oriented and trying to assist a new generation of artists and to create a space. And I wondered if you could just speak a little bit more about what you mean by curating or what you mean by being a curator and about what it actually means to curate a space.
JONNY SKYE: For me, curating is about discerning around a visual language that support an expansion of an idea. It's not about choosing what's good or what's bad. It's not about judgment. It's not about just hanging artwork on a wall. To me, the power of curation is actually being purposeful about bring you a variety of voices, content, expressions, angles, through visual language together in the same space to challenge us.
SPENCER EVANS: I agree with that as well. I'mma simplify the way I see it. I see curating as like a reflection of one's vision. The way someone sees this world and also how they want this world to be seen from their perspective. I think we're all curators in one way or the other. We curate what our outfit will be. We kind of curate what our plans will be for a day or a season. And so in that sense, whether we're talking about something that most people just see as like a regular occurrence, in the art context, curating comes from somebody's vision.
JONNY SKYE: Yeah, I want to build on what you're saying a little bit. I think wherever people are deciding what's going on, there's curation involved, right? And really, it's about utilizing the opportunity to make choices to create different kinds of conversations. And sometimes that is about a self-reflection entirely, and sometimes it's about saying if I care about social justice or the Earth or what we're dealing with as humanity, and I feel like this is a way to get humanity around the table.
I want to make sure that all kinds of voices, not just who the people are, but even the way the marks are made or the work is crafted or the way the message is addressed. So that to me, it's that kind of multiplicity that kind of-- curating can be like making the soil fertile for an experience that you can't predict, but that can hopefully challenge and complicate and bring love for humanity into a room.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: You both already touched on it a bit. But I would say that in this moment, we are in a very precarious and contentious situation where I feel like people are tiptoeing around what to say about social justice, about how do we actually convey social meaning in a way that can be communicated to people in an accurate and socially responsible way. So can you speak a little bit about why curating is especially important at this moment, especially in this way that we're thinking about the arts as something that has sociopolitical consequences? And how does curating convey social meaning in a very intentional and meaningful way?
SPENCER EVANS: I kind of want to piggyback off of one of the things you were just saying-- this idea of bringing different perspectives together. If we're talking about curating and thinking about social issues or just things that are going on like in our environment based off of how we interact with each other, I would call that the rigor within curating. And that comes from seeing things from different perspectives. In order to do that, it's going to take these different perspectives, but try to find where those intersects and show up.
In order to get that clear view, we are going to have to talk about and highlight some of the things that do keep us from being in that connected space. And so that's where that high level curating comes from where the rigor in there it's like, OK, how do we find where we all meet each other.
JONNY SKYE: I think even as a curator individual, whatever the lens is, even if it's a collaborative group, there is a lens. And being aware of that lens is the only real way to transform or betwixt the common narrative. And I think this is where visual language has so much power is that we get locked in words. And quips and one liners and even conscious progressive people will repeat things that don't mean anything because it's in the common narrative.
But I do believe that visual language breaks us out of some of these cognitive containers that keep us from really understanding things more complexly. And I think high level curation, in addition to what you're saying, is also about knowing that you don't know and being really open to a journey and an experience with the work.
So I guess I'm just saying that collaborative work, when you're talking about a major curatorial experience, is very useful, especially when that group starts, like what you're saying, Spencer, with an active and honest conversation about lens and value and what's good and bad and why those things are not really part of a good, healthy, curatorial practice.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: Jonny, I think about what you're saying about collaboration. And I think it has to do a lot with the relationship between curating and culture. And what I hear you saying is that collaborative curating shifts our focus toward process and being in community with one another and gathering and thinking about what we can create out of those gathering spaces instead of the end result or that end product. And I think if we are to be meaningful and have meaning for our broader social spectrum, we have to do away with these myopic perspectives and these cut and dry notions of objectivity towards more inclusive frameworks.
And I think collaboration and diversity and curating really does help us question who is in the room when we're creating, when decisions are being made, who can speak or act who has the power to speak and act, and who can access these social cultural and economic resources, and who actually can say, OK, this is what is important and this is what I want to present to this community.
JONNY SKYE: Right? There's always a sense and what I always got-- at the gallery, there were folks coming through saying, I don't know how to draw, I don't know how to make, or I don't know how to experience this space. And I think, what we're talking about in terms of transformative practice and curation is hopefully breaking down some of those value systems as well. Starts with being conscious clearly, but it's essential, I think, if this work can actually do something different than what we already know.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: I think now is really important to start talking about ethics of the art world and the curating world. And I wanted to ask you both if you felt that curators have an ethical responsibility? And how do we continue to center and further ethically sound approaches to the project or the practice of curating?
SPENCER EVANS: I definitely find ethics to be a huge part of it. But on the other end-- because I don't want to say that all art shows should be about this specific thing and for the next 12 years, everybody needs to be included in every single thing because if that's not what your actual truth is or what you actually study, then you could end up maybe doing more harm than you thought you were going to do and-- because it'll end up being a bunch of folks virtue signaling, which we're already seeing a lot of right now.
So what I will say is that folks who say they are about inclusivity and equity, actually be about that. And if you say that, oh, I'm going to make this show, I want to curate a show that says something about who the creatives in this community are and what they're bringing to the culture of Providence and in particular to the culture or whatever place they're in, then you would do the work to make sure that that's actually being represented and not just from your view. But if you're not doing that, then don't say that that's what you're here to do. And that's what I feel about the ethics of curating because I feel like it can be a lot more simple than folks try to make it seem.
JONNY SKYE: Well, and I think one of the things we in Providence is that people work with the people that they know. There are so many creatives here and it would be really easy to pull together a show of the artists that I know that are making work that I think is really fascinating and brilliant. And then we get into other kind of camps and fissures and equity issues.
Network is an equity issue, right? Our exposure to folks and to people is an issue and it varies. So the idea of pushing outside of what you know and being responsible to that is certainly an ethical issue. I think Providence has done an amazing job of the last 30 years of really saying everybody's voice matters. What AS220 has done with their programs and juried curated spaces really is important for folks to feel like they can engender an experience without judgment, which is the antithesis of, I think, what we're talking about when we talk about curating.
At the same time, there's really a lack of opportunity for a dynamic interaction with what people are making. I think what we're trying to engender is a way of being really purposeful to complicate ideologies, not just to tick some boxes and not without consciousness of one's own place in the world.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: Yeah, Jonny. I think you're exactly right, especially when you're thinking about Providence. It's known for his cultural diversity in terms of its people, the many traditions that make the city come to life. I think what Spencer said about representation is really important. But also, the value system is extraordinarily important. It's not just about representation, but it's also about what are the values of a people, how do we make this message personal, how do we have very individualized discussions about what does this story, what does this message mean to a culture, to a community, to a history that sometimes has often been forgotten, especially when we think about many of the Indigenous communities that are in the city.
I think Providence does a very good job of presenting itself as a very small but rich city that has many stories with global relevance. And Jonny, you already talked a little bit about some of the contemporary art experiences here that is in the city that reflects or celebrates a certain truth, whether it's in relation to some of the Black and Brown communities here, some of the more structural issues that the city is currently facing, some of the issues with public art. And so I wanted to ask Spencer, did you have, in your past two years, any experiences with some of the art spaces here that you felt either reflected a certain message that you were looking for, that you think reflected the history of a community, or maybe are there ways that Providence still yet hasn't activated a certain truth or potential?
SPENCER EVANS: OK, yeah. Sure. Jonny mentioned AS 220. And just in my a couple of years of being here and as-- we talked about this as well. I was like, socially, I guess I've only been here for like a year because last year almost doesn't count. But in that time, there's been a few people that I've linked up with and also some events that I've gone to. One place in particular, a place called Public, Not Private. And there are Black and Latinx owned community space as well as a shop and a gallery. And I've been to some shows in their space.
But another thing they do that-- and it's not like I have like an actual official connection with them. It's just, I'm just speaking from my experience with going to their events. It's not always in this art context of when we do things and bring people together, it's to show and sell art. They do community events where it's really just like, hey Providence, let's see who all is here. Come out and listen and let's see what was going on. We have activities and different ways that we can meet.
That's really important to me because, like I mentioned earlier, being a Black artist, I had to keep a really keen eye and ear in regards to curating because I'm trying to find out where I can get in. And so I've had experiences here in town and just other places, any time I'm in a museum, but even at the museum at RISD where I don't wear a name that says I'm faculty, right? So I've been in certain spaces.
At the place where I work, when I first step in, the person who's working there is looking at me like, are you lost or can I help you, is there a thing you're looking for? And folks can't see me, but I'm a six foot tall Black man with locks. And when I'm at work, occasionally, I dress in a soft cosplay at times. So you know.
So anyway, it's that type of feeling that I think is really important to address in terms of the comfort that one would feel when they're in these spaces, especially when you're trying to say, oh, we're an inclusive space. And not to put a dig on like these people that may be working at these institutions here. But it's the thing that I've heard from my own students and felt in other places around the country where it's like, OK, art is supposed to be this thing where everybody can come and enjoy, right?
They tell you that it's like this place where-- come check out what we're doing. But if you don't feel like you're supposed to be in there for whatever reason, then it's not really saying what it's supposed to say. It's not really being what it's supposed to be.
JONNY SKYE: I mean, are you are you saying the curation maybe should go beyond just the choosing of work around an idea--
SPENCER EVANS: Definitely.
JONNY SKYE: --but should also include what Public, Not Private is doing?
SPENCER EVANS: Yeah, community involvement. Who are you, do you know--
JONNY SKYE: It's all about relationships.
SPENCER EVANS: Exactly. Do the people who live here? And then, in that sense, you can actually curate from a pool that really represents the community because like you said, people are choosing the art of their friends, right? They're choosing the work of their friends and just having the friends come through and being like, oh, this is the community of creatives in town. However, if you're never actually connecting with the community, how can you say you're actually knowing who the creatives in town are.
JONNY SKYE: And I want to add it to a notion that I think one of the things that would be really dynamic in Providence is having shows including artwork from folks that don't live here. Providence is a global city. Everybody's here. And literally, there's over 90 countries representing the people who live in the city and over 50% of them weren't born in the US. And it's such an incredible capital. We don't even know our city. That's the other thing. The opportunity that comes is that we can actually get to know ourselves through these kinds of projects.
And I hate to put all the responsibility on any one individual to the whole scheme, but that's where the collaboration piece comes in. You make connections. You build new connections. You meet new people. You're constantly in a conversation about what the city is and how to reflect it back and where are those spaces where we can, as a community, come together and start to wrestle a little bit with our circumstances.
SPENCER EVANS: You know what? That makes me think of something. Speaking of like a historical connection that may come with the creative scene or artists or creators that may be in town, there are organizations that have members who are artists, and they're already doing these types of things. And these other places that may not show up in the galleries, but curating as well as creative expression doesn't have to be this thing that exists within the white box, and you're putting these things up and people come in and be quiet and look at them.
There are things like the House of Glitter. You heard the House of Glitter? Yeah. So the House of Glitter, a historical fantasy dance opera. And they're starting their programs back up, and they'll be doing things on Fridays again. And so these are the things that I think when we talk about knowing our community and being able to represent that from a curatorial standpoint, getting out into these places-- that can be another way outside of just an email list of an open call. It's like if you're out into the community, you're going to run into artists at these spaces because people are making these connections from there as well.
So it doesn't just end up being this friend list that you're grabbing names from and putting things out there. And I think that is the thing that's really important. And that's also speaking to like the rigor side of being a curator. It's like, what am I doing to branch outside of what I have been seeing or what I normally work with or whom I normally work with.
The wider, I would say, your familiarity with your community, the stronger you're curating will be. And that's from any standpoint. It works whether you're in the art context, whether it's in culinary arts, whether it's in fashion design. Whatever it is that you're into, if your vocabulary is wider, you can pick and choose and do it in a creative way that's a lot more thoughtful.
JONNY SKYE: Right. Spencer, I agree with you. And in some ways while you were talking, I was thinking about how relationship focused my work was at Skye Gallery even. And right now, I'm not having relationships with anybody. I mean, a lot of us aren't or haven't. And that sense of knowing is compromised. What I end up doing is I just mine all day on Instagram.
I mean, it's a great immediate platform at least to understand where artists are and what their voice looks like and what they're thinking about and how their work is evolving and people's reaction to it and also seeing threads and themes of content where people are heading in terms of talking about what's happening and what life is like for them right now to their work.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: I think the question of alternative space and digital media is extremely important in this moment, especially when we're trying to think about how do we connect ourselves to a community while distanced. And I think one of the central roles of the curator is to implement interventional tactics for how do we create new dialogues, new conceptualizations of not only space but of social meaning and messages. And I think the role of social media moving forward is going to be crucial.
You already have people curating digital exhibitions, we have podcast formats that are actually trying to articulate a different way of understanding art, you have, I believe, ASMR with these descriptions of what art looks like, what things feel like, what things could taste like. And I think this adds to a different sensory dimension of what curators have as an artistic and a creative resource.
So I think, in conclusion, I mean, thinking about some of the transformative practices that curators can use to expose historical and political conditions and realities. But I want to ask, as to new recent board members, how is PVD Curates hoping to stimulate a future conversation and a future of curating in the city of Providence?
JONNY SKYE: Spencer and I are actually-- I think we're the freshest, right?
SPENCER EVANS: Mm-hmm.
JONNY SKYE: Yeah. Yes. Before Spencer and I came on, they were in-- the board was in a process of kind of relooking at their mission and vision and in the pandemic and the slowdown, the inability to gather and create spaces. Part of it is really about the legacy of the city and the legacy of that initiative in saying, how does Providence Curates cultivate new curators. So I think the organization is going into a new phase of really trying to mentor and build a diverse group of young curators and curatorial teams around ideas of social and environmental justice.
So we're here to kind of be in the mix of, I think, a new creative practice itself. And as we are as artists and as curators but also in the education and the conversation around bringing folks into the mix and with the hopefully holding the same commitment that we have to using looking at visual art and contemporary art in particular as transformative social experiment.
SPENCER EVANS: Yeah, and that mentorship part is really important in terms of those who are really trying to make their way in there and then trying to figure out what is their curatorial voice, because I think a sound mentorship is like a guidance type of situation where it's like, oh, I see you're working with a thing. Is just what you're trying to do? Let me try to help you form that into how you would like it to be so it can still be yours.
But another thing is, also to understand that these types of things have been happening already-- there's been a lot of curating already going on. The issue is perception of value. And I think part of our mission will also be to, as much as we can, use what names that we have or what connections that we have to then shine that light on the thing that already has been existing so that whatever type of value that they've been missing or legitimacy that hasn't been placed on their name can then be there.
It's going to take shining that light on all the other folks that aren't really getting-- I don't want to use the word cloud on here, but I'm going to use the word cloud. They haven't gotten that legitimacy placed on their name. And so once that happens, we can see that curating can look a lot of different ways. And this idea of one being more valuable than the other is just an illusion, almost like a make-believe game in a sense.
JONNY SKYE: For sure. In addition to that, I think our mentorship will also include really practical tools-- how to think about it, how to create visuals, how to map out an idea. There are so many easy tangible things, I think, that can help explode an experience. So I think it's a combination. It's about really allowing someone to blossom but also giving them some tools and language to be able to have those experiences.
SPENCER EVANS: I love that idea of language in there because that is definitely-- a lot of times, that's the thing that can separate someone from getting where they want to be is like, oh, I know how to do the thing, I just don't know what it's called. Once you get that language, then you can then give yourself a direction and to be exactly where you want to be. So yeah, that's a great way to put it, Jonny.
JONNY SKYE: Yeah. And the other thing, just to say, is, I think, Providence Curates is just stepping foot into this mission with a commitment to Providence, to the history and the legacy here. And we're going to be learning along the way. And it's going to be working in the same creative process. But we're excited, and we hope anyone listening will look us up and join us.
MELAINE FERDINAND-KING: As a emerging scholar and curator myself, I'll say that I'm extremely excited for this opportunity to speak with you all in the future. But I'm also just thinking about the way that Providence Curates lends an opportunity for up and coming thinkers and creatives to expand their understanding of knowledge and what constitutes knowing a practice or knowing artistic theory and artistic history or just history at large.
And I think its mission is going to give us very much to think about in the future. And I just hope that Providence continues to expand, ignite, and invite a broader audience into some of the stories that have been subjugated for so long. Thank you both.
JONNY SKYE: Thank you, Melaine. Thank you, Spencer.
SPENCER EVANS: Thank you, all.
SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks again to Judith Tolnick Champa and to Melaine, Spencer, and Jonny for the fascinating conversation. This episode was a co-production with Providence Curates and was brought to you by PVD Fest Ideas and the Providence Department of Art and Tourism. You can learn more about all these groups in our show notes.
If you like this conversation and you haven't subscribed to Trending Globally, subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks again for listening. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally.