Kathleen Smith: New Art, New Opportunities

Kathleen Smith is the Exhibitions Director of the New Art Center in Newton, where Pedigree opens September 16 and runs through October 14. The show is curated by Elizabeth Devlin of FLUX.Boston and features Elizabeth Alexander, Caleb Cole, Cynthia Consentino, Joo Lee Kang, and Shelley Reed and other intriguing artists.

Pedigree is part of the Center’s Curatorial Opportunity Program, which offers the opportunity for curators and artist/curators to propose new exhibitions, often including local artists. We asked Kathleen about the New Art Center, what makes for a strong curatorial proposal, how artists can maximize an exhibition experience, and what’s on the horizon for the multifaceted art space in Newton’s community.

ArtSake: The New Art Center has a long tradition of enlisting local artists and curators to organize group exhibitions. What are the main goals of the Curatorial Opportunity Program, as it currently stands?

Kathleen: Since May 1991, the Curatorial Opportunity Program (COP) has offered a public call for curatorial proposals, which is always very competitive. During our 2013-2014 cycle we received fifty five proposals, of which four were selected. We are working to establish COP satellite galleries around the Greater Boston area to allow for more exhibitions to be realized and to create and maintain a curatorial conversation among other mid-sized contemporary art spaces. The COP is devoted to providing a platform for artists and curators to organize thought provoking art exhibitions that expose Newton and the region to new art and new ideas, develop their practice as thinkers and makers and also gain valuable work experience, thereby improving the cultural health and profile of the region. The COP is the Boston area leader in providing opportunities for individuals to explore the curatorial field and experiment with alternative approaches in the presentation of contemporary art.

Each selected curator is offered a monetary stipend, which continues to be an integral part of our program. Our goal is to increase this type of support in the future. It is important that the curatorial process is deemed valuable and compensated. We provide support in a variety of other areas as well, in administration, exhibition design and production, and promotion. As many of the curators come to us with varying skill sets, we work closely with them to develop their curatorial skills. Through programming with the curators we also work to educate the public and help create a diverse audience that thinks critically about contemporary art.

The best education one can gain in the curatorial field lies in the practice of doing. This is what drives me and the program; as an educator and an independent curator myself, I believe in the importance of taking risks – artistically, curatorially and ideologically, as well as being part of a larger discourse that highlights the social significance of art. I stand behind every proposal and curator that we select and I look forward to taking the leap with them now and into the future.

ArtSake: How does the program fit into the New Art Center’s larger program of opportunities for artists?

Kathleen: The New Art Center employs over fifty working artists and teachers through our well-respected studio art program that is devoted to high quality art education and is committed to sharing the studio practice with children, teens, and adults of all ages and all levels of experience. We enable our students to become artists and create a platform for artists who teach to further their art practice through our competitive Holzwasser Gallery program, which awards exhibitions of one person, two person, and three person shows and is named after an inspirational student and artist Mary J. Holzwasser.

The New Art Center’s mission is to support the development of visual artists and cultivate a community that appreciates art. The core idea that drives this mission is our desire to provide a comprehensive experience of art, which is the development of the artist as well as the audience. In a 1957 lecture, 20th century artist and thinker Marcel Duchamp developed this idea stating that “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the art in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” Thus the artwork is not complete until it is received and it is this reception that is critical for the artwork’s meaning and posterity. The opportunities we create and offer to artists are intimately tied to the development of audience.

ArtSake: What advice do you have for artists or other individuals who are considering applying to curate an exhibition through the program?

Kathleen: Be bold, be brave, but also be thoughtful, diligent, precise, and organized in the development of your project. Critique and then refine your proposal, as one would a work of art. Think in ways that no one else thinks and ultimately take risks. We want to take these risks with you.

The COP program investigates contemporary culture through the visual arts. We support an interdisciplinary practice that connects the visual arts to various strains of investigation that inform contemporary life and culture. But don’t let the idea overpower the visual experience you hope to create. Think about how your specific ideas relate and connect to the contemporary art field but also how they critically advance the field.

This program offers a platform for diverse curatorial visions in a non-profit and alternative exhibition space. Take this opportunity to participate in a program that is motivated by nothing other than a desire to learn, to educate and to connect the visual arts and contemporary culture, and create something unemcumbered by outside pressures. This sort of opportunity is rare in the region… and in the country for that matter. Say something new because it truly can make change.

In an increasingly complex 21st century landscape, art matters. Show us why.

ArtSake: One of your past guest curators, Kate True, said in an ArtSake interview, “Artists make good curators because we… may be more open to experimentation, play, free association.” What kinds of experiments in curating have most intrigued you in the course of the program?

Kathleen: Our most recent exhibitions have been model experiments. Kate True and AJ Liberto’s exhibition Upsodown and Diane Pontius’s exhibition From the City to the World both engaged the visual arts with other media, as well as diverse histories and populations. Although all of these curators are also visual artists, they were devoted to setting up dialogues across media and disciplines. They composed their cohesive exhibitions around hybridity and play, and still balanced form and content, unity and variety.

Liberto and True were inspired by Carnival, a populist and performative experience steeped in history and inserted into it an original dialogue with contemporary art. They included, video, performance, painting, photography, sculpture and printmaking and layered in various American histories often overlooked and marginalized that engaged with Carnival and its ideas.

Pontius represented the contemporary city and those who create and inhabit cities today, from poets, to filmmakers, to writers and bloggers of all ages and from all backgrounds. She merged a pop sensibility with the grittiness of the street to create an environment that what was both celebratory but critical.

Curators have also used their exhibitions’ public presentations to experiment. The 2011 exhibition We Still See the Black, curated by Alexander DeMaria and Owen Rundquist, investigated the exchange between the music and imagery in the contemporary subculture of heavy metal, and programmed a metal concert within the gallery. It was a transformative experience for the artists, who were also musicians, as well as for the New Art Center and the audience many of whom had never experienced that genre of music before.

ArtSake: What makes for a successful exhibition?

Kathleen: A successful exhibition does something no other exhibition has done. It is formally and aesthetically cohesive and puts artwork and artists in dialogue with one another to create a vision and an experience that is entirely new. It excites the eye and engages the body and mind. It has a unique and focused voice that also remains open to more general readings and conversations surrounding issues of art-making, art history and culture.

ArtSake: What can an artist participating in an exhibition do to make the most of the experience?

Kathleen: Get to know your curator, have conversations with him or her. Be bold in your choices and inspire the curator to take risks with you. This experience of connecting with other artists and the curator offers an opportunity to look at your work, your ideas and your practice in new and exciting ways. In turn, you can make change in others— you can inspire the other artists and the curator to have similar transformative experiences.

ArtSake: Tell us about the COP shows this upcoming season.

Kathleen: Pedigree (September 16-October 14, 2013), curated by Elizabeth Devlin of FLUX.Boston, is an exhibition that allows you to see, feel, and think simultaneously about the past and the future of visual art, through an American and more specifically a Boston lens. It is about spectacle but it is also about reflection. It is about the power of making things, whether they be categorized as fine art, craft, or something in between. It is completely fresh and new in its conversation that places new and old world visionaries in the same space to work toward similar ideological goals set forth by the curator Devlin. Her own unique visionary, Devlin choreographs an experience, not just an art exhibition. Or should I say she creates the model art exhibition because it is an experience that you cannot find anywhere else.

Our second fall show, The Country Between Us (November 15-December 20, 2013) curated by Ariel Freiberg, is a painting exhibition featuring four regional female artists and inspired by the work of poet and activist Carolyn Forché. The exhibition explores fragmentation within the medium of painting and how this formal fragmentation can have social and political significance.

Wild and Woolly curated by Ryan Arthurs explores the myths and icons of the American West and will enliven the winter exhibition slot from January 10-February 21, 2014. With humor and ironic distance, this exhibition seeks to re-contextualize the American frontier narrative.

Finally, The Flash of an Instant, curated by Sarah Pollman and Caitie Moore and currently scheduled for March 28-May 2, 2014, examines the ability of photography and video to accurately index the environment around us and questions basic spatial and temporal assumptions.

We are excited to dive into each project!

ArtSake: What would you like to see in the future of the local visual arts community?

Kathleen: The future of the local visual arts community is looking stronger than ever in the Greater Boston area. The region is coming of age culturally and it begins locally.

I think this positive outlook is directly tied to the growth and investment that I see in local art institutions and how these institutions are constantly looking outward. The Curatorial Opportunity Program provides experiences that respond to contemporary art discourse, shape it in a local context and connect it to a global conversation. Pedigree, which opens to the public on September 16, is a perfect example of this exchange. The local visual arts community should be included in the larger context of the ever growing global art community. As a result of placing our call for submissions online, for the first time ever in 2013, we received proposals from all over the country and even had some international proposals. In order to strengthen the local, we need to become a global platform and we need to participate in a global exchange. The Curatorial Opportunity Program can help make this future possible.

Pedigree at New Art Center runs September 16 to October 14, 2013 in the Main Gallery. Opening Reception: Friday, Sept. 20, 6-8:30 PM.

The next deadline for curatorial proposals through the Curatorial Opportunities Program will be in March or April 2014.

Images: photos courtesy of New Art Center.

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