Interview with Curator Katherine Gressel

I recently had a discussion with curator Katherine Gressel on her upcoming show In Search of One City: Sensing (In)equality  (August 13-October 10, 2015). The exhibition examines unique elements employed by contemporary artists, which scrutinize income inequality in NYC and throughout the country. The artists that will be featured are: Artist Volunteer Center & With Food in Mind, Daniel Bejar, Mildred Beltre & Oasa DuVerney,Jennifer Dalton, Laura Hadden & Tennessee Watson, Brian Fernandes-Halloran, Sue Jeong Ka, Kenneth Pietrobono, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Dread Scott, Jody Wood 

I look forward to seeing this show at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn (5th avenue between 3rd and 4th street, Park Slope) and writing a critical analysis of the works. In anticipation of this show and its series of outreach programing, read the interview with Katherine below:

I am intrigued by the very diverse roster of artists and the overall theme of inequality, which has so many facets in itself. The art world tends to be a very insular community, and is perhaps on many occasions seen on a larger scale, by “outsiders” as something for the rich or of a specific social status. As a curator, what purpose do you believe art can have within a diverse and divided city like New York?

I agree that income inequality is a very broad topic, and certainly impacts artists and the art world itself (and how it is perceived), as groups like Occupy Museums and BFAMFAPhD have highlighted in their work for years. In this exhibition I have tried to consciously stay away from work that is purely dealing with the financial situation of artists and inequality in the art world (though this sub-theme certainly runs through some of the work in the show). Instead I am focusing on artists whose work considers the causes, effects, and possible solutions for income inequality in society at large (with a focus on NYC). I believe artists can be very effective in bringing to the surface hidden attitudes and policies contributing to income inequality, in creative ways that politicians, journalists, etc. aren’t utilizing—for example Dread Scott’s burning of cash in public on the street makes physical and tangible the squandering of “invisible” money on the trading floor that contributed to the financial crisis. Kameelah Rasheed makes us confront the ways in which poor people of color are expected to “suffer politely” so as not to disturb an existing social order. Jen Dalton has a very creative way of showing the sheer volume of potentially predatory offers that credit card companies make towards one person over a year.

The other category of artists I’ve selected for the show are doing actual activist work to try to solve problems associated with income inequality, such as gentrification and housing discrimination, homelessness, exploitation of undocumented workers, etc. Some of these artists try to break down divisions between artists and their neighbors in gentrifying communities (i.e. the work of Brian Fernandes-Halloran in Lefferts Gardens, and Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine in Crown Heights).

In many of these projects, the artists are also providing a platform for traditionally under-represented or mis-represented populations to tell their stories, to facilitate the type of empathy across class and race lines that can be a first step in addressing income inequality.

What sort of outreach goes into organizing events around the show? I am intrigued by the creative career fair, the tenants rights and screen printing work shops, and the panel on art’s relationship to income inequality. Who will be at these events as facilitators, and to whom did you reach out to in the community? Can you give me an estimate of who within the community outside of the arts might be attending these events?

See full event summary here with speakers confirmed so far etc:

I have sought partners (and artists) for the show that can hopefully bring it to a wide audience through their own networks.  One of the first partners I approached was the Artist Volunteer Center; I was intrigued by their mission of engaging artists in volunteer work with community organizations (most recently with homeless service organizations in their “engaging artists” residency program) while also providing their artists with things like work and exhibition space.  Turns out AVC was also in the process of planning a youth internship program for this summer that engages teens in volunteering for food justice organizations, in partnership with With Food in Mind. I was able to present the artwork in my exhibition to these students to inspire them to make new artwork exploring the relationship between income inequality and food justice, which will be on view alongside the professional artists’ work in my show. I am thrilled that this partnership has enabled me to easily set up a youth engagement component that goes deeper than just giving tours to school groups—the students that contributed work will hopefully also bring their friends and help spread the word!  AVC also introduced me to some of the artists I invited to participate such as Sue Jeong Ka.

All of the upcoming free public programs in September and October also involve partners who have community connections outside OSH’s network and the Park Slope/Gowanus neighborhood.  The activities themselves were planned with the goal of attracting people who might not come only to see art. They’re also meant to give people new tools for both personal and community empowerment. For example, Oasa DuVerney and Mildred Beltre of Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine will help people make posters about their rights as tenants that they can take with them and use, and give people the opportunity to ask practical questions about this topic–ideally we’ll also have a tenants rights lawyer present.

For the October 4 “Mentorathon” creative career fair, I approached Monica Montgomery of Museum Hue about collaborating (Museum Hue is a group that promotes diversity in the museum field). She came up with the idea for a career fair since professional success is key to improving one’s economic situation. Hopefully this event will attract people who simply want help with their resumes or to network with other professionals.

I wanted to avoid the traditional model of panel discussions which may or may not lead to actual action/change, but instead focus more on this type of hands-on participation.  Though the September 16 event will involve discussion, I’m encouraging all the participants to make it as interactive as possible so people can leave with actual tools and action steps (for example I invited Theater of the Oppressed NYC to lead a participatory opening activity). This event will involve advice from groups addressing inequality at both a community and policy level, and explore how the NYC mayoral administration is addressing inequality, especially in terms of involving artists.

For promoting the show in general: the Old Stone house also has connections that a normal art space might not, i.e. because of their affiliation with the Parks Dept., local schools, civic councils and government representatives, and many other community groups that partner with or use their space. We’re reaching out to all these groups.

Finally, I also work-shopped my proposal for this exhibition in the January 2015 Independent Curators International (ICI) Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans, which enabled me to share it with a wider (international) audience and get valuable feedback—ICI is also spreading the word about my show. I am also utilizing the promotional channels of funders like the Brooklyn Arts Council.

The venue for this show is unique to New York City. Most people might not know of the Old Stone House, but it is a very historic site in a neighborhood that has seen a recent influx of artists first and then development thereafter. Did, and does its location serve a more specific purpose to the exhibition?

See above. Originally I had thought to do the show in a nonprofit gallery, mainly because the logistics of installing the work at first seemed better suited to more of a “blank slate”/”white box” space, since there is a lot of 3-D and video work which can be difficult to realize in a multi-purpose environment like OSH (the gallery area also hosts everything from kids’ classes to weddings). But when I work-shopped the proposal in January, several people pointed out that the conversation and potential for outreach might be more dynamic at a “non-art” space like OSH, which regularly gets people passing through who aren’t there just to see an exhibition. At an art space it might just be “preaching to the choir” of people who choose to visit socially-engaged art shows. Also, I have curated 4 other shows at OSH and they’ve been an amazing partner over the years, very committed to socially engaged topics! This and various other factors led me to ultimately decide on OSH, though I would love to have the show travel and expand, i.e. to larger museums or other cities.

Once I had decided on OSH, I brought all the artists to the space to discuss adapting their projects to this unique venue. A lot of the work did take on site-specific components that respond to the history or physical space (such as Kenneth Pietrobono’s installation re-labeling plants in the garden with economic terms, or Sue Jeong Ka’s use of the site as a place to perform domestic work duties). Even pieces that aren’t site specific take on a greater resonance when shown at a place that is itself symbolic of American struggles for liberty and equality. The show will overlap with Battle Week, an annual events series in remembrance of the Battle of Brooklyn that took place at OSH in 1776.

Speaking of inequality, the topic of gentrification must be brought up. Sometimes in my experience the art community is seen as a catalyst to this process, although in truth, artists are typically not the beneficiaries of this rapid commercial development. What are your feelings as an artist and curator about the way many developers try and brand a community as a destination for artists, long after the artists themselves can no longer afford to live there?

I think the city is full of examples of artists creating collaborative grassroots spaces in “transitional” neighborhoods where they might be perceived as “outsiders” or gentrifiers– including things like education and outreach programs for local kids and families, public art, etc. Some of those efforts (like the ones I mentioned above in Crown Heights and Lefferts Gardens) are being showcased in the exhibition and corresponding events. For example Artist Volunteer Center, Groundswell, Brooklyn Arts Council, and Theater of the Oppressed are all organizations that bring together artists and community groups in neighborhood improvement and social justice efforts. These organizations are also creating formal ways for artists to give back to their communities while also gaining resources they need to survive in NYC, such as paid work, workspace, and career exposure.

That being said, I do think it’s still a big problem that so many artists can no longer afford to stay in NYC. I’m encouraged by programs like Spaceworks, recent conferences like “Stay in New York” at the Queens Museum, and residency programs giving affordable space to artists and galleries (some even developer-driven).  I’m hoping that developers are starting to realize that in order to “brand” neighborhoods as creative and exciting, they need to provide better ways to retain creative people, but I think there’s still a long way to go (for example maybe we need to make a distinction between fine artists vs artisans/commercial artists (i.e. groups that do profitable high-end design) in some of these “creative” developments).

The “branding” of neighborhoods as “artsy” or unique by developers is actually an issue I’ve addressed more in some of my previous Brooklyn Utopias shows. I’m also doing a show at NARS foundation gallery in March 2016 of artists whose work specifically appropriates the language of real estate developers in order to comment on the state of development in NYC and beyond. So it’s something I’ve been addressing as a curator for quite some time—and also as an artist (some of my paintings at actually incorporate real estate advertisements for Brooklyn)

Do you think that the arts community as a whole needs to address this concern?

I am encouraged by various recent conferences and initiatives such as the NYC cultural planning process, and others I already mentioned.  I’m planning to make this a key discussion question at the September 16 panel discussion.

But as mentioned, I don’t want my income inequality show to only be about the economic situation of artists, partly because I feel like the arts community is already addressing this in many ways.

I’m interested to hear how you’re curatorial focus has been around local artists who consider differing visions of ideal cities.

I was inspired to start Brooklyn Utopias in 2009 because at the time I was making my own art in response to the rapid development and increasing popularity of Brooklyn, as well as the impact of the economic recession. I perceived Brooklyn as the new “urban frontier” and wanted a forum to bring together other artists also responding to this—including critiquing the visions promoted by developers and planners of what an “ideal Brooklyn” should look like, preserving what already makes Brooklyn unique and desirable, and coming up with new “utopian” visions for the future. Over the years I’ve expanded this series to address specific newsworthy sub-topics: i.e. public parks, transportation, urban farming.

The income inequality show is related to Brooklyn Utopias, but I didn’t include this title because I didn’t want it to be limited to NYC, or to work that fits into the Brooklyn Utopias framework of either critiquing existing visions of ideal cities or promoting new visions. I also wanted to expand my curatorial practice beyond the Brooklyn Utopias series.

See and for more on this!

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