On Curatorial Practice: A Conversation between Generations- George Ciscle, Jose Ruiz, and Joseph OrzaL.
George Ciscle has mounted groundbreaking exhibitions and taught courses in the fine arts and humanities for over 45 years. He was the founder and director of The Contemporary, an “un-museum,” which challenges existing conventions for exhibiting art in temporary non-traditional sites. In 1996, he introduced and taught MICA’s Exhibition Development Seminar until 2008—an undergraduate exhibition-making course that still runs to this day. From 1997-2017, he served as MICA's Curator-in-Residence, consulting on the development of community-based and public programming focused on exploring new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences. From 2011-16, Ciscle directed and taught in MICA’s MFA in Curatorial Practice program, developing new models for connecting art, artists, and audiences.
José Ruiz is a Peruvian-born artist and curator working between DC, Baltimore, and New York. He is the Director of the MFA in Curatorial Practice program at MICA, as well as the co-director of Present Co.—a Brooklyn-based curatorial platform. His projects have been exhibited in most major American cities and internationally in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Joseph Orzal is an artist and curator born and raised in Washington DC. He is the co-founder of NoMuNoMu and is currently pursuing his MFA in Curatorial Practice program at MICA. He is also the recipient of the George Ciscle Curatorial Practice Scholarship.
The three sat down in José’s office in Baltimore on a balmy afternoon for a deep dig into their practice and role as curators, artists and educators.
Joseph Orzal: Let's start from how we all started... as artists, right? Can you guys talk about how your experience as an artist led to a career in curation?
George Ciscle: Should we start with the oldest?
José Ruiz: You want to go first?
Ciscle: (Laughing) Doesn't matter to me, cause I'm not an artist anymore. I did start out as an artist and I realized after about six years that I was not an artist, which was a hard thing to grapple with back then, after college. The good and bad side of studying with someone like Isamu Noguchi back then was that I really saw and understood what an artist could and should be, in terms of their impulse and their drive and what they had to say. So, I guess I was very much influenced through that in realizing that was not me. I had other choices, he didn't. And again, it's a very utopian view of being an artist without question, but it influenced me a great deal in reconsidering that I didn't have that need, that drive, that impulse and I had other choices to use my creative energy in some other way. So, I stopped being an artist.
But from working as an artist, and studying with someone like him, I think I certainly obviously got inside－like really as deep as one could get－as an outsider. I also surrounded myself with other artists. So, I realized I loved being with artists, talking with artists, collecting their work and thinking about and reading about them－it was just a question of the making－and I was not a maker. Also I guess, I realized that I had nothing to say－an artist has something to say. They have a need to say something concrete, that they want to communicate. I understood that, I saw that with artists I could help support that and sort of illustrate it by working with them, or exhibiting their work. But I knew I was not an artist.
That is what 'being an artist' did for me, it made me take a different direction in terms of surrounding myself with creative people who were artists, critics or people in the museum field and then determining what my interests and skills were.
Ruiz: For me, thinking back, the moment of becoming an artist was pretty clear. It was something that I did since I was a very little kid, but you know, I never had the power to say that I was an 'Artist' so it was always like additional work or a hobby In high school, I had other interests, but I took many art classes. I was encouraged to go to art school throughout high school, but I didn't.
Even in college, being a 'Studio Art Major' was really my 5th major. I went in with Architecture, then business, then Economics, and the last major was International Relations. So I was in other programs for five years and then my last semester before receiving my degree, I realized that all my electives were in art and all my friends were artists or musicians. And then I realized that the last path for my International Relations degree, which I was already really kind-of planning for, was to go back to Peru and join their Diplomatic Academy. As much as I was trying to do well, I just wasn't passionate about it - but once I got into the art program it became so easy, but easy in a good way. I didn't have to try that hard to make statements.
Within my last year I remember wanting to create opportunities for my friends. So, I started curating shows, pretty much my senior year of undergrad. Some of the first shows we did were in music venues in DC, which were the only places we had access to - places like the Metro Cafe, Velvet Lounge, the Black Cat. So, a lot of the first shows were there because we just knew some of the people there.
Soon after I graduated in 2000, I co-opened a space in DC called Decatur Blue. Since then I have kind of kept art-making and art-organizing side by side. Pretty much up until around 2008/2009 when suddenly the curatorial practice became more intense, essentially adding more responsibility or becoming bigger, I kind of had to battle with that. As an art-maker you can always sort-of improvise with the work, you could drop it and flip it and it could still be ok, but with curating you can do that, but you can't do that all the time. So once I realized there was more responsibility in curating, I had to prioritize that. A few times I've gotten asked this question in working on projects, like 'either you can be in it or you can curate it?'
Orzal: Is that an ethical dilemma- like, can I curate myself into my own shows? I've always wondered that.
Ruiz: Some people go back and forth about it. A lot of people say no because it's hard to be objective with something that is so subjective－your own work within the exhibition. But, people do. I was taught in grad school that if you are exploring an area, with a specific group of people or a movement, you may be the best person to speak about it. So maybe your work or research could fit in it.
But every time I was posed with that question, I preferred to curate it. I knew it was harder and I would learn more just because it was more work and writing - things that you really don't have to do as an artist, such as working with budgets. For example, you can have an experience of curating a bigger show with 40 different artists and knowing all of them, instead of being placed in a room with them as an artist.
At a certain point, once you start having kids, and then teaching, and opening small businesses, your practice becomes always in flux. Right now, my studio time is pretty small, but I can still see my practice being an artistic practice, I look at curating as being an artistic practice - and the program does too (MICA CPMFA). So, even though a lot of my time is here in this department, I still kind of see it as my artistic practice.
School 33, Baltimore MD, 2016, Curated by José Ruiz
Orzal: George, do you feel the same way?
Ciscle: It's interesting! I would say it's a generational thing in terms of looking at curating yourself in your own shows－certainly during my time curating, before coming to MICA especially, it was something that was really frowned upon, a conflict of interest. The driving force back then usually was, and this was before there were a lot of these artist-run-spaces like there are now, not the era of the DIY spaces we have now in José's generation or in your (Joe’s) generation. Back then, it was the commercial field or the museum field, so if you put yourself in that position of curating your own work into your own show you were looked at as putting yourself in this financial advantage. As an example, in The Contemporary days in the early 90’s, Lisa Corrin, who was the curator at the time really wanted to put the work of my husband, who is an artist, in one of our shows. The work fit thematically without question, but I was just like, “you can' t.” Even though we couldn't even be legally married at the time, if he benefited from that show, meaning if there were sales of his work or if museums or PACE Gallery signed him up, he got an advantage from being in a show that I am responsible for. Even though I wasn't even the curator, I was the director, and it was something I was really sensitive to.
Now there is a whole generation of curators and arts writers whose husbands, wives or partners are artists—and as their critics or curators they then cover, curate or write about their partners’ work in a show. That certainly was always frowned upon, but this idea now of putting their own work in a show they curated is a little different. As José said, when it's something that they can really have an inside view on and justify or make a case for it, then it's ok. But, what I do have a problem with, still, is not people putting their own work in shows they curate, but putting their spouses or partners in and without transparency.
Orzal: So, José was talking about his view of curation as artistic practice, is this also a generational thing where there is a blurred line, or are artists creating these blurred lines? Or do you have a more hard-line approach to separate the two practices?
Ciscle: For me, it is generational as a maker. In my generation being an artist did not expand to what it is today, in terms of social practice or those kinds of things which we talk a lot about in CP. In my time that was not an avenue of being an artist. It was more about being a maker of objects. But of course today we are looking at not just different ways of being an artist, but also that the voice of the artist is not just their voice all the time, but it's the voice of the community or people you want to work with. All that is new. But, in my time, that hadn't happened yet.
What I find interesting is in the last 20 years or so at MICA, myself and my students have been looking at the voice of the audience and how to connect the artists to that audience. I will say though that for many, many years people would say to me, as a curator both when I had my gallery and especially with The Contemporary, 'you are an artist, whatever you do, you are an artist' and I resisted because I had this notion of what an artist was. I still feel that I am not an artist, I still feel that what I did during that time and what I have been doing at MICA became my creative practice and it was really my fulfillment creatively - it fulfilled every need I had.
It's very interesting because when we were fortunate enough to hire José for this position—and he knows this so I won't embarrass him—I interviewed all the finalists for his position and my question to all of them as practicing critics, curators or authors, was “What happens to your practice?” Every one of them, until I got to José, said 'I'm going to have dual practices providing logical, sensible, reasonable explanations of how they were going to do that and also a justification of how it would help CP. José’s response was, as an adjunct teacher in the program who understood the pedagogy and philosophy of CP, “I can foresee that this could be my creative practice.” After that, I was like we have to hire this guy because I believe that answer was a complete understanding of what the potential of an educator is.
“We try to appease the general public, but I think now we can decide to be whatever we want to be without waiting for someone to say that it is acceptable.” - Ruiz
Ruiz: I can answer the question too, about the discipline or the creative practice. I was thinking about this the other day in the car. In American society, we have to make so many labels to seem like we are valid—I’m an artist and I'm important because of this—when in this society, the majority does not understand it or appreciate it and it’s definitely not supported in a big systemic sort of way. We have been conditioned to say why we do certain things. But I am at a certain point in my life and career that I almost don't have to have that explanation of the 'artist as curator,’ we can decide whatever we want to be. We try to appease the general public, but I think now we can decide to be whatever we want to be without waiting for someone to say that it is acceptable.
Orzal: I want to talk about education - George you started as an educator, can you talk about education and how your understanding of yourself as an educator has influenced your practice, or differentiates you from other people in your field?
Ciscle: It's interesting because I began as an educator and I'm now ending as an educator. I really feel that being an educator was my calling and my strength because I really felt that in the long run, the most important thing was not necessarily the art itself, but what role art could play in a person's life, in their learning, ability to change, develop and grow. That was my real interest from the beginning and especially at the end, how to create a curriculum. The exhibition space is the same to me as a classroom when working with my students. I have learned a lot about myself as an educator, especially within the methodology that I use in the classroom, it's not something that I learned or was trained in as an educator, but it's something that I learned; The more I let go the more they let go or give up, and so in time I really saw that my classroom was a laboratory for growth. Also not just for my students, but most importantly for me because I don't think that once I started at MICA things like EDS or CP would have happened if I wasn't learning, growing from my students. EDS started just as an extension of what I was doing at the Contemporary and working with students and then became this whole holistic system of working together as teams of collaborators. I learned that the more I gave up, the more power I gave to my students that more important things would come out of it for them.
But from the time that I created CP, I knew how many years I would do it and when I would retire. I knew what the cycle would be for me, the growth cycle with CP, and when it was time to hand it over. And again I was very fortunate to be able to hand it over to José.
Orzal: You both approach curation as an educator? Can you speak to the role of education in your lives?
Ruiz: My dad was an educator (he was in science) - he was the dean of the Medical School in Lima. So, he was a doctor but he also taught, and he did that for many years. So education has always been the most important thing that you could do or have. My dad always said, "A degree can never be taken away from you," everything else can be - your car, your house, your money, but your education itself is absorbed into you and you retain it. So, we always grew up with that sort of sense of the value of education. But, I would say I was always skeptical of the educational formats that I had to go through.
“My dad always said, "A degree can never be taken away from you," everything else can be - your car, your house, your money, but your education itself is absorbed into you and you retain it.” - Ruiz
Part of understanding myself as an educator was my parents pointing out that a lot of the things I was doing were sort of like teaching. After working within curation for a while, being so invested in what I had been doing for many years, I remember I started being asked to come do talks in classes, whether it was in Sarah Lawrence, NYU or other universities, as a guest speaker. But I realized in those little moments, the students were asking a lot of questions, and it was pretty easy for me to give a lot of, not answers, but a lot of tips - then something clicked. People started calling more, asking “Hey, would you teach this class?” But, I always tried to put a little bracket of timing to it - even when I was an adjunct instructor, someone from GW called and said, “Hey, we heard you were in the area, you would be perfect for this class - do you want to do it?” and I said yes, and I was able to do a lot in those 16 weeks.
So, I told myself, I'm going to do this for 5 years - and then I’m going to go onto the next thing, which I thought might be architecture or getting a building and transforming it as a project. But exactly when those five years ended, CP started, almost to the day. I remember interviewing with the committee and they asked me some of the generic questions like, "What do you think the challenges of the position will be?" but one of my answers was, "Well, I’m not used to getting help on very many things. I have always done things on my own, or with friends, and I have always found a way to do it," so it was getting used to the process of having a budget and help. Now I feel like I am growing with the support of an institution, which is nice.
“I really feel that being an educator was my calling and my strength because I really felt that in the long run, the most important thing was not necessarily the art itself, but what role art could play in a person's life, in their learning, ability to change, develop and grow.” - Ciscle
Orzal: Do you see your experience in education influencing your art practice?
Ruiz: Yeah, big time. Now, I am at the point where I am able to be more critical of a lot of projects I have been working on more consistently. Recently, I have been thinking about the way I tell my students that 'they just have to do it,' so we have to walk the walk too. Sometimes, you get offered things, and it would be easy to just plug in your ideas and artists, but you can always try to push it further, and make it more meaningful - spread it out, or make it more collaborative. A lot of the things you [Joseph] are learning right now in CP has affected my practice. Similarly, working under George the year before really influenced the way I looked at the practice here, but also contemporary art practice overall. So, things happen in strange ways.
Orzal: So, can you guys talk about the role of community engagement within curatorial practice? What are the responsibilities that a curator has to the community they work with? George, can you talk about Baltimore?
Ciscle: Yeah, so I was born and raised here in Baltimore, except for the five years when I went away, so this is my community. It's a big driving force in terms of place, where I am and where I have chosen to stay - that kind of commitment and dedication to your community. I guess for me, it really goes back to what I learned during The Contemporary days.
The Contemporary really was about how to relate - so, that really meant looking at different strategies.. Being a practitioner through the Contemporary then here at MICA with my students, I really saw what the outcomes could be - real measurable outcomes from working with an audience outside of the art world.
I feel that as a curator, something I used to say to my students in CP - if you are coming here to be a trained curator to get a job at the MET, you are probably in the wrong place. Not that you won’t be qualified, but the way to get to the MET is probably the education department, or marketing, or the back door. I am always clear that not every curator’s practice or path is like this.
“There are all kinds of curators and if we want to we can make the mistake of putting value judgements on them, but I always say its not this or that - it's this and that.” - Ciscle
So, I am really careful now when I talk to students in describing what curators are. I always say it’s not this or that - it's this and that. Yes, you can be a curator who doesn't have any interest or involvement in community engagement, audiences, and sustainability- and you can have the other group. There is room for both. Why isn't there room for Frank Stella and Richard Serra? Do they have to be Pablo Helguera and Susan Lacy? No, it's this and that.
Bronx Calling: The First AIM Biennial, 2011, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx NY, co-curated by José Ruiz
pictured: Jong-il Ma, Acconci Studio
"So you’re the Latino curator who created the all
Ruiz: Yeah, I connect community to identity. For me, since I grew up in different places, I don't identify with having a home town. I have lived in so many places that I have an affinity to, so in my early days I tried to avoid that question of community or sense of belonging, and who you are doing it for. I was a transplant working in different places, so it was really more as an individual, going back to what I learned in art school of the artist as an individual or sole thinker. Obviously, once I came to terms with a sense of my identity, Latin American identity or Latino identity, I realized that I could also forge somewhat of a commitment with people from a certain type of community that didn't have to be so geographically specific. So, I started to think about it in that way, looking at people who had left their country when they were young for various reasons and had to assimilate in other cultures. Then, I was working at a small non-profit called Bronx River Art Center for a few years as the Gallery Director, in what would be considered a tough neighborhood. It was eight subway stops north of Harlem, so it wasn't by any means close to the action, but I took a job there because I wanted to be outside of where I was working and showing as an artist. The first show I did there as the new director had almost 300 people in attendance, it was something you would imagine in Brooklyn or Manhattan, but it was kind of crazy for that area. I remember this guy came up to me, who wasn't really a dear friend and said, "So you’re the Latino curator who created the all non-Bronx show.." I didn’t really have an answer for him and I said, "well, yeah nice to meet you." But it bothered me the whole week. I realized quickly that if I wanted to make that program more successful, and make the center more stable, I needed to support everybody in the Bx art community, and not only just support, I needed to highlight them. I had to support their career to get them the things they didn't have the opportunities for. And that was a huge awakening for me.
ORZAL: I want to talk about Gentrification and Art and place. What are your experiences with Gentrification- how do you navigate the ethics of art, place and inequality? So, it’s one thing to work in the community but it's another thing to be sort of - sometimes wedged between wealth and poverty- how do you respond to that?
Ciscle: Well one of the strategies I intentionally used when CP was formed was to bring it over to this side of the bridge. MICA on the main campus is a whole different population in terms of the residents and the perception of MICA over there. So in making that gesture, and again this is almost 10 years ago, I wanted that to be a statement that we were coming over here. I wanted my students to begin to know and understand to work and study in this neighborhood. Another gesture back then was at the time, the windows were all completely bricked up in this building, and the plan was to completely take all that away, at least have open windows as a symbolic gesture that we're not hiding behind closed doors.
The other thing that I would say is that I wanted the graduate students to really get involved and understand what this corridor (Station North) meant to Baltimore’s history, of the people and the places here and hopefully have that inform the kinds of projects they would do. So, a lot of my focus in the early part of CP was in really not just encouraging but engaging curricular initiatives of having my students really invested in the community here in some way. Ideally, they could see a way for this community to financially benefit from what they were doing. How can you empower people through art that gives them the tools- the literal and metaphorical tools- that makes their life better?
Ruiz: For me, it’s always been sort of something to feel guilty about, but now that i'm a little bit older, I realize that sometimes there are forces outside of the artists’ projects, that are simply out of your hands, that you just wouldn't know about. A lot of people don't know this, but when I left DC to go to grad school and then NY in 2004, part of the reason was because I felt that Decatur Blue was contributing to these forces.
Orzal: Can you quickly explain a little bit about what Decatur Blue was?
Ruiz: Decatur Blue was our space in DC, we were on Florida and Vermont, when we started it in 2000, everything around us was boarded up. You really only had the 9:30 Club, Velvet Lounge, some Ethiopian restaurants and that was about it. Now, there’s that apartment building The Floridian, it’s exactly where we used to be, we were in an old auto body shop.
“As an art-maker you can always sort-of improvise with the work, you could drop it and flip it and it could still be ok, but with curating you can do that but you can't do that all the time.” - Jose Ruiz
Image Description: Decatur Blue (art collective), 2000-2003, Washington, D.C. Pictured from top left to bottom right: Javier Cuellar, Ryan Hackett, Bill Hill (intern), Stoff Smulson, Gabriel Martinez, José Ruiz, Brian Balderston, Champneys Taylor
So like I was saying, we were young and we knew a lot of young people so it became this crazy destination, all the openings hosted around 300-400 people. We would have all these wild parties and people coming that would normally go to the commercial galleries in Dupont or museums. Towards the end of those couple of years, we started seeing some of the houses that were boarded up, start to get fixed. And then new people buying them that you could tell were white people that were not from there and were more affluent. Some people were buying houses for their kids. We just didn't know, but we felt that we were responsible for it, we thought we helped popularize this area that nobody would go to before. We were in negotiations with the Landlord to buy the building, and thought it was too much at the time. In retrospect and especially divided by 7 people, it was like 100,000 bucks each. But then, he turned around after we left and sold it for like 2 million to the people that built The Floridian.
So part of the reason I left was that we just felt responsible in a bad way to certain neighborhoods. But what we found out later, in talking to certain developers, is that those plans were already in place before we even started. They just weren't publicly announced. But it was just this holding period. So realizing that was relieving.
Orzal: I'm a little suspicious that Baltimore is experiencing this in-between period-
Ruiz: Well, yeah there's a lot of land-holding!
Ciscle: More down Howard street than here, in terms of the holding thing you're talking about - people have had those properties for generations, since the ‘68 riots. That's 50 years.
Ruiz: So yeah, it was relieving to realize that but I've also been in situations with the second wave of it. Landlords who are trying to exploit artists or rip off artists with their studios. I don't really have a direct action plan or answer for that, but I know the difference, and I dont think it’s fair for artists, but it’s complicated. What it would say especially to you - a younger person - part of it is doing the work in a meaningful way, ethically, but also not putting the weight of the whole city's gentrification on your shoulders, because if you do that it's not sustainable. It becomes too much of a burden.
Orzal: What do you dislike about the field of curation today and what do you hope to see progress?
Ruiz: There's not much I dislike, only because it's a small field, you know? While some people could critique the way I do things and vice versa there's just not enough space and time for that. Though there are certain practices that curators take on, that I think are problematic, especially when you're looking within institutions and the relationship between museum boards and funders and patrons and the curator. I feel like those could be better examined. Someone with a PhD working within a Smithsonian institution has great specialized knowledge. There’s the specialist model, which is not only a certain academic track, but a certain type of person. And then you have what Lindsay Smilow calls the slasher, the person that's overlapping many practices and has their feet in multiple places, and going in and out of things. I feel more comfortable in that space, and I'm definitely seeing a new generation of people that are more suitable for that, especially now that we are growing up in an increasingly interdisciplinary world.
Looking forward, I have an optimistic prediction that we're at the cusp of many things moving towards the way we look at things in CP. I’m already seeing Institutions take note of that. They are expanding their curatorial roles and exhibition halls, primarily because artist practices are changing. I definitely see a trend that's escalating big time in the next couple of years, and it's been happening slowly in the past 5 years or more. But I think people are really aware of it now, and are now calling us, whether it’s CP or just wanting free advice (which also isn't fair) but they know something is up.
Orzal: You mean calling about the program?
Ruiz: Yeah a lot about how we run it here. A lot of it is rooted in George through the pedagogy, the type of projects, as well as the ambition of the students.
Ciscle: They want models to follow.
Ruiz: Yeah, curators who are not studying from a collection, or an art historical timeline, don't understand how that's possible. They don't understand the creative/artistic side of it. Even when people come in, they hear about the thesis projects and they say that they sound like artist projects. So, I find it interesting that a lot of people from different arenas have been calling, especially people that don’t want to do a museum studies program, but they still want to organize, work with artists, communities, and spaces.
Ciscle: You're reminding me of something I don't like, José. There are curators today that are talking the good talk because they think it's something people want to hear, that funders want to hear, in terms of being socially engaged as a museum and all that. I'm becoming suspicious of why they are doing that, and I really don't believe that it is something they are committed to or that they are mission-driven. Moving forward, I hope to see the whole issue of audience and engagement being expanded more to people with disabilities, and not just because of my generation becoming older, but because it is a community that has been overlooked, ignored or co-opted in different ways. This has a lot to do with my volunteer work right now, and that’s my hope for what the future might hold.
Thank you to Joseph Orzal for organizing this conversation and to both George Ciscle and José Ruiz for dedicating their time and energy to share their stories with DIRT!