The Curator Interviews a Curator

Last week The Curator’s own Meaghan Ritchey had a long and wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Daniel A. Siedell, an art historian and curator living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

At The Curator, we “seek to encourage, promote, and uncover artifacts of culture” by publishing reviews, critiques, poems, and personal stories. Tell us about your work as a museum curator (e.g. your many years of observing artists’ studio practice, organizing exhibitions, and managing an art museum collection).

I create space. As an art historian, I create historical space that allows the artists, curators, and critics in the past to come alive as human beings and restore the integrity of their work as responses to a particular historical moment. As an art critic, I create imaginative space for a work of art to be experienced through my sentences. And as a curator, I create a literal (exhibition) space for art to breathe in front of a viewer.

When people think of fine art activity in the US, the coasts come to mind—especially Los Angeles and New York. How did working in Nebraska for many years affect your curatorial philosophy?

I turned my somewhat marginalized location into an advantage. I was given the freedom at the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska to experiment, and so, I could offer artists the space to take risks, to explore aspects of their work that their dealer in New York or LA couldn’t allow them to take in their gallery shows. I knew I had a beautifully designed museum with well-proportioned exhibition spaces, and with a respected permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American art to serve as an historical context, I could give artists a lot to work with.

My contemporary art project spaces functioned like a back-room laboratory, allowing me to experiment, to explore approaches to work that I might not have been able to try on the coasts, where the pressure to conform is great because the sheer density of competitors. I didn’t have much funding to do these projects, but that also became an advantage, allowing me to fly under the radar screen of my director and board, and if I could raise a little extra money here and there, I could purchase even more freedom.

So what does all that mean for an artist’s relationship to a gallery/museum, respectively?

When the art world crashed in 2008, it revealed that artists have to take control of all of the decisions involving their work, that they cannot simply assume that a gallery or dealer can take care of all of the decisions made outside the studio while the artist only has to care about making their work. It’s the artist’s business to learn the business of art, to learn how art as an institutional practice (and sociological dynamic) works, and to think through every aspect of the life their work will have if it leaves the studio and goes out into the world. The decisions an artist makes outside the studio are just as important as those she makes inside.

How does your interaction with an artist evolve from your initial encounter with their work, to studio visit, and then to the realization of a museum exhibition?

My particular way of working with artists is deeply personal. I have to like the artists I work with—respect who they are as human beings, and how they approach their work as artists. There is also usually something about their work that pushes up against my approach to art that tests my understanding of artistic practice, and poses a question that I want to answer through their work. I also want to work with an artist who’s interested in my approach to their work, who believes that my approach enriches their practice. How we collaborate might take different forms: a publication, an acquisition, artist’s lecture, participation in a group or thematic show, or a solo project. I hope that years down the road the artist will consider our project to be somehow significant in her development, not only as an artist, but as a person.

You’ve spent a lot of time in artists’ studios. What have you observed? How are studio practices formative?

Although an artist is free do and make anything in the studio, she has a responsibility to do something. And that requires tremendous discipline and the willingness to ask the most fundamental questions. Each day she goes into the studio asking: “Who am I?”—”Who am I in relationship to this blank canvas, to the world outside the studio, to Nature, History, or a God who judges me?”  In addition, the artist has to ask another closely related question, “What kind of artist am I?” And often that entails discovering of what kind of artist they don’t want to be. As the artist leaves the studio at the end of each workday, she has answered those questions, whether she knows it or not, at least for that day. And most artists, I think, know it. They also know that they have to answer those same questions again, tomorrow.

Given the nature of their work, then, most artists I’ve worked with have developed a set of intentional practices and habits, spanning the profound to the mundane, the complex to the simple, that give a liturgical form to their work. These are very similar to the liturgies and spiritual disciplines of various religious traditions that include a sensitivity to their lived space, meticulous attention to their materials, certain postures, and, I might add, contemplation and meditation: a willingness to spend long hours just sitting in a chair looking at their work. Like the spiritual disciplines, these studio practices create the space to be active and passive, proactive and receptive. The artists I’ve worked with know that being an artist is much more than producing certain artifacts, it’s about becoming a certain kind of human being.

Before I got to know fine artists well, before I wanted to know how/why they made what they made, I encountered artwork like it just always “was”, or something. I didn’t consider how it was made (e.g. where it came from, the difficult spatial restrictions, material costs—all of these variables).  I had no empathy for the conceptual difficulty of setting out to make something that no one has ever made before! Once artistic practices and processes are understood, it opens up a type of appreciation. A curator can help with that.

I think that’s right. Being human means dealing with limitations. I think that the overly romantic idea that somehow creativity only takes place when you’re free of restrictions keeps a lot of good art from entering the world—or, perhaps, it actually prevents a lot of bad work from entering the world…What makes the existence of art in the world so remarkable is that it comes at great cost, sometimes through enormous challenges, but almost always through the slow drip of inconveniences, frustrations, and self-doubt.

This is why I am fascinated by what happens in the studio as the artist devotes her life to making artifacts that have no apparent use in the world, artifacts that are often ignored and misunderstood, especially in the church. Artists lean into that fear that every human being has—that the work we do doesn’t matter.

I’m attracted to artists who, on a daily basis, are making the commitment to be a particular kind of artist, in spite of the challenges and the limitations of their life situation—artists who have the faith to keep doing what they’re doing.  They don’t have it all worked out—doubting their sanity and the wisdom of their choices. But in faith, they go to the studio and work. In the process they’re strengthening my faith in art, offering me assurance, and serving as a means of grace to me as I struggle with the wisdom of devoting my life to looking at smelly pigments smeared on a scrap of canvas amidst all of the very difficult challenges and responsibilities in my life.

You sound like an artist.

My work as an art historian, curator, and critic is my studio practice. I’m working with artists because I’m searching for my own answers, trying to put some balm on my own wounds, find something to cling to that can clarify my relationship to God and the world. Artists often function as my spiritual directors, and they’re not even aware of it. Artists don’t make work to express what they already know about themselves and the world; they make work to explore what they don’t know. My work as a curator is similar.

Why did you write God in the Gallery?

I wrote it as a theological reflection on my passion for modern & contemporary art. But instead of beginning where most Christian approaches to art do, in the seminar room or lecture hall, I began where I was living: neck deep in the art world—in artist’s studios, organizing exhibitions, and writing catalog essays. I live my life in the church as someone who devotes his life to modern art, and I live out my vocation as a curator in the art world as a Christian. I wanted to give voice to the richness and complexity of that experience, which I hoped would be an encouragement to other outliers like me.

What about your training permitted you to move freely in and out of what were seemingly dichotomous worlds? 

I fear that if I’d read H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture as an undergraduate I’d have been forced to either give up art or give up my faith, quite frankly. I’ve spent a lot of time on the campuses of Christian colleges and universities and I observe a tremendous need for art history and art criticism. Art students get theology and philosophy, but they need history—modern art history. Art is an historical concept before it is a philosophical one.

What’s the first step in addressing this? And separately, what can universities do to foster conversation between fine arts students and business students so that the folks can, at a young age, understand what it means to be patrons?

Modern art history has to be taught, and taught by someone who loves it—not uncritically, swallowing it feathers and all. But presented in a way that reveals that it’s the living tradition within which every artist works today and that God is at work in and through it.

In addition to art history, Christian listeners can be developed by putting students in front of works of art—not just those in art museums, but those works that their fellow students are making. Christians move too quickly from the particular to the abstract, from the specific work of art they encounter to theological and philosophical categories like “Beauty” that, in reality, do violence to the integrity of the work of art and the artist who made it.

Most Christians who claim to like art like the theological and philosophical categories—they like art in “theory.” They are much less able to express their love of art in and through particular artifacts. But art doesn’t exist as an abstract category. It exists as this painting and that sculpture; this drawing and that performance. And I think this has relevance not just for art, but also as a means to help the church do what the church does, glorify God and love their neighbor.

Moreover, that nursing or business student who is comfortable standing in front of a work of art, not only gains insight into and empathy for the challenges of making art but might also become more inclined to go to art museums and see the humanity in those works that hang on the wall, or sit on pedestals, or move on the screen before them, and be changed in the process.

The Curator is an assemblage of original and found essays, poetry, reviews, quotations, image galleries, video, and other media in a continuing commitment to wrestle with all that is in culture, and to look toward all that ought to be in hope.