Friday, July 31, 2009

Profile: Curator heather ahtone (1 of 2)

After the Momentum OKC exhibition was long over, I had a great lunch with curator heather ahtone (as you will see, she eschews capital letters, I'll let you ask her about that). We talked at length about the experience for her curating the exhibition.

She was moved by the experience and found so much of the work memorable. I was amazed at how she is so incredibly thoughtful about the artists. She was struck, as am I, by the widely varying perceptions of artists who entered. In fact, she was accosted by several artists during the opening. So, I asked her to respond to a few questions in detail to give a behind-the-scenes curator point of view on the show.

ahtone worked with emerging curator romy owens to pick three Spotlight projects by artists who received cash awards and their guidance for three months. Then they selected the final exhibition of about 200 pieces from an open call that received over 400 submissions. (romy and heather were meant to be together as romy too eschews capital letters!)

I’ll split up heather’s responses into a few topical headings. Check out
these videoed interviews of heather and romy for more information.

heather ahtone: Thanks for giving me a chance to encourage young artists in their work. We have such a vibrant and creative community, but I know the experience of artistic competition can be very daunting. I very much want to share some thoughts and appreciate your interest in printing them for the artists to read.

Julia Kirt: What was it like reviewing proposals for Momentum Spotlight? What mental process do you go through looking at them, then picking?
ha: There were so many quality proposals for the Momentum Spotlight that this took a considerable amount of time and consideration to choose the three awardees by both romy and I. I remember that we both carefully spent time with each application packet. We did this separately so that we could really look with our own eyes at our own pace.

Then we made a list of all the applicants and went through that list, identifying the strength of the whole application and any apparent weaknesses. We created a short list of the strongest applications, I think there were 8 or 9 at this point, and then deliberated to the final choice. I believe the strongest applications included a clear written description of the concept, visual references (images of previous work and sketches for the proposal), and enough documentation/material to compel us to believe the artist had the capacity to execute the proposal. This last point was really important as some of the proposals were exciting but it was difficult to be sure the artist could execute the concept because of the lack of documentation.

Then finally we considered if there was room for romy and me to participate as curators in the work process. Some of the works were clearly already finished in the artist’s mind and our role as curators would have served only to make the award decision. We both wanted to support artists who were extending themselves creatively, to encourage them to take risks, and to provide an opportunity for young artists to do so with the financial support of the award. I don’t know if all curators want that kind of hand in the process – not to direct the work, but to interact in the process – identify risks and pose questions. We did and the artists we chose embraced us in the process and I believe that we all benefited from the process. and most importantly, I think they all succeeded in fulfilling their own visions.

JK: How is it similar or different looking at the actual work when there were over 400 pieces submitted for Momentum?
ha: EXCITING, EXHILARATING, OVERWHELMING. Walking into the dark and dingy Momentum site and seeing all the work leaning against the walls, on the tables and standing on that nasty floor was like walking into some kind of Tim Burton set… you know magic is going to happen but the rawness was still quite sharp. But the presence of the work in that space was the beginning of the transformation and it was absolutely fabulous to see so much GREAT work.

As to the selection, this process was different from the Spotlight, because the work was completed. independently, romy and I walked through the space looking without making judgment to just see what was there and just to enjoy everything – selfish perhaps, but we knew it wasn’t all going to stay and there is just that moment when it is all fresh that is very exciting and exhilarating. then we started the difficult process of eliminating.

For Momentum, it took four successive passes. Each pass became more difficult but we basically considered the following on each pass: sheer creativity, overall concept, presentation, and always technical handling. the last pass was painful for us both because everything at that point was FABULOUS, but there is the practical limit of what can actually be hung and lit properly, so we walked through and made choices of work that otherwise would have been in the show.

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