Erin Riley-Lopez Discusses the Role of an Independent Curator in the Art Scene

After five and a half years at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (BxMA), Erin Riley-Lopez left in December to become a freelance independent curator. The part-time Jersey City resident is as capable organizing a large-scale exhibition as she is writing about artists for Art:21, riding a mechanical bull on the Lower East Side, or cutting up the dance floor in the Bronx. We recently caught up with Riley-Lopez as she made some final preparations for a new exhibition she’s curated at the Center for Worker Education, which is part of the City College of New York. The show, called Untitled, features the work of photographers Jimmy Fountain and Catherine Kunkemueller; it opens this Thursday in Lower Manhattan.

“Their photographs are formal shots of interiors and exteriors,” Riley-Lopez says of the show. “Both photographers capture these seemingly banal spaces — offices, kitchens, storefronts, hotel rooms, etc. — but they do it with this amazing sense of silence and contemplation and I loved the idea of juxtaposing their work with the busy hustle and bustle of a school.”

What is an art curator, what role does she play in a museum or gallery, and what are the day-to-day responsibilities?

Well the definition of an art curator varies depending on the position and/or institution one works for. At museums, curators organize exhibitions and if there is a permanent collection they might be responsible for its care as well as acquisitions. They might also be responsible for programming, residency programs, etc. I can give you a better idea of what I specifically did on a day-to-day basis, which might not necessarily reflect what all curators do.

At BxMA I oversaw the Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program, which meant working with 36 new artists every year including curating the annual exhibition and writing the catalogue essay. I worked with the permanent collection, along with the registrar, which meant making sure that temperature/humidity control in Fine Art Storage was stable; I also worked with the Acquisitions committee to organize their meetings; kept up with the paperwork for acquisitions and the electronic database, etc. I assisted with coordinating the traveling and guest curated exhibitions. And, I dealt with a lot of the administration of the curatorial office; answering research questions about the museum’s exhibition history, the permanent collection, etc.; answering emails, phone calls, questions, etc; making sure things were properly filed, documented, etc. Those were my responsibilities in a nutshell.

Where do you find artists that you work with — referrals, happenstance, websites, online registries, studio visits?

I find artists that I work with in a myriad of different ways. The AIM program introduced me to a lot of artists each year, many of whom I still keep in touch with and work with today. I often meet artists at openings, parties, and events because someone introduces them to me. I meet artists through other colleagues either by introduction or recommendation. I also look a lot! I regularly attend open studios/exhibitions for residency programs like Smack Mellon, Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to name a few. And I am constantly attending openings or going to see shows while they are up, which is also a good way to find artists I might not have been familiar with before. I did find an artist once through a registry. And, I do many studio visits.

Blanka Amezkua, Chitra Ganesh, and Anne Timmons were three of the artists you featured in your exhibition There Goes My Hero at Center for Book Arts. How do you choose an artist to work with, and what are you looking for in them and their work?

I don’t know that I am always looking for the exact same thing in an artist each time I curate an exhibition. Obviously, first and foremost their work has to fit the concept of the exhibition and has to be resolved.

You have curated numerous exhibitions — How Soon Is Now?; Here and Elsewhere; When Living Was Labor. What does it take to get an exhibition off the ground, from conception to development to execution?

Well, it takes time, patience, multi-tasking, and organization! For example, right now, I am working on four shows and juggling all of them as they are in different stages of development. I am finalizing and installing one show in a few weeks. I am also currently in the research and writing phase for two others. And, about to do studio visits for the fourth one. When I worked at BxMA we would create production timelines for the shows. We would work backwards from the date the show opened and put in deadlines for each separate thing that needed to happen to get the exhibition installed including print, writing, and checklist deadlines as well as installation and preview dates. As an independent curator now it helps for me to keep a timeline and set deadlines for myself to keep on track. You have to be flexible though because there can be minor roadblocks along the way.

What are the advantages of being a curator?

The advantage of being a curator is that I get to contribute to the cultural landscape of New York and work with artists and colleagues in the industry whom I admire and learn from.

What are the disadvantages?

There aren’t any disadvantages. I love my job.

What artists do you find particularly fascinating today, and why?

Well, strangely enough, Alexander Calder fascinates me at the moment. I have always loved his work, particularly his mobiles. I was a dancer when I was younger, and I’ve always been very interested in movement, which is why I love his mobiles. But, to be honest, I do not know that much about his biography or the rest of his oeuvre. So, I think I’ll be researching it for a while.

Where do you look at art?

I look at art everywhere, museums, galleries, the street, studios, books, magazines, websites.

Let’s discuss looking at art in a museum. You walk into an art museum, what is the first thing you do, and why? Do you look for the wall text adjacent to the work? Do you use the audio support? Do you participate in a guided tour of the exhibition? Do you just look at the work, with your own eyes, and ruminate — or not? Is there a right way or wrong way to experience art?

This is a good question because everyone looks at art differently.

Generally, the first thing I do when walking into any museum show is to sort of survey the entire thing (if I can). I do this to kind of take in the whole picture. Once I’ve done that I tend to focus on the details, for example — and I think this is because I’ve worked in a Museum — I look at what kind of wall labels the institution is using and how they are applied; whether the walls have been freshly painted or if there are nicks, scratches, and dirt on them; I look at pedestals, vitrines, hanging devices, and equipment to see how other institutions install these materials; I also notice the guards to see if they’re watching the people in the space or not; and I also look at other people to see how they are looking.

I usually scan the wall text just to get an idea of the scope of the show, but I rarely stand there and read the whole thing. I do read wall labels occasionally if I want to know more about a particular artist or piece of work. I’ve never taken an audio tour, but perhaps I should sometime. I’ve only participated in guided tours when I went to see an exhibition in grad school or someone else organized one.

There is no right or wrong way to view art. It is a completely personal and subjective experience. I often go see shows with my sister and she tends to spend a very long time with each work, whereas I don’t. Sometimes I get frustrated that it takes her so long when I am ready to move on, but I respect her time.

Have you ever touched an artwork on view in a museum — for example, have you fondled Figure of a Woman, a terracotta sculpture from the Indian Gupta dynasty, at the Princeton University Art Museum in the spring of 1991? And have you ever been taken out of an art museum by force?

That is such a specific example, but no, I have never fondled or touched an artwork in a museum other than artwork at BxMA that I was handling with white cotton gloves while installing. Touching artwork is something I am very opinionated about. I’ve even had nightmares about it! Mostly because the idea of ruining artwork is horrible, and we all know that the oils from our hands can alter a work. I have never been removed from a museum by force. However, I was once told to back away from a Gordon Matta-Clark sculpture at the Whitney because my foot had accidentally stepped over (by a toe!) the strip of tape on the floor meant to keep people from being too close to the work. I, of course, complied, but also thought it was funny.

You have one foot in Jersey City and the other in Brooklyn. Where is your head?

Ha! Everywhere! I am usually in about two to three boroughs of the city on a given day. I’m kind of nomadic that way. I’m constantly on the move. I’m a Sagittarius. We like to travel.

You lived in France, and I’ve seen it on TV. What is the best place to get a café and croissant in Jersey City?

There are two places in JC that I love to frequent for their French flair and fare, Madame Claude and Marco & Pepe, but don’t know that I’ve had a croissant at either.

What are you working on next?

In late June I’ll be curating the artist-in-residence exhibition of Artists Alliance at CHUCHIFRITOS Art Gallery/Project Space. At the end of March 2011 I will be guest curating an exhibition AIR Gallery. An AIR fellow invited me to guest curate an exhibition called Privacy Please! about private grooming and beauty rituals in art. It will be an open call so the work and artists have not been chosen for the show yet. And lastly, I am working on an exhibition at the Bronx River Art Center for 2011. It’s going to be a show whose concept I have been working on for nearly 5 years now about feminist video and performance, particularly artists who embody characters to discuss personal and collective histories.

Untitled opens Thursday, June 3 with a reception from 6 to 9 pm at the The Halls at Bowling Green in The Cunard Building, 25 Broadway, 7th Floor, NY NY. The show is up through July 9; for more info visit PowerhouseProjects.com.

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at brendanscottcarroll.com.