HIGH ART: Talking contemporary with ‘Nic’ curator

By on April 23, 2013

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – A slew of visual arts events in Jackson recently have highlighted contemporary art on the Western frontier. To conclude my series of musings on this topic I interviewed Lisa Hatchadoorian, former curator at the Nicolaysen Museum of Art in Casper, Wyo.

“The Nic” is a vast museum dedicated to contemporary exhibitions and education and is Wyoming’s largest contemporary art resource not associated with University of Wyoming. Hatchadoorian recently said goodbye to Casper to return to her New York City roots.

Photo cutline: Installation from Tracy Linder’s retrospective at the Nicolaysen. Photo credit: Nicolaysen Art Museum

Installation from Tracy Linder’s retrospective at the Nicolaysen.
Photo credit: Nicolaysen Art Museum

JH Weekly: What do you think is the role of the contemporary curator?

Lisa Hatchadoorian: Good question, as I have always advocated for handing as much of the process over to the public, which would put us all out of a job! With museums making their exhibitions and process more transparent and actively cultivating feedback from the public as to the art, display and choices, it opens up the curatorial process more and makes it a bit more democratic. There is never just one context or point of view. As with any curator, you’re constantly sifting through volumes of visual and contextual information. Contemporary curators have the added thrill of trying to pull out what is relevant and thought-provoking from every visual and non-visual object and conversation today. Getting back to my other point, the more we let the public in, the better. The more we open the curatorial process to non-curators, artists for example, the better. Other viewpoints create dynamism in a field that can be academic and off-putting to the public; and if we’re not trying to create a larger context for the public then whom are we doing it for?

JHW: What does it mean to “curate the contemporary?” How would you describe “curatorial thinking?”

LH: Basically, to be tuned in to and open to whatever is going on now and to be making aesthetic choices about the art that play into a wider conversation about culture, politics, gender or other issues.

JHW: What were your first impressions of the Wyoming art scene in relationship to your urban experiences?

LH: That landscape, place and nature played a much larger role, which is not hard to understand with the beauty and variety of the landscape, but also how changeable it is and how we’re at its mercy more so than in other parts of the country. I did think and still think that there is an incredible amount of originality here in the state and region that comes from following your artistic compass rather than art trends.

JHW: Did living in Wyoming change, challenge or evolve your curatorial philosophies?

LH: Yes, but I’m not sure if it was Wyoming or just the change in the type of venue from a university museum where I was before to a more regional museum with a broader base of patrons. I found myself thinking harder and justifying to myself in a more rigorous process my curatorial choices. Obviously, personal preference and attraction play a role in any curatorial endeavor, but I had to learn my audience, to build trust and to also work within the framework of the place where I was. It was an interesting line to walk as I didn’t want to take the easy way out with the artists that we showed all the time (ones that were familiar or beloved), as the most exciting aspect about being a contemporary curator is moving these different aesthetic, social and public conversations about art and its meaning in our lives in new directions. So I had to find a way that incorporated the familiar and beloved into new expressions and new conversations.

JHW: How did you go about bridging the gap between Wyoming’s expansive, isolated arts communities and contemporary artists elsewhere?

LH: Artists are artists! It doesn’t matter where you’re living; you’re having the same conversations with yourself depending on your medium and subject matter. With Wyoming, it might just be that those conversations are more internal rather than external. I’m not an artist, so I could never be sure what I was providing – hopefully a connection with another artist where you could advance your own conversation in your own mind or get inspired by what someone else was doing or thinking. God knows I get tired of my own thoughts and way of thinking. I need inspiration and new ideas, something to spark a new direction, which is what I tried to do both for artists and our public. I am a huge proponent of beauty in art, but beauty is just the tip of the iceberg and sometimes shuts down the conversation for the public. So, that is our job as well, to give the entire picture and context while leaving the conversation open to experiences from the public. Art dies when the conversation is shut down, or off, or there is nothing new to think or say.

JHW: Can you characterize any modes, aesthetics or artist processes that are happening collectively in Wyoming?

LH: Wyoming is an interesting mix of the traditional and the cutting edge. But this is true even in NYC. Everybody is everywhere; every opinion and type of expression is everywhere. But I will say there seems to be some kind of dealing with or reckoning with the environment, nature and landscape as a thread that runs through the artistic energy of the state. This can be everything from traditional landscape painting and photography to environmental concerns to the intersection of industry, man and nature.

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