Facilitating conversation about art: CWOS programming includes ‘Curator-Led Studio Visits’

Cham Hendon talks about his work during last year’s “Curator-Led Studio Tours” event. Photo courtesy of Artspace.

Last year, Artspace Director Helen Kauder and her colleagues added an event to the organization’s annual City-Wide Open Studios programming that was designed to “take down the barrier … to more interesting conversations” about the work on display during the nearly month-long festival. Kauder and CWOS organizers invited experienced curators from the area and beyond to lead tour groups on visits to artists’ studios. The visits took place before the local art community focused its attention on work displayed at Erector Square.

This year, “Curator-Led Studio Tours” will take place on two nights — Oct. 11, as a preview of “Erector Square Weekend,” which is scheduled for Oct. 12 and Oct. 13, and Oct. 17, a few days before 60-plus artists open their studio doors to the public for “Passport Weekend.” At press time, participating curators were to include Steven Holmes, curator of The Cartin Collection, in Hartford; Anne Higonnet, art history professor at Columbia University’s Barnard College; Jennifer McGregor, arts director and senior curator at Wave Hill, in the Bronx; and Charlotta Kotik, former contemporary- art department chair at the Brooklyn Museum.

Susan Cahan, associate dean for the arts at Yale College, who was among the four curators who participated in last year’s event, said she chose to visit the studios of artists whose work was relatively new to and interested her. One of those artists was Cham Hendon, whose work appeared in an exhibition called Bad Painting, which was presented by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York, in 1978. Cahan started working at the museum shortly thereafter and was familiar with the exhibition.

So taken was Cahan a painting by Hendon called Sea Battle that she purchased it from the artist. Cahan described the 20-or-so-people she led to Hendon’s Hamden studio (and others’) as “a really inquisitive group,” some of whom had followed the work of local artists and had an attachment to Artspace.

“When one has looked at and deeply considered a lot of art … there’s a context and a framework … and a basic comfort level with new things,” Cahan said, talking about her group’s engagement with the work they experienced together.

Cham Hendon’s Sea Battle. Image courtesy of Susan Cahan.

Cham Hendon’s Sea Battle. Image courtesy of Susan Cahan.

Cahan’s approach to the studio visits was to do them as if she were alone – and “to say out loud everything I was thinking.”

What resulted, she said – given in part that the “artists were very articulate” – was a very fluid, casual, and candid manner of conversation.

Hearing artists speak and participate in conversation with knowledgeable studio visitors was “really kind of joyful,” Cahan said, explaining that it’s gratifying to connect a sensory experience to intellectual inquiry and emotional response.

“Talking about art deepens everyone’s understanding of it,” she said. Paul Ha, director of the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was also among those who led studio tours last year. His role, as he saw it, was to be a conversational icebreaker for the many in his tour group who hadn’t visited with an artist in his or her studio.

“I think artists always appreciate people asking them about their work,” Ha said.

To most of the public, contemporary art is something that’s hard to understand, Ha said, and the best way to learn about it is to talk with those who produce it. What stuck out to Ha about his participation in last year’s “Curator-Led Studio Tours” event was “how much (the) artists really worked on the visits,” readying their studios for interested company. “The ambition they put into the project … was impressive and appreciated, too,” he said.

Ha believes that presenting a City-Wide Open Studios type of event is important.

“Most people don’t think about where art comes from,” he said, pointing out that “artists are real contributors to (a) city,” in terms of its economy.

Of her experience leading studio tours during last year’s CWOS festival, Cathleen Chaffee, the Horace W Goldsmith Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, said, “It was such a positive event.”

Chaffee pointed out how different engaging with an artist in his or her studio is from meeting and chatting for a few minutes with an artist at a gallery opening.

“These people really got to know these artists’ work,” she said. And, echoing what Ha said about artists enjoying the chance to talk about their work, Chaffee pointed out that the tour groups represented an audience whose members the artists might not have otherwise had an opportunity to meet.

Brooke Davis Anderson, executive director of Prospect New Orleans, who led a studio visit tour last year, said, “It didn’t surprise me that the work was very serious and treated very importantly.”

Of the event itself, Anderson said, “I walked away thinking, ‘I’m totally copying this.’”

As part of its City-Wide Open Studios programming this month, Artspace will organize “Curator-Led Studio Tours” on Oct. 11 and Oct. 17. Those interested in participating should visit CWOS.org or artspacenh.org

Article by: David Brensilver, Editor of the Arts Paper 

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