Inside and Outside the Curatorial Box
Husband and wife curators Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro and Regine Basha discuss the art of their profession
What is being a curator all about? How do you influence the world through the art you select to exhibit? After talking with curators Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro and Regine Basha, what becomes clear is that the job of curator is as individual as the person who holds it.
The newly married couple share the same profession in title only. Their approaches and perspectives are quite different. Pérez-Barreiro, a native Spaniard reared and schooled in Britain who has worked in Madrid and New York City, came to Austin a year ago when he was appointed the second curator of Latin American art at UT's Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. He is an academic curator, working within both historical and contemporary time lines in Latin America and within the box framework that is the institutional museum. Basha, who was born in Israel but grew up in Montreal and Los Angeles, is an independent curator of contemporary art who has worked in Canada and New York. After she arrived in Austin, Basha was hired by Arthouse as adjunct curator, and she and Austin's Laurence Miller founded Fluent Collaborative, a new art initiative to bring cutting edge influences to town to talk or exhibit new work.
The couple does share an international view of the art world, encompassing the world. Here, in their own words, is their take on their profession, on Austin, and the art worlds they inhabit.
Austin Chronicle: How do you see your role as curator?
Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro: Ultimately, your role is that of translator. There is a body of knowledge that you are responsible for, about which you know more than most people because that is your job. You have accumulated that knowledge, and that is an ongoing process. I think communicating that effectively, indicating some of the reasons why you think that is important, that is the challenge for a curator -- that friction between this body of knowledge and what people may or may not want to know about the material. So I think the translator is the clearest sort of analogue.
AC: How do you view the arts in Austin and in Texas?
GPB: This may be possibly how Regine and I are different. She is very much engaged with the Austin arts scene, and I am engaged in a much broader art scene even though I am based here. There is an incredible space in all the senses of the word. There is a generosity and enthusiasm and a willingness to learn among the people who would normally support the arts, which I find incredibly invigorating. I have never seen this, and I am delighted by it.
Then I look around [Texas], and I see this incredible investment in infrastructure that has happened in the last few years. Some of the best museums I have ever seen are in Texas: the Fort Worth Modern, the Kimbell, the MFA-Houston, and the Menil. That, I think, is an incredible credit to the people who have done that. And they are all museums that are based on somebody's vision. It is a very different model; as a European, I am fascinated by that. Someone says, "Damn, I'm going to build a museum," and they summon all the forces that are necessary, and they just do it. It is not a government office that has decided to build a museum because it will be good.
I find that spirit very exciting, and I think now Texas is in a state of building its infrastructure similar to New York in the 1940s and 1950s, when the major museums were being built and established. Now the results are evident. Here we have very young institutions, and no one knows how they are going to work out, but at least they are there and that is an important investment. They are attracting talent, people are taking them seriously, and people are coming through.
AC: What would you like to achieve here?
GPB: I would love to grow the collection; it needs to grow. Now, there are a lot of other players in the field, and if we don't grow we could very quickly go from being the world's most important Latin American collection to the world's most unimportant collection. There are institutional imperatives that we have to address very forcefully because there is something that could be lost very easily. So ... that would be a major goal. I would love for the museum to be successful, and that it is a place that people would come and get a regular exposure to Latin American art, for the projects like the artists-in-residence to continue. I would like to maintain this level of stimulation.
AC: You really are describing a sense of engagement.
GPB: Right. More than a set of finite goals that I could tick off my list. I would like it to be more continuous; I would like the list not to end.
AC: Where would you like to take the Blanton in the field of Latin American art?
GPB: In the case of the Blanton, it is a very unique situation because it is so far advanced, almost more than any other institution in the world in this particular field. I can say this because I have been here only a short period, and it is an acknowledgment of what people before me have done. So we are starting from a privileged position: We have one of the largest collections. It is a collection that needs a lot of work: It needs to be updated, it needs to come into the contemporary much more than it has, it needs to fill some historical gaps that it has.
On the other hand -- and I am doing this absolutely in collaboration with Annette [Carlozzi, Blanton curator of American and contemporary art] -- as we are looking forward to the new building, we are both questioning our job descriptions and the titles we have. She is curator of American art, and I am curator of Latin American art. She is uncomfortable with: What does American mean? Who does that include; who does it not include? A lot of American artists are actually not American. Same thing with Latin America: A lot of Latin American art is not Latin American; they don't actually live there. Latin American is an imperfect term. The contemporary art world is so much more complicated than these terms allow.
So we are looking at presenting the collections in an integrated manner -- that will be for the first time. You will come to the contemporary gallery, and you will find American artists next to Latin American artists all through the whole sequence of 20th-century art as it is told in our collection, everything from social realism, constructivism, abstract expressionism, to place them in dialogue. And in our exhibition program, certainly more on the contemporary side, we are working together so we think of it as one program with two curatorial voices in it rather than two curators digging their own holes and building their own walls around them. So for me, the success or failure of the Blanton project is going to depend on how well we do that.
AC: How do you see your role as curator?
Regine Basha: I was interested in making art, so I entered the studio art program [at NYU] first. That's probably informed my curatorial practice, too. It is working closely with artists, understanding their process and mediating it to the public. It depends on what the situation is. The role of the curator changes per context and per city. My role is working with a living artist closely and almost getting inside their head if I can. I enjoy the process of interpreting.
AC: How do you view the arts in Austin?
RB: When I first got here, I immediately recognized that Austin had a sense of independence, and I really enjoy that. Being an independent curator, that is something I have always championed, the sense that we can do it ourselves, no need to conform or follow any preordained system. Also, being in New York I had enough of the art market and artwork coming out of schools that were just feeding the art market. Like many people there, I was getting very jaded because so much of the art there looked like formula for the market, for the galleries. You lose track of any real substance or inspiration. I was coming with that in mind, and I find it very refreshing. It is still at a nascent moment, and the exciting thing about that is there is potential for things to happen and grow, rather than in a place where things feel saturated and overplayed and basically superfluous. It is certainly not like that here.
I guess my initial impression was that for so many young people here this must be the kind of place where a lot of alternative actions, galleries, collaborative work, goes on. And that was a surprise to me, that it is just starting. I think that is great because that is really the percolator for an arts scene, more so than having collectors around. From my view, it has to come from the artists being excited and feeding the ideas back into the community. I am not that excited about the kind of comfort zone that a lot of the galleries seem to be in. There seems to be a status quo that art is just beautiful objects for the home, and I happen to be more excited by ideas that relate to things that go on in the rest of the world and having a conversation with that ongoing situation, whatever that might be. I am interested in contemporary art that engages one in ideas rather than objects.
I hope to see more flourishing of ideas and a relationship to other forms of production -- art as well as film -- to recognize all the activities. The scene is fledgling; I wish there was a little bit more influx of what's going on outside of Austin so that we don't run the risk of becoming isolationist.
I am going to continue to work on things that broaden my horizons and bring that back into Austin. For instance, Danica Phelps, the artist I had just worked with in Istanbul, will be coming to Austin to show her Istanbul series at Arthouse next fall. The hope is that the line of communication will go both ways.
AC: What do you hope to achieve?
RB: What I hope to achieve is really beyond myself. It is really what I hope will happen as a result of the people I am working with here -- Sue Graze at Arthouse, Fluent Collaborative. To have enough input into the community so that we all grow together in a fruitful way.
Things can change for the better for everyone if only the attitudes will change. You never know how things change if you are able to bring in something new: All of a sudden there is more interest in Austin, there are more people looking at Austin artists because of this thing that happened, that thing that happened. That's what I hope to achieve.
AC: Can you talk about your differences and similarities as curators?
GPB: My field is very specific and specialized and is based in a certain region. As much as I want to confuse that distinction, that is the primary thing I do.
I also come from a more art historical and academic background. Some things are more similar -- we are both interested in the contemporary and in a more expanded sense of what art practice can be. Within that, I am a little more conservative. What I do tends to be more didactic, and that is the art historian in me: Will this be understood, and what can I do to bridge that gap? And I don't want to speak for you [Regine], but I think you are more interested in the situational and far more open-ended. [She is more] involved in the confusion -- is it an artwork, is it not an artwork? I am much less confident in that area.
RB: Yeah, that's great. Thanks! [Laughter] I agree with everything you were saying. Our backgrounds are very different, and our approaches to why we look at what we look at are for different ends. We constantly have discussions about this. Both of us rose through the field of curating during the time when there was a lot of discussion about multiculturalism, and in my graduate program we hashed this out quite a lot. How do museums serve specific communities, and what does that mean exactly? I am interested in institutional problems like that, even though I am not working on them specifically. I am interested in the evolution of art spaces and how they relate to their particular context outside the door. We often have discussions about that, comparing museum practices around the world, places that we go see -- what happens, does it work, does it not work, what are the problems? But that is just between us; that is just a common interest.
And I think we also appreciate the same kind of work. I have learned so much through Gabriel about Latin American art history that I myself, as a contemporary art curator, would like to help bring it outside of its own bubble. There are artists that I have met through Gabriel whose work is in line with what I am interested in, and they are in shows of mine coming up in New York. I think that happens naturally when a couple is in the same field. So I am actually pleased that we are not the same kind of curator; I think that would be very difficult. It's just like when artists live together. I appreciate what he does, and he appreciates what I do, but they are quite different. If you look at a filmmaker that is working in documentary and another who is working in fiction, they can be so different that they might as well be in different fields.
GPB: You get the inevitable cross-pollination. I get stuck in my bubble, too. You inevitably end up talking shop. That is the risk of working in the same field.
AC: How did you two meet?
GPB: We met at work ... [Laughter].