How This Curator Is Embracing Houston's Changing Art Scene

Katie Grinnan, Enter-Face, 2012-2015. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Katie Grinnan.

Conversation With a Curator: An Interview with DiverseWorks' Xandra Eden

In the following interview, MutualArt speaks with the new Executive Director and Chief Curator of leading Houston non-profit, multidisciplinary art center DiverseWorks, Xandra Eden. Eden is known for her work with artists such as Nancy Rubins, Diana Al-Hadid and Yoshua Okón, and her curatorial work on themes and issues from national borderlines to the body. As Eden prepared to attend a conference on performance's intersection with visual art, "Curating Performance: A Walker Art Center Convening" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MutualArt had the opportunity to ask her about her new position at DiverseWorks, her plans concerning funding and audience engagement and Katie Grinnan: Nocturnal Hologram, the first show she has curated for the space.

Katie Grinnan: Nocturnal Hologram opening reception, September 10, 2015. Xandra Eden (right) with patrons Amanda and Steve Johnson. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Taylor Hoblitzell.

Natalie Hegert: You recently made the move from North Carolina, where you were the curator at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, to Houston, Texas, where you took over as new Executive Director and Chief Curator at DiverseWorks. I understand you grew up in Houston, what is it like being back?

Xandra Eden: While the street names, heat and humidity are more than familiar to me, the character of the city of Houston has changed. It has become increasingly multi-cultural and studies by the Kinder Institute at Rice University and census reports show that it is revealing itself to be ahead of the curve in becoming one of the most equally diverse U.S. cities. Until recently, the population was also growing at such a rate that it is set to rival Chicago as the third largest city in the nation. While great museums like the Menil and the MFA Houston and other wonderful dance and theater venues have been here for a long time, now we have many more art and cultural institutions, a thriving local art scene, growing enthusiasm from city government and a broadening and diverse audience for the arts.

Katie Grinnan, Twister, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Katie Grinnan.

NH: At DiverseWorks you've taken on an expanded role as Executive Director in addition to heading the curatorial department. How do you plan to balance the directorship with the curatorial side?

XE: I'm using my past work as curator and arts administrator -- I have worked in almost every role in non-profits over the past twenty-five years, except, of course, director! -- and I'm spending a lot of time talking to people, in Houston and elsewhere, to get feedback on where DiverseWorks has been and how people perceive it today, so that we can create a plan for the future. I've felt ready to take on an ED role for a few years now and have the skills to balance that with my curatorial interests. I am also encouraging Associate Curator, Rachel Cook, to take an even stronger artistic role at DiverseWorks, and she will be curating many of our upcoming exhibitions and performances.

I feel very lucky to be working with her, and other great colleagues at DiverseWorks -- Jennifer Gardner, who is Deputy Director, and Taylor Hoblitzell, who is Gallery Manager. We also have a wonderful board of directors and artist advisory board, along with an amazing team of student interns. We plan to hire new staff in the near future too. Together, we are developing our upcoming programs and working on new ways to formulate the organizational structure so that we can adapt well to our new programming initiatives. Most importantly, I want to make sure I do everything I can to maintain a positive, creative and productive work environment.

GONZO247, Artifacts 2.0, 1999-2010, 2015, installation at DiverseWorks June 27 - August 15, 2015, part of the group exhibition Parliament of Owls. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Michael O'Brien.

NH: As fundraising activities fall under the purview of the Executive Director, what do you think about the current status of not-for-profit funding in the U.S?

XE: Fundraising and cultivation is a top priority for me right now. In Houston, state and city funding is not where it should be in comparison to other cities of our size and it is really the contributions of individuals and private foundations that make it possible for us, and most small arts organizations, to continue to present and support new art and artists. 

Also, the "Cultural District" concept has grown in popularity in many urban areas, and Houston is no exception. I think this is a great way to help with redevelopment and recognition of what the arts bring to communities, but it also glosses over issues of gentrification, and I worry that the trend will eventually mean that more of that much needed city and state funding will be directed towards marketing and promotion of the district, rather than supporting artists and arts organizations.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Slyk Chaynjis, November 2 - December 28, 2013, exhibition and daily performance in six acts, commissioned by DiverseWorks. Performed by Caleb Fields and Tek Wilson. Courtesy of the artists and DiverseWorks. Photo: Paul Hester.

NH: The Weatherspoon functions as a university art museum, part of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; while DiverseWorks is, from what I understand, an artist-founded, non-collecting, non-profit institution. What kinds of different experiences and challenges come with the change of territory, going from a university art museum in a small city with about a quarter million people, to a non-profit art space in a major city with over 2 million residents?

XE: I was at The Power Plant in Toronto for six years before I moved to Greensboro -- and one thing I know is that it's extremely important to me, whether I'm working in a mid-size city like Greensboro or a large city like Toronto, to connect to the local community. I've always strived to support and be engaged with my local art community wherever I've lived, and I've found that doing so helps to create a platform for exchange and collaboration that would not be possible otherwise. It's wonderful to be able to create and/or identify a bridge that will help introduce a new artist, or curator to the city, and those connections help the local conversation develop and give outside exposure to local artists.

Katie Grinnan, Nocturnal Hologram, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Katie Grinnan.

NH: You've said that you plan to expand DiverseWorks' audience and position the institution within an international art dialogue. What kinds of changes and advances do you have planned for the future?

XE: Yes, after almost thirty years, I've come back to a city and organization that are both in major moments of transition. Houston is experiencing a lot of change right now, and is becoming more and more international, not to mention maturing as a major U.S. city. DiverseWorks has always worked towards creating an international art dialogue but now I think we have all the experience and tools we need locally to really make that happen, because DiverseWorks is growing up too -- it is now 34 years old and about to move into a new building that has multiple gallery and theater spaces that can be utilized. Once one of only a few contemporary non-profit art spaces in Houston, DiverseWorks is now among a growing pool of artist-run spaces and art organizations around town. In our new home, we plan to build upon our long and impressive history of contributing to the cultural life of Houston, and to do more innovative multi-disciplinary programming, exhibitions and performances that are progressive and risk-taking, whether in terms of subject matter or form. We'll also be expanding our outreach and public programming to strengthen our relationship with various communities across Houston.

Katie Grinnan, Nocturnal Hologram, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Katie Grinnan.

There are several important issues facing all cultural institutions, including diversity among arts professionals, advocacy and training for art writing and accessibility to underserved communities, that we plan to address beginning in 2016. And we also will work to increase opportunities for the artists that DiverseWorks is working with to collaborate with local artists and community groups. Our focus is on commissioning new, multi-disciplinary works that could not be realized elsewhere and creating a platform to engage new audiences and show how the ideas of artists resonate within both local and international contexts.

Everything we do is inspired by the works of art and the artists themselves, but I think it's important to think of the presentation of an exhibition or performance, not so much as a culmination of a series of events, but as beginning a larger, on-going conversation that continues within the community. 

Dean Moss, johnbrown, performed at DiverseWorks April 17 & 18, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: David A. Brown / dabfoto.

NH: In addition to visual art, DiverseWorks also has a specific focus on performance and multi-disciplinary work. Have you curated performance-based works much before?

XE: I've worked with a number of artists who are interested in performance, who do social practice, are musicians or have an interest in dance or have worked with dancers, but almost in every case those artists come from visual arts and are moving into performance. At my first job at Women and Their Work we were part of NPN, the National Performance Network, and we would have one performance a season, usually dance, and I've attended a lot of contemporary and modern dance and have always been interested in that. But now at DiverseWorks I'm looking forward to learning more about the performing arts point of view and how that moves into visual art.

Tahni Holt, Duet Love, performed at DiverseWorks April 24 & 25, 2015. Performers pictured: Ezra Dickinson, keyon gaskin. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo Credit: Lynn Lane.

NH: Your first exhibition at DiverseWorks is a solo show by Los Angeles-based artist Katie Grinnan. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about and why you decided to lead the season with Grinnan's work?

XE: I was introduced to Katie's work a while ago. I've been traveling to Los Angeles quite a bit over the last two or three years, working with a lot of LA artists, including sculptor Nancy Rubins, who had a big show at the Weatherspoon. Katie Grinnan had been a student of Nancy Rubins at UCLA, and Rubins was really supportive of her. I had meant to make a studio visit with Katie and actually only got around to doing that maybe nine months ago. When I did she had Enter Face in progress in her studio, which is such an unusual sculpture, combining humor with a very interesting use of photography and sculpture, through which she was thinking about how the brain creates active imagery during sleep, a time that our bodies are paralyzed, not moving. It's a really fascinating thing to think about, so I got really excited about that project and a couple of other pieces related to this concept. At the time I thought, hopefully I'll have a chance to work with her sometime. Then I got hired at DiverseWorks, and I realized there weren't any shows in place for the fall season. So as Rachel Cook and I went through a bunch of different ideas to try and think of what would make an interesting first show, I had gotten an email from Katie. She had just completed some photographs of the now finished work, and they were beautiful. I thought, wow this is like a gift from the art gods! There's a focus at DiverseWorks on multidisciplinary work, combining visual art forms with performing art and film, and Katie had all of those elements in her work, along with its focus on the body and its relationship to visual information, so it made sense.

Katie Grinnan, Enter-Face, 2012-2015. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Katie Grinnan.

NH: You've observed, studied and written about the field of curatorial studies for many years. Since you started your career, the role and reception of the curator has undergone some drastic changes, namely the rise and proliferation of star-curators (along with the proliferation and expansion of international contemporary art biennials), and the definition of "curating" has expanded to include very broad applications in the commercial/consumerist realm. What do you make of these shifts in the profession, and how have curators had to adapt?

XE: In the past, a lot of people didn't know what curators did, even artists. Later the word started getting used in marketing campaigns or while talking about retail, such as the idea of a "curated store." I thought it was interesting how that word would enter the lexicon, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, when previously it would be rare that you would hear it, and how it had become a cachet type thing, denoting something forward thinking and new. Having been one of the first graduates of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, I was part of the popularization of the idea of curating, but I don't really have an opinion of this transition being good or bad. I think definitely there is a language, a dialogue developing around curatorial work, and that it's moving forward. More people are thinking more and more about who is doing an exhibition, why, what their background is, and how their personality, experience and knowledge affects what's being presented and what works are included, and I think that that's a good thing. More people are conscious that there is a person playing a role in the fact that an exhibition is happening, and not in the "star curator," branded way, common in the 90s.

Katie Grinnan, Enter-Face, 2012-2015. Courtesy of the artist and DiverseWorks. Photo: Katie Grinnan.

--Natalie Hegert