Omar Lopez-Chahoud: On Curating Untitled

In this insightful conversation, Omar Lopez-Chahoud, independent curator and artistic director of Untitled talks to us about his goals, his curatorial approach and his experience in curating Untitled.
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Untitled, a curated art fair for international galleries and nonprofit art spaces has been held in Miami Beach every December since 2012. In a short period of time, the fair has more than doubled the number of participating galleries and nonprofit art organizations and has generated considerable interest. In this insightful conversation, Omar Lopez-Chahoud, independent curator and artistic director of Untitled talks to us about his goals, his curatorial approach and his experience in curating Untitled.

On his motivation to join Untitled
I joined Untitled the very first year when it was basically a name and a location. I was approached by Jeff Lawson, the founder of the fair, and he told me that he wanted to work with curators and architects. That to me was interesting. Also, it was like an empty canvas because there was no history. I could develop ideas and add my knowledge to the process of creating an art fair.

What I mean is that there are many art fairs, but some of them are lacking a structure or a cohesiveness in the selection of the works. There is very little communication between the organizers and the galleries. So what I wanted to do was to engage myself in a conversation with the galleries and through the galleries talk to the artists. I wanted to understand their proposals, add to their proposals, and have a more curatorial approach to the art fair. I wanted the fair to be like an exhibition.

On his goals and curatorial approach at Untitled
One thing that differentiates Untitled from other art fairs is that we don't have a gallery committee making decisions. We think curatorially. We spend a lot of time in the process of selection. The first thing we do is look at the proposal of the gallery. We do research on the artists' work and the overall program of the gallery.

As a team we look at the gallery's history, what they have done before, and this is very important. Another thing that is different about Untitled is that we do not want ten artists in a booth unless it is intentional, unless there is a concept. We want a maximum of three to four artists and a booth that is curated, a conversation. So we are actually collaborating with each one of the participating galleries.

Galleries are not assigned to booths randomly. We really want a good flow and a cohesiveness to the art fair experience. We want to create a visual conversation and in some cases even a conceptual conversation among works that are based on similar ideas but are translated in different ways. We want a story, but it is subjective story, not a literal one, more open-ended. It is actually like the chapters of a story and how to organize these chapters. We are also interested in including different generations of artists. It is interesting to connect things.

With galleries, it is a real conversation. Even if they apply and they don't get in, which is the case for a number of galleries, we spend hours talking with them. We want them to understand why they did not get in, because in some cases they have one or two really good artists but the overall program is not ready yet.

We always think less is more and this year we are heading even more in this direction. We want to make sure that there is space in between. That it is an experience that does not overwhelm by the amount of works in the space. We work with a very open space because we want everything to breathe in the space and resonate.

I think this is one of the main reason curators, museums, and collectors have supported Untitled since the beginning, because they felt that it helps them see the work and understand the work. This year we will be tweaking things and making them more specific, because every year we learn and improve. I believe in growth and in that we can always make things better.

On integrating programming from non-profit art organizations and commercial galleries
I think it is important that non-profit art organizations have the opportunity to present their programming, not simply bring information about the organization, because this is the best way to see what they actually do. So one of the things I wanted to do is to mix them with commercial galleries. Mix them based on the work they are exhibiting. The solution that I found was to open up the space.

Floor placement is based on the conversation among the works that are exhibited. I think this approach helps commercial galleries because these non-profit organizations and museums have relationships with many other organizations, so they attract curators and collectors. And as a result the artists exhibited in commercial galleries, not only can sell their work, but can also get more opportunities for exhibitions and commissions. This approach is also appealing to non-profit art organizations since they don't feel like they have been pushed in a separate area on the art fair floor.

On collaborations and what makes them work
With curators: I have been recently joined by Melanie Scarciglia and Christophe Boutin and they are both fantastic curators. They own Onestar Press in Paris and specialize in the production of books and multiples by artists. What I really like about working with them is that they work very closely with the artists. At the same time they do understand art fairs because they have participated over the years. I was very lucky to be able to work with a team that is in direct contact with the artists since I think this is key to success, being in conversation with the artist.

I would also like to mention, that the very first year when we had no name or reputation and we had only 50 galleries -we now have over one hundred-, I was lucky that many of the curators I knew in New York and had started with me when I started curating, came to support me. They came with their institutions and their boards, and I have to say thank you to them for the support. If I didn't have these relationships I don't think we would have succeeded in our first year at Untitled. These relationships were based on years of trusting each other and seeing each other's work.

With artists: You cannot talk about the artists' work without having a little bit of a personal exchange. And then you try to understand their process by asking a lot of questions and let them talk first of course. You need to get their trust, this has to be mutual, and even if you are not interested in their work as a curator you still owe the artist a bit of an exchange. Because you need to be open, it might not be something you want to work with, not in your direction, but you might learn something from them or it could open up new possibilities.

If you do not understand the way the artist works there is no way you can do a good job. And understanding the way the artist works helps us making decisions, think about the work in the art fair's space, how it relates to others artists' work, what is the connection, is there a connection? All that is extremely important in the process of curating an art fair.

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