Interviews

How Two Curators Will Bring a Chicago Sensibility to the 2014 Whitney Biennial

by Alicia Eler on December 7, 2012

Curators Michelle Grabner, left, and Anthony Elms, right, will be curating the 2014 Whitney Biennial. (photos via and Elms’ Facebook page)

CHICAGO — The 2014 Whitney Biennial won’t be like every biennial before it. The always anticipated art world event will partly be a response to the Occupy movement’s call to end the Whitney Biennial, which charged that the major exhibition was just another art world commercial interest, and it will also be a swan song to the Whitney’s longtime home in the Marcel Breuer building. But many people may not realize that the event will also be different as it will welcome a Chicago curatorial approach into the mix, and that’s very exciting.

Artist/writer/professor/curator/all-around-maker and longstanding Chicagoan Michelle Grabner and recent Chicago-to-Philadelphia transplant Anthony Elms will be curating two of three floors at the next biennial. (The third is Stuart Comer, film curator at the Tate Modern.) Both Elms and Grabner have experience curating and organizing artist-run spaces that operate outside of the capital “A” art world. At the 2014 Whitney Biennial, they’ll show off their curatorial chops and, quite possibly, flip the institutional model on its head, spinning it about until it creates an entirely new, artist-made and artist-run model.

“I find problems with the curatorial process,” Grabner says. “I curate as an artist, not a professional curator. For the 2014 biennial, each curator gets a floor. This is really three takes at what the Whitney Biennial should be.”

“I’m not in other cities so I don’t know how they operate, but I guess there’s a lot of slipperiness in Chicago … “

Grabner operates in a very Chicago way, stretching the limits of what it means to create. It’s hard to pin down exactly what she does because her practice is vast and expansive. First and foremost she is a painter, and since 1996 she has been the professor and department chair in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is also a visiting professor/core critic at Yale University, and a senior critic at the University of Pennsylvania. She writes criticism for publications such as Artforum magazine, and is a contributing editor at Xtra out of Los Angeles. Contributing to the Chicago artist-run project space landscape, she runs The Suburban, an artist project space located in her backyard (think mini-gallery located in the backyard), with her husband and fellow artist, Brad Killiam. Her curatorial and artist residency-inclined tendencies extend north into Wisconsin (she is originally from Oshkosh), where she and Killiam act as sole staffers of The Poor Farm, a space located on an actual WPA-era poor farm that generates and explores artist projects and year-long exhibitions.

In a recent talk about artist-run spaces at the Chicago Artists Coalition Grabner spoke openly about funding The Suburban and The Poor Farm through her and Killiam’s hard-earned dollars; they do not apply for grants or ask for sponsors. The production becomes a family affair, an artist-run exploration that operates outside the art world at large. Grabner has also curated at cultural institutions such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but her focus remains on working directly with artists sans the institutional baggage.

Fellow 2014 Whitney Biennial Curator Anthony Elms is best known in Chicago for his involvement in art and art-like productions. He is the editor and director of White Walls, a publisher of art titles (distributed by University of Chicago Press). While in Chicago, he acted as the assistant director at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400. As a writer, his criticism has been published in Afterall, Art Papers, Artforum, New Art Examiner, Modern Painters and Time Out Chicago, to name a few. He was on the exhibition committee at the Hyde Park Art Center, on the solo committee at threewalls, and a preparator at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Alagon, and the Renaissance Society. For a period of time, he was also a development associate at the Renaissance Society.

Now based in Philadelphia, Elms has one job: associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia. He goes about his work in Philadelphia in much the same way as he did in Chicago — getting in deep, and shoving his hands into as much as he has time for. At the ICA, the staff is small at only 18 people; curators all cook and clean together after openings and lectures. His frenetic approach translates well in this new curatorial role, yet his focus remains on the artists — he never meant to be a curator proper. He goes into the Whitney with an interest first and foremost on investigating the artist in their studio.

“There were no artists on my proposal because I wouldn’t want to list any artists until I got into studios and figured out who I need to get more engaged with,” Elms says. “I’ll probably know who I am working with after doing a bunch of studio visits a few months from now. I didn’t propose a show for the biennial, but I did propose a mood.”

Elms’s curatorial style is decidedly Chicago — not in terms of a particular aesthetic style, but rather in its fluidity.

“I’m not in other cities so I don’t know how they operate, but I guess there’s a lot of slipperiness in Chicago,” Elms says. “At least when I first got there I was getting my start and there were a lot of artist-run organizations. I never intended to be a writer, curator or a cultural bureaucrat, as I tend to consider myself now, but people ask you to be on the board of this artist-run space, organize something for an artist-run space, that type of thing, so I ended up moreso just falling into these roles.”

Similarly for Grabner, curating the Whitney is not so much about her or her role as a curator as much as it is the artists she will work with and enlarging her practice.

“There is something about the Whitney perennially — you are either a winner or a loser,” says Grabner. “When you’re not included, you are a loser. I am trying to work through a process or methodology where that doesn’t have to be the case. For example, if I do a studio visit but don’t select the artist, I’d like for them to be in the show somehow — maybe they are in conversation with another artist. I am trying to break down the either ‘you’re in or you’re out’-type of model.”

As an artist who has continually changed roles and modes, yet remained dedicated to investigating the act of painting, Grabner is most interested in artists who never arrive, but rather who are always becoming.

“I am going to approach the Whitney Biennial in the same way I curate The Suburban and The Poor Farm — by dealing with artists, not institutions,” she says. “I am going to ask artists who they are looking at, and see who is doing interesting work in cities across the country. I am looking at artists who have emerged several times over the course of their lives,” says Grabner.

In a nod to Chicago’s hardworking, blue-collar, DIY reputation, Grabner says she will work with artists who perhaps aren’t the types you’d find showing regularly in Chelsea.

“There are people working hard who are producing good work and don’t circulate within the structure of the contemporary art world,” Grabner says. “It’s going to be hard work.”

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  • Den Hickey

    Ugh.. “Shudder” shades.

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