Interviews

Meet LA’s Art Community: Sarah Russin on the “Importance of Showing Up” to Art Events, and More

An interview series spotlighting some of the great work coming out of Los Angeles. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

The Archival Impulse: 40 Years at LACE installation (photo by Daniela Lieja Quintanar)

Welcome to the third installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week, we interviewed Sarah Russin, who has been the executive director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) since 2014. While at LACE, Russin established the Emerging Curator’s Program and the Summer Artist in Residence Program, and also worked with the Getty Research Institute in its acquisition of the LACE Archives. Russin was previously the Assistant Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Director of Alumni Relations at the Otis College of Art and Design.

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Where were you born?

My passport says Waco, Texas, but my entire childhood was spent in the suburban town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. I’ve now lived in Los Angeles for over 30 years — decades longer than I lived back East, so it makes me an official Californian, right?

How long have you been living in Los Angeles?

Combo answer above!

What’s your first memory of seeing art?

The first awe-inspiring artwork I remember is the massive wooden Buddha on display at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. It’s very dramatic, contained in its own room with low, warm lighting. (Time for another visit to that!) My mother loves art and brought my friends and me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for the nerdiest children’s birthday party ever — the Degas ballerina with her disintegrating tulle tutu made an impression.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?

Just like anyone, I take iPhone photos of family and friends with artworks to remember our time together. Sometimes, I do take photos to make note of a special artist that is new to me. In general, I try to experience the work, rather than focus on recording the experience. It’s something we talk about all the time at LACE — the difference between digital representations of art and the experience of our own bodies with an artwork. And also potentially experiencing the work together with others. I think that’s why there is a resurgence of interest in performance — we experience it collectively, not just mediated through digital.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?

Ahhh, I know I’m not alone to say I fear I’ve missed a lot — LACE has so much activity, it keeps me super busy. Selecting one exhibition, it has to be Soul of a Nation [at the Broad]. We exhibited the work of Emory Douglas in summer 2018 and his talk at LACE with curators Daniela Lieja Quintanar and Essence Harden was an inspiration to our audience. The Broad show was delightful in that favorite artists like Emory, Betye Saar, and Senga Nengudi were in conversation with other, less familiar artists. The exhibition served as a contemporary art history survey, as seen through the work of less predicable artists representing every movement. If I can sneak in another show, it’s Judy Chicago at Jeffrey Deitch — gorgeous installation that takes full advantage of the new space and cements her as an artist of huge range.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

I’m about dig into In the Country of Women by Susan Straight, who is based in Riverside, CA. She’s a favorite novelist and I almost always read fiction. This book, however, is a memoir of family, and, as all her books are, is a meditation on race, California history, community, and singular women.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

Art outings with family and friends are fun when it’s just to look at work on a quiet afternoon. If we are at openings or events my family has to put up with me stopping to chat with everyone I know — that slows down the actual looking. I also enjoy going to art events with my LACE colleagues, board members, and artists — it’s a pleasure, but also an important part of the work we do. When asked for advice by apprentices or at workshops, I press the importance of showing up — even if you’re an introvert and social situations are painful. Hope this makes your readers laugh.

What are you currently working on?

Well, everyone in LA is working on their proposals for the next Pacific Standard Time initiative which focuses on art + science + technology. It will be exciting to see how it unfolds over the next few years. Our biggest presentation for 2020 is Intergalactics: Against Isolation, curated by LACE’s curator Daniela Lieja Quintanar, who received the Warhol Curatorial Research Fellowship last year to develop this project. It brings together artworks examining the violence that the physical and conceptual borders, along with severe immigrant policies, have generated in Central America, Mexico, and the US. It presents many forms of resistance built collectively across nations and features artists working in/and around El Salvador, Guatemala, Chiapas, Ciudad Juárez, El Paso, Mexicali, Tijuana, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?

The acquisition of the LACE Archives by the Getty (which includes an ongoing collection of LACE materials). This project was years in the making with my predecessor and countless past staff and apprentices at LACE. In 2018 LACE celebrated its 40th anniversary as the longest-running contemporary artist space in Los Angeles, and we are thrilled by the Getty’s acknowledgment of our importance as an artist incubator.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?

As a team, LACE develops projects with the social and political concerns of our time at the core — with an effort not to be didactic. This year, our fall exhibition dovetailed with our two summer projects that had content centered around nature and the environment. We are inspired by artists we encounter and artists that seek us out — how their experimental take on ideas fit with a show we are putting together. The Emerging Curators Program, which launched five years ago when I came to LACE, has augmented our programming by identifying projects our in-house team wouldn’t necessarily come up with. It helps us keep fresh on what ideas are of interest in LA. In addition, we also look to past projects of LACE as inspiration for new interpretations.

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