Interviews

Meet the Art Community of the US Southwest: Marisa Sage Can Visit 20 Museums and Galleries in a Day

An interview series spotlighting some of the creative community members in the US Southwest. Hear from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

(Courtesy Marisa Sage)

This is the latest installment of the interview series Meet the Art Community of the US Southwest. Check out our past interviews here.

Marisa Sage is the Director and Head Curator of the New Mexico State University Art Museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Sage is a curator with a passion for emerging contemporary art and artists. Throughout her 15 year career, Sage has planned and executed over 100 international exhibitions, which included more than 200 individual artists globally. Previously, Sage served as the Director of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation in New York, and Galleries Manager for Salisbury University Art Galleries in Salisbury, Maryland. Before that, she established Like the Spice Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which held over 65 exhibitions between 2006 and 2012. At NMSU Sage curated “Off the Wall,” a two-part exhibition tracing the history of Sol LeWitt’s relationship with NMSU, as well as showing the extent of his influence on a new generation of artists who use the surface of the wall as their canvas. Sage has written and received multiple grants for NMSU including the National Endowment for the Arts which funded the exhibition GEOMAGIC: Art, Science, and the Zuhl Collection. Sage is a New York native, who received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography from Syracuse University and Master of Digital Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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Where were you born?­­

Surprise — this New Mexican started out as a third-generation New Yorker! If we were speaking on the phone, you would quickly pick up on the accent. I was born in Queens and have also lived upstate, on Long Island, and in Brooklyn.

How long have you been living in Las Cruces?

I’ve lived here for four years. My sister and her wife were the first Sages to move out West. They moved to Albuquerque, where they had their twin sons, and to fulfill my role as the world’s greatest aunt, I decided to move closer to them. I visited Southern New Mexico for the first time when I interviewed here at New Mexico State University. While I was blown away by the landscape, particularly the sunset on the Organ Mountains, it was the solid cement sculpture by Sol LeWitt on campus and the 20-plus original LeWitts in the NMSU Permanent Art Collection that really hooked me.

What’s your first strong art memory?

Ann Hamilton’s installation myein at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999 changed my life forever. I was studying abroad in Florence that year, when Venice suffered the second-worst flood in its recorded history. When you see pictures of the Piazza San Marco underwater and water up to visitors’ knees, that’s the scene I witnessed and experienced. Hamilton used the totality of the American Pavilion’s neo-classical architecture as a conceptual installation, and through her sculptural transformation of the space, comprehensively expressed America’s social-political history. But I stumbled upon the piece as soon as I got off the train in Venice, miles from the site of the Gardini. Walking towards the Biennale, I began to notice a bright pink pigment — sometimes abstract, sometimes in the shape of a shoe print. It was not until I entered myein that I discovered the origin of the fuchsia dust-like substance. One room in Hamilton’s pavilion slowly seeped a powder from the ceiling, creating a sense that the room was bleeding. Whether purposeful or fortuitous, the flood had added a social-practice element to Hamilton’s work, rendering it truly democratic, inclusive, and equalizing: one did not have to actually enter the Biennale to become a part of the artwork. This truly helped fortify Hamilton’s concepts of the unspoken or unseen elements of history that implicate us all if not recognized and dealt with. The work changed the course of my life.

What was your favorite exhibition you saw this year?

I was fortunate to see so many fantastic exhibitions this year across the country, but some were particularly important to me. For example, I was moved by Hank Willis Thomas’s ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, which summarized so beautifully the way I have been thinking about art this year. In his statement for the heartbreaking and epic work 14,719 he wrote: “The word ‘Art’ means something different to me now. It offers a little bit of hope for answers, or at least it poses better questions.” Similarly, in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, I saw Sorry for the Mess, a collaborative exhibition by artists Justin Favela and Ramiro Gomez. This show offered alternative narratives on manual labor, childhood memories and growing up as first generation Latino kids in the American West. I was so impressed by the show and thought it would be perfect for our Las Cruces border community, so I have worked with the show’s Director and Curator Alisha Kerlin to bring it here. (We will merge the Vegas show with a few site-specific works created by Gomez and Favela, inspired by their trip to Las Cruces.) But I’d have to say that my very favorite “exhibition” this year was actually the artwork Border Tuner, a large-scale, participatory art installation by Mexican-born, Montreal-based artist Rafael Lozano Hemmer, curated by Kerry Doyle and León de la Rosa. This monumental artwork turned powerful searchlights into bridges of light that crossed over the “border wall” between Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. The searchlights were coordinated with microphones on each side of the border, allowing visitors to have a conversations through sound and light. As speakers in these transnational cities conversed, the light undulated and danced; the beams grew stronger and brighter when the participants were synchronized. This piece transformed the landscape of the desert sky, disregarding the wall/divisions/etc. separating our two countries, and asked us to “tune” into one another in order to truly hear and listen to the voices and interwoven stories of our border communities. I was amazed by how many intergenerational families took part, and how many deep-rooted community-based connections were made.

What are you currently working on?

For the past two years my main focus has been preparing to move into and open Devasthali Hall, an expansive contemporary arts facility housing the new University Art Museum and Department of Art on the campus of NMSU. For the first time in the history of NMSU, the museum will house two permanent collection gallery spaces and a study room that will allow visitors to request, view, and research our more than 1,700 19th-century retablos (the largest known portfolio of 19th century Mexican devotional paintings in the US) and nearly 1,800 remarkable contemporary and modern works. We will celebrate the building’s official opening on February 28, 2020, with the exhibition Labor: Motherhood & Art in 2020, featuring the work of artists Tracey Baran, María Berrío, Patty Chang, Lenka Clayton, Amy Cutler, Joey Fauerso, Tierney Gearon, Kate Gilmore, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Las Hermanas Iglesias, Mary Kelly, Justine Kurland, Marilyn Minter, Laurel Nakadate, Hương Ngô & Hồng- Ân Trương, Yoko Ono, Catherine Opie, Laurie Simmons, Wendy Red Star, and Mickalene Thomas. I have co-curated this exhibition with the New-York-based artist and mother Laurel Nakadate. Our show will address various experiences of mothering and motherhood, and the ways the mother and childrearing have been perceived and portrayed, both historically and in current popular culture. With the great deal of programming we have planned surrounding the exhibition, we hope to create a safe space for national, regional and community moms to join a public dialogue on the subject of motherhood — a topic rarely discussed or deeply explored within our field. We strive to create a cultural hub with the new NMSU Art Museum and I take our role — of shaping our community’s understanding of the intrinsic value of art in their lives — very seriously. We will provide free educational programming for our region to shed light on the importance of the arts as a catalyst for cultural and economic growth, and we will offer a cool and inspiring place to hang out, see a lecture, or view a performance. We will also offer museum training and learning experiences to undergraduate and graduate students. The whole museum has been designed with the goal of bridging our communities on-campus and off, and my hope is that the museum narrows the gaps between the creation, study, appreciationm and support of art in this region. My dream is that we have built a shared space that inspires and shapes artists and creativity in this region for years to come.

What guides your process?

The values of community and inclusiveness, and the goal of filling the women- and diversity-sized gaps in programming and collecting practices. I try to think holistically about why we invite an artist to Las Cruces. Whether to mount a site-specific installation, an exhibition, a workshop, or a lecture, I focus on how an artist might affect our region and how our community will affect that artist. I try to make sure every person I talk to understands that they can be part of art — It’s not some elitist enterprise, everyone has and needs art in their life. If they took everything off their walls at home, their house wouldn’t feel like their home anymore. It is important to me to help people understand that they don’t need an arts education to know what they enjoy. I also feel like in my position I have a responsibility to our future students, scholars, staff, faculty, and communities to expand our collection to include the work of Latino, Latinx, LGBTQ, and female artists. I began to develop my love for emerging artists and art when I ran my gallery Like the Spice, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from 2006-2012. I have tried to discover art that carries both meaning and beauty, encouraging artists to push their limits and find new directions in their work. I will travel far and wide to see an artist’s work. When I do studio visits, which I love to do, I curate and suggest artists for our collection with diversity and our community in mind.

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

Most of my reading over the past year has surrounded our upcoming exhibition. One of the first books I read was Mother Reader, aptly subtitled “Essential Writings on Motherhood.” Several essays in this book moved me to tears. It made me realize how important women’s stories are, and my hope grew that more women feel safe to share their experiences, particularly regarding childbirth, reproductive choice, mothering, and motherhood.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

I love going to see art with friends, but I can be a tricky art companion. At art fairs I am no fun because I talk to everyone — I gab with artists, gallerists, and curators almost as much as I look at the work — so I have to go with someone who accepts my gregariousness. I am a voracious museum and gallery hopper. I can visit up to 20 museums and galleries in a day. I might look at a painting for any hour or for two seconds. So I generally like to view work with a friend who can give me space to absorb the work at my pace, but then be there at the end of the day or in between spaces to do a debrief of what we saw and how it affected us. I think the better question is which one of my friends can tolerate seeing art with me.

Do you like to photograph the art you see?

I’m a millennial Instagrammer trapped in a Gen X body. I photograph every art piece I am intrigued by. I do this for two purposes. First, I use the images in my curatorial practice.  I have gone back to images I took as far back as four years ago when curating an exhibition. If I am at an art fair I always photograph the booth info and the artist’s name; at a museum or gallery I always shoot the didact as reference. Second, I love to promote artists whose works I admire. While I may not have a million followers, I think it is important to support those you respect and appreciate. I always, always ask the artist, gallerist or an institution before I take a pic, and I always # or @ if I post!

What do you see as the centers for creative community in Las Cruces (or southern NM at large)?

In Las Cruces it’s our artist-run maker spaces that act as these centers of community. With Cruces Creatives, Art Obscura, and various others scattered throughout southern New Mexico, artists have opened businesses that exhibit art, provide tools and material for makers, and provide performance space for musicians and artists alike. These organizations help to keep local artists in town and give them low-cost opportunities to make and exhibit their work. These spaces also co-sponsor each other, share resources, promote one another, partner, and collaborate. It’s pretty inspirational. I try to make sure the University Art Museum promotes and advocates for them as well by providing space, collaboration, and cross-promotion.

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