Welcome to the 22nd installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.
This week, we interview Suzanne Isken, who has been the executive director at Craft Contemporary since 2011. Under her direction the museum has presented the exhibitions This is Not a Silent Movie: Four Contemporary Alaska Native Artists, Betye Saar: Keepin’ it Clean, Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters, Paperworks and The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination and Possibility, among others. It is also under her direction that the museum changed its name from the Craft and Folk Art Museum to Craft Contemporary, with the hope of foregrounding the museum in “the now.” Isken was previously the director of education for 10 years at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, after 10 years working as a coordinator of school and teacher programs and gallery educator. She’s also recently developed her “own small craft practice.”
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Where were you born?
How long have you been living in Los Angeles?
My entire life (except for four years at UC Santa Cruz as an undergrad).
What’s your first memory of seeing art?
I have three very consistent and vivid memories: As a child we had two posters of the Spil Selv Danish music festival by Bjørn Wiinblad, 1949 in our kitchen. I still love those images. I used to visit galleries on La Cienega with my dad. He was a hobby photographer, took life drawing classes at Pierce College and dabbled in landscape design. One of my best memories is attending a Matisse exhibition with him at UCLA when I was about 12 years old.
Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph?
Sometimes I photograph art with my iPhone, but I always think it is a bit strange to see people walking through museum galleries with the eyes totally focused through a camera lens. I am not much of a social media contributor, so the photos are mainly just for a personal reminder.
What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year?
It would be hard not to use this question to promote our exhibitions — so I am eager to tell you about The Body, The Object, The Other at Craft Contemporary which I am truly loving. Twenty-one artists contributed work to this exhibition that highlights artists who experiment with clay to represent aspects of the human, including Alex Anderson, Jenny Hata Blumenfield, Jason Briggs, Cassils, Sharif Farrag, Nicki Green, Phyllis Green, Raven Halfmoon, Roxanne Jackson, Anabel Juarez, Cynthia Lahti, Galia Linn, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Gerardo Monterrubio, Brie Ruais, Anders Herwald Ruhwald, Nicole Seisler, Meghan Smythe, Cammie Staros, Wanxin Zhang, and Bari Ziperstein. I was also very pleased to have seen Lezley Saar at Walter Maciel and Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again at the Broad.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Before the pandemic I had grabbed Insomniac City by Bill Hayes off the Little Free Library Cart at Craft Contemporary. I was surprised by how much I really loved reading this book about the love affair between Hayes and Oliver Sacks and the love affair between Hayes and New York City. It was a very romantic book and I enjoyed Hayes’s point of view. I have been following textile arts blogs and escaping into novels. I had a great time with Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, as well as the quirky Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. I am now reading Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman.
Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?
I prefer seeing art in person — alone or with friends — but I really want to be in the same room with art.
What are you currently working on?
Budgets and board leadership — this is the boring life of a museum director. This pandemic has been a punch in the gut financially and has led me to question everything we are doing as we go forward. There are so many questions: When will we open? How has the pandemic changed our operating model? How can we reconvene and serve our community? How can we communicate the importance of our mission now? I think it is more important than ever to assert our uniqueness.
One great recent development are weekly calls with Los Angeles-based, smaller arts institution directors, and another regular call with craft museum directors (American Museum of Ceramic Art, Museum of Craft & Design, Center for Craft Houston, Fuller Craft Museum, and Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh). Both groups are looking at ways we can all help each other and stand together going forward. I see that people have embraced craft and making during the pandemic, and I believe we are poised to help people hold on to their new craft selves as life hopefully returns to some sort of normalcy.
What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?
I recently heard from an organization called SMU Data Arts whose mission is to empower arts and cultural leaders with high-quality data and evidence-based resources and insights that help them to overcome challenges and increase impact. They collect financial and demographic information from national arts organizations every year. This year they had received funding from the Wallace Foundation to study turn-around arts organizations and other successful arts institutions. We had been selected as a turn-around-arts organization and they were seeking information about our success. This was all pre-pandemic of course, but we often feel rather anonymous, so being recognized for our achievements was a big surprise. Funding possibilities going forward are more precarious and the smaller arts organizations are quite challenged. There is definitely a “before” and “after.”
Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects?
These days — colleagues, newsletters, Instagram, webinars, more webinars — Cuseum has done a great job here — Hyperallergic, which I read daily. I have also developed my own small craft practice, which I find gives me time to think and offers a kind of meditative moment to digest all the daily online input.
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Suzanne Iskin is very modest.
In no way does this interview reflect her immense achievement. The shows at the Craft Contemporary generally exceed anything in other institutions or the galleries in Los Angeles. Its diverse, inclusive board is comprised of enthusiasts and visionaries.
These shows are imaginative and risk-taking because the curatorial staff does an exceptional job not only finding artists but giving them a well designed and thought-out environment in which to exhibit their work.. As a critic, I have reviewed or featured 6 of their exhibition in the major national publications I write for. I nearly await their next exhibition.
I love reading this article about one of my favorite museums in Los Angeles. With Suzanne Isken at the helm this museum has produced non-stop show-stopping exhibitions, one right after the other. She and her staff definitely have their finger on the pulse of contemporary art with the understanding the everything derives from craft.
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