In 2013, just days into his position as the Assistant Curator of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Elliot J. Reichert was doing what curators often do. After being thrown into the installation process of a new exhibition, he was flexing his ability to fuel wildfires while demonstrating his resourcefulness in locating unusual materials at the very last minute in service of an artist’s vision. In this case, the artist was the late musician and sculptor Terry Adkins and the wildfires were the brand new works that had been sitting on the back shelf of Adkins’ mind for years that he now had the opportunity to bring to life. When Elliot took this role, the museum was preparing to mount Recital, a substantial solo exhibition of Adkins’ work which had traveled from the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York to Chicago.
When Recital was being mounted, there was no way of knowing that this mid-career retrospective would, in fact, be a definitive moment in Adkins’ career and would also be marked by its peculiar timing. And it was impossible to know that the new works created for the Chicago mounting of the exhibition, with all of their improvisational and newborn energy, would be an invaluable and significant final expansion of his portfolio of works. He would pass away almost exactly one year later, in February 2014, at the young age of 60.
As Elliot tells it, the details of this story demonstrate the ways in which curators are natural problem solvers. They have to think quickly, follow their instincts, and change course with short notice, usually without a sweat and while making it look effortless. Skill sets like these are rarely in the job description, but are always hiding between the lines of this kind of work. Flexibility, adaptation, and adjustment simply comes with the territory.
Whether as a curator, editor for Newcity, as someone moving between schools or Master’s programs, or as a freelance arts writer, Elliot has drawn from these curatorial qualities throughout his career and followed opportunities that have been occasionally punctuated with peculiar yet perfect timing. He has followed the ebbs and flows of his interests and has swiftly adapted to the positions that have presented themselves along the way.
This year he is taking more than a decade of aptitude he has fostered in Chicago’s cultural arenas and weaving it into his role as the first Curator of Contemporary Art at Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum of Art. In our conversation we discuss Elliot’s New Jersey roots, the complex considerations that come with running an art publication, and some of the experiences that were instrumental in shaping how he’s made his moves.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tempestt Hazel: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me as you’re preparing your move to Indiana. First and foremost, how are you feeling?
Elliot J. Reichert: Anxious.
TH: Why is that?
EJR: That’s my resting state. I’m under the auspices of transitions and the very practical things of moving out of state, and also giving things up. I don’t like to give things up.
TH: What’s the biggest thing you’re giving up in this transition?
EJR: I think it’s that psychological, existential idea of when you’re constantly hustling and every month is a new gig. Or you’re writing new things, things are unfolding, and there’s a lot of stress, but also a lot of potential. So, it feels like I’m leaving that and moving into a more finite role where you know what your work is going to be. You know where you’re going to be every day after a number of years of not knowing where the next day or month will take you. In some ways, it’s a relief. In other ways it feels like you’re foreclosing potential, which I know is kind of psychotic but it feels like that.
TH: I get that. So, I am a very big fan of origin stories. You’re not a born and raised Chicagoan, you’re from the East Coast. I’m hoping you can give a little background on who you were before you came to Chicago and what motivated you to make that move.
EJR: Sure, that’s a good question. I think I’m someone who has not had a very comfortable relationship with my origins because I don’t see it as significant to what I do now. That’s probably just me trying to not deal with it.
I was born and raised in southern New Jersey. It was a rural place, though I don’t think it is anymore. My father is a farmer, my mother is retired now but worked in lower-level finance compliance for the state. Neither of them went to college, which wasn’t important to me growing up, but feels more important now because both my brother and I have spent a lot of time in school. I lived a very suburban, white, middle-class life. I didn’t feel especially challenged by my surroundings, or very interested in the immediate world around me. I read a lot and was an escapist reader growing up…
EJR: Yeah, fiction, which is funny because I don’t read much of it anymore, unfortunately. These days I have to make myself read it. I can’t read fiction and embrace it as experience of creative expression. I’m more often looking for the latest non-fiction. It’s not that I’m reading political books, but I’m always reading history or theory now. I think something broke me along the way. But as a kid! Yeah, 100% fiction.
TH: Such an interesting change, though. What made it less appealing to go into that kind of imagination and to really need what it is you’re consuming to be tethered to reality in some way?
EJR: Yeah, that’s a great point and maybe not one that I’m willing to confront directly, but I can try! I’m diverging from your original question, but a lot of the writing I’ve been doing the past year or so–I feel I’ve diverged from the creativity of art and am much more into social issues that are important to me. I feel very guilty for “using” art to have other kinds of conversations. This is the internal feeling. You write stuff and you get anxious about it, questioning what it means, what it says about you. I feel like somehow not being able to read fiction anymore has something to do with the question, “Can I enjoy art anymore?!” Or do I have to be such a curmudgeon all the time?
TH: I have to say, one of the things I most appreciate about your writing the most is its ability to move between that. I tend to be the type of person who gravitates towards wanting to completely get kind of lost in the work itself, but on the flip side of that I also appreciate the ability to draw the connections between the work and so many other things. Having a sense of both is the kind of balance that is needed for so many reasons, and for folks in general to better understand that art can operate in many different ways.
EJR: Yeah, and I appreciate that. I think that’s where I connect to art. I’m not an artist. I’m a terrible painter. I came into art because my mom would always drag me to museums as a kid. It was just a thing that we did because they were free and it was cultural. I think I always came to it from an institutional perspective. I wasn’t seeing art in studios. I wasn’t seeing family members make art. I was always sitting in museums and in a very academic, institutional context. So I’ve always thought of art as a creative thing that was still conflicted by the fact that it was sitting in an institution that obviously had some politics or conflicts. Part of it is that I just haven’t been able to see it any other way than as a social product.
Because I don’t have access to creative processes [outside of those ways], I seek them out–I love studio visits and talking with artists. That to me is where all the learning happens–when talking to artists about their processes–because they’re so alien to me as someone who is usually the one asking, “Well, where does this hang? Who buys it? What person profits from this kind of presentation?” That’s just always where I’ve started and always where I land.
TH: It brings up a question – it might be a bit of a digression, again, from that origin story question, which we’ll return to at some point. But there was recently some conversations in the twitterverse or whatever-verse about the musician Lizzo, and her recent album that got a negative review. So there was a comment made that suggested folks who write about music should be music makers themselves, or they should be unemployed. In other words, only folks who understand the process of making should be commenting about it. I find some issues with that, but I understand where that comes from and the need for someone to have a deeper understanding of the process in order to give a thoughtful perspective on the work. But that can’t be the sole commentary that happens.
I find it interesting that you’re talking about the lack of understanding of–well, I don’t want to say lack of understanding–but you talk about how you’re not an artist, yet you have an understanding of how to talk about and interpret the work, or where to place the emphasis. I find that to be kind of relevant to the conversation. It also makes me wonder what other artists think about that. Who thinks that having that firsthand knowledge of the process is an integral part of being able to interpret or talk about the work?
EJR: You raised a number of great questions with that example. I will say I’m kind of glad I’m not on Twitter. Everyday I’m like, “I’m a writer!” and that seems to be the most writer-ly social media platform. But I’m also like, “God, they’d eat me alive,” and the jackals would be at my carcass every day, as if I’m that important. But that reactionary discourse that’s generally troubling both about politics, because again for me that’s always an issue, and then cultural politics as a subset or maybe even a litmus test of other questions. But I will say, yes, I’m always aware of that.
Luckily, I think in art there’s less of a demand that the writer or respondant be that integrated with the work. I don’t feel like that’s as important. But I will say the exception to that, which is actually a very important exception and one that I have been wrestling with for a number of years not just as a writer but mostly as an editor, is the identity politics that are part of the discourse in art-making and conversations. So, going back to your example with Lizzo, and the thought being, “Well, you can’t talk about a track if you don’t know how to make a track,” does that also mean we can’t talk about certain types of work if we don’t share the experiences or identity? And that, to me, is where that conversation goes. Where are we allowed? Where do we have permission to engage? It can be a maker or a non-maker, but it can also be so many other facets of identity. I think there is a lot of legitimate conversation and criticism that needs to happen and that I’ve dealt with. I’ve edited and received criticism for written work where the identity of the writer was an issue in relationship to a kind of identity-politics of the criticism. That’s where I get really concerned. I want to think that it’s possible to have conversations that cross identity issues, but I also understand the conversation has been so circumscribed to certain types of identities. But white, patriarchal–it’s important to bust up that shit. Which is to say the maker and non-maker conversation is important.
I’ve always pitched myself or thought of myself as an outsider to a lot of discourses, and have used that to my advantage, in a way, to say I don’t understand what you all are doing in this mode because I don’t have the impetus to go to a studio for like eight hours a day and make things. I’m constantly fascinated by that. But I also think that conversation goes with a larger cultural conversation around who has permission to speak. It’s one that I don’t think is being resolved in any way. It worries me – not that it’s happening, I think the conversation is good, but I worry that this conversation goes into these areas where people start to break down important relationships and important solidarities or intersectionalities that make us stronger and more nuanced. But, again, this is me taking a big cultural question and saying, “Well, it’s all politics that happened in the 90’s being rehashed now,” and that’s just where my brain goes.
TH: To what you’re saying, I hear you and see that point, but I also think one of the challenges of being a writer, at least the type of writer you are and the type of writing that I tend to do, is that there aren’t enough people commenting, so then the space your voice takes up when being one of the only, makes things hard. You sometimes have to consider the writing differently–you have to consider the balance and thoughtfulness of your read of the work.
It would be so much easier and there probably wouldn’t be as much of an uproar if there were a multitude of people writing about the work, whether it’s about Lizzo’s music or the work of visual artists. When there’s only a few or one person commenting, a writer could end up being that mofo over there, saying all this trash about an artist while, perhaps, other folks have a really interesting take on it that weren’t written or given a platform. If there were more perspectives, one person’s take maybe wouldn’t hold so much weight. But when there is so much happening and so few people to discuss it, or there are folks whose voices–whether it’s because of the publication they write, or whatever the case may be–just take up a lot of space, that becomes a problem.
I’m definitely not an advocate for silencing or saying somebody shouldn’t write about something. I want to hear what everyone has to say about the art being made. But when everyone is only two people, and those two people say some problematic stuff, even from an archival point of view, what’s out in the world and on record as a response to that work can cause damage now and into the future.
EJR: I hear you completely. That is precisely the issue. When you’re writing or editing, again, you want to get reviews out in Chicago, because no one else, save for the few of us who do this work, is going to record this work and have a critical engagement with it. So if a writer pitches a review to me, I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” When the voice says things that are problematic, I have the unfortunate choice of asking do I squash this and then [you lose it as part of the] record–or do I put it out and then end up amplifying a discourse that I don’t agree with? This has happened to me a lot as an editor, and I think it happened with the last piece I wrote for Newcity several weeks ago. I had a huge, quiet, email blow-back where it was one of those things where I was like, “Why am I defending a writer whose views I disagree with?” We were producing a critical response to this, but it is that issue that if there are so few voices in the conversation, are we really doing justice to the discourse if we continue to amplify the same voices? That’s the challenge of being a platform where you’re already kind of a dinosaur.
TH: And then, at the same time you don’t want to squash critical discourse, period. It’s important to be able to make space for that to happen. And for us to not just be creating fluff that’s simply praising everything that happens because that doesn’t necessarily benefit anybody anyway. To be able to have some kind of critical tone to it is an important thing to preserve. But it is a push and pull and you don’t want what someone might view as a heavy criticality to be the sole reflection on that work. Or for the one thing that was written about someone’s work to be something that makes them feel misread. It is a push and pull and a very hard position to be in.
EJR: But I think it goes back to what you were saying, the more voices the better. If you spread that risk out over a number of voices and a number of perspectives and backgrounds, allowing room for different ways of approaching the work, you could ideally mitigate that. And you can also just make the conversation better. It’s a real hard game to play when things feel like they’re shrinking and changing, and in leaving an editorial role I don’t feel any more excited about the direction of that possibility.
TH: So back to your southern New Jersey roots. When did you leave, and what led to the decision of you coming to Chicago for undergrad?
EJR: I did my undergrad at Northwestern. And like I said, my parents didn’t go to college. My brother ended up doing wonderful things, but stayed pretty close to home for school. And I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, but I was in a kind of environment that was very upwardly mobile, mostly white, middle-class; we all pretty much go to good schools. I literally applied to a smattering of schools not really knowing what I was getting into. I liked writing, so I applied to the journalism school at Northwestern because I thought that was a good way to monetize writing, which is a stupid thing to think and demonstrates how unaware I was of the world at large, seriously. It was the best school I got into, so I moved to Evanston based on the fact that it’s a good school that I’d never really heard of. Everyone was saying, “Congratulations on Northeastern.” I had to [correct them and] say, “No, I’m going to this other school.”
I moved with very little understanding of Chicago and very little knowledge of why I was really there. I came to Northwestern and the school of journalism in 2006, which is probably around when newspapers died. It was when much of the faculty was from [the Chicago] Sun Times. They were reporters who had staked their careers on journalism, and they were just losing their minds because they were starting to see the writing on the wall. They didn’t know what digital journalism was, or what was going to happen with the internet. No one had any idea what was going on.
I was also taking art history classes at the time. I had a great art history teacher in high school and I really fell in love with what I now know is a kind of hegemonic narrative of the history of art–from Lascaux Caves to the [Italian] Renaissance. I started taking art history classes and dropped out of journalism school in order to enter the very lucrative field of art history. You can see how strategic I was about my education throughout all of these years. I made the greatest decisions. [laughs] I went from the possibility of having a very poorly compensated job to no employment whatsoever and a humanities degree. I was much more interested in ancient art history because I didn’t really understand modern or contemporary art. It was only later that my interests grew, after taking course work and getting more exposed to modern and contemporary art history. And it took being in Chicago with the chance to actually go see contemporary art that I realized this was a thing. That’s what brought me to art history.
And there’s more background. I left [Chicago] for awhile, came back, [and] ended up getting this great curatorial job at the Block Museum at Northwestern. I was kind of in the right place at the right time. They needed someone to curate a show and I was a young alumni they could compensate accordingly–we’ll just say that. And I could work myself to the bones, as many of us did and still do. So that’s where the professional side started. Then I went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
TH: Let’s stop at Northwestern for a second. What have been the most memorable shows you worked on while you were at the Block Museum?
EJR: Probably the show that was most memorable to me was the first show I worked on. I had a lot to do with it on the ground, but I didn’t have a lot to do with the conception of it. Literally the day after I started was the beginning of install for the Terry Adkins show, [Recital]. Terry Adkins had what was thought to be a mid-career retrospective but ended up being his career retrospective because he passed away shortly after the show. It was coming from the Tang Museum, and the Block picked it up.
Terry came to Chicago and literally second day on the job, I was in the gallery installing work. It was all hands on deck. Terry, bless his heart, was just a force. He was very hands-on and I think he saw this as an opportunity to really cement his legacy. So, he was making work as we were installing. He would ask, “Hey, can we get these materials? I kind of want to do this piece I thought of a long time ago…” I remember there was one piece that was a medicine ball that he wanted to put black fur around, and my job on day three at the Block was to find three inch long, black mountain goat fur that we could adhere to a sculpture he was making. I ended up calling a fly fishing shop because that’s where this stuff is common. They were like, “We sell that by the square inch and you’re asking for three feet. We’re going to have to call our farm.” They ended up air-dropping this stuff out of Minnesota, shipped it to me, and Terry put it on the sculpture.
EJR: It was kind of great, because he was kind of a diva in a way that I ended up later appreciating. He was very precise and exacting, but also this creative force where he saw an opportunity to continue to make the work that he had in his brain. A lot of installing for that show meant continuing to work [with] Terry’s impulses.
TH: Which is amazing, too. Because as an artist whose work is so rooted in music and sound, it sort of mimics a kind of improvisational spirit of music-making. That’s really interesting, and I might be romanticizing this situation because it may have felt different in the moment. But for a museum to be open and willing to the creation of work in the process of creating the exhibition is kind of amazing.
EJR: It was one of those golden moments where a place is in such a building capacity that they don’t know what they can’t do. So that’s one of the experiences I had at that institution. There was a kind of do whatever you can spirit. There was a productive lack of oversight. One where we said, “Okay, we’ll get that done, we’ll do what we can.” And there were failures in that. Terry came back for a performance and he had me do the sound for it. I was using his iPad and I fucked up all his transitions. He was very upset with me. Then he passed away, and I thought, “I’ll never make it up to you, Terry”. But you’re right, it was very much in the spirit of his method and his work at the time. I was young and eager enough that I was just like, “Let’s roll with this.”
TH: I remember that show, it was so important. Very impactful for me–I was grateful to have been able to see that show. So, did you leave Northwestern because you enrolled at SAIC?
EJR: I was at the Block Museum for just under three years. It was one of those situations where that moment of capacity building and transformation was sort of coming to an end. So at the same time, I was coming in under-qualified and not having a master’s degree. I had a BA in Art History and the endorsement of peers and colleagues who thought I could do a decent job. But as I stayed on and developed a few shows of my own, there was what felt like a very natural sunset to that time. I suppose I could have clung to that, but there was a lot of transition. I saw a lot of people leave. I saw the staff grow a lot. My role wasn’t going to be what it had been when I’d first arrived, which was very hands-on with a lot of lateral autonomy to do what was necessary–not even necessarily what I wanted to do, but what I saw as necessary to accomplish the work. As that institution changed and solidified and returned to a kind of order, it was clear to me that I liked this work and I needed to have some kind of degree in order for someone else in the future to employ me.
The Terry [Adkins] experience is a great example where I had the occasion and a few other occasions to work with artists in realizing exhibitions. I realized that was the work I really enjoyed doing and that I felt confident and challenged in realizing the vision of artists, so to speak, in an exhibition context. In undergrad and as a complete nerd, I thought I was obviously going to get a PhD in this. I also have a Type A, over-achiever mentality. I was always asking how can I be the best in school and go as far in school as you can go. Then, when I was at the Block Museum, a lot of my close friends were in the art history PhD cohort [at Northwestern], some who are my closest friends to this day. This came at a time when I was not a PhD student, but I was in the arts there and having a lot of peer interactions with PhDs, so I saw the kind of trials and tribulations they were having. And, fortunately, thanks to them, I realized that’s not where my head or my spirit was at. I wanted to offer something a bit more practical.
I considered curatorial programs, and generally felt that even the best of them were somewhat bankrupt, or were focused on a curatorial method that was very generic–I wouldn’t even call it an ethos. I thought maybe going to The School of the Art Institute [of Chicago] would be a way for me to stay in Chicago and connect with communities I really started to care about. And, again–be an outsider on the inside–I could be an art historian in an art school where I was studying art adjacent to working artists, but not actually in the studio. For me it seemed ideal to be in a place where you’re doing all that. And to the credit, or discredit, of “The School,” henceforth known, they sell that. As an MA, you’re an art historian or you’re an arts administrator–I did the dual degree there. But the reality is that you have to fight hard to spend time with artists in those programs. It’s not given in any way. In fact, there is some resistance to actually doing studio classes or interacting with MFAs. So you carve out that space for yourself.
TH: Was there resistance on the part of the artists or of the program? Or was it just the space and the opportunity wasn’t created?
EJR: To get into the weeds about it, being in the dual degree was challenging because you were caught between two programs. And I don’t think they are programs that understand or respect the work that each other does. To be perfectly frank, I think there was a mutual distrust. I’m being a little too cynical about this, but I felt that with the art historians whose work I really admire–and again this department is growing and changing and evolving, as is the school–there was a sense that their work was academic, it was scholarly. It didn’t have a lot to do with arts administration or the kind of practical work of producing exhibitions like tracking expenses and all the good work that arts administrators do.
On the arts administration side, there was a legitimate feeling like they weren’t being taken seriously by art historians. Even administratively you were caught between two departments that weren’t really properly showing you through. It’s kind of like having two bosses; one is telling you one thing, the other is telling you another thing and they don’t talk to each other. You end up navigating a lot of it yourself, and you rely more on other people navigating that space to understand how to navigate it. You pick your allies and the faculty that you feel support your work, and you go from there. In terms of the interaction or non-interaction with MFAs, [that’s] definitely more on the art history side. It may be different now, but [at the time] the art history degree did not have any coursework in studio art. Even in undergrad I took a painting class. And so, to me, it’s kind of laughable in a way that the most prestigious or largest art school in the country not only doesn’t require but would dissuade you from taking a studio course [if you’re in the art history program]. I had one peer who was able to get into a studio class, but she basically had to make the case that there was no art historian who was trained or teaching the particular sub-discipline that she was interested in for her thesis work. That was a bureaucratic process for her to be able to get into a studio class.
TH: Then, you were coming from Northwestern, from a different perspective of working directly with artists and also the administrative and the hands-on side of things. I can only imagine it was a little bit frustrating when you knew that this is how curating and arts administration actually operates in the world and when you’re doing this kind of work. Also, people usually have the reverse experience of what you had. You were coming from a work experience and then going into an academic program that was separating things in really kind of rigid ways.
EJR: You’re absolutely right. I had forgotten that frustration. But I recall it now that you mention that. From an art historical side, I was frustrated because I cared very much about what we were learning, but it also felt a little theoretical. Then, being in arts administration courses was frustrating because you were going through the motions, kind of practice motions, of doing real work. I will say, though, that the arts admin faculty are all coming from very pragmatic, real world lives. So I always felt like they were willing to engage with that complexity and say, “Okay, we’re in a classroom, but we all have real jobs and do real work and aspire to do this work.” There was more of a reality in that context that was grounding. Although, it was frustrating, too–to do mock practices when you feel like you’ve already done those things. But there’s always much more that we don’t know. It was very odd, especially that first year, thinking, “I don’t like either of these things! One’s too stuck up, the other’s too bland.”
TH: But with the two combined–maybe there was a little bit of balance? Or something worthwhile from doing both simultaneously?
EJR: Yeah! It’s kind of like when you get tired of one friend, you go hang out with your other friend. It was pretty much like that. When I was frustrated with one kind of practice, I went to take refuge in the other one. And I did that a lot.
TH: How did you end up at Newcity?
EJR: I graduated from Northwestern in 2010, I moved away for two years, came back, started at the Block Museum, and I started writing for Newcity not too long before I became the editor, strangely enough. I started writing in 2014 or 2013. I was working at a museum and felt like I wasn’t actually engaging with the cultural discourse in Chicago, even though I was a part of it in some way. So I wrote the editor at the time, Matt Morris, because this was a place where I felt I could get in without very much experience. So I wrote Matt, and he was like, “Sure, send me a pitch.”
I mostly wrote about institutional shows at first, which is not surprising for me. At that time, I was working in an institution and going through the minutiae of writing wall labels, arranging shelves, and dealing with artists. It was very interesting to me to critique an institutional practice as it ended up on the walls. So I wrote about shows at the Art Institute, I wrote about a show at the SAIC Sullivan Galleries that I sort of hated which was about social practice when that was all that Chicago could think of. Whew, yeah. Those were the days, though! You remember that time? It wasn’t all bad, it was just a lot. And Chicago, you are so much better than this, this is not your best face. And it’s laughable now, because it feels like so long ago, but that was such a moment in Chicago’s contemporary art. It felt to me, as an institutionalist, not as an artist, that so many people were trying to sort of reframe their practices as a kind of social practice. And rightly so–they were trying to tap into that energy. But sometimes it was under-serving their work. So I was writing art criticism, and then pretty much around the time I was about to start in school, Matt vacated the position to spend more time with his studio practice, which in retrospect, I totally understand–the desire to do more than be an editor of a local arts publication. He had asked me to apply to the job, amongst other people I know. I was abroad at the time I applied, came home and interviewed, and pretty much right when I started grad school I started being an editor. I think I edited my first issue the week before school started.
TH: Wow, wait, so you were doing both at the same time?! You were doing dual – no, triple! You were triple-ing?
EJR: Yeah, so it was a weird time, those days. In the summer of 2015 is when I started as the editor. Then, pretty much right away there was Expo, [Newcity’s] Art 50, and then I started grad school at the same time. I was also in a bad situation personally, so I was living at a friend’s house instead of my own place. It was a weird time in my life. It was one of those weird instances where there’s a distance with the idea that I’m going into this educational program but also working as a professional, but in a capacity that was also very new to me. I think I just gravitated toward what my interests and strengths were. I was interested in an institutional critique of cultural institutions and processes less engaged with artistic studio practices, which is something I continue to want to learn, but that was just not my safe spot. I think, in some ways, that sort of set the tone for me as far as what I would do as an editor. I was always affiliated with an institution, whether it was a museum I worked for, a school I went to. I was always trying to evaluate my relationship to and from that institution. So, yeah, I started all that shit at once. It was ridiculous.
TH: Wow. I say wow but that’s what we do! Someone offers more and we say, “More? Can I do more?” Why would you say no?
EJR: Right, if I say no, I’m missing that byline or that $50 paycheck. I think I’m better about it now.
TH: I think so many of us have been through that, the ‘saying yes’ and seeing that as an opportunity. But then also at the same time, being in a program where you’re being directed and taught while doing work that isn’t necessarily directed by you, to then be at the helm of a publication at the same time seems like an interesting way to exercise your own autonomy within these dual programs that are super demanding and don’t–and I’m making a lot of assumptions here–perhaps allow for as much room for autonomy to explore what you’re interested in and that you’re not fully able to explore through the program.
One of the challenges of being in school is that it is so insular–you’re within this space with these people with these ideas that are circulating within this space and among these people. I wonder how Newcity served as an opportunity to still be connected to things that were happening outside of SAIC?
EJR: I can’t picture how it would have gone otherwise for me. And this was back when what I did for Newcity was bi-weekly, so I was editing issues twice a month. I don’t even know how I did that. I was always trying to get other people to write features, but half the time it was like, “Well, what thoughts does Elliot have this Sunday…” It was good and bad. It was one of those weird things, where I have to write a paper for a class but I also need to write this piece that’s going to come out next week. And for me, the immediate gratification of having work that goes to print and gets circulated and in some way, whether or not people are really reading it, it was out there. That felt really urgent to me and maybe for me it was a vent for the kind of stress everyone feels in grad school, which is, “What am I doing? Why am I here? What is the purpose of this? Why am I writing papers into the void? Why am I painting paintings into the void?” – you know, whatever you do that you feel is…
I think studio artists have that ability to say that they’re doing this for themselves. They’re in school but they’re making this work for a purpose they have, a higher purpose. But for me, it was always, “Why am I writing this paper if I could be out doing these other things?” It was always a quandary for me. [Newcity] definitely kept me connected, kept me feeling closer to a larger world outside of school and the bubble. At the same time, it would definitely make me feel conflicted about why I was putting in energy into certain kind of academic work that didn’t really have that immediate payoff. Later on, longer term projects and research that I’d done have been very valuable to me. But there was a struggle at the time between the things that go into the world and the other things that go into a professor’s inbox for some comments. It was definitely helpful for me to have that kind of outlet.
TH: What are some of the biggest accomplishments that came out of your time at Newcity? It can be selfish pride, not just community pride.
EJR: I think I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes. I’ve published things I haven’t always felt 100%, or that they were the best thing that could go out into the world. I think some of that comes from the desire to publish and to bring these things to light and also to put words on paper and communicate what we’re doing here in Chicago. I really try to use the structures that are available to me to try to alter the conversation to a certain extent. This thing that Newcity does every year, the Art 50 every fall, with a focus that rotates, it’s like cultural workers, behind the scenes, gallerists, donors, dealers, curators. Then other years, artists. [It meant] doing this kind of, what felt like to a certain extent, absurd ranking. [It was] a kind of manual of who’s who in this art world. My first year of having to take that on, and the second year as well, I really tried to scrape it clean as much as possible, which is to say that not inheriting baggage of the past or thinking we have to continue to pay homage to people who have been in [Chicago’s art] world for so long. That’s something I worked hard on.
Writer recruitment was a huge thing for me. Like, we did the Wrote event [with Sixty] a few years ago, and that was helpful. I’ve really tried to recruit a lot of artists, PhD students, and people who are living and breathing the Chicago arts every day, and who are young. And not always people who can say, “I am an art writer,” but [I would] just ask people to give their take and try it out. That, to me, has been important: changing the base of people who might have that conversation. Those are the things I’m proud of. [I’m] trying to reset the discourse, in some ways.
TH: Before I get into talking about the next chapter of your work, we talked a bit earlier about leaving things behind. When you think about what you’re leaving behind here, and just thinking about how you navigated it during your time here, what are the first things that come to mind when you’re asked about what you’re leaving behind?
EJR: Ideally nothing, right? My people are here, my community is here. I’m not going too far away and I still have a lot of important obligations and commitments here. I’d like to think I’m not really leaving anything behind. I’ve been in Chicago for twelve years now and I came here as an adult-ish person. So, for sure, my formative adult years have been in this city and very much tied into being in the art community here. Everyone who comes here, anytime someone arrives in Chicago, I’m a big cheerleader. I feel like this city is very good at–I feel like my experience is limited, but I feel like this art community is very welcoming and supportive and generous. It probably isn’t in some ways, but I think, generally speaking, it feels good to me. I will miss that most; the feeling that people are coming out to support each other. I think anyone feels that way when they’re exiting a place. It’ll be harder to have those connecting conversations, or there will be more effort involved.
TH: What do you think you’ll take with you? Some things you may carry, drawing from your experience here and bringing that over into Indiana University?
EJR: My new job title is Curator of Contemporary Art, and I think pretty much everything I know about contemporary art was built around conversations I’ve had here. Pretty much my entire critical, curatorial sensibilities [developed here]. I was focused on ancient art. I was an art history nerd. I wasn’t a contemporary art person most of the time. So all of the excitement and even the practical aspects, like how to put on a show, how to work with artists, what do they need, what kind of support is meaningful for them–all that comes from here, 100%. Whether it was from shows at the Block, or the show at the Chicago Artists Coalition, or being involved in the MFA show in 2017 at The School [of the Art Institute of Chicago]–all of that was learning, hopefully with a sense of humility, what artists need. And sometimes there are negotiations there. But that [understanding is] 100% from here, and is something I feel very fortunate for. For whatever reason, this city is able to sustain an arts community where you can learn, and you’re not expected to show up and do the job right, day one. You can find people who are also finding their footing, or who are also perpetually figuring their way out in the world. This city has been really generous and supportive of that kind of lifelong growth. I take that out of it, which is literally what I stake all of my work on. Not to be too dramatic but, really, it’s all here.
TH: Being an editor, I think that is really a unique role. You can’t cover everything, but you get more of a birds eye view of what’s happening in Chicago than most do. I’m curious if, at this moment, after years of doing the editing work, what are you seeing? I don’t want to use the word “trend,” and this isn’t necessarily just in art making or exhibitions or even in writing. Maybe I’ll change the question entirely and say that Chicago is substantially locally focused. And because of that, it creates this incredible landscape that is complex and hard to put a finger on because there is so much going on and so many folks are transdisciplinary and collaborating all the time. I want to ask you a question not about the general arts landscape but the art writing landscape specifically: what kind of arts writing landscape do you feel, in an ideal world, would be able to really do justice to the kind of artistic landscape that we have here?
EJR: This is an excellent question. And I do agree on the face that this city, maybe even to a fault, is very transdisciplinary and very welcoming of a discursive practice that is extremely challenging for artists to enact and certainly for writers to respond to. That’s still exciting to me. But it can be frustrating when I encounter something and feel I have to engage with it in multiple ways. So the complexity is challenging and the practices are generally at that level here in Chicago.
In terms of the writing, I don’t read as much as I should lately. I come on and off of art criticism. When you edit it all the time, are you really going to pick that up in your free time? It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of it sometimes when you’re in this volume business of “get it out there!” I think that [writing is] generally inadequate, which isn’t to say that individual writers are inadequate to what they’re writing about, but I don’t feel like we know what we’re dealing with anymore. I think most practices are complex, they’re interdisciplinary, they’re sort of inter-media. I have a friend who is a very progressive, a very traditional art historian, and he is very into history of art criticism and writing about it. He’s always asking, “Have you read this thing, have you read that?” And I’m just like, “No, never, why are you still reading these people?” It’s interesting because as someone who is sort of on the pulse, I find that a lot of the models just don’t fit anymore. And I don’t think a lot of writers are using those models, but I do think in some unconscious way writers are often shaped and formed by older models of writing about art.
I don’t know the answer. But I just don’t think that writing about form, writing about technique, using the forms of critical theory that are available, or using a kind of ekphrasis–I don’t know that anything really does the work justice. And maybe the work is also messy and doesn’t know what it’s doing and maybe that’s part of the issue, too. As much as I appreciate individual essays and individual reviews, in general I don’t see an understanding of what we’re doing. I think I mostly see a disagreement, which leads to someone writing a really formalist review of a painting show and someone else being really politically engaged. How are we even having the same conversation? Maybe we don’t need to, but if we’re all going to be in the same room, so to speak, we should probably agree to some common terms, just a few. I don’t think that those are available right now. It’s a very negative thing.
TH: I don’t think it’s negative, I think it’s honest. And I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve been feeling some kind of way about writing these days, as I’ve lamented to you in your DMs on Instagram about all of the closings of publications happening recently. It’s hard to grapple with. What you’re bringing up we’re not often able to sit with those questions and build something that might address some of those concerns when we’re faced with a constant fluctuation of platforms. With the closing of platforms like ArtSlant it just means that what we were talking about earlier as far as the scarcity of voices, there are much fewer opportunities to cover the work in complex ways while at the same time there’s no slowing down of how many artists are coming out onto the scene. Optimism isn’t the feeling at the core of this in a lot of ways. I hear you.
EJR: I’m not saying it’s all bad! I wrote the feature for May, which was just kind of me lamenting as I do. I don’t know what it is, but maybe the form has changed. I don’t know [if I find] ArtSlant or other publications shutting down scary [or] sad, but I just think it might mean that we just have to devise a new strategy on how to have a conversation about art. I say that very optimistically and without any idea of what that new strategy might be. I think we are deeply in a transitional phase in terms of media. I don’t know if we’ll settle soon or not, but I think it’s worth asking ourselves if we are putting the right kind of form or material out there. And I’m not saying let’s only do six second Vine reviews of art, I’m not saying we should get all weird with it. I just wonder what is it we’re missing? It’s not that the long read is bad. There’s also a lot of return to making a print product that looks nicer, that’s slower, that people might actually want to read for longer than two seconds. That may not be the answer, either, but at least it’s kind of a weird adaptation. What are we doing that adapts to the situation? People’s attention spans have changed and consumption of media is completely different now. Art is kind of slow now, similar to slow media consumption. Whereas before it was maybe less than that…
TH: Tell me more about that.
EJR: Maybe a good example [can be found] if you trace the history of art in the 20th century where media consumption is written word, a lot of print material, and photography less so. Art then, as a visual medium, has less impact and currency as a kind of visual communication. At one point, you look at Duchamp’s urinal and you’re like, “Oh, shit, that’s wild.” But these days you’re consuming media at a much faster rate. So in order to look at art, you have to slow yourself down a little bit [more than what you’re used to when consuming media]. So, to me, it almost feels like art is sort of reversing its own current. You have to spend more time looking and more time thinking than you would with other media, which is now quick, visual, and maybe did what art did. I am sure there are a lot of purists who would disagree with that. But I feel like there was an immediacy with that art, but now, if it’s to be successful, it has to be slower. I don’t know if people know how to consume art that way. Using the word “consume” already predisposes me to say it’s about consumption rather than appreciating an existential engagement. When everything is quick, art now is something that needs to be slow. But I think it’s a tide reversal and you have to untrain the brain and the eye. This is just an idea.
TH: Thinking on those terms, how does the way that people talk about or the way that writers write about art play a role in that? Is there a slowing down? Maybe that was the direction Newcity wanted to go with its print publication–getting people to slow down?
EJR: Maybe, ideally. Also advertising dollars.
TH: That too! But the slowing down–I think that is the challenge of digital coverage of art. It’s competing against this quick consumption. So what you’re talking about, that might push people to do a Vine review, you know?
EJR: Which may not be a bad idea!
TH: I just find it interesting that art is potentially prompting a slow-down in a time when we consume things very quickly. So if that’s the case, how does that influence or impact how we are writing about art or what forms we use to write and talk about art?
EJR: The natural extension of that argument is that if art needs to run against the grain of how you consume media, and if we now consume media quickly and art should be slow, then digital publications wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, right? Because it’s about some expedited consumption.
But I don’t think the answer is going analog entirely. Some publications are pushing for that, thinking that an analog product may be something more meaningful than it used to be. I think that’s helpful. But I [tend to think] the answer is always better design–make the front-end sexier and easier to read. Make it look more print-y, in some ways. Larger margins, larger photos. That’s pointing back to print, in some ways. It’s interesting. You want to make this material available to everyone, but do you really want someone reading this on their phone on the way to work? Maybe!
TH: For Sixty, where I find comfort is that we can just opt out of the whole conversation around how media usually operates because we’re doing it for a different purpose. We’re doing it for the archival purpose, primarily. So we can fall back on that. Even if only two people read this, it’s for the archives, it’s for the history.
EJR: That’s such an interesting proposition, to assume a future audience versus a present audience, in some way. That’s a different kind of approach. That can be very encouraging, though, when you’re not in the numbers game. You’re not wondering ‘what are our clicks?’.
TH: That’s a hard place to be, and I used to struggle with thinking that needed to be the sole motivation. If that were the case, some things that we currently cover wouldn’t get covered for that reason–the anticipation of clicks, or lack thereof. And that butts up against a historical approach and the purpose of archiving and wanting to document things. It’s interesting, too, because you think of art historians as folks who build their careers on excavating things that people maybe don’t know much about. So, what Sixty does is work with historians of the future in mind, those who are going to want to excavate the things that people maybe don’t really know about, or these obscure artists, practices, or spaces.
EJR: Completely, I think about that all the time. As an art historian and as someone who has relied on primary source material, either photographs, reviews, first-time accounts. You’re using that as a kind of historical material that is as valid and sometimes more valid than the artwork itself in the case of the art historian. So if we’re producing that in the present, it feels like a heavy burden but it also feels like the project is meaningful, in that way. You’re sort of writing the first take at the history.
TH: Hopefully! Maybe. But we are here to talk about you. So, I want to wrap up this conversation by hearing where your mind is at as you’re going into this new position. You’re the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, and this is the first time they’ve had this role. It’s brand new. You’re over the contemporary art collection, but also the public art around the campus? Where’s your mind at going into this role?
EJR: I’m very excited, for the record. It’s going in a few directions. One, coming from a university museum background, I’m very optimistic and realistic about the role that art can play in a university education and how students might find new opportunities and new ways of thinking from contemporary art. Any university context in theory is about learning, discovery, etc. But it’s also about getting grades, passing classes, getting that degree. I do hope that as someone who is very specifically tasked with this new contemporary curatorial purview, I’m able to think of how students might experience contemporary art in a way that would either change, shape, or generally challenge their view in the world. I’m really hoping students who are on campus are aware that there is contemporary art there. That means putting public, contemporary art in places they don’t expect it. Or getting them to the museum and showing them things that are hopefully very challenging. Despite a lot of questions around that, I do think that the academic environment is a good space to have difficult conversations that don’t always get to happen and don’t have the right framework [outside of academia].
Also, I hope to support emerging artists and work that they’re doing. Contemporary art is present, so it’s about who is making things now. Ideally I would want to be a part of that conversation by supporting artists. Being at Northwestern and seeing the archives there, there were all these instances back in the 60s and 70s where majorly important contemporary artists would go to university campuses and have these great, meaningful interactions and projects. And I think that could happen [at Eskenazi]. It’s been about 50 years since that happened, and I think it’s the right time for this new generation to be on the ground in the educational setting. That’s what I’m looking forward to most.
TH: You mentioned before that the creation of this curatorial role will come some acquisition work in building their contemporary art collection.
EJR: Yeah, it’s about writing a contemporary history. Some of that is about an effort to fill in a history that isn’t in the collection–a collection that hadn’t been previously focused on collecting contemporary art. But mostly my concern will be with asking the question, “What has happened with contemporary art in the past 20 years, 2000 to the present?” To me that feels very young and not too far away. I think my challenge will be juggling addressing a history of art that has happened in the past forty to fifty years–which is considered to be contemporary.
Maybe in a strategic way, I’m also interested in things that are meaningful either for teaching or research-focused things. Otherwise, I’m interested in more recent things artists are making now or artists could come to the campus and spend time with and work with students. Would an acquisition be more meaningful if it’s about a relationship between artists, students, staff? I really do believe that it can be. University museums have an educational value and aren’t just depositories of value or cultural capital hubs. If university museums are really going to be about teaching and learning then they [need] to be about very urgently presenting and very urgently engaging with artists.
TH: That’s a great approach. You haven’t even stepped into the position yet and I’m asking you to come up with a strategic plan!
EJR: Well, this is a great warm-up for my first day.
TH: Do you have any final thoughts on what is going through your mind at this moment? It can have something to do with your art or your experiences or Chicago or not or personally.
EJR: I think more people in Chicago who are affiliated with the arts should write about art in Chicago. It’s a simple statement, but there are platforms available. The bar to entry, in no bad way, is low. We are always looking for interesting, creative people to write about art going on in Chicago. I worked for a while to encourage people and push people to go out on a limb and start writing about art. I was pushed to do that and that changed everything I did. So, I would encourage anyone who may be reading this thing or anything I’ve ever written or we’ve done to take the plunge. Email Tempestt, email anyone and try it out. I hope you would agree that we are all willing to take a chance with people. If that would happen with a lot of frequency, I think it would help change the conversation and shift those heavy voices we were talking about.
TH: I definitely agree. And let me just say, you will be missed, though I’m not a big believer in the idea that this is the end–your connection to Chicago. But I’m also very excited for what you’re going to do.
EJR: Thanks, Tempestt. Please come to Bloomington.
TH: Yes! You’re not far! Thank you for taking the time, and for sharing your story.
Featured Image: Elliot stands under scaffolding along a brick building, with the street to the right. One hand holds onto a post on the scaffolding, and he’s leaning out to the left towards the frame. Photo is in black and white. Photo by Ryan Edmund.
Tempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, and director/co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center. Her writing has been published by Hyde Park Art Center the Broad Museum (Lansing), in Support Networks: Chicago Social Practice History Series, Contact Sheet: Light Work Annual, Unfurling: Explorations In Art, Activism and Archiving, on Artslant, as well as various monographs of artists, including Cecil McDonald, Jr.’s In the Company of Black published by Candor Arts. You can also read her writing in the Art AIDS America Chicago catalogue and the online journal Exhibitions on the Cusp by Tremaine Foundation. Find more of her work at tempestthazel.com. Photo by Darryl DeAngelo Terrell.