July, 2008, Tom Hollingworth in discussion with Ruba Katrib: Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami

 Ruba Katrib

From the outside in: Ruba Katrib on Miami art.
In interview with Thomas Hollingworth.

Ruba Katrib is the Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. She holds an MA in Curatorial Studies from the Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) at Bard College, New York. In 2002, she co-founded ThreeWalls, a non-profit artist residency and exhibition space in Chicago, where she organized a number of exhibitions and performances. Previously she has worked in museums and institutions including The Centre Pompidou in Paris, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and The Renaissance Society at the University in Chicago. She has curated a number of exhibitions with international emerging and mid-career artists in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Mexico City. In addition, she has been a visiting critic at the Bethanien Residency Program in Berlin, Germany, IASPIS in Stockholm, Sweden and the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York.

Being assistant curator for MOCA is a great place to be. How does what you hope to achieve compare with what you envisaged the role of curator in Miami to be?

Yes, being the Assistant Curator at MOCA is pretty great, you're right! And to be honest, before arriving in Miami, I wasn't completely sure how the role of curator would differ from other cities. Coming from places like Chicago and New York, I think the art scene in Miami is smaller, which in a way makes it more interesting. It is very exciting to create programs and curate exhibitions with a specific audience in mind. Of course, I don't know everyone involved in the art scene yet, but I have met a lot of great people. So, having that kind of direct dialogue and feedback with an audience is very satisfying, something that is perhaps harder to come by working in a museum in a much larger city. What I hope to achieve here follows in line with that thinking, to engage the local community and create connections between what is happening in Miami with what is happening internationally.

Coming from places like Chicago and New York, Miami must have been a bit of a shock. Not only is it way smaller [and younger] but its also way hotter; kind of like going to a bowling alley and the only shoes that they have for you are four sizes too small and sweaty - I imagine that would be pretty embarrassing. Was there ever a point when you feared that Miami might not be important enough for what you wanted to do or that you would be ashamed to be here?

Hot and humid it is, and I miss wearing sweaters, but I really think Miami can be as important as it wants. True, moving here included a challenging adjustment period, and sometimes I feel a bit awkward finding myself justifying why I live in Miami to curious friends and colleagues in NYC, LA, Paris, Berlin, etc. Of course, if I lived in NYC or Berlin, no one would question my choice of location. But in the end, most people don't really know what Miami is like, meaning it can be anything really. The only thing I can compare it to is Chicago, which notoriously has a "second city" complex. But Miami is really in a better situation because outsiders are more interested in this tropical locale with a booming art scene and there is support. In Chicago young artists and curators are very active, in making exhibitions, starting spaces, conversations, alternative art conferences, video festivals, publications, etc., but few of these things ever last because there isn't much support, primarily in terms of funding. I really think it just takes people who are willing to step up to the plate and make things happen to make the booming art scene in Miami more of a reality than a public relations move. And again, I can't emphasize how important a role dialogue and the exchange of information are in that process. I've tried to take one step in that direction by organizing a program called WORKSHOP at MOCA, a series of intimate seminars with guest speakers, local speakers, and audience participation, which coincides with exhibitions at the museum. It is only one way for conversation and knowledge to be generated. It's important that WORKSHOP doesn't simply reflect on the exhibitions, but also extends into discussion about what is going on in the art world at large. So far, it has been well received and will only get better; the important thing is that people engage. These things can be as stimulating and forward thinking as people want and they are really open, involvement is key. Really, I think everything that happens in Miami is important, and perhaps even has the potential to have more impact than much of what happens in other cities, which is more reason to make it happen!

 Performance view, Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami

Right on! Lets talk a little bit about the support that is available for artists in Miami both in terms of the accessibility of those who can give it and the willingness of those institutions and collectors to support Miami based art.

Well, I think one misgiving is that you have to find support before you can make anything happen. I think what is missing most in Miami is a do-it-yourself attitude, however cliché that may be. If you start something and it works, I think it shouldn't be too difficult to approach individuals and other organizations for support with thought out proposals. And it doesn't take too much to start something. For example, in 2002 in Chicago a few friends and I pooled some dough, time, and contacts to start an artist-residency program and exhibition space called ThreeWalls. We wrote piece-meal grants, solicited donations, had fundraisers, and made it happen. ThreeWalls is still going strong and has received major funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation. There are similar resources that can be approached here; for instance, the Knight Foundation has created a unique and generous initiative to fund projects in South Florida on an annual proposal basis. And there are plenty of individuals and organizations that are creating opportunities for local artists. It just takes a little work, dedication and persistence. And it seems most collectors and museums in Miami do a lot to support, promote and collect local artists, much more than I have ever experienced in any other city. People have it good.

How do you feel about the notion that the primary goal of this support is simply to assert to Miami as a city worthy of note? That perhaps it’s not just about the art but maybe more about not being over looked.

That's an interesting point, but I think if people are doing something to further an agenda versus doing something they really care about, it's bound to backfire. No one likes to be overlooked, but there is some subversive potential in a situation in which no one is really paying too much attention. The art world has historically been linked to an aristocratic and bourgeois system of values, nothing terribly new. The only thing that really changes is how artists respond, disrupt, or utilize those systems.

And curators?

Yes, for sure, generally speaking, curators are in the boat as well.

How does the role of a contemporary art curator in Miami today compare with that of curators historically?

The history of curating is a long one and historically curators were faced with the task of preserving and taking care of culture. The etymology of curate is cura, which in Latin means "cure." The role of curators has shifted in the 20th century from the bastions of culture to makers of culture, meaning that the curator's role almost resembles that of the artist, made evident in the phenomenon of independent curators without an institutional affiliation. But really, there are many types of curators and curatorial practices and these roles are often defined in part with an institution or affiliation. Some curators are more event/program oriented, some are more historically inclined, others are into thematic groupings, and some are more interested in commissions, and on and on. As for who is swaying the course of contemporary art? There is a whole batch of people (in no particular order) artists, critics, curators, historians, dealers, collectors, etc. Curators definitely play a role, but how much is unclear. I believe that in reality individuals don’t wield that much influence on their own, but it is the whole system that works together to assert and affirm certain threads and narratives in the art world. And of course, in this time of "post-modernism" we realize there has never been nor never will be one singular thread or narrative, making attempts at defining anything increasingly ridiculous.

In Miami, as elsewhere, curators are important and I think we can provide important links to the rest of the world. By informing people outside about what is going on here and vice versa, almost like diplomats. There are many ways to do this, for instance, I am curating a couple exhibitions at the museum that open this year which include local and international artists. I think that is important, to foster conceptual relations between different groups of artists. Also, bringing people into town. During WORKSHOP and other programs and events at MOCA, guest speakers and out of town art people are pretty accessible. And other institutions in town do similar things. This is a great way for relationships to be formed between different localities and practitioners. Hmm, have I said enough?

Why quit while you’re ahead! It’s a great idea to bring in fresh blood, however I do get a sense that we are reaching somewhat of a critical mass here in Miami. Do you foresee a problem with this for ‘local’ artists or are you assuming that anyone of note will avoid suffocation by migrating to New York as soon as they get their wings, so to speak?

Actually, I think the more talented and motivated people in the arts the better. The art scene in Miami is evolving and people should stay here to continue making it a vibrant place. Also, people should want to move here (and maybe they will). We need to up the ante while maintaining and supporting the things and people that make Miami what it is.

But much like the congestion that is plaguing the streets of London and New York, could it be the case that as yet Miami perhaps doesn’t have the facility to cope with such an influx of artists? Perhaps we would have to introduce a new tax!

Well, I see Miami as a city with potential that is more inline with Berlin, not really as another New York or London. There is plenty of space here, as made evident by the many empty condos and buildings. Miami is spread out, like Berlin. Of course, Miami isn't as cheap as Berlin, but with the rising euro and sinking dollar, it could be an affordable place to work and live with lots of space. The only major drawbacks are transportation, humidity and the cost of living. But there are major bonuses, like the beach, no freezing winters, less distraction for working, and proximity to other major cities via air, especially Latin America. Miami can be a hub, which is beneficial for all. I really don't see Miami as a place with limited resources that will be quickly devoured by outsiders, I see it as a city with a lot of resources and not enough individuals to make use of them. Many have taken the initiative, but more people need to consistently make things happen here, like starting alternative spaces, cafes, publications, bars (not clubs), music venues, boutiques, things that most cities have in abundance. We need more people to become interested in cultural activities and meeting places to make them sustainable. Being involved in the cultural landscape doesn’t just mean working in your studio all day and selling artwork (of course, I know the situation isn't so simple, many people hold other jobs and are struggling, but there should be a way, like starting a small business instead of working a crappy job?). Art isn't only about producing work, but participating in a larger cultural dialogue. At the moment, it seems there aren't enough people to do everything and be everywhere. The responsibility for creating a dynamic scene in Miami shouldn't fall on only a few. Everyone should feel responsible to do something in making this city even more exciting in whatever way they can (like you for example, by working on this blog and creating the potential for thoughtful writing about art you are stimulating new connections and conversations).

Bringing the focus back to curating; I think that one of the strengths of Miami’s art scene, as you say, has to do with the involvement or intimacy with the cultural landscape and with the unique spirit of Miami. At the moment we have the second Saturday Art Walk which is really a focal point both in Wynwood and the Design District and very successful in marketing Miami’s art in both galleries and foundations. However, if more institutions were to come I fear it would be not so much of an ‘art walk’ as an ‘art canter’. As a result, the selectiveness that one already has to employ in order to attend the openings one wants to see would have to become more pronounced and the hierarchy of venues would inevitably become more polarized. Ultimately this would have an effect on the curatorial process as either there would be fewer ‘hot’ venues for curators to work in or that the relative ease with which one can find great jobs in Miami (which I feel is part of this city’s success) would cease to exist.

I think you are making a compelling argument, but I don't intend to say that institutions in Miami should double in the next five years or anything extreme. But Miami is growing and it should consistently continue to grow, it would be bizarre if it stayed the same! Also, there is a deficit in diversity for the types of spaces that exist; the majority are commercial galleries and private collections. They all do a really great a job, but they can't be expected to do everything. I think there can be even more casual and unexpected spaces and occasions for making and showing art and that this approach could be more exciting in terms of curatorial practices and interests. There is a lot of untapped potential outside of the traditional art sites in Miami that could be investigated. And because there is a cohesive community of artists and cultural producers, it is easier to galvanize and involve people. Second Saturday is wonderful and convenient, and actually Berlin has a similar opening structure that works and with many more spaces. But are we too lazy to go to even more openings, more events, more lectures, more performances? I know that isn’t true! All our efforts can extend beyond select occasions, like the second Saturday of every month and Art Basel. We can think outside the box, outside the schedule, and outside the market.

Thomas Hollingworth

Thomas Hollingworth graduated with a BFA from London Guildhall University in 2003. He has since worked internationally as a freelance writer for art institutions such as The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin and publications such as Florida InsideOut, M/The New York Art World, map magazine, Miami Modern Luxury, NO MAD Paper, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, Wynwood - The Art Magazine, and ARTLURKER, an online contemporary art newsletter/blog that he runs. www.artlurker.com


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