Curators in Dialogue: An Interview with Jessica Cochran

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The gray maze that is the heart of Merchandise Mart seems an unlikely setting for Chicago’s largest art event of the year. But Art Chicago brings contemporary art from around the world to these monochrome halls. New to this year’s program is CONVERGE, a forum for regional and national curators that promises dialogue on current issues facing curators and arts organizations. Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. Art Group has initiated similar curatorial forums at the other art fairs it manages, including The Armory Show and VOLTA. Panel topics listed for Art Chicago include Current Challenges and Curatorial Innovation, Museums in the Green Economy, Art in a Post-Obama Climate and Programming and Collecting in the New Economy. The expectation in this unlikely pairing of the commercial art fair with institutional dialogue seems to be to raise the profile of Art Chicago by making the art fair relate more closely to the current challenges to the arts.

Danica Willard and Ariel Pittman talked to Jessica Cochran, marketing manager of Art Chicago. In their conversation, Cochran discussed her hopes for Art Chicago 2009 and this year’s inaugural curatorial forum, CONVERGE. She has been intimately involved with the planning and marketing of this event. Willard and Pittman were curious to hear about her vision for the program.

Danica Willard/Ariel Pittman: Would you describe how you came to be involved with Art Chicago?

Jessica Cochran: I graduated from the Art Institute with a degree in Art History and was working for the nonprofit Around the Coyote during grad school. That’s where I decided that I enjoyed working with programming. ATC’s big push was to get new artists and new people from the community involved, and I really liked that. When I was offered a position with Art Chicago, it allowed me to build on that.

DW/AP: In terms of CONVERGE, it seems that both Art Chicago and NEXT have a commitment to new artists, young artists. How do you envision the topics addressed at CONVERGE affecting young artists? How is this conversation particularly relevant to Chicago and the Midwest?

JC: This is CONVERGE’s inaugural year. The reason we decided to create this event is because we work a lot with local curators in terms of programming and exhibitions, and in the course of our conversations with them, it kept coming up that there need to be more forums for curators to come together and talk about what has happened over the last year. It’s been a pretty wild year with Obama, the election and how the financial crisis is affecting institutions on all fronts. There are academic conferences like CAA [College Art Association], but we wanted something a little more casual and conversational where curators could come and just hash things out through panels, roundtables, etc. We decided to do this because we are really committed to the art fair as a forum for exchange; not just in terms of buying artwork, but also as a critical mass of people. Chicago is a great place to do this because we’re surrounded by important institutions. It just makes sense.

DW/AP: When did the idea for CONVERGE come about? Is it a recent development or something that’s been in the works for a long time?

JC: I would say its pretty recent, late fall. We thought this might be a good way to focus our extensive programming. Hopefully next year, CONVERGE will become an even bigger part of our program. But, we don’t know yet.

DW/AP: Do you think that CONVERGE will be as visible as the commercial side of Art Chicago? Will people talk about these conversations as much as the sales?

JC: I hope so. Different press covers different aspects. With the economic climate, everybody wants to talk about sales, but regardless of how the dealers do and what really big pieces sell, I hope people come away thinking that this was a fantastic event, thinking about what comes out of the conversations and continuing those conversations.

DW/AP: What are some of the topics that you anticipate being hotly debated at CONVERGE? What are some of the topics/panels you are most excited about?

JC: Well, right now I’m most excited that Michael Rush is coming from the Rose Museum to lead a discussion on museum practices. Michael has given interviews, but this will be his first public appearance. We’re extremely excited to have him here to speak about these issues and his experience. Members of the Rose family will be here and Anthony Hirschel, the director of the Smart Museum, will be on that panel as well.

DW/AP: It’s interesting to have the conversation about when not to sell work in the context of an art fair. We were also curious about what the balance will be between local, regional and national curators at CONVERGE.

JC: Well, I can fill you in a little bit more. Nationally, we have people coming in from the Whitney, the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, The New Museum, LAX Art, The Power Plant in Toronto probably, the Blanton Museum in Austin. And we’ve made a big regional push — we have people coming from the Walker, the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, the Albright-Knox, Cleveland MoCA. And we also have curators from almost all of the local institutions, including the MCA and Spertus.

DW/AP: It will be really interesting to see if Michael Rush will engage with the representatives from the Albright-Knox, since they’ve had such a successful program of de-accessioning work in order to hone their mission. It’s a major contrast to the de-accessioning scandal at the Rose.

JC: Right. Hopefully, the curator, Heather Pesanti, will want to speak to their process of de-accessioning. I just read in ArtInfo that the AAM [American Association of Museums] is rewriting their guidelines on de-accessionining. So, that conversation will definitely be interesting.

DW/AP: There has been a lot of talk about downsizing the fairs. Do you see this as an opportunity to increase visibility for noncommercial programming like CONVERGE?

JC: Yes, absolutely. I really hope that will happen. The art fairs are about sales, they are a market place. But they are also places where a lot of people come together. I always think about the first time I was exposed to contemporary art, and it was here, at Art Chicago. We got on a bus, rode to Chicago and came to the fair. It’s a place where people see a lot of art they might otherwise not get to see, and now they can also listen to these great curatorial conversations. Even from a market standpoint, programming like this only helps the dealers by bringing in another audience.

DW/AP: This might be a tough question: Currently there is this conception, outside of Chicago, that Art Chicago is very provincial. We’re curious how NEXT and CONVERGE counter this notion. A commercial showcase of emerging artists is great in this market. The work is often much more affordable, and with CONVERGE there is the addition of a higher level of discourse. Plus, the gallery list for NEXT is great — some really exciting international galleries! Do you think that the combination of Art Chicago, NEXT and CONVERGE will help to change the perception of Chicago and the Midwestern art scene?

JC: At one time Art Chicago was the art fair, and it was at the top. People now think that Chicago is a regional hub, and Art Chicago is perceived as a regional fair. In some ways, I think, we’re trying to embrace these notions. There is a fine line between regional as provincial, and between regional as a counterpart to global, and I think we will be able to focus on both the regional and the global in relation. We’re trying not only to be an internationally relevant fair, but also to embrace the fact that we are the center of the Midwest. We’ve traveled a lot over the last year, to places like St. Louis, Kansas City and Detroit, and there are institutions in those cities that, in spite of the economic turmoil, are doing wonderfully. There are collectors and artists there that are very active. They are excited and they want a fair that is a little more accessible than, say, the New York fairs. If we can be their fair and their resource, that’s great. So many curators come here, to visit shows and meet artists! If we can facilitate that and be something of a regional hub, I think it’d be really great. And, in terms of NEXT, we have galleries coming from places as far as Latvia, so you can see all these different things that are happening in the periphery, and that is fantastic.

Danica Willard is a graduate student in Arts Administration and Policy and Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Dual ‘11). Her current research interests include analyzing the effects of neoliberal economic policies on third world art markets, and looking at the ways in which text and image interface in contemporary art.

Ariel L. Pittman is a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Dual ‘11). She holds a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University and was the manager of Boston’s Judi Rotenberg Gallery from 2006 to 2008.

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