The Rapidian

The Role of a Curator in ArtPrize 2010

Underwriting support from:
"A celebratory collaboration among diverse castaways" by Kurt Kaiser

"A celebratory collaboration among diverse castaways" by Kurt Kaiser /Rich Evenhouse

"Eggshell Mantra III" by Dana Freeman

"Eggshell Mantra III" by Dana Freeman /Rich Evenhouse

Window looking into 45 Ottawa

Window looking into 45 Ottawa

ArtPrize 2010 should award the "Best Curation of an Unconventional Art Space." This past year, I would have voted for Holly Bechiri as its first recipient for her curatorial work at 45 OttawaHolly is an artist currently residing in Grand Rapids who participated as both a curator and an artist in ArtPrize 2009. 

Artists and artworks clearly play a big role in defining events such as ArtPrize 2009, but less evident is the role of those selecting the artwork. Who was behind the selection of art at each venue, and how did they make their decisions? Who determined where each piece would be shown and what would surround it? For the purposes of recognition and education I have asked Ms. Bechiri a number of questions relating to her experience as a curator. 

Miriam - It seems that the word "curate" is popping up in many different contexts. How would you define "curating"?

Holly - Curating, when you're talking about special exhibit-specific shows, traditionally means selecting the work for a show and then overseeing its installation. This is a very exhilarating experience because you are responsible for creating and executing your vision for what the work will present to the public.   

M - Did you have experience curating prior to ArtPrize? What is your background?

H - I've actually been out of the art world for a while in any public sort of way. I saw ArtPrize as this wonderful opportunity for me as an artist to jump back in with both feet, and then when the curating opportunity came up I was suddenly all the more involved. But that said, I think quality curating has more to do with aptitudes than it has to do with experience. I do have a professional degree in Fine Art, I have a lot of experience organizing people around a cohesive program, and I'm familiar with working with a public (former students) who doesn't know anything about art, and working to help them have an entry point to connecting with art in ways they hadn't thought about before.   

M - How did you end up curating 45 Ottawa?

H - Back when we just first started to hear about artists that had signed up for ArtPrize, I talked to a member of the ArtPrize team about the lack of the great local art being noticed, and next thing you know he was asking me to put together a curatorial proposal for a building owner who wanted to offer up their space but didn't want to do any of the work. So I thought about what I could offer, sent it off to them, and then got to choose between three empty buildings. But honestly, about that same time I also saw calls for volunteers on the website, and one of the things they were looking for were curators. So I could have just as easily gotten to where I did through that avenue. 

M - Some curators choose anonymity while others think it is important for the public to know who was behind the selection of the work. Why did you choose not to put your name as the curator on your promotional materials?  

H - I did present myself as the curator to the artists. I knew that artists would want to know if they had someone taking care of them, considering how their work fit into the space and interacted with the other pieces. They deserved to know what kind of experience they were getting into. However, when promoting the venue, I wanted it to be approachable for everyone. Though having a professional title for other professionals can be reassuring, it can create a wall for those outside of that profession. If I had promoted the show as a "curated show," the general public would have entered with a different approach. I wanted it to feel inviting to everyone, so I was careful to not create any walls between the viewer and the work. I didn't curate it so the viewers would feel like someone else had already decided for them, I curated to make sure the viewer was able to interact well with the space. If I had told them there was a curator involved, it would have spoiled some of that open conversation. 

M - Well, technically all of the shows were curated under the loose definition of choosing artwork for a space and overseeing it's installation. So the public knew that someone was responsible for choosing the work in all of the venues, but very few venues advertised who was doing the choosing. Do you really think that the public would have been intimidated to know the name/s of the person/s who chose the work?

H - I think it's just the word "curated" that is potentially intimidating. The word selected or chosen would convey the same idea without sounding overly professional. Perhaps it would be a good idea to recognize the curator in the same way as artists are recognized. The person/s selecting the work could have a vision statement that shed light on how the work was chosen and it would be posted on the wall like the artist's statements. It might also be useful as a tool to aid the viewer; it might serve as a framework for looking at the work in a venue and might help direct specific conversation among viewers. 

M - How many different artists showed their work?

H - We had twenty-six artists in our space.  

M - What limitations did you have when choosing works that were specific to the site? 

H - Well, the building owners were very up front when they talked to me about curating the space. They admitted to being quite conservative and were concerned about all the work being "family appropriate." I agreed to these terms, both contractually as well as intellectually. This was a competition that was going to be attended by a lot of children, and I think they were right to be concerned about parents of any leaning feeling comfortable with their children standing in front of the pieces in our building. Other than that, the limitations were few, since I had 13,000 square feet and a large L-shaped parking lot to work with. Well, I suppose there was the money limitation.    

M - Did you have a budget for the show?   

H - I had no funding for any of it. All of the artists chipped in a bit of money, for example, and we had a great little reception, thanks to help from one of our artists, Lynell Shooks.   

M – Did you have a specific theme for the show before you chose the artists?  

H - My specific vision was to prove to the general public that West Michigan Art does not equal lake scenes and watercolors. Truthfully we often assume there isn't good conceptual work in our (West Michigan) area. And more than just being local and progressive, I wanted the work to be real quality work. I didn't want anything that wasn't completely professional and impressive.  

M - What was your process for choosing and placing the work at 45 Ottawa?

H - The qualifications - based in West Michigan, progressive and professional - helped me to narrow down the 1,700-something artists. From there, I requested high-resolution images from everyone I thought would be a good fit. This was I could see more of the quality I was looking for than it was possible to see in the little tiny photos online. I told artists what I had to offer, and hoped they were interested. After that, many artists would come down to the space to see it, and I always had my own ideas of different places they could install their work, but since I hadn't seen anything in person I wanted their input as well. From there it just started to become like a puzzle challenge, making everything fit. 

M - Can you give a specific example of how you used the placement of different artworks to create a new relationship between the work?  

H - Downstairs, we had a lot of pieces that referenced nature:  Steve Nelson's "Night Watch," a large camera, was in a frame made of natural tree branches. Next to that was Carol Jurgen's "Slow Dancing at Dusk," which also had tree branches, slowly turning. Her work referenced the interplay between different elements in nature. It was very contemplative, and next to her was Kristy Glass's "Hovering Egg," which was this exquisite quiet painting of an egg, in an ethereal nature setting. Across from Glass's work was Dana Freeman's "Eggshell Mantra," with thousands of eggshell halves creating a structure over a large ant farm. That ant farm created a playful reference to our childhood endeavors, and next to Dana's work was Kurt Kaiser's kinetic sculpture made from found objects.  Kurt's work had all sorts of moving parts and both children and adults were mesmerized by its playful and yet contemplative energy.  It included an egg cup as well as elements from nature, such as tree branches.  Kaiser's sculpture was across from Steve's camera, which was housed in tree branches. So we have this movement that keeps you going from one piece to another.... and I would say that we had about four or five "movements" within the space, all keeping the viewer with some consistency from one piece to the next. And ... now you see why I compared it to a puzzle challenge. I loved making all those connections. There were connections everywhere, and I'd love to see how many of the viewers really noticed those intentional connections. I would venture a guess to say many felt the effects of those connections in the way they moved through the space, even if they weren't consciously aware of them. 

M - Were artist's directly involved in the placement and hanging of the artwork?   

H - Some artists had specific places we arranged ahead of time, so they did have a hand in placement. Others were fine with me selecting their spot. Artists were responsible for their own installation, however. I was there-and helped out as needed with lighting and so on-but it was their responsibility. I just didn't want to become too much of a control freak. I had set up my vision; I wanted to let them maintain control of their own visions as well.   

M - Curator is originally from the Latin word cūrā(re)which means to care for and attend to. When you were setting up the work in the space, what was your primary focus - "to care for and attend" the artist? Or "to care for and attend" the artwork? What do you see as the main difference between the two approaches?

H - We're missing one important element here: to care for and attend to the viewer. And it had to be all three, actually, to be able to work well. It was important to care for and attend to the artwork, of course, as that is where the conversation starts. And it was an honor to be able to care for and attend to such great artists. But if I want that conversation-starter, the work, to actually go somewhere between the artist and the viewer, than I have to also have the viewer in mind. If I left any piece of the conversation out, it wouldn't flow, it wouldn't continue. We had a lot of people who returned to our venue for a second or third time, and I think that was evidence that the viewer felt "cared for and attended to" because they wanted to come back for more conversation with the work. 

M - What sort of marketing/promotion did you provide for your artists?  

H - Not much, honestly. They knew from their hosting agreements that any big promotion and marketing was on them. I did, however, create a Facebook fan page that was updated every few days or more, and that ended up with over 300 fans. And I required all the artists to have business cards (and designed a large handful for those who didn't have any). I put business card holders on the wall next to their signage, so that anyone coming through the space could have a way to contact the artist about their work. And I did design some simple signs for our venue that I shared with our artists as PDFs so they could distribute as they liked.  

M - What about the security of the space and the greeting of visitors?

H - The artists and their friends or relatives covered security and hosting. Everyone was responsible to have coverage during a minimum amount of the open hours, so we always had 3-4 people at the venue that were connected to the work being shown there. 

M - Did you have a reception or other special events planned for the artists showing at 45 Ottawa?

H - We did have a reception, and it was a mad house! The table was just absolutely swarmed by people, and despite our army-proportioned food supplies, we were soon out. That was really the only special event. Looking back, if I had started earlier or had more time to dedicate to it, that is what I would improve. I would have promoted artist talks and maybe even demonstration times where people could see the artists at work. There's something magical about peeking in on creation in the middle of it. 

M - What else might you do differently next year if you had a similar opportunity? 

H - It was an incredible amount of work, so I would get a couple interns, maybe a couple students from local colleges that are studying art. It would be a wonderful opportunity for them as well as make it possible for me to not have to be there so very much. This would have allowed me to also do more viral promotion and set up special events without making myself a complete zombie by the end. Really, it was start to finish just an amazing experience. I would just have to make it more sustainable if I continued to do it on a regular basis. And maybe talented young art students with lots of energy are the way to make that happen for me while giving them a nice little line on their resume and a different lens on the art world than they get from classes and studio time.  

M - Thanks Holly!

H - Thanks for the opportunity.

To watch a video of Holly discussing her work at 45 Ottawa, visit 

Miriam Slager is an artist living in Grand Rapids, MI. She participated as an artist in ArtPrize and showed at the UICA.


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 If the fervor over Sarah Palin shows us anything it's that anti intellectualism is alive and breeding in America.   Mike Ditka the retired football coach recently said on Fox news  that politicians don't need intellect, just 'common sense'. 

If ArtPrize 2009 achieved anything it was invigorating the Grand Rapids public to look at and talk about Art for 2 weeks. If ArtPrize really wants to make a mark on the international Art world and bring even more really cool things for Grand Rapidians to talk about it needs to take it's Art seriously. That includes being clear on who and how things are curated.

Unfortunately for future Art lovers Michigan and America on the whole, is not a friendly place for learning about Art. The fact that our current NEA budget amounts to $1.26 for every one of the 130 million people who paid any taxes last year doesn't bode well for public knowledge about Art or Artists. Art programs for children have been cut throughout the country.

The solution to this is to educate our public about Art not to dumb down art into a sort of Art Lite. When Holly Bechiri  says that even the word  "curate" seems intimidating to lay people my first thought was- yes it is.  Art is emotional but it is also intellectual. We look at it and we think about what it is we see. The future for Art in Grand Rapids is to bring the public up to snuff on what is now happening in the Art world, not to dilute the Art World into a palatable bite size bits. Lets put a little effort into learning.

What are we offering the public when even the process of offering, the curating of the work to be seen, is deemed as too difficult, to hard for people to have to comprehend? 

What is curated, how and who did the curating, and what is in fact not really professionally curated is a issue than should be addressed if AP is to have a real future in the Art World.

I voted for the table and chairs 

Enjoyed the interview. It would be good to see more of these kinds of pieces with local art community types of all stripes. Its more like people don't want to made to feel like they are stupid. In a variety of setting though professionalism is mistaken for elitism. Did you all know that only 29% of the region has a bachelor's degree. A choice was made. Instead, most just want a shared social experience first. AP gave them that. It was easy to go because we all were going. Just like festival in June. Since AP attendance at our arts organizations have dropped to pre-AP levels. How do you activate participation in the other 49 weeks with the interest in the AP 3?