Wade Carey Interviews Conner Contemporary Art’s Co-Founder Jamie Smith on the Eve of Academy 2011

By Wade Carey on July 5, 2011

Jamie Smith, Venice, 2011, copyright Jamie Smith, courtesy of Conner Contemporary Art

Jamie Smith Conner Contemporary Academy 2011 on East City Art |INTERVIEWS |
On June 21st, I sat down with Jamie L Smith, PhD, to talk about her work as curator of Academy 2011 at Conner Contemporary Art. This 11th annual group show of the work of local student artists opens July 9th. Conner Contemporary Art is located at 1358 Florida Avenue, NE. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Editor’s Note
This interview is one of four conducted by Wade Carey in his coverage of Academy 2011.  The other three interviews are with:

Wade Carey (WC): Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me about Academy 2011.
Jamie Smith (JS): My pleasure.
WC: You just got back from Venice [the Venice Biennale, 54th Exhibition, began June 4th], and I am wondering if there’s anything new that you see now in what you’ve chosen. Did it change your point of view about the selections you’ve made? Had you finished the selection process before you left for Venice?
JS: For the most part, yes.
WC: Did Venice have any effect on your final decisions?
JS: Not really because, for Academy, I try to pick works that give a profile of the academic programs in our region. Also, we want to make a group show of works that have something to say to one another—by way of contrast, or similar themes, investigations along certain lines, and some methods. I wouldn’t say that Venice had an impact on my selections but it’s always good to go and it’s very inspiring to see the work of the Biennale.
WC: Was there any bootstrap artist in this show, in Academy 2011, that was kind of a cornerstone or an anchor for the others as you created a community of work?
JS: I think that when people look at the show, they will find certain highlights, maybe—certain strengths. So, in that regard, yes. You know, we are showing, I think, nineteen artists this year.
WC: That’s big.
JS: It is big. There’s going to be a good mix. I really wanted to take full advantage of our outdoor courtyard area. There’s some exciting kinetic work and sculptural works that I want to present out there.
WC: With that number of artists, I am assuming that you’ve been able to employ a lot of different artistic media this year.
JS: Yes, that’s right.
WC: Is that a part of the concept of Academy 2011, to try to diversify artistic media as much as possible in the show?
JS: It is really driven by what the artists are doing, what’s coming out of the programs and I think, as a curator, I am open to a lot of different media, digital media, performance. If I see artists exploring new ways of working, I like to give voice to that.
WC: The Academy show has been around long enough to have developed kind of a sense of being an institution. How do you see it affecting the way that galleries or art institutions in the Washington area look at Washington artists, or at students who are artists in the Washington area?
JS: I am not sure if it is an effect of the Academy but I think that, over the last eleven years, there’s more attention focused on MFA shows and work coming out of academic programs. I think that people are starting to get the big picture that we have something that is a very strong cultural resource in our area that had been overlooked at times in the past. That makes me very happy.
WC: Has it been good for business, as well?
JS: I think that I can say for sure that this is an event that collectors look forward to each year, whether they are seasoned collectors who come every year and find nice discoveries, or whether they are people who haven’t really started collecting but think this is a nice way to enter into that experience. It is a friendly, fun way to get your feet wet. And, it’s inexpensive.
WC: Right, and non-confrontational. I would also like to ask you whether or not you have any opinion or feelings about your continuing experience having moved to the East City, having moved to the Atlas Arts District, H Street Corridor.
JS: We are very pleased to be over here. Things have turned out even better for us here than we anticipated in terms of turnout for our exhibition openings and events. We are thrilled to now be part of an art community in this area, which is so important. No gallery can do it alone.
WC: Right. How would you describe your relationship to the other galleries that have been attempting to make a go of it here in the H Street Corridor?
JS: We sort of feed off of each others’ excitement. That’s great. We coordinate openings and events together. We visit each others’ galleries and see each others’ shows and give each other a heads up if we know if some interesting development is coming along. It’s great to have neighbors, people who have a common goal for this neighborhood. So, it’s very rewarding.
WC: It’s a tricky question because, as a gallery, your scope, the net that you cast is as wide as the world, and I think that every gallery wants to feel rooted in the community. Is there any glimmer of hope or any sense of uptick in a connection growing between you and the existing neighborhood—the residential neighborhood that you’ve moved into? It is a changing neighborhood, obviously. It’s gentrifying. As that goes, do you feel that something is going on out there or are there still the same issues that everyone feels when moving into a poorer neighborhood?
JS: I think the neighborhood is changing but we have had a good response from long-time residents here and also incoming new residents. They come to our events, come and stop in just to look at our exhibitions. Children often express interest in what we are doing here.
WC: That is especially nice to hear, that children are coming in.
JS: Yeah. It sort of gives them a different view of how a business can operate in their neighborhood.
WC: They see what could be in a storefront, absolutely. I think that is the most important thing for me, working, as I do, for East City Art. It’s continuing to figure out how we fit in. I’ve lived in Capitol Hill for a long, long time, and my mother, although she is now retired, was a broker on Capitol Hill. I grew up with the concept of gentrification and grew up with an interest in the different roles that people play, especially people who come to a neighborhood where there are underprivileged people living side by side with people who have more privilege. And art, privilege, class, and politics are clearly a part of the work that you do. I have also, just in the current show that I’ve seen here in the gallery today, noted that Conner Contemporary continues to be a gallery that has its eye on sexual and gender identity issues. Is there any interplay between those goals for the gallery and Academy 2011?
JS: I think that there is a lot of identity work in the Academy show which is interesting to me, personally. Certainly, as a gallery, we never shrink from a discussion about gender or race, sexual orientation, discrimination. I think that it can provide a nice context for younger artists who are exploring these themes.
WC: Let’s talk about the artists that you have selected. There are eighteen, did you say?
JS: Nineteen.
WC: So, I suppose it would be kind of boring for you sit here and name their names but East City Art wants to promote the show and have people come and see for themselves. I am hoping to get this piece posted and interviews with other artists out as soon as possible. Let’s zero in on three artists we’ve been talking about for further conversations in East City Art.
JS: Yes, they are each from different schools.
WC: Ginny Huo. Have we seen her work before?
Mother's Table, 2011 by Ginny Huo
Ginny Huo, "Mother's Table," 2011, Table, tennis balls, and dog. Dimensions variable. Copyright Ginny Huo. Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.
JS: Ginny Huo just had her thesis show at MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] and she works primarily in sculpture, but her interests lie in dynamics within families and also within how information gets passed through society. In terms of folklore, in terms of old wives tales, in terms of things that your mother tells you, you know, if you cross your eyes, they will stay that way, she is exploring this whole gamut of interpersonal relationships, which also speak to identity.
WC: And she does that through sculpture?
JS: Through sculpture, primarily through sculpture. Sometimes she has interactive work.
WC: Is there representation of human form in the sculpture or is it more abstract than that?
JS: I think the interactive parts in some of her sculptures bring human form in to contact with her work. She is not what I would call a figurative artist. The piece that I selected is called “Mother’s Table,” and it is based on her mother’s proclivity to protect her furniture and her surroundings and décor. So we see a dining room table set with tennis balls on the legs of all the chairs to protect the hardwood floor which she is going to install for us in the gallery. And slipcovers on the cushions. Just the sort of family vignette, although not with the family members—although the family dog is present, which is… (laughs).
WC: Well, you are telling me a lot about it and I look forward to seeing the finished work when it is installed and I look forward to talking directly with her about her work and the culture that informs it.
JS: Great.
WC: Jonathan Monaghan, University of Maryland; is that right?
Jonathan Monaghan, Dauphin 007, 2011, 3D Animation HD Film 3 min 11 sec. Copyright Jonathan Monaghan. Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.
Jonathan Monaghan, "Dauphin 007," 2011, 3D Animation HD Film 3 min 11 sec. Copyright Jonathan Monaghan. Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.
JS: Yes. That’s right. He just had his thesis show. He is working in digital animation, primarily. He is also a former Hamiltonian Artist Fellow.
WC: And Sam Scharf at A.U.?
Sam Scharf, "You Fucked. Fuck You." 2011, Found Vanity Cabinet, various electronics, looped audio 35 x 14 x 4 inches. Copyright Sam Scharf. Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.
JS: Yes, he just had his thesis show at American University. The piece that he is showing is interactive. It involves electronics and it has an interesting concept behind it so, I will be interested to see how the audience responds to it.
WC: This so far gives us a very nice representation of different schools and people who are working in different media. I think I will enjoy talking to them. When does the show open?
JS: The opening is July 9th. We are having a day full of events in honor of the Academy show.
WC: You mentioned in passing a few minutes ago that you were happy because the show is going to take advantage of the courtyard space. Tell me more about what’s going on in the courtyard.
JS: We’ve got a large scale kinetic sculpture coming into the courtyard and we have another metal sculpture coming in. Both of those artists are from MICA. I think the scale and the materials and also the concepts behind the works are going to complement each other very well.
WC: Who is doing the kinetic work?
JS: Dan Gioia. And we will be showing a smaller kinetic piece of his, probably indoors.
WC: Kinetic pieces are a little scary to me. Has he constructed it already?
JS: Yes, he has constructed both of them already. I’ve seen the large piece in person and I’ve seen a video of the smaller piece.
WC: Is it weather-proof?
JS: Yes, the large piece is weather-proof.
WC: I assume you’ve gone into all that already but I am particularly curious because I find kinetic sculpture particularly, um, frightening. Just because, I don’t know why, just because.
JS: It is aggressive work.
WC: I look forward to seeing it and interacting with it. (Jamie laughs.) Moving parts can be very complicated. What they mean and what they say can be very complicated. Do you have more video coming in—flat, two-dimensional video work?
JS: Yes, we have a performance-based video. We have a projection that the artist calls “a video quilt.” It is a grid with different actions going on simultaneously. We have three examples of video.
WC: And then sculpture. And painting?
JS: Yes, painting and photography.
WC: Ah, yes, photography! I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I haven’t asked anything about that yet. You have several different students who are working with photographs?
JS: Yes, a few.
WC: Color? Black and white?
JS: Color. I think all of them are using color.
WC: There is so much going on in an Academy show. It’s a little chaotic and, obviously, the openings are not always as focused primarily on the artists themselves as I might want them to be, in that crush of people. I am hoping that, when we see the show, we’ll be able to stand together and look at it people can talk about it together while they’re looking at the work—rather than standing around and talking to each other.
JS: The openings are chaotic. The show, by nature, is chaotic. It is a huge group show. It is expressing a lot of different practices and viewpoints coming from different places. I like the energy of that, even if it is a little messy, even if it is not the neatest curatorial presentation one can hope to achieve. I still think it is getting at it raw. It’s real.
WC: Since you express yourself so well about it, have you written, or will you write any kind of monograph or other piece about it—or have you ever thought about writing something like that about the your process curating the Academy 2011 show, or any Academy show in the future?
JS: I really haven’t. I mean, I could do that but it might, you know, just take the fun out of it for people (laughing) to have to sit down and read that.
WC: Not me! I would love to get into your head about it. But I understand. A lot of curators would like to say, “That’s me. What you see is what I want you to take away.”
JS: Maybe I will find time during the long winter nights to pen some reflections … (laughing).
WC: The reason I ask is that I think that your work as a curator here becomes increasingly important to Washington and increasingly important to the East Side. And your leadership, there is a role you play without trying very hard. You are self-effacing, but there is a leadership role that you play.
JS: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I think that the bigger point, perhaps, is that Washington is becoming more important in the greater art world. So, if I have a role in that, that makes me happy.
WC: I am in total agreement with you on that. Is there anything else that you would like to mention that I can put in print in this before-the-show-opens posting?
JS: Well, about the day’s events for July 9th, we’re going to have a panel discussion. I don’t know if you have been following our (e)merge discussions. Starting around 4:00 or 5:00 PM, we’re going to have a panel discussion that is devoted to the topic of collecting and emerging art. We’ll have artists and collectors and a gallerist on the panel. That will be recorded for later podcast, as all of our discussions are. And because Academy has given rise to this series of panel discussions that happen not only here but in spaces all over the city, like Flashpoint and Hamiltonian. The Phillips Collection is going to host our next one after that. This has really got me and Leigh thinking about giving broader exposure to emerging art in Washington, DC, so we are having the (e)merge Art Fair in September. So, to wrap all of these things up together, we are also going to have a huge party for (e)merge on July 9th. I am also happy to welcome to the gallery upstairs a group from the University of Virginia who are doing a show called “Untitled,” and that is a group student show, as well. They are casting their net further south to VCU and schools in North Carolina.
WC: Still keeping the theme of Industrial that’s been done there before?
JS: Well, they are curating their own show. This is something that The University is funding every other year. They are doing a catalog and you may be interested in talking to them directly.
WC: Yes, I would follow up with them.
JS: So, we will all have a big party together in the building.
WC: July 9th.
JS: Yes. Please come!
WC: You bet. And I look forward to meeting and talking to the artists that are participating in this year’s Academy show.
JS: Great, that’s where the real story is, with them and their work.
WC: Thank you so much for your time. It has been great. I’ll see you in July!