Michelle Grabner named Whitney Biennial cocurator

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Michelle Grabner, chair of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Painting and Drawing.

Michelle Grabner, chair of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Painting and Drawing. Photograph: Danny Hsu, courtesy of SAIC


When New York's Whitney Museum of American Art named the curators of its 2014 Whitney Biennial last Thursday, Chicagoans got a surprise: The trio includes local artist Michelle Grabner, chair of SAIC's Department of Painting and Drawing, and cofounder of The Suburban, an internationally renowned project space in Oak Park; and Anthony Elms, who served as Gallery 400's assistant director at UIC for six years before the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia named him associate curator last fall. (The third Whitney Biennial curator, Stuart Comer, is curator of film at London's Tate Modern.)

The Biennial, which opens in March 2014, will be the last before the Whitney leaves its current Upper East Side home (designed by Marcel Breuer) for a new building in the Meatpacking District by Modern Wing architect Renzo Piano. Grabner told TOC a little about her appointment via e-mail, as she prepared for her first meeting at the Whitney. Read her comments after the jump.

TOC: You told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Mary Louise Schumacher that you appear to be the first artist chosen to curate the Biennial, and that you intend to let artists (rather than curators) direct your research. What are the advantages of giving artists more control over the process?

MG: Artists who take on curatorial activities have the advantage of negating the professional hurdles and limitations comprising institutions. Also artists are keen at understanding what it means to make something. They can look directly at other artists' work and form judgment from a studio perspective. Contemporary curators orbit in the place of distribution and consumption, and less and less in the space of artists. I think it has become a lazy profession in regard to its relationship to the artists and the vigorous state of art making.

TOC: What do you hope the 2014 Biennial will accomplish for its artists, for those who see it or read about it, and for places where art is being made that aren't "art centers"?

MG: I hope to make the process of producing my take of the Biennial a transparent and interesting one for artists. Over the years I have had several visits by Whitney Biennial curators, but because I never made it into the exhibition, I was a "loser." I would like to break down this "IN or OUT, WINNER or LOSER" mentality that clings to this exhibition, or for that fact, to much of the contemporary art landscape.

TOC: What else might you do differently from previous curators?

MG: I enjoyed the inclusion of [Whitney curators] Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman's field notes in the 2012 Biennial catalog. These notes peeled back their process and detailed some of their activities and travel in preparing for the Biennial. I also especially like the 2012 catalog content that includes critical essays by John Kelsey and Andrea Fraser. I hope to build on their model, but I also hope to reach out directly to artists and cut out the lobbying middlemen (curators and dealers).

TOC: How did you learn that you were selected as a curator? Can one apply for the position, or do you receive a MacArthur grant–style phone call?

MG: The Whitney reached out to me in late summer. I had a few conversations with Whitney curators and sent them a short narrative as to how I would go about organizing such a project. Until this vetting got underway, I had never personally met any of the Whitney curators or staff.

TOC: What strengths do you think Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer will bring to the Biennial?

MG: When Anthony left Chicago, we lost an important critical perspective, a perspective very different from my own. This is what will make three different takes on the Biennial very compelling. By simply walking up a set of stairs in the Breuer museum, viewers will get the opportunity to make direct curatorial comparisons between Comer, Elms and Grabner's visions of the state of art in America.

TOC: How might your experiences running The Suburban influence your curatorial process?

MG: [My husband, Brad Killam, and I] see our role as facilitators and not curators when it comes to programming exhibitions and artist projects at The Suburban and the Poor Farm [Grabner and Killam's experimental exhibition space in Little Wolf, Wisconsin]. We always let the artist decide the "how and what" of their shows. But when it comes to the 2014 Biennial, I am charged not only with the always-thrilling opportunity to work with artists, but also working within the institutional "limitations" I mentioned above.


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