On Curating: An Interview with Tricia Van Eck

Jeriah Hildwine

Jeriah Hildwine interviewed former MCA Associate Curator (and current director of 6018 North) Tricia Van Eck about what a curator is, about her activities at the MCA, about the ending of the UBS 12×12 program, and about her leaving the MCA to start 6018 North.  The questions have been edited for clarity and length; the responses are presented intact.

JH:  What is a curator, and what do they do?

Tricia Van Eck

TVE:  What a curator is and does is an interesting question and has been changing since it’s a relatively new field since museums have a short history. Hans Ulrich Obrist, a peripatetic curator and co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, is interesting to look at to answer this question.  Early in his career he interviewed museum directors, many of whom often were curators. The term curator from the Latin word cura which can mean “care” or “cure”. If we go with care, then curators are the people who care for the preservation of objects. If we go with cure, then curators are the people who attempt to use objects and exhibitions as encounters for transformation. In Hans Ulrich’s new book ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating,’ he writes, “the whole curatorial thing has to do not only with exhibitions, it has a lot to do with bringing people together…Bringing people together who wouldn’t otherwise meet, to go beyond this fear of pooling knowledge.” Curating is also about space, opening up new possibilities of extending time, boundaries, definitions, and fields of inquiry. I like to think that in curating I look at an idea from as many different angles as I can – the 360 degree perspective – and then narrow things down. I think a more traditional approach is to proceed from a narrow lens and widen outward. Either deductive or inductive, both are equally valid approaches.

JH:  What was it like adapting traveling exhibitions for the MCA?

TVE:  At the MCA I coordinated many shows that were presented elsewhere before being shown in Chicago. Often it’s a luxury to have one institution work out all of the organizational details, thematic conceptions, and then have another institution look back and see how the show might work in another light and for another space and context, since it was already presented in one way. Each space is so unique so exhibitions necessarily need to be reconfigured. Many loaned works drop out, new ones are added, and so with a large show such as Italics, the show seemed completely different at the MCA. For the
Buckminster Fuller show at the MCA, we added a major component that illustrated Fuller’s formative years in Chicago which provided a sense of Fuller’s personality and gave a chronological structure to his thought process which could be then further explored in the works, as well as in the library, which provided a space for the public to go in depth and spend time with the ideas Fuller raised.

For the recent Bradford show, I think the works looked particularly dazzling at the MCA. Mark, his assistant and I spent a lot of time figuring out the layout. Then a few weeks before the show opened Mark came up with the idea for the front lobby using the history of paint layers of previous artists who had painted on that wall (Sol LeWitt, Byron Kim, Gary Simmons, etc) to present Mark’s version of the Pinocchio story which tied the whole show together. We didn’t have the additional money needed for this, but since it was such an amazing idea, his gallery paid for the production of the vinyl and we supplied the crew. Money and timing are always considerations, and this was last minute, something the museum doesn’t like, but sometimes artists have to stretch everyone’s boundaries to create something amazing.

JH:  Were you ever given a totally free hand to do whatever you wanted with a show?

TVE:  With my artists’ book shows I was usually given the space to do what I wanted using artists’ books since there were minimal costs (no shipping budgets) and minimal risks (small shows). I loved these shows and already miss the MCA’s amazing collection of over 3,500 artists books. However, recently a friend of mine offered me his collection of artists books to be housed in my space for curators/writers/artists to use as a resource once 6018NORTH is up and running. I couldn’t be more thrilled!

Sarah Schnadt's Universe for 6018NORTH

JH:  Was there ever a “dream show” that you wanted to do, or would want to do now?

TVE:  A few shows that I proposed for the MCA that I would still love to do is a sound show that begins on one floor very quietly and then progressively gets louder with very loud works on the top floor. It’s a way to expose people to sound in a very kind of tactile way but works are chosen not just because they are loud in tone, but powerful in intent like Janet Cardiff’s Jimi Hendrix piece when you stand on the pedal, it plays Jimi Hendrix’s playing the Star Spangled Banner as he originally played it.  Another show would be to transform the entire first floor, starting outside, and continuing into the
sculpture garden, into a green space of living artworks. Obviously these shows were proposed for the MCA but could be adapted to any space – even 6018NORTH – since the sound idea is about progression and the green/nature show is about extension. But now I’m concentrating on opening The Happiness Project – a precursor to the show, Aaron Delehanty’s “Psychiatric Help” was at the MDW Fair and Natasha Wheat’s neon sign, “Autonomy Handed To You Is An Illusion”, 2010 which calls attention to participation as vital within a democracy, is now in a window at 27 W. Randolph. The show officially begins in November and is a way to present artists’ ideas regarding quality of life issues as the new mayor develops his Cultural Policy Plan for the city.

JH:  What do you think about the ending of the MCA’s UBS 12×12 program?

TVE:  While I was fully aware of the problems of the short turnaround of the UBS 12 x 12 New Artists/New Work show, I voiced strong interest in the show remaining. It was a model for institutions across the country and provided a great opportunity for artists to show work and have it seen by local, national, and international audiences as well as curators, dealers, and collectors. I am sure this will remain in the new model, although obviously to less artists each year.

JH:  What motivated you to leave the MCA and start 6018 NORTH?

From the Happiness Project

TVE:  I think about the Mayan calendar prediction of 2012 so I wanted to make sure I was in a place and space doing what I wanted to be doing by that date. For years I’ve asked myself what would make me happy? About 15 years ago I wanted to start a performance space so 6018 NORTH is an extension of that with the addition of installation, sound and sustainability, as well as experimental culture. I truly believe that if people were focused on happiness, the world would be different. My Happiness Project – mentioned above – in various storefronts around Chicago has grown out of this. It proposes ideas, opportunities, and ways of discussing quality of life issues in Chicago through art. The show has come together quickly in hopes that the Mayor can incorporate the artists’ ideas into his new Cultural Policy Plan. I’m working with a number of artists, some of whom have their own storefronts, whereas others are presenting in a group show at 23 E. Madison beginning November 7. I’m used to working on a number of projects at the same time, but it’s wonderful that these are all connected and resonate and build upon each other in the hopes of adding to the cultural life of all Chicagoans regardless of their connection to the art world. The world is increasingly more connected, yet many individuals still feel disconnected and disempowered as evidenced in Occupy Wall Street. The Happiness Project was conceived as a way to bring voice to artists and to the public by asking them to envision what might a city that advances the collective goal of happiness, look like? How might it function? What kind of conditions and policies would that city create?  I’m looking forward to all of the artworks and events that the artists have created to see how art can be a catalyst for positive change.