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Conversations with Curators: Liz Nielsen

Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” originally posted April 26, 2011.

Jeriah Hildwine

Work by Liz Nielsen

Work by Liz Nielsen

Liz Nielsen is the director of Swimming Pool Project Space.  She is also an artist working primarily in photography, teaches photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as working in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.  Liz has recently exhibited her work at MVSEVMLVL3, and Pentagon (as part of the Quarterly Site #1:  MinimumixaM), FLAT4 at Floor Length and Tux, and the now-departed Mini Dutch.  I recently emailed Liz to interview her about running Swimming Pool, and about her thoughts on curating.

Jeriah Hildwine:  First I just wanted to ask you to tell me a little bit about yourself. I’ve only really known you through Swimming Pool, and seeing your work at LVL3. On your CV it says you went to Seattle University, is that where you’re from? And then you came to Chicago to go to SAIC for your BFA, and UIC for your MFA? How did you make those decisions, and how were those experiences for you?

Liz Nielsen:  I am indeed from Seattle, or so I like to say.   I’ve lived in Seattle twice, and thus far, it is the city I’ve spent the most time in. 14 years.  I’ve also spent some of my most formative years (junior high and high school) in Omaha, Nebraska, where I’d one day like to return for the Bemis residency.   I moved to Chicago to go to school at SAIC for a second bachelor’s degree.  My first degree is a BA with a double major in western ancient philosophy and Spanish.

Swimming Pool Project Space

Swimming Pool Project Space

Jeriah:  So, how did you get into running an art space? Is Swimming Pool your first space, or have you run, or worked at, other art spaces in the past? Any experiences that have proven useful in running Swimming Pool?

Liz :  UIC was where I did my MFA.  I began teaching at UIC immediately after I graduated and then came over to SAIC to work in Admissions.   Soon enough, I started teaching at SAIC too.  I love teaching.  I love my students.  I love artists, and especially young artists.  I love talking about art, thinking about art, and making art.

Jeriah:  When it comes to running the space, what do you do for yourself, and what do you delegate? You’re the “Owner, Creative Director, and Curator,” and your website lists Carolina [Wheat] as Director of Outreach and Marketing, and you’ve also referred to her as your “right hand.” Are there specific things that are her job that you never have to deal with? What do you delegate, and what do you make it a point to keep control of? Also, what are the roles of Brent Houston, Director of Operations, and Aza Quinn-Brauner, Operations, and your interns Sam Dunne and Brook Sinkinson Withrow?

Liz :  When it comes to the Swimming Pool, I do mostly everything (chuckle), but I have help and support from friends, and from my loving partner, Carolina.  (As I’m writing this, I just remembered that I forgot to patch the walls this morning.)  Carolina helps me with the press releases.  Carolina helps me with a lot of things.  Victor helps me with postcards.  Brent and Aza help me build things, and the interns watch the gallery quite often when I’m unable to be there.

From The Albatross, New Work by David Harper at SPPS

From The Albatross, New Work by David Harper at SPPS

Jeriah:  What is curating, to you? Do you have goals or a mission statement or a manifesto in mind, or do you just sort of find stuff you like and set it up so it looks good? The mission statement on your website is pretty open-ended but looking at the programming you’ve had, are there any criteria you’ve been using to sort of direct the vision for the gallery? Or have you more been playing it by ear and just showing stuff you like?

Liz :  As far as the mission statement and the vision of the gallery goes, yes, it is pretty open-ended.  I am quite interested in the experimentation of ideas and the constant re-definition of what art is.  I have accepted blind proposals for group shows, chosen artists who I’ve felt were taking great risks for solo shows, curated shows around an aesthetic or an idea, and completely handed the ball to other curators.   I’ll easily admit that I have shown art that I didn’t particularly like, but liking something has nothing to do with whether or not I believe it has relevance in a conversation being had in contemporary art or in the world.  I hope that the exhibition attendants coming to the SPPS don’t always know what to expect, and I believe surprise is one place where genuine art experiences are had.

Jeriah:  What kind of aesthetic decisions are important to you as a curator? What decisions do you take control of, and what do you leave up to the artists?

Breaking Up With Chicago, featuring Liz by Lina; Saturday, Feb 12, 2011.

Breaking Up With Chicago, featuring Liz by Lina; Saturday, Feb 12, 2011.

Liz :  Once the work arrives at the space, I do take a certain amount of control making decisions as to how the exhibition will look and be read.  I do this with the artist, or curator, or with whoever is helping me install. This is an exciting time because when the work is present inside the space, it comes to life, and it begins to say things that it didn’t say before.  We have to respond to that and react accordingly.  Sometimes a central piece from the studio will be completely eliminated from the exhibit.  Everything must be in harmony, and this putting together of an exhibition is one of the things I love the most.  I feel so solid with my vision when I’m installing a show.  When it is hung, I feel uncompromised, like it couldn’t have worked better in any other arrangement.

Jeriah:  OK, almost done. Working with other curators on Quarterly Site #3: Stay In Your Lane, with curators Anthony Elms, Katherine Pill, and Philip von Zweck, did you play an active role in curating that show, or did you take a back seat to the guest curators? Did that experience give you any insight, any thoughts on curating? What was your experience with that show like in general?

Liz :  For a show like the Quarterly Site #3, I help with solid details like providing a clean, painted gallery and handing out keys for the front door.  I order the postcards and sent out an email invitation, and that was it.  Jamilee Polson proposed the show, organized the show, wrote the press release, and everything else.  I simply provided the space.  As far as experiencing insight, of course I did!  I experience insight from smart curators, risk takers, artists, and inventors, and Jamilee filled the gallery with these types.

Jeriah:  Last question.  What does the future hold, both for yourself, and for Swimming Pool? And in the longer term future, do you think that you’re going to focus more on your own art-making practice, more on curating, or try to balance the two?

Liz :  What does the future hold?  Number 3: Balance between my own art and curating.  When I project myself super forward and look back into near future, I see a 15-20 minute break, an adult swim if you will.   Swimming pool is moving/morphing, and its destination will be announced in March.  In addition to the Swimming Pool, I am continuing with my own photographically based installations focused on play and thought constellations.   I have a solo show in Berlin curated by my lover, called LIZ by Lina and opens at Shalter Gallery on the 18th.  After that, SPPS will have a final show before the adult swim.  That exhibit is called The Swimsuit Edition.  It the first show curated by artist Lisa Majer, and will have a one-night opening/party in my west loop studio space on February 25th.  Be there!!! Even if only to wave Bon Voyage in your swimsuit.