Great Galleries are part community, part collaboration, part curiosity, and full of heart – An interview with Irene Tsatsos, Chief Curator and Director of Exhibition Programs at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, CA.
The gallery is closed to the public, but it is a busy day at the Armory Center for the Arts, as the crew is beginning the painstaking work of taking down and properly cataloguing and storing one exhibition while mounting another. Irene Tsatsos and I climb the stairs of this community jewel to settle in and talk in comfy chairs above the bustle of activity occurring within this open, high-ceilinged, artistic space.
This is not your average gallery, as self-described in press releases…at the Armory’s core is a conviction that making, teaching, and presenting art can transform individuals and communities, and that artists, through their practice, can serve as educators and advocates in this process.
Fittingly, its chief curator is brimming with intelligence and passion for art, its integral place in society, and its potential for encouraging curiosity, collaboration, community, and balance in our lives.
“…you need to love what you do. Think about that. And feel that.”
The Armory is a unique space.
“I’m responsible for the exhibitions that are mounted in the Caldwell Gallery, the Mezzanine Galleries, and the PAA Gallery, and their related programs, as well as a number of projects that we do off-site, such as at our outdoor gallery called Roadside Attraction and at La Casita, the Armory’s community learning annex in Northwest Pasadena.
One of the great things about the Armory’s structure is that exhibitions serve as curricula for school field trips. Students start by discussing the work in the galleries with our teaching fellows, who are artists learning to teach. After a lively conversation, the students move into the studio where they do a hands-on project that comes out of their conversations. So everything is wonderfully integrated between the exhibition programs, the studio work, and our teacher-training program.”
“I’m interested at the moment in historical artists who we may associate with a specific type of medium, such as painting, but who in fact used a range of media and approaches, and integrated a lot of those strategies and ideas into what we commonly think of as their primary practice. For example, this morning I was talking to a colleague at the Armory, an artist who is very knowledgeable about art history, particularly 20th century painting. He had just learned about costumes that were made by Joan Miró, the Catalan surrealist painter and sculptor, for the ballet Romeo & Juliet in 1926! My colleague had just learned about this aspect of Miró’s work and asked if I was aware of it – and was NOT! I love being surprised this way, and getting a whole new avenue of inquiry opened up. I’m very interested in artists that explore and think in multi-disciplinary or cross-disciplinary ways. It’s inspiring.
Creativity can come in any discipline, This goes back to having inquiry–based education and the arts as a place for questioning. At the Armory we teach children all the time, and although we are teaching them principles of art-making we are also teaching them how to think and how to understand visual culture; we’re teaching analytical thinking, creative thinking, and open-mindedness—and this is most important, because whether these children go on to become artists or not, I do want them to become creative, analytical, open-minded thinkers. We need those qualities and skills for education, public health housing, technology, economics, medicine, governance, for everything we do.”
“One of the great things about my educational experience in college and art school was that it was absolutely okay not to know, because, really, it was about asking questions, it was almost about NOT knowing. It was a safe place to be able to keep asking why and where curiosity was valued. Today there is such an emphasis on career trajectories and training and getting the “right” answers. We are at risk of losing sight of the value of not knowing, of wonder and curiosity, and we place a disproportionate value on getting the right answer and getting it fast. I am so grateful that I had an education that placed its priorities elsewhere. Art is a place in our society where there’s room for that kind of questioning and non-answer. A place where you don’t need an answer, where it’s okay to have questions that take you into other places, into other ideas. It’s why the arts are so important. I resist the arts being quantified, other than quantifying the number of hours you get in the classroom, because I always want more time for the arts.”
How being an artist informs the process of curating.
“I have been making art since I was a child. I’ve studied art in a variety of ways over the years, but I don’t maintain a traditional studio practice. Doing the work that I do (at the Armory) absolutely satisfies the same impulses that more tangible, object-oriented, art-making has in the past. I still do make objects, but on a very intimate scale, and not for very public presentation – more as a kind of exercise for myself.”
Curating begins as a community-based collaboration.
“I went to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, after college in Ohio. Even in art school I knew I didn’t want to create more STUFF in the world—there was enough stuff! I was very interested in performance art, and was doing that and photography, and writing, and producing a journal on performance art through an alternative space. That was really exciting. Creating the journal was my clearest trajectory at that point—more than trying to create exhibitions out of my photographs, which I did, but they weren’t as good as the publication, nor as satisfying.
When I got out of art school I took a position as the director of an alternative space in Chicago. I realized then that I really liked doing this work. It involved an enormous amount of creative energy, collaboration with other artists. I had a lively committee structure, so I had a lot of colleagues around me who were advising on programs and on running the place. There was a very strong sense of community around a shared vision for exploring innovative experimental contemporary art forms—and that started my path. At that point I realized I could actually make a living doing what I like!”
“We’re opening a group exhibition in the Caldwell Gallery called Radio Imagination (Opening October 1, 2016), inspired by the writing of Octavia E. Butler, the African-American science-fiction writer and MacArthur “genius” award winner who died 10 years ago. She was born and raised here in Pasadena, and her archives are held at the Huntington. The Huntington’s policy has been to limit access to the archives to scholars, whom they define as those holding a PhD. In my field, PhDs are not a terminal degree. Artists get MFAs.
A colleague, Julia Meltzer, who founded and runs an organization called Clockshop, persuaded the Huntington to allow six artists access to Octavia Butler’s archives. These artists address questions of the future imaginary, of the social relations, personal identity, and the ambiguities of community and how community is constructed – all of which are themes in Octavia Butler’s work.
We’re showing all new work from these artists, inspired by their research in Butler’s archives. There’s a six-minute film that depicts a scene from one of her novels; a series of photographs; a series of drawings; an immersive sculptural installation; a sound installation; and a performance that will be presented at the Levitt Pavilion. Coincidentally, we found out that Pasadena City College is reading Kindred (by Octavia Butler) through the One Book One College program this year. It wasn’t a part of a concerted effort to connect to the college students on that level, but it’s so great that it’s happening.
At the same time we will open another exhibition, this one by Harry Dodge, an artist whose work also addresses some of the themes described above. We are showing new work along with some older work that has never been seen in Los Angeles. This is his first solo show in LA. It’s a big deal.
And we have a third project by Carmen Argote that I’m also really excited about. Carmen was born in Guadalajara and comes from a family of English learners. She is doing a project at La Casita, the Armory’s community annex I mentioned earlier, where she’s mounting panels of handwritten text on the exterior of the building. The panels were inspired by the whiteboards used inside the building by ESL students. The handwritten text on the panels is derived from the notebook the artist’s grandmother used when learning English. So the building will appear to be covered with pages of notes. It’s this lovely, kind of poetic intervention on the building that I think will also resonate in a lot of ways.
Art functions on so many levels. Again, it’s inquiry-based, it invites us to think about ourselves and about the world; and these questions can take us to huge ideas and huge spaces. These practices can raise enormous questions about life, about why we’re here and the meaning of life, and all of this, and all of it at the same time. So I’m not afraid of going there, and I actually like work that takes us there, guides us there. And I also like work that connects us to our immediate social—where we are now in our world. I’m most interested in showing work that can be quite philosophical and at the same time quite grounded in today. And I think all three of these shows are really good examples of that.”
Listen to your head and your heart.
“As you follow your interests, be aware of how you’re thinking as well as how you are feeling. If you’re doing something because you think it’s the right thing, and you’re applying all your grit and all your effort, but you really don’t get pleasure out of it, then that will come back and haunt you. It’s not going to work in the long run. It’s not sustainable.”
About Irene Tsatsos
With a background as a visual artist, Irene Tsatsos is recognized as an artist-centered curator with a practice oriented toward artistic collaboration and production. Before joining the Armory Center for the Arts in 2010, she was the executive director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE); coordinated the 1997 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; and has collaborated with individual artists and renowned institutions such as the Getty, the Annenberg Foundation, The Fowler Museum at UCLA, and The California Community Foundation. Tsatsos has published extensively in periodicals and exhibition catalogues; has served on numerous grant review panels regionally and nationally; and currently teaches in the MA program at the Center for Management in the Creative Industries at Claremont Graduate University.
EXHIBITION ON VIEW
6:00 pm to 8:00 pm
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