Out There Atlanta: Interview with Lily Siegel

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Lily Siegel.

Episode 65: Following the most recent double-length episode with Julia Fenton, this week Out There Atlanta takes a break from our regularly scheduled audio. Instead, we bring you a transcribed interview with Lily Siegel. Lily Siegel is a recent Atlanta transplant and the new Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum. In this interview, she discusses her curatorial background and experiences in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as the upcoming show she is organizing at the High.

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

The audio component of today’s OTA is a video-recorded lecture chosen by Siegel, linked at the bottom of this interview.

Lilly Lampe: How are you liking Atlanta?

Lily Siegel: I am really liking it. It’s totally different, both personally and professionally than in Los Angeles and in terms of an arts community. I feel like I’m here at a really exciting time!

I’ve been asking around about Atlanta’s cultural growth and know the Olympics were here in ’96 and there was a lot of culture built up around the Olympics, but where did it all go? I get the sense that Atlanta (has been) a boom and bust city and get the sense that people want to grow more slowly and consistently now. It seems things are just getting started. The mentality is changing, which I think is exciting.

LL: I wonder if the Olympics ever effect long-term change in the cities that host them, though…

LS: Well in Los Angeles, my point of reference, I feel like the Olympics really had a huge impact. You still see work that was created for them…

LL: When were the L.A. Olympics?

LS: ’84. 

LL: Oh wow! So there’s a much longer history there too.

LS: Right. But there’s consistency. The Museum of Contemporary Art—where I came from—was built just before the Olympics came to the city; they knew the city was gearing up for this. A lot of dance and performing arts came to the city around that time and found a consistent patronage so they were able to survive.

I think Atlanta and Los Angeles are very similar in terms of infrastructure, which…maybe this isn’t the most polite way to put it, there is none! So I think seeing institutions like the High, the development of the Beltline, the Contemporary, MOCAga… everyone is planning long-term and for consistent growth and it seems like that’s started only in the last five or ten years.

LL: Do you think this says something about how the Olympics manifested in this town or do you think this says more about the institutions?

LS: I don’t know if I know it well enough to comment on it, but I think it’s a testament to the people in this city who want to see the growth and consistent level education, and recognition that Atlanta can be a global city. Maybe the Olympics were that spark that said, “We can be a global city.”

LL: Do you think Atlanta is a global city yet? Or that L.A. is?

LS: Yes to both, for very different reasons. Atlanta, from what I can tell, is definitely a global city in terms of corporations. And the airport is incredible! [Laughs]

LL: Do you like the Atlanta airport? Is that a good thing?

LS: I think for culture and for global influence it’s really important to have a big functioning airport for exchange, and it keeps Atlanta from being regional. As much as there’s the Internet now and less and less paper publications, still being able to go out and experience the world and have face-to-face contact with people and artwork is really important. I’ve been traveling more than I ever expected I would here, which is great because I get to see things, but I also feel like it’s kept me from connecting to Atlanta in an immediate way.

LL: Are you traveling a lot for work, like for fairs?

LS: I have done a lot of travel for work and personally. I moved here just before the holidays so [laughs] I went back to L.A. to see family and friends.

LL: Did you have much experience of Atlanta before you got the job here?

LS: I’d never been! [laughs]

LL: I was the same. I came to look for an apartment, but had never been otherwise, and I wasn’t that far away growing up in North Carolina!

LS: That’s true! Yeah, I’d never been…I came for my interview, wasn’t even here for 24 hours, and then came back to find a place to live!

LL: Well, could you tell me more about your background as a curator? How you got interested in the profession, your education, experiences…

LS: I started out in undergrad as a structural engineer. I was really good at math and physics in high school and thought I wanted to be an architect. I was going to be an architect but I wasn’t just going to be a creative architect, I was going to know how to do the engineering… maybe this says something about my liking to be in control of things! [laughs] The first homework assignment in my intro to structural engineering class was something about the expansion of concrete in this degree weather over so many days… and I dropped the class. I was not interested in the expansion of concrete!

I’ve always been interested in art. I grew up going to the museums in Los Angeles, a lot of my parents friends were artists, and I took an intro to art history class… it was the driest, most dull… you know, slides up, room dark, and I loved it! And I thought, if I can love this class, then this is the direction I should head in.

LL: I had a really similar experience with art history 101. All my friends had warned me that it was so hard and so dry, but to me it was great! It seemed like the easiest thing in the world.

LS: Exactly! And it creates such an insight into the rest of history.

LL: Do your parents have a background in art too?

LS: They don’t. My mom was a lawyer and my dad was in local politics. Though, he was working for a councilman who was really involved in the arts and with starting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, so the arts were always around. And my mom had wanted to be a dancer. Her parents basically said, “Fine, but we’re not supporting you the rest of your life!” so she decided to become a lawyer instead.

LL: Did your parents have any of the same reservations about art history?

LS: No, my parents were supportive all along, and I think lived a little vicariously! They loved going to museums with me, and they really encouraged me. I’ve been lucky. I did my undergrad in art history at UC San Diego, which I don’t think I fully appreciated while I was there but had world-class professors teaching very contemporary scholarship. I took a year off so I didn’t have to apply for schools while I was still in school. I applied to masters programs knowing that I wanted to be in museum work, not academia. I somehow had this clarity of where I wanted to go.

LL: That is really lucky! Did you know at that point that curating was what you wanted to do?

LS: Yes. I had access to people who could give advice and everyone said, “Learn your art history, don’t go into an arts administration or a curatorial practice program; if you know the history you’ll get on-the-job training.” I wanted to do contemporary art, so decided to go to a school where there were practicing artists. I applied to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and was lucky enough to get in so that’s where I ended up! Though I ended up a little disappointed in the amount of access I had to the artists that were there.

There were some MFAs in my classes but it was a pretty separate program. I would go with my friends and try to visit studios to see art but we didn’t have any access. There was a public MFA exhibition but I thought, “I’m studying contemporary art, getting my masters here, shouldn’t the artists want to talk to me? I want to talk to them!” And I found people were really resistant.

LL: That’s really surprising that there was no synergy, especially as that could foster alumni connections that could really help in the long-term.

LS: Right! I don’t know if it was the timing… I heard one artist say, “I don’t need a historian to contextualize my work; my work can stand on its own.” I don’t know if that was a single perspective or if that’s what was discussed in the studio classes, but, at the end of our program my friend and I submitted a proposal for a curated show in the student gallery. And apparently it was the first one they’d ever received! And they accepted it.

LL: Did you get to pull from any of the student artists?

LS: It was still really hard. There was still some resistance, so we ended up going with graduates of the school.

LL: What was the premise of the show?

LS: Let’s see if I can remember! My friend had gotten into the undergraduate studios and ended up seeing a painter she really liked. They were great paintings—very playful, very “boy-like” with a kind of video-game violence. They were little figures in these wide-open landscapes, so we were thinking of the influence of video games on imagination and the impact that has on your perspective in thinking about space.

LL: So not the typical “video games lead to violence” discussion. Who was the artist?

LS: Nate Wolf. He was the inspiration for the show, but he was graduating and moving on to Columbia for his MFA so we couldn’t get his work. He’s now in Los Angeles.

So that was the first “curated-by-curators” show that had been in the student galleries. And it was great! There were four or five artists… painters, photographers, collagists… a few works by each artist. It was the summer show. People went to see it, though I never heard anything about it afterwards, but it was a good learning experience. It was the kind of show where we were hanging the works ourselves, coming in with hammer and nails…

LL: This is where your interest in architecture came into play.

LS: Yes! Anyway, I thought I was going to stay in Chicago. I did an internship at the MCA while I was there.

LL: Did you meet Michael Rooks [curator of modern and contemporary art at the High Museum] there?

LS: No it was after he’d left. The MCA had an internship with the SAIC while I was there but—and this is a testament to my nerdiness—I didn’t want to waste any class credits so I did it outside of the school so I could still take all of my classes. [Laughs] Which ended up not being the best idea as the interns from the school were doing the internship for credit got the more interesting work. But it still gave me insight into working with a museum.

So I moved back to L.A…

LL: Wait, what did you write your master’s thesis on?

LS: I wrote my thesis on low-rider cars.

LL: Nice!

LS: So [gestures at the High] per Frida & Diego, I tied it to the history of Mexican muralism and social activism in the United States and the Chicano movement.

LL: Did you tie a hypothetical exhibition to your thesis?

LS: No, it was purely art historical. But anyway, there weren’t any jobs in Chicago. And all my friends were leaving Chicago so I decided to go back home to L.A. thinking there was more opportunity for me there. I got hired at a really small non-profit, this great little space called the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. It was in a converted apartment and had a library of esoterica, and acted as a 501(c)(3) to help artists write grant proposals. They had a space and would host conversations and support artists!

I was the first full-time employee other than the director and they were finishing a book so I helped with that. And then an opportunity at MOCA came up so I was hired at MOCA within a year of being back in L.A.

LL: When was that? Was that before Jeffrey Deitch was hired as director?

LS: I started at MOCA in April of 2008, and I think nine months later Jeremy Strick left. And then we were another nine months or so without a director, with an interim CEO, and then Jeffrey came in.

LL: What a tumultuous time!

LS: [Laughs] But it was great. MOCA, despite everything that was happening, was a fantastic experience and I feel like prepared me for anything I could possibly come up against!

LL: Did you get to curate any shows independently while you were there?

LS: I started as a curatorial assistant and as things started getting shaky and people started leaving, I was promoted to curatorial associate in the interim and was given traveling shows or shows with outside curators to organize. But I didn’t curate any shows of my own there.

LL: You brought up a lot of things that I think are really interesting and specific to a large institutions, like the hierarchy of a curatorial staff and the distinctions between organizing a show versus curating. I’d love to know more about that, and where your current job at the High falls into that.

LS: Let’s see. To start with simple definitions, curatorial assistant is the entry-level curatorial job. It seems today you have to have at least a master’s degree to get a curatorial assistant job. That person is working very closely with the curator, who’s making the creative decisions like what’s going on the checklist and the layout, and the curatorial assistant helps with research, the organizing, finding the works on the checklist, communication with lenders, essentially serving as a liaison between the curator and the museum and the rest of the public.

As a curatorial associate I did the same things but without a curator of a direct supervisor. The titles can be somewhat arbitrary, but that acknowledged that I could organize a show without a curator giving direction. So, you get a checklist from an outside curator, you know the steps to go through to hang the show, you can do all the organizing.

And that’s how it worked at MOCA, though it differs from institution to institution. So I was organizing shows that I didn’t really have much creative say in. So then assistant curator is when you switch from being an assistant to being a curator! [Laughs] And now I can curate shows and can determine the creative direction.

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

When the opportunity came up here in Atlanta, I knew the High’s reputation, I knew Atlanta was a big city and good things had been happening… Michael Rooks has been doing incredible things in terms of building the collection and exhibitions. A lot of my mentors in Los Angeles thought it would be a great opportunity and encouraged me to come here, saying, “We don’t want you to leave. You could become an assistant curator at MOCA but it’ll take 10 years! We’d have to leave.” They didn’t have the flexibility to create a job for me there. And I think that’s generally the way it works; to promote within is a long haul. You have to be very patient…

LL: … wait for someone to die.

LS: [Laughs] Basically. I’m a little impatient. I didn’t want to sit around for 10 years. And it worked out!

LL: Have you started thinking about shows you want to spearhead here or are you still learning about the museum and helping Michael with some of his upcoming shows?

LS: Both! I’m working on the Rashid Johnson show this summer, which is a great place to start. I’m really excited about that. Rashid left Chicago just before I got there, but people were still talking about him [laughs] so it feels really nice that it’s the first show that I’ll do.

LL: What’s the direction of the show?

LS: Well, it was organized by the MCA Chicago and is a touring exhibition. It’s a mid-career retrospective, starting with the work he was doing as an undergrad in Chicago and the most recent work is from 2012, so it’ll be a good overview.

LL: How many works are coming down for the show?

LS: Around 30… his work is big. [Laughs] It’ll be in the Anne Cox Chambers Wing at the Lobby Level and Skyway Level.

But after that, I always have a million ideas! There are some monographic shows I’d like to do, some thematic shows I’d like to do… I think I need to get to know Atlanta a little better and the audience to know what would be an appropriate fit for here, but I also want to be challenging—so learn the appropriate fit and push that boundary a bit.

LL: Are there categories of curators or categories of curatorial interest?

LS: I don’t know if anyone has come out with categories but curators have a recognizable style and interest and so do institutions. It’s been a really interesting transition for me here and something I was looking forward to, coming from a museum of contemporary art where all of the curators were contemporary with no specialty titles, and coming to a place like the High that’s a broad museum with an American curator and European curator, and trying to figure out where contemporary art fits into the program.

It was put very eloquently by Michael Govan at Art Basel this year in conversation with Tom Campbell, the director of the Met. Govan pointed out that all art was contemporary at some point [laughs] and the best way he’s found to present contemporary art at LACMA and build acceptance of it is to make that the lens, to present contemporary art first and work backwards in history and remind people that at different times art that we may now see as very palatable was very challenging, and we want to use art to ask questions and explore larger themes than what you see in [commercial] galleries. And that’s what exciting about being at a museum like the High with older collections is that you can create a larger dialogue.


And, on that note, as the audio component of this week’s Out There Atlanta we’ve included the recorded conversation between Michel Govan and Tom Campbell at the most recent Art Basel referenced by Siegel in the interview. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xybGh8xHCDs&feature=youtu.be]


BURNAWAY Radio now sponsors Out There Atlanta, by Lilly LampeOut There Atlanta is a podcast and online platform for interviews with artists. The intention to create a archive of conversational interviews with artists in Atlanta, or with an Atlanta connection. These conversations are informal and conducted in the spirit of a coffee meet-up. Out There Atlanta fills the gap between formal studio visits and event-related coverage and exists as a place for a more relaxed and personal dialogue, allowing artists to get a little more “out there” with the online audience.

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