Terri C. Smith of Franklin Street Works in Conversation for 10xCommunity

It is a personal pleasure to feature the incredible work of the versatile and dedicated Terri C. Smith, whose leadership at Franklin Street Works yielded meaningful, community-based exhibitions such as “Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text and “Acting on Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions and Advocacy in the United States.” A thoughtful curator, and alumna of the prestigious Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, Smith dedicates herself toward contextualizing conversations around art and social conditions within spaces ripe for critical inquiry.

We sat down to learn more about her time specifically at Franklin Street Works, and how the organization is dedicating its next chapter to archiving its powerful body of programs, events and exhibitions, contextualizing them for a new audience.

(Below image, Cut Up: Contemporary Collage and Cut-Up Histories through a Feminist Lens curated by Katie Vida, installation view. Foreground: Faith Ringgold. Background (L-R): Meredyth Sparks, Martine Syms, and Lourdes Correa-Carlo. Photo by Object Studies
Lead image, Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman, installation view. Foreground: commissioned site-specific installation by Nontsikelelo Mutiti. Background (L-R): works by Jay Simple and Bryan Keith Thomas. Photo by Object Studies.)

 

ANTE. Thanks, Terri, for sitting down with us! So Franklin Street Works was known as a contemporary art space but during your time working there, it achieved recognition for engaging with social justice as well. Can you elaborate on the founding of the space, its evolution and how social justice aligned with FWS’ mission?

Terri C. Smith. Being the founding creative director of an arts organization is a unique perspective because you are steeped in its institutional history and have a deep on-the-ground understanding of its growth and impact. When I was invited to co-found Franklin Street Works by Stamford lawyer and philanthropist Kathryn Emmett she had the idea of an art space with a cafe. It was up to me to craft the specifics in terms of mission, vision, and programming. I had been in Connecticut working in the arts for a few years and had a sense of that scene. When I began conceptualizing what FSW might look like, I was thinking a lot about NYC alternative art spaces from the 60s and 70s like Artists Space, The Kitchen, and Food and their commitment to emerging artists and grassroots principles. I also had 15 years of experience working in two accredited museums and valued good scholarship and museum best practices. So my thinking was to create a program that included rigorous exhibitions and also integrated values of community inclusion – a discursive, social, and activist community hub with contemporary art at its center.

When we first opened in Stamford, Connecticut, showing conceptual art necessitated a lot of interpretation and direct conversations with visitors. In the beginning, merely showing conceptual art felt like a form of activism! All of our exhibitions were original, thematic group shows curated in house by guest curators or myself. This thematic approach aimed to build an audience beyond arts-interested individuals by drawing connections between contemporary art practices and events in our day-to-day lives.  In other words, if an exhibition included work about the environment, the idea is that it would attract folks who might not be familiar with contemporary art, but, because of their interest in nature, science or conservation they would have a point of entry. It was an individualized approach that aimed at connecting, often challenging, contemporary art to a broader public.

As far as how the social justice trajectory connected to our mission, these key factors spring to mind: our coincidental opening of the space when Occupy Wall Street was encamped in Zuccotti Park; an archive of artist activist collectives we developed for a 2013 exhibition; our exploration of Franklin Street Works’ values with a 2014 strategic plan; and a show on immigration Yaelle Amir curated for us in 2015 (see above, “Acting on Dreams.”) I’ve only recently realized it, but Occupy Wall Street was a profound influence on the formation and direction of FSW. I knew some artists who were involved in the Park – many of them affiliated with Bard MFA. It was intriguing to me how artists brought an unmonumental sculpture/MFA materiality to activism and how an alternative, pop-up social system that shared qualities with social practice projects was being constructed from scratch there. I now understand FSW was influenced by OWS’s materiality and its creation of an inclusive, activist space that interrogated the status quo and posited corrective, world-building scenarios.

Social justice as an exhibition theme was directly addressed for the first time with our 2013 exhibition Working Alternatives: Breaking Bread, Art Broadcasting and Collective Action, co-curated by Mackenzie Schneider, Jess Wilcox and myself. We were thinking about how artists used food, broadcasting, and collective action during the early history of alternative spaces in NYC, and how artists were still using these tactics. Jess explored artists who use food, Mackenzie looked at artists using media like television and newspapers, and our gallery manager, Sandrine Milet, and I explored collective action, sending out an open call for materials from self-described artist/activist collectives. The starting date for our artist/activist collectives was the end date of an existing archive organized by NYC artist/activist collective Political Art Documentation & Distribution (PAD/D), which included socially conscious arts organizations working from 1979–1990. We put a call out to more than 90 collectives and received materials from approximately 30.  While the show was on view, Brooke Singer, a Professor of New Media at SUNY Purchase (who was in one of the collectives we exhibited) invited us to take the archive out of its boxes and present it as an exhibition at the College’s Passage gallery later that year. Sandrine and I curated Collective Action Archive with Purchase students Stephen Barakat and Gina Mischianti, writing additional interpretive texts about the collectives and exhibition essays from various points of view. Eventually the materials were accessioned into the SUNY Purchase Library zine archive, making them available to students and scholars.

Nadia Wolff-commissioned performance, A Litany, at the opening reception of Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman. Photo by Terri C Smith.

This year-long immersion into collective action art practices was followed by Franklin Street Works’ 2014 strategic plan, which re-emphasized our commitment to socially conscious art and community engagement. In the strategic plan, we described our core values, “Art is part of a larger social enterprise and thereby serves as a catalyst for social action. Both the individual artist and our communities are vital partners with us. The artist creates new models and impacts our communities. Our communities generate creative conversations within our space and elsewhere about our production.”

The next year, when Yaelle Amir curated Acting on Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions, and Advocacy in the United States, FSW’s work in social justice really began to crystallize. I personally had an “ah ha” moment about how actionable elements could become part of an art exhibition when Yaelle asked us to create a resource list of regional immigrant organizations for the catalog. I was energized by how Acting On Dreams was firing on all cylinders. The artworks and commissioned installations were well executed and materially interesting, but it was also exhibition as logistical support, community gathering place, investigative journalism platform, educational venue, and more. From then on, we were off to the races in actively planning exhibitions that addressed social justice issues head on. 

ANTE. The pandemic has affected everyone in the arts, and has required flexibility and resourcefulness. Your team has recognized that the time has come to put future exhibitions in the physical space on hold. What are your goals moving forward in building an archive? In addition, how do you hope this archival project will evolve? What resources in particular are you seeking to help achieve this goal? 

TCS. It is important to me that the legacy of Franklin Street Works lives on through a digital archive that is organized and accessible to anyone interested in contemporary art history or any of our 415 past exhibiting artists and collectives. I’m working with a handful of past board members to map a path forward in creating that. Right now we are exploring the best approaches in applying for archiving grants. I’ve also been talking to other small art spaces that no longer have physical spaces but still have an online presence, and chatting with archivist friends about the best order of operations in getting started. Since the entirety of FSW’s institutional memory is in my brain and my computer (and back up disk, of course!) it is my responsibility to organize the materials in preparation for a professional archivist. In a perfect world, I’d like to have the spirit of FSW live on in a less localized way. It would be exciting to see the archive combine with a national program of grants for emerging artists and to create and/or support commissioned projects.

Love Action Art Lounge curated by Terri C Smith, installation view of Carmelle Safdie’s commissioned, site-specific installation. Photo by Object Studies.

 

 ANTEWhat particular aspect of your tenure do you reflect on with satisfaction?

TCS. There are so many, but two aspects that come to mind immediately.

First, the transformative nature of Franklin Street Works’ educational programming. The physical space of FSW is an intimate repurposed Victorian row house. So when we had tours, talks, and performances, there wasn’t much physical distance between the community and the presenters. I also intentionally set a very welcoming tone that signified there wasn’t much, if any, hierarchical distance between artist and audience either. I think this intimacy and casual, social vibe created a comfortable space for learning, questioning, and authentic connection that was memorable and resonant. There were dozens of times when a past event attendant would volunteer specifics about how it changed their perspective or affected the course of their work or life. 

The second aspect is a personal one. I developed so many wonderful relationships with FSW’s artists, curators, staff/board, interns, and contract workers these last nine years. So many of the people we partnered with on projects were collaborative, talented, and conscientious. My life is vastly enriched for having known them. I was 43 when I co-founded FSW. Frequently in middle age we can become set in our ways, but my life was infused with an endless stream of compassionate critique, encouragement, and aspirational thinking. Many of the folks I worked with became my teachers, modeling generosity and inquisitiveness, pointing out when I was being old fashioned or on auto pilot, and perennially challenging me to work toward optimal equity and inclusiveness. As stressful as the labor of running an art space can be, the love, laughs, and learning outshone the fatigue that sometimes accompanies this type of work.

Sherry Millner artist talk on the occasion of In this place where the guest rests, curated by Jacqueline Mabey. Photo by Michael Mandiberg.

 

ANTE. How have you focused your energy on moving forward during the pandemic as a cultural producer?

TCS. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this is such a universal question right now in the arts and beyond. Right now my energy is focused on staying connected with close friends, taking care of my body with exercise, and connecting to nature (and my dog) with walks and gardening. I’m also doing some freelance grant and copywriting for an Alzheimer’s organization which has me thinking about how the labor of families, especially women’s labor, is literally keeping eldercare afloat in the U.S. I am thinking there is a feminist exhibition on labor, healthcare, and ageism in there somewhere. Things are still fresh with FSW closing, and I lost my mother recently too so there are a lot of new normals to digest, consequently, I am doing a lot of reflection right now, in a good way, I think, I hope..! Haha.

As we touched on earlier, I am starting to organize materials for an FSW archive. I am also awkwardly working to shift the Feminisms and the Arts class I teach at UConn-Stamford to distance learning and continuing ask colleagues and friends –  especially those whose practices are about creating more equity and inclusiveness in the art world – how I can support them and their work during these difficult times.

In contemplating the last nine years, I’ve realize that curating for me is most rewarding when it’s in collaboration with a community where I feel a significant connection. Ideally, if I were to commit to another full-time position in the visual arts, the community I choose to work with would be as important as the organization. The places that feel like home to me are Bridgeport (where I live) and New Haven (where I have friends and there is a vibrant art scene) as well as my hometown of Nashville, TN. So I hope to stay put in Connecticut or move back to Tennessee. That said, we never know what the future brings, so I’m keeping an open mind at the same time

On the Road Series Debut Stuns at Jenkins Johnson Gallery

Vertiginous folds of fabric climb in an ambitious ascent, weaving the identity of its creator into every stitch. Basil Kincaid’s voluminous “Love As Patient As the Hillside” (2018) anchors Jenkins Johnson’s spacious first-floor gallery space for “On the Road: Caroline Kent, Basil Kincaid and Esau McGhee”. Curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, this exhibition, on view through Jan 12, marks the first installment in the exhibition series by the curator. Referencing Jack Kerouac’s influential On the Road, Ossei-Mensah applies the concept of documenting a cross-country journey toward charting the contemporary African-American experience – beginning here with a specific lens on the Midwest. The cohort of artists on view in Jenkins Johnson’s debut “On the Road” work in St. Louis and Chicago, and have lived in and worked throughout the region.

Works by Basil Kincaid including “Love As Patient As the Hillside” (2018) (on right) Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Projects

“Approaching Kerouac’s On the Road, on this cross-country art journey I found myself asking: where are the black and brown bodies?” Ossei-Mensah, Senior Curator at Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit (MOCAD), reflects on his curatorial approach leading up to “On The Road”. In introducing the exhibit and its artists, he mentions being inspired by works by Derrick Adams and Ebony G. Patterson who exalt black bodies, portraying these figures in states of leisure and celebration. These scenes recurred to the curator as he initially viewed works by St. Louis-based Basil Kincaid. Standing in front of Kincaid’s portraits of a picnic, family members relaxing on the grass in the sun on the same quilt on view in “On the Road”, Ossei-Mensah recounts Kincaid’s emphasis on incorporating his family’s history and his own personal memories into these quilted works. This soft sculpture anchors the space, the folds of the fabric softly outlining an absent human figure, anticipating the edges of a subtle form. Kincaid’s works both reveal and conceal the human form and memories, his own and those in his immediate social circle. “Kincaid creates quilted works as portraits of his own family and markers of memory, and his collages and drawings taken in consideration alongside these quilted works express a variety of modalities. It’s important for audiences to be exposed to the breadth of his practice,” Ossei-Mensah elaborates.

Works by Esau McGhee (L and R) flank a work by Basil Kincaid (Center) for “On the Road”, Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Projects

Nearby mixed-media works masterfully contort inside their custom-built frames, wrestling against the weight of anticipated right angles with their calculated curves and bends. Wooden frames and compositions both bear witness the masterful range of Chicago-based Esau McGhee‘s practice. Working from his studio in East Garfield Park, McGhee takes his initial training in photography through the filter of working as a street artist to construct complex compositions, some with a graffiti mark-making tool, in vivid patterns and hues. Applying an intimate repetition of found pattern, McGhee combines a balanced approach to construction and composition to exquisite effect. These collages flatten notions of ownership: referencing found imagery as a diagram of public space, McGhee integrates patterns, colors and printed materials found within the mass-produced and the everyday. McGhee observes, “This collective experience that we all share with public spaces… it’s not my space, it’s not your space, it’s really ours: it’s going through an evolution as dictated by us.”

“Summer Love” (2018) and “Star Gazing” (2018) by Basil Kincaid, Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Projects

Approaching Jenkins Johnson’s lower gallery space, Ossei-Mensah expounds on his initial approach when formulating this inaugural iteration of “On the Road”. “As a curator, it’s key to find ways to challenge myself to not subscribe to a particular style,” reflects Ossei-Mensah. We take a moment to gaze around at the show before he continues, “As a project space and commercial gallery, Jenkins Johnson is the perfect place to mount “On the Road” – I’m thankful that they were willing to take a risk on a show of artists whose work audiences here may have never encountered, providing a platform for these artists in an accessible, domestic space where diverse audiences can feel a sense of belonging.”

Ruminating on the importance of crafting inter-regional dialogues with diverse artists whose work may not (yet) be featured on Artforum or headlining Christie’s auctions, Ossei-Mensah presents a measured viewpoint on why he began this series with Midwestern artists. In addition to his role building a platform for artists from across the region (and the US) at MOCAD in Detroit, he observes the area is full of sometimes overlooked talent. “Artists in the Midwest are making interesting work, and can be diamonds in the rough whose work merits new platforms. These are artists whose work shouldn’t lie undiscovered: there is a narrative guiding each artist’s body of work. These artists are all committed to their practice – what they will produce next will be truly remarkable.”

“To Summon the Objects in the Room, Pt. 2” (2018) and “Alterior Motives” (2018) by Caroline Kent Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Projects

The final gallery yields exquisite works by artist Caroline Kent, whose work spans text and abstraction. Ossei-Mensah identifies what first caught his eye about her abstract works: the forms placed within a black ground. “Using a black ground in these works asserts her position,” notes Ossei-Mensah. Our conversation centers on the relative dearth of black women artists working in abstraction, and how by foregrounding these works within a black space the artist subtly re-orients the context of these compositions. Meanwhile, two text-based pieces nearby include the artist’s own written work, placed in dialogue with monochrome hues of paint created by the artist’s finger marks. Aspects of Kent’s identity intermingle in these works, while her larger abstract compositions evoke disparate actions and forms. Taken comprehensively, Kent’s body of work absorbs a multitude of influences while incorporating her own precise palette: what Ossei-Mensah refers to as a “a pictorial index she sees built into the world of gestures around her.” We stop in front of two works by Kent, “Carmicheal and Eloise” (2016) and “I Would Call…,” (2016), before Ossei-Mensah continues.  “Kent’s work demonstrates her commitment to pushing the limits of abstract language, with her focus on building a syntax and toolbox: a reservoir of forms and colors placed upon a black ground. When taken in context with her text-based works there exists a variety of aspects in her practice, a remarkable plurality.”

Reflecting on Kent’s practice, Ossei-Mensah inadvertently observes the power propelling “On the Road” forward. “This work pushes the visual language to its breaking point,” he observes. Works on view by Kincaid, Kent and McGhee push the envelope, breaking boundaries across mediums in a well-balanced survey of formidable contemporary artists living and working in the Midwest.

 

Shockwaves: SVA Summit Considers Combatting Nationalism in Contemporary Curating

In an era of rising nationalism and public displays of fascism in America, how can the arts unite as a cohesive front to defend its most vulnerable citizens? In a field known for its open approach to free speech topics, how can leaders in the visual arts – museum directors, curators, artists and others – face up to the mounting threats of ultraconservatism and “fake news” as they relate to everyday citizens? What about mounting threats to de-fund and otherwise censor the arts? The School of Visual Arts’ Master’s Program in Curatorial Practice has produced a full day of programming centered around how leaders in the visual arts are working to combat these forces threatening our freedoms. The day-long summit, Curatorial Activism and the Politics of Shock, will take place on Saturday, November 18 from 10 AM – 5 PM. It features a carefully curated cohort of formative curators and arts leaders who will engage in conversation and present topics related to the needs of art leaders to stand up for a free society.

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Leaders engaged in the discussion include Tensta Konsthall Director Maria Lind, Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic, Director of La Panacée Nicolas Bourriaud, Serpentine Galleries Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist, and many more. The event is formatted as a series of eight minute presentations by clusters of art world thought leaders interspersed with question and answer rounds occur in roughly 90 minute cycles.

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The event is currently at capacity; however, the entire event will be livestreamed  in its entirety on the MA Curatorial Practice YouTube channel. To learn more about how we can improve cultural initiatives to support a free society, tune in and join the conversation!