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Luis Felipe Ortega, “Los Cuerpos Dóciles (macetones),” from the series “The docile bodies,” 1995-97, chromogenic photograph. Courtesy of The Galleries at Moore. 

Inside The Galleries at Moore: Q&A with Director and Chief Curator Kaytie Johnson

Inside The Galleries at Moore: Q&A with Director and Chief Curator Kaytie Johnson

Luis Felipe Ortega, “Los Cuerpos Dóciles (macetones),” from the series “The docile bodies,” 1995-97, chromogenic photograph. Courtesy of The Galleries at Moore.

How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the organizational and artistic practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and practicing artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.

Here, we speak to Kaytie Johnson, director and chief curator at The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design, the first and only visual arts college for women in the US. The Galleries at Moore’s Center-funded exhibition, Strange Currencies: Art and Action in Mexico City, 1990–2000, is on view through December 12 and offers a broad range of participatory programming. >Visit the exhibition website to learn more. Johnson talks with us about new audience engagement strategies, the importance of making education a participatory experience, and her vision for The Galleries in the years to come.

Tell us about a unique quality that distinguishes your gallery from other university galleries in our area.

Like several of our organizational peers in the city, our programming is strongly artist-centric, and we are committed to supporting artists in creating new work and realizing timely, ambitious projects. But, one thing I feel sets us apart from other university galleries in the area is not only that we frequently collaborate with Philadelphia-based visual and performing artists, but we also regularly partner with and support the city’s vibrant community of artist-run spaces.

This began in 2013, when we invited The St. Claire to develop a series of pedagogically-driven public programs to complement our iteration of Creative Time’s Living as Form exhibition. Since then, we’ve given over one of our gallery spaces to artist collectives Grizzly Grizzly and Practice Gallery to co-curate an exhibition based on exchange and reciprocity; hosted a live punk rock karaoke event at Vox Populi’s AUX performance space; and hosted a panel discussion about the potential futures of artist-run activity for the CITYWIDE collective exhibition project in 2013.

Most recently, in conjunction with the Center-funded exhibition, Strange Currencies: Art & Action in Mexico City, 1990-2000, we partnered with members of Grizzly Grizzly to organize Alternative Currencies, a project that brought together independent contemporary arts groups from around the country, and throughout Philadelphia, to share their innovative modes of working. This particular project gave members of Philadelphia’s artist-run spaces the opportunity to engage in peer-to-peer partnerships with artists and collectives throughout the US, through a series of exchange exhibitions and a symposium that explored what it means to be—and stay—alternative.

Gustavo Artigas, Discurso, 1994/2015. Photo by Kait Privitera.

As a college-affiliated gallery, you engage with a variety of audiences—students and faculty, Moore’s surrounding communities, and the broader art-going public. How do you approach audience engagement with these different groups?

We look at what we do in the context of a shifted landscape, one in which technological and demographic changes, as well as visitor expectations, have altered the relationship between arts organizations, artists, and audiences. It’s no longer adequate to simply look for different ways to do what we’ve always done in regard to community and audience engagement—we know that in order to truly enact change, we need to listen to our audiences, and anticipate their needs. Audience engagement is now built into the planning process for all of our exhibitions, public programs, and outreach initiatives.

Our audience engagement strategy is based upon making The Galleries at Moore a gathering space, with a strongly social function, where everyone feels welcome; developing exhibitions and public programs that are participatory and encourage dialogue and interaction; and presenting content in newly considered, non-traditional, and unexpected ways.

What inspired you to undertake the Strange Currencies project, and how has it influenced your way of thinking both artistically and organizationally?

When I first visited Mexico City in the 1990s, I was struck by the fact that the independent, artist-run spaces were way ahead of the curve in terms of presenting work that was challenging, current, and relevant. At that time, the commercial galleries and museums seemed unwilling or unable to engage new forms and practices, and were still showing work that was very conservative, traditional, and object-based. It became very clear to me that these spaces—and the artists and individuals who were running them—were the true vanguard. What artists were making, and making happen, during this very fraught decade made a huge impression on me. Fifteen years later, when I was able to gain some historical distance and perspective, the idea for an exhibition really started to take shape.

While the pivotal role artist-run spaces had in transforming Mexico City’s cultural landscape during the 90s is certainly an important subtext of the show, I was more interested in organizing an exhibition that focused less on that decade’s greatest hits, and more on its B-sides. To a great extent, this decade has been mythologized and, I feel, misrepresented, through a series of exhibitions that have only cursorily explored and inadequately represented this critically formative moment. Strange Currencies is, in a way, a revisionist curatorial gesture on my part that challenges the slickly packaged “official version” of contemporary Mexican art that was packaged and distributed vis-à-vis many of these exhibitions. My intention was to recapture and recover the funkiness, messiness, experimentation, and radical exploratory spirit of the decade—a time before contemporary Mexican art was “discovered” by the global art market in the early 2000s.

Installation view of Melanie Smith’s Orange Lush, 1995/2015. Photo by Kait Privitera.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the way university galleries function, both within and outside the educational context, over the past decade? How have these changes influenced your work?

During the 20 years I’ve worked in university galleries and museums, one of the biggest changes I’ve observed is a tendency toward making education a more participatory and expansive practice and experience; also, an opening up, a programmatic externalization, for lack of a better term. Many of these galleries are reconsidering whom they serve, and how they function. Instead of serving primarily as a resource for students and faculty, many of these spaces are literally opening themselves up to a broader public by transforming themselves into welcoming social spaces where everyone in the community is invited to have direct, meaningful experiences not only with art and artists, but as sites where collective knowledge can be generated, and local conditions and urgent needs within the community can be addressed. Many of these spaces— The Galleries at Moore included— are challenging themselves, and the way they do things, by asking the question, “how can we surpass our current functions?”

I’ve also seen a shift toward programming that is more expansive and interdisciplinary, that brings the visual arts into dialogue with the performing arts, humanities, and social sciences. I think the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College is leading the charge in showing us how thoughtfully, and successfully, this can be done.

How do you envision The Galleries at Moore in five years? In 10? How will you be different than you are today?

I think what The Galleries look like, and what we are doing, in five or 10 years will build upon what we’ve learned and accomplished during the past four years. Since 2011, we’ve focused on rebuilding our audience, redefining our mission, and developing programming that is vibrant and challenging, with a sharp artistic focus that sets us apart from our institutional peers.

I envision us continuing to develop adventurous, multidisciplinary programming and interpretive programs that are audience-driven, and organizing exhibitions as ambitious, and international in scope, as Strange Currencies. Our collaborations with artist-run spaces and other cultural organizations in the city will continue, and I hope we will have the means and capacity to extend and expand our collaborative and partnering efforts beyond the confines of the city and the region. Collaborating on an international scale would be terrific, and very much in line with our long-term programmatic goals.

In 10 years, I’d like to see The Galleries establish a residency program that goes beyond the conventionally circumscribed studio program model, one that brings visual artists, curators, filmmakers, writers, and other creative practitioners into direct contact with our internal and external stakeholders.