Does the local still exist? How is your local at your organization different from anybody else’s and how does that impact your curatorial decision-making?
The local still exists, yes, but there’s a different relationship to the global now. The local is what creates the life of a city, but it’s the relationship to the global that makes it resonate. For example, with Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions (co-curated with artist Jon Rubin), we were working with an intense and thoroughly proliferate aspect of local culture in Pittsburgh: the fan culture around the football team, the Steelers. In Pittsburgh, Steelers fandom is a unifying force that crosses demographic boundaries of class, race, gender, and sexuality, and exists in every pocket of the city from anarchists to doctors to artists; newborn babies at hospitals are wrapped not in pink and blue blankets, but in team-colored “Terrible Towels,” “casual Fridays” at workplaces are awash in black and gold, local politicians win with lawn signs the color of the team, and city streets are nearly empty at game time. Although our premise was that Steelers culture is Pittsburgh’s popular culture, and the fans are its primary producers (rather than passive consumers of a branded product), it has significance beyond the regional. Besides Steelers fandom being an international phenomenon (largely due to the mass exodus of laid-off workers and their families during the fall of the steel industry in the ’70s, which coincided with the rise of the team; there are over 2,000 self-proclaimed Steelers bars and fan clubs worldwide, existing in every American state and at least 27 countries), the obsessiveness, and the way the fans construct their personal and social identities in relation to the team, is like any other fan culture (Star Trek, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc).
Another example is our current exhibition, the Pittsburgh Biennial. Historically it focused on artists living in the region, but this is the first year it’s expanded to include anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Pittsburgh (it’s also the first year it’s moved beyond the founders, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts/Pittsburgh Filmmakers, to include other co-organizers: Carnegie Museum of Art, Miller Gallery at CMU, and the Andy Warhol Museum). Pittsburgh, like many other cities, has a large population of transitory residents, largely due to the universities that attract interesting students and faculty and the fact that it’s a cheap place to live. There is constant movement in and out of the city, and many people live here part time. For my section of the Biennial, I selected Pittsburgh-connected artists who work collaboratively, highlighting projects that demonstrate the strength of collective voices in deciding the future of neighborhoods, cities, and nations, and the importance of intimate conversations and compassionate listening. This collaborative approach echoes the long labor and union histories of the area, as well as the Biennial’s new partnership among local art organizations. Although most of these projects have sections that are closely tied to the city, these parameters could apply to many other regions.
What have you learned most from working with artists?
I don’t like to distinguish between artists and non-artists. I’m constantly learning from the people that I work with, and I approach every exhibition as a collaborative enterprise. I guess the main thing would be the impetus to question established ways of working, belief systems, traditional forms, and so on. We live in a very conservative world. Artists look for new ways to express ideas and to subvert the status quo, and I find inspiration in that.
Why should government fund the arts?
Art encourages creative thinking, alternative points of view and risk-taking—values that aren’t always profitable or popular in a capitalist society. Artists are almost always underpaid, yet the contribution that they make to our neighborhoods, cities, and country, is invaluable. The arts enrich every aspect of our daily life.