Ask a Curator: Daniel Marcus & Lucy Zimmerman

Daniel Marcus & Lucy Zimmerman

Sep 16, 2020

Ask a Curator logo with related hashtag and 2020 date in white on a black background

Now in its 10th year, Ask a Curator day is an international social initiative that connects art lovers directly with those who program art spaces to answer questions about what they do and the work they present. We're excited to participate this year with help from Associate Curators of Exhibitions Daniel Marcus and Lucy Zimmerman. Questions for this interview were submitted by followers of the Wex on social media.

What is the scope of your curatorial position at the Wex entail? Anything people might not expect, or do you have favorite part of being a Wex curator? 

Lucy Zimmerman: There is a lot of research, writing, communication, and collaboration with artists, galleries, partners at OSU and in the Columbus community, and of course colleagues at the Wex. With each new project comes a whole new set of questions, opportunities, challenges. I’m a curious person who loves to learn and really enjoys research, so I find that aspect of the job to be very stimulating. I’ve especially enjoyed working on artist residencies and supporting artists in the production and presentation of new work. 

Daniel Marcus: My position at the Wex is a bit experimental—in addition to my curatorial work, I also teach in the History of Art Department at Ohio State. (I’m a recent hire: I started at the Wex this past August, following a two-year stint at the Columbus Museum of Art.)

My favorite part of the job? Definitely the social part. There’s a special thrill that comes from watching visitors interact with an exhibition on the opening night—although it’s always bittersweet for me, since it marks a sort of transfer of property, and a letting-go: now the exhibition belongs to everyone. Behind the scenes, too, exhibitions bring together so many individual contributors, including registrars, preparators, editors, fundraisers, tech wizards, designers, marketers… the list goes on. There’s something really special (and hugely gratifying) about working on a show that the entire team is excited about.

How do you see the creative vision of the individual curator impact the exhibit experience?

LZ: This is a big question, but an important one! There is so much subjectivity, so much invisible labor that shapes the experience of an exhibition—what works are included in the exhibition, how things are installed, how content is being framed—and these decisions come from the curator but also other members of staff, too. The next time you go to a gallery or museum, pause for a minute. Why do you think one work might have been placed next to another? What is the text on the wall label or description of the exhibition saying, and what is left out? If it isn’t explicit, how or why does the exhibition resonate with current events? 

DM: I came to curating from a background in writing and art criticism, so I tend to approach exhibitions with an editor’s eye—worrying over the meaning and inflection of every small detail. In the end, though, it doesn’t help for a curator to cling dogmatically to the original plan or ideal version of an exhibition. Reality finds a way of spoiling well-laid plans; a good curator keeps a clear mind and adapts with the circumstances. This is especially true when it comes to computer-based modeling: Layouts that look great when rendered digitally often look slightly weird—and in some cases downright terrible—in real space. Again, the key is to stay limber.

Related to above question, I see a range of visibility of the “hand of the curator” in exhibits: from “invisible facilitator” supporting artists’ visions and enlarging works to a total experience for visitors; “creative collaborations,” where the curator inspires artists to make works for a defined theme; and “curator as creator,” where individual works act as ingredients to a whole that adds additional and/or other meaning to the works. How do you see your role in the exhibit creation process and relationship to the exhibiting artist(s)?

LZ: Based on the question above, I’d say it’s never possible to make oneself fully objective or invisible, but I’d put myself closer to facilitator and supporter, perhaps sometimes collaborator, cheerleader, and task master (especially when I’m working on a residency or solo exhibition featuring new work). Flexibility, honesty, and respect are other key elements to the process of organizing exhibitions and developing relationships with artists

I spend a lot of time listening to the artists with whom I’m working, and that typically starts before we meet by reading interviews, watching lectures—whatever I can get my hands on. I pay attention to language they use (and don’t use), how their work has been contextualized and exhibited previously so I can ask questions that I haven’t seen raised, and consider what new opportunities the Wex can offer the artist with the resources and space we have, as much as how the work will resonate with our audiences. 

DM: In any curatorial project, I try to put myself in the position of a good interlocutor. If I’m working one-on-one with an artist, then the conversation is necessarily circumscribed and intimate—it involves a lot of trust and familiarity on both sides. With historical or theme-driven exhibitions, the circle widens, and might also include fellow curators, art historians, archivists, activists, and community partners and advisors, among many other voices. Apart from the obligation to create and sustain a meaningful and (hopefully) generative conversation, I don’t really have any preconceptions about my role or the way it’s broadcast publicly—the genre of exhibition usually dictates the degree to which my individual voice is audible in the galleries.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your preparation for upcoming exhibitions? With travel restricted and art fairs and gallery shows on hold throughout the spring and summer, how have you connected with artists and with what's happening in the broader art world during this time?

LZ: To be honest, between COVID, politics, state-sanctioned brutality against Black and Brown people, and economic strain, it’s been incredibly hard. How each person has been impacted is different and subject to change from one day to the next. I’m working on a group exhibition that will open early next year that was shifted on the schedule due to the pandemic, and it includes commissioned work by nine artists. My energies have been dedicated to how I can be a sensitive ally and strong advocate for these artists (and the arts more broadly), and what is possible now in the present climate without allowing things to grind to a halt. 

DM: Since I’m fairly new at the Wex, my work hasn’t been as dramatically impacted as my colleagues who had exhibitions scheduled to open during the shutdown. In my previous job, however, I was part of a team that curated the exhibition Art after Stonewall, 1969-1989, which opened at the Columbus Museum of Art on March 6, 2020—only to close abruptly 10 days later. I had devoted a huge amount of energy to this project and was really gutted at the time; and although the exhibition has since reopened, it still feels like an incalculable loss.

Have new guidelines on spatial distancing affected the plans for the physical presentation of fall exhibitions in the Wex galleries? If so, how?

LZ: Yes, absolutely. I’m working on a collaborative project called Free Space with colleagues in Film/Video and Learning and Public Practice that opens September 17. It is a microcinema and community resource lounge, and it will also be available by reservation for classes or small groups. We’ve had to adapt the plans significantly for health and safety of our staff and patrons, but are really hopeful that this flexible, multi-use space will offer a much needed environment for dialogue and connection. 

DM: Unlike movie theaters, stadiums, and other high-density venues, museums tend to receive more dispersed and self-distancing clusters of visitors, so we haven’t yet had to radically alter the front-end experience, at least where our exhibitions are concerned. Other departments at the Wex—especially Film/Video and Performance—have migrated certain aspects of their programming online during the pandemic, but we all want to be back in the building as soon as we can safely do so. 

What are each of you most looking forward to seeing in the Wex galleries this fall, and why? 

LZ: I’m excited to see how the themes and moods of each gallery space play off one another and to hear what visitors have to say about this. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Tomashi Jackson's new paintings; the last exhibition I saw of her work at Tilton Gallery in New York was incredible. Finally, I’m eagerly anticipating the film programs in Free Space organized by my colleagues, NO EVIL EYE and Cam Granger, as well as the contributions of the Department of Learning and Public Practice’s Community Artist Group. The collaboration across departments and with community members has been really nourishing in this time of isolation. 

DM: In different ways, the Wex’s fall exhibitions reflect the precarious state—and unrealized promise—of democratic politics in America. For example, Taryn Simon’s installation Assembled Audience deals with the dark side of democracy, where demagoguery meets narcissism; likewise, Tomashi Jackson engages the ongoing legacy of gerrymandering and voter suppression in her solo exhibition Love Rollercoaster. In a more utopian vein, staff from three departments at the Wex—Exhibitions, Learning and Public Practice, and Film/Video—have joined together to launch Free Space, a gallery devoted to grassroots and community-based initiatives of various sorts. I’ll be curious to see how each of these projects speaks to its neighbors, especially given the high anxiety surrounding real-life democracy in advance of November 3.


Ask a Curator image courtesy of Museum Next

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