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Curator Interview: John Massier

Over the past few years I have interviewed a multitude of artists from
all around the country, and more often that not, I wonder why they are
not exhibiting more, obtaining more press or reaching out to more
venues. This spurred my interest so much so that I felt the need to take a
break from sharing these artists with the public in order to share the views and opinions of a curator (or two) with the public and our artists. To kick of this mini-series, John
Massier, Visual Arts Curator for Hallwalls, has graciously agreed to be
my guinea pig.

With a reputation of noted across the country, Hallwalls
has become a local pinnacle of sorts; some artists believe that having a show in
this space is as high as you can get on our region’s creative food chain.
At the core of the Hallwalls’ mission statement is a single line to be taken seriously by submitting artists when proposing their work to any of the three curators that
holds the passage rights: “We are dedicated in particular to work by
artists which challenges and extends the traditional boundaries of the
various art forms, and which is critically engaged with current issues
in the arts and–through the arts–in society.

Buffalo Rising: What is the process of selecting an artist to exhibit at
Hallwalls? Do you ever give artists a reason for being turned down?

John Massier:
You know, I get proposals almost everyday. So when I finally have the
time to sit down and look at them, it’s a pile that’s over three feet
high. You take away the members exhibition, which is a non-curated
exhibition, there’s only six other exhibition periods remaining. Right
now I only have one artist in the space, but I usually try to have two.
At best, that’s twelve artists, maybe, over the course of a year. And
that’s out of a couple hundred submissions.

That number of submissions is also in addition to artists I’m
thinking of on my working list, or artists that I meet. And Hallwalls
isn’t Buffalo-centric. We’ve always showed artists from across New York State,
around the country, and around the world. All of that kind of winnows
down the opportunities. Apart from interns, I don’t have an assistant, so
to go through some 200+ proposals each year means I can’t
personalize every response.

BR: Is there a yearly submission deadline that artists should
be aware of?

JM: No, I have an open deadline for submissions.
Generally we’re booking about a year ahead. The Burchfield might be
three or four years ahead. There’s a lot more involved if say, the
Albright was doing a show and had to borrow from private collections or
other museums. We’re usually showing new work out of a studio, but we do
have to apply to NYSCA, The Warhol Foundation and other funders, and
have a plan roughed out when applying. I don’t fill the calendar in
entirely, I like to leave a few pockets in case I meet someone and I’m
very interested in showing their work and I don’t want to wait a year
and a half. I’m very malleable in my curating process.

BR: Have you formed a personal taste that differs or aligns
with the Hallwalls’ vision?

JM: The curators here can show
whatever we want. It’s not a matter of the Director approving it or the
Board approving it. It’s in our bylaws that only the curators can
choose. That’s not as common of a practice as it used to be, there are
lots of places where you have to have an artist approved. Hallwalls,
though, has always been a place of freedom of speech and expression, and
that mindset extends back to the curators, not just the artists we show.

As far as personal taste, any curator you meet has personal taste.
Whatever they do in their career for exhibits, even though they try to
be objective or apply the bigger picture, is always going to be a
showing of their subjective perspective. Whether you’re making art,
curating it, writing about it or just viewing it, the process is
entirely subjective. And those opinions crossover, we have shared
opinions on things that we think are meritorious, or interesting, or
funny. This isn’t like two hundred years ago when people agreed on
things they consider to be classically beautiful.

BR: Does scale of work play a role in who you select to show
in this space since it is a larger gallery?

JM: Our space is
actually smaller than the one we had before. It’s nice that you think
its large! It’s about 1500 square feet, which isn’t huge. It’s got
higher ceilings than we used to have, but you have to work within what
you have, and if you go to enough galleries around the country, you can
see great exhibits done in a space the size of a living room. I think
it’s important to have a space big enough that you have negative space
in it too. You can’t use a space chock-a-block unless that’s the point
of it. Right now, there’s a large sculpture in the gallery and it needs
that blank wall behind it, to counter balance it and give it breathing

BR: Do you think it’s more important to have a solid body of
consistent work, or a great concept proposal?

JM: Well, the great
concept has to be realized. If the concept is something the artist wants
to do but hasn’t yet, the only way you can gauge that idea is from
their previous work. Have they realized things before? Have they
accomplished a complicated proposal? Artists sometimes bite off more
than they can chew, and that changes [from] person to person. The work is
ultimately the most important thing, so I would say of the two, a past
solid body of work is more important because it feeds any future

BR: Do you receive many proposals for work that hasn’t “been
realized yet”?

JM: Once in a while, someone will propose
something very specific. Some artists get into an ongoing project and
that’s the only thing they want to focus on. But most people, and this
is the right thing to do, adequately, comprehensively and concisely
demonstrate what their work is, because artists realize that the gallery
might turn around and say, ‘we’ll offer you an exhibit to do a new
installation’, or they might say, ‘we want to show this older series of
work’. Responses run the range of very specific to very open ended.

BR: Do you feel responsible for shaping the Buffalo art
community and the public’s perspectives on local art?

JM: I don’t
know? I’m just one of several curators working in this region. It’s a
good question that you should ask someone else [to answer] about me! I stand by the
things that I show and I try to include Buffalo artists even though it’s
not exclusively a Buffalo centric program. It’s like when people come
up to me in the middle of Artists & Models and they ask me if I’m
having fun; it’s not about my fun, I’m in middle of the hurricane with
my colleagues organizing that event. I have no idea what it looks like
from the outside.

Certainly for Buffalo, I write my blog. I don’t know how many people
actually read that, 700 or 1,000, or if they just like someone to do
their quote mining for them. People call me for studio visits or other
advice and I try to help them as much as possible. Sometimes all people need, is to have their ideas bounced back at them so they can re-frame their current work and figure out where they are. We try to be
good community partners and participants. We exist in a very close
community here, artistically and otherwise. Anybody that works in the
arts or around the arts, knows that nothing happens by virtue of one
person or organization. So, if you’re doing a show there are a lot of
people that help you bring it together. Same with venues – we work with
each other and support each other the best we can.

BR: Do you ever refer artists to other spaces they’d be
better suited for?

JM: Yes! Because sometimes I think that
artists may get fixated on showing in one place and they’re not even
aware of other spaces or possibilities. For regional artists, there are
loads of possibilities here. More than you have in other cities of this
size. To use an example, I recently referred an artist to use the Olean
Public Library. Its a small room, two hours away and not a place to show
if you want to have a big opening with all your Buffalo friends, but
what’s interesting about it is they provide an artists fee, the space is
nice and there are many shows there that have attracted attention.

You can do a show in an alternative space and get over the hump of
that body of work, realize it in a new space. I can think of one guy who
had a show at the Buffalo Arts Studio and it was nice, but it was a
better show at the Olean Public Library a few months later because the
installation fit the space perfectly and the room was pitch black. These
spaces might not occur to everyone, but depending on the work, can be a
fantastic opportunity and sometimes the artists just need someone to
point them in the right direction.

BR: Do you feel like you would be limited by the pool of
artists if this were just a Buffalo-centric gallery?

JM: No, we
have a lot of great artists right here. But it would be more difficult
in the sense that you don’t want to have a situation where each artist
just makes his way through every gallery in town. It’s a little bit too
predictable. Right now Dennis Maher and Kyle Butler, two great shows,
are exhibiting at Buffalo Arts Studios and also Beyond/In later this
year. I’m not singling these guys out, I love their work, but in 2010
they’ll both have had two exhibition opportunities in the city, which
means that even if I like their work, I’m not going to show them again
at Hallwalls right away. There isn’t a fixed amount of  time that needs
to pass before their work looks fresh again, but as an organization you
don’t want to feel like you’re just repeating what other venues are

BR: Is there a common misconception about Hallwalls? I’ve
heard artists say that their work isn’t to par with the other work shown
here and they feel intimidated.

JM: You walked into our office–do you see how accessible we are? We can’t run and hide. If I’m eating
lunch and someone walks in to show me their artwork, I’m here. That’s
the first thing. I think we’re all friendly! We don’t aspire to
intimidate anyone.

But more specifically to that point, my advice to
artists is if you’re going to be intimidated or have anxiety about being
an artist, then maybe you should be doing something else. I can’t speak
for everyone or every place, but the most important things is that
someone’s aware of your work and you keep them on your radar because
it’s never A,B,C. I’ve got a list in my head of artists from Toronto
that in thirteen years I’ve never gotten to work with! There are lots of
reasons that play into why you show something at a certain time–like we
do diversity of media here. I hope people aren’t intimidated but I
think it’s all in the way they perceive the artist’s relationship with
the gallery, how they fit into the puzzle. Or maybe it’s my obnoxious
curator glasses, they’re new.

John Massier’s
blog, Prolonged Hacking & Gnawing


Laura Duquette is a former ballerina who now dances with words
and punctuation. She has a knack for asking questions faster than the
speed of sound, and her interviews are often off the cuff and personal.
She is Co-Owner of 12 Grain
, a Buffalo based creative firm that gives typical web design a
kick in the ass.

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