Talking to Curators / Interview with Laura Hoptman
In this chapter I discuss how to present yourself to curators so that they become attracted to your art and your story.
In the academic world where most curators get their directions on how to pursue their careers as independent or institution-based curators, they are taught how to look at art and evaluate it from a cultural standpoint. There are also curators who do not have academic training and are putting together shows as well, but the majority of curators that you will meet are most likely coming from a curatorial studies program at a university. That means, in most cases, they will have had art history classes and learned how to create exhibits as well as how to visit artists’ studios.
When visiting studios, they are told to look at work in a cultural context. That means that as they talk to the artist and come to their own conclusions, they are looking to see how the artists are reflecting contemporary culture today. In fact, we all reflect contemporary culture to some degree, even those who are not artists. A teenager who is watching videos on YouTube and using Snapchat and other forms of social media is engaged in a form of the culture that reflects who we are as a culture and how teens might be responding to and interacting with specific forms of media
Artists do the same thing even if they are not aware of it, and this is part of what a curator is looking for. He or she is looking at your images and their content and thinking about how this might be a reaction to current political or social trends, or even popular trends in entertainment.
Laura Hoptman was the senior curator at the New Museum and is now the curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Her focus is contemporary art. In the interview that follows, you will learn more about what she looks for and how she finds artists.
The aspect of talking to curators that I would emphasize most is discussing your ideas—not necessarily your art, but the ideas or impulses behind your art. That will allow a curator to understand and interpret your work in a cultural context, and it will also make for interesting conversation. Here is the interview with Laura Hoptman.
Cariey: I’d like to begin by asking a little bit about your beginning in the art world. Where do you first remember becoming interested in either of the arts or in curating?
Hoptman: Well, I’m kind of a special case because I’ve wanted to be a museum curator ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in Washington DC and we spent our weekends at the museums. I can remember when I was about four my mother did an art show in the backyard and I watched it. So it’s just something that was part of my DNA from very, very early on.
Carey: What was the show that your mother did in the backyard?
Hoptman: We had a neighbor who is a painter and I remember her nailing the paintings to the pine trees in the backyard. I mean, we had a very culturally interested, if not sophisticated family, and our thing was art and we went to the museums all the time. That was something that I always wanted to do and I focused all my energies as a young person on art.
Carey: And what was the first curatorial work that you did? Was it something as out of the box as nailing paintings to trees? I love that!
Hoptman: I went to graduate school in New York City, but before I went to graduate school I worked in film and video on the Lower East Side, actually right around the corner from where the New Museum is now, on Rivington Street, in a place called Film Video Arts.
So I started my art life in film, video, and performance. I also worked at a place called Franklin Furnace which was a performance and book archive. Then I needed some money, so I was a waitress at the same time. I went back to graduate school a year after I came to New York. I came to New York City in 1983 and I went back to graduate school for art history in 1984 and started my curatorial career in the midst of graduate school.
My first curatorial job was at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and for those who don’t know that place, it’s a museum of contemporary art that was founded in the late 1970s as part of the largest of the Johnson administration’s Great Society programs. It’s a place for emerging artists and I spent three years there, and I remember in my last year I made three hundred studio visits. Can you imagine? So it really started me, gave me a vocabulary, certainly, of the regional artists in the New York area.
Carey: Was that in the eighties when you were doing the studio visits?
Hoptman: Late 1980s, yes. In between, I also worked for Merce Cunningham, which was really interesting. I spent eighteen months with Merce because he was a dancer who was very involved in media in particular. So I worked at the film and video department there for a while. And I also did some time at the Whitney Museum in the film and video department, which at the time, actually, I really loved.
So I had a little bit of experience, but not in curatorial capacity. My first curatorial job was at the Bronx Museum and from there I went to MoMA, which was a quite strange experience but I was very lucky because I had this huge vocabulary of emerging artists and I went to an institution which at that time didn’t know anything about emerging artists.
At MoMA, I spent six years in the drawing department, and did a lot of exhibitions. And then I did the 2004-2005 Carnegie International,which took three years of my life. And I came home to New York. Then decided to return not to a big institution but to the New Museum, because the New Museum was opening a new building here on the Bowery and creating a whole new staff. It gave us an opportunity to sort of envision a new kind of contemporary art museum for New York. That’s my life in a nutshell.
Carey: But you’ve been between several mediums. You were the drawing curator at MoMA and it sounds like before then, you were focused a lot on video and film.
Hoptman: I focused a lot on performance first, then video and film. Not because I liked it but because that was where I could get a job and it was super interesting for me. I’m just very lucky that I have been active in an era in contemporary art where that kind of division between mediums doesn’t necessarily have to dictate what you do in your life.
I worked in the film and video department at the Whitney but a few years after I worked there they dissolved that department altogether. So that there’s no kind of apartheid now between media in museums like the Whitney Museum. And even the MoMA, which is famous for its divisions. I was a drawing curator and learned about drawing, but I did a lot of exhibitions that were all kinds of different mediums.
I did the retrospective of the artist Yayoi Kusama, who’s a great, great person but a magnificent painter, performer, and filmmaker. I did a show called Drawing Now which included the work of—I think I had something like twenty-four artists. There were eight sections and they were wonderful, they are wonderful artists but most of them are probably not known just as drawing people.
There was, I don’t know, Elizabeth Paton, John Currin, the sort of heavy hitter figurative painters of my generation were in that show. You can think of it more as an exhibition of drawing but really coming from the vocabulary of people who are painters—not exclusively, but most of them.