Here are interviews with important figures in the art world to demystify their process: artist and curator Michelle Grabner, critic Arthur Danto, art consultant Todd Levin, and artist Allard Van Hoorn.
The first artist is Michelle Grabner, who I mentioned earlier in the book as having a career as an artist and teacher as well as a curator. In the interview that follows, she unfolds her career and what it took to build it all. Her special projects that I only briefly mentioned earlier, like the The Suburban and the The Poor Farm are especially worth noting, as you could, of course, do something similar.
Carey: What are you working on now? What’s happening in your studio at the moment?
Grabner: A very big project. It’s a solo exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art which will open soon. So getting work together—it’s going to range from all the past work to the present.
Carey: So is this a survey of your work?
Grabner: It’s not a true survey. But it really is still focusing on the newer installation, some of the paper weaving projects that I’ve been doing. So it does run the gamut, but there are three very big rooms to fill. Then, there’s some new work that has been commissioned for this as well.
Carey: And so, how are you filling that space? I know that’s kind of intimidating but wonderful! How are you managing that?
Grabner: I’m working on a new hanging project, a new hanging piece. These sculptures that I call My Oyster. A curator asked me yesterday when I was on the phone with her, just what does My Oyster mean? Basically, “the world is my oyster.” It’s a sentiment of happiness. So that’s a new piece that I’m into. That would be at the entrance.
And then we’re moving to a gallery of paintings, and then we’ll have the long hall that will have a massive platform and very colorful paper weavings that I’ve been working on. Another new project for the Indianapolis Museum show is actually a series of photographs. So I’m really looking forward to that project. They’re being mounted right now. So that was something very specific to Indianapolis.
Carey: Let’s talk about where you came from—Oshkosh, Wisconsin. That affected how you began in all of these. Now you’re a painter and conceptual artist, and have done so many projects. I’d like to get to those soon, but what was it like growing up in Wisconsin? Oshkosh sounds like the quintessential town away from everything. What was that like?
Grabner: I have to say that everybody in my family, my uncles, my grandfather, my father, there’s a lot of vernacular art practice, or vernacular activities going on, whether it was wood carving or carving decoys or natural landscape. I mean something that wouldn’t be considered in the contemporary art world. But there were a lot of activities. So that kind of crafting, engagement in making things.
Carey: So how did you get to the Art Institute of Chicago?
Grabner: I always like to tell this story, especially to my students. I went to the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee for an undergraduate degree and then a graduate degree in art history. And when I wanted to get my masters, I wanted to go to the Art Institute, but I was never able to get into the Chicago Art Institute, and that is the department that I’m teaching in now. I have been the chair of the art department for four years, but it’s the school that wouldn’t let me in. I wasn’t good enough to get in when I was applying to school.
So this is how it is. You just have to be patient; it’s the story that many artists have.
Carey: Did you have supportive teachers early on?
Grabner: I had a really terrific high school art teacher. For three years, Mr. Perez was there for me and really supportive and could recognize some innate ability that one could have in terms of recording the world in front of you. And that was just supportive.
He reminded me or told me that you could go to school and actually get an art degree and that, I think, surprised me. So you know, I don’t think it’s a rare story, an unusual story, but Mr. Perez was there to inspire me through high school.
Carey: Sometimes it seems it can be a pivotal moment—how a high school teacher can have such a huge influence on someone’s life. That’s a story that I’ve heard from other artists, from people who were in the middle of nowhere who ended up in the Venice Biennial because, essentially, someone said in high school, “I think you should do this.”
Grabner: Exactly, it just opens up the world, and especially at that point in your development—young adulthood—when you think you know everything and you actually know nothing. And so you need somebody who is very inspirational to see.
Carey: I’m interested in what happened between getting your master’s degree and the first project which was The Suburban, right? Then The Poor Farm, correct?
Grabner: Right. The Suburban, which is now sixteen years old. That’s been going on for a while. I was raising two small kids, I had one when I was in graduate school. And I was trying to nurture and concentrate on developing an emerging practice. When you are in art school, as we know, it’s a bubble; it’s very different than when you step out into the real world and face these kind of forces and conditions that want to erode that kind of concentration, especially when you have a young family.
So we moved, and I was down here at Northwestern getting my masters of fine arts. We moved to Milwaukee just because it’s a smaller town, and I’m in a place where we could feel like we were dedicating ourselves—I say we, because my husband is also an artist—dedicating ourselves to a work habit. Evolving a vocabulary that was more true to our lives at that time.
We did that and then I started doing a lot of critical writing when I was in Milwaukee, too. I went to grad school, my husband went to grad school, and so there wasn’t that much language or discourse happening in Milwaukee. So we’d come down to Milwaukee quite a bit and start to curate at the museum, it was just a smaller city, so it enabled us . . .
Carey: I’m sorry to interrupt you. But exactly, how did you do that? What were you writing for and what did you curate?