Interview: Virginia Rutledge
by Wendy Vogel
The 2011 edition of the Texas Biennial is just around the corner. Exhibitions and events will be presented in venues across Texas from April 9 to May 14, with opening events scheduled in Austin on April 15 and 16. …might be good caught up with the New York-based art historian and art lawyer Virginia Rutledge, curator of the Texas Biennial, to discuss its role as a platform for presenting how contemporary art lives and thrives statewide.
The Texas Biennial has also collaborated with the online platform Glasstire to produce a calendar of events, and with the journal Art Lies on its catalogue. To complement the printed Biennial catalogue, thematic essays commissioned by Art Lies will appear as downloadable PDFs on its website throughout the run of the show. We can’t wait to see the shows and read along!
…mbg: How did you become involved with the Texas Biennial?
VR: I heard about the Biennial first through a friend, the Los Angeles-based curator and critic Michael Duncan, who curated the exhibition in 2009. I didn’t get a chance to see that edition of the show, but really loved the energy of the catalog. When the Biennial asked Michael for suggestions for others to continue exploring from the perspective of a single curator coming from outside the state, I was delighted to be invited. And it has been terrific that the Biennial was enthused by my proposals to expand the project in as many different collaborative directions as possible, because that is the kind of work I most enjoy, no matter the field.
…mbg: Can you talk about how this iteration of the Texas Biennial will differ from previous editions?
VR: For 2011 the Biennial retains the distributed model it has had from its beginning – many simultaneous venues for one exhibition. But this year the Biennial is partnering with nonprofit arts organizations in Houston and San Antonio as well as Austin. And in Austin, we’re also exhibiting work in an unusual range of alternative spaces: unused commercial office space at 816 Congress, a vacant house at 1319 Rosewood Ave., and the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport!
The most significant difference, though, is probably that this year, the project has reached out to arts organizations across the entire state, inviting them to join with their independent programming.
The idea here was to help focus attention on the infrastructure that allows contemporary art to be visible and to thrive in Texas. One of the reasons I am so excited to do this project is because there is such a dynamic and diverse contemporary visual arts scene here. Inviting arts organizations to participate with their own programming is a way to recognize their crucial role in the visual arts ecosystem. We chose to test this idea by starting with just nonprofit organizations and some artist collectives, and the response has been incredible. The more than 60 participating organizations across the state being celebrated under the Biennial banner are listed in the full page ad in the April issue of Texas Monthly, thanks to the of Texas Commission on the Arts. It was a kick to see my seatmate on a recent Southwest flight to Austin paging through the magazine and coming across that ad.
…mbg: How did this idea of inviting participating organizations come about? Did you have other models in mind?
VR: I have always been interested in organizational structures, information systems and collaborative models. As a lawyer I work with many artists, arts organizations, collectors and other supporters. Figuring out ways to make more culture happen with existing resources, and being involved in efforts to develop those resources is endlessly fascinating to me.
To be specific to the Biennial, I was intrigued by Michael’s expansion of the exhibition to include invited artists from the quadrants he carved out of the state. I took this as a gesture toward recognizing the literal breadth and width of Texas. But Michael also selected one “tribute artist,” the late Kelly Fearing, who influenced several generations of artists here. In a sense the 2009 Biennial already had an infrastructural perspective by incorporating recognition of art as a practice that is taught and learned, to great degree. Incorporating the system of art display seemed like a logical next move to me. Of course, commercial galleries are an important part of the ecosystem as well. That is a topic worthy of much further discussion.
And of course I was aware of the success of Fotofest, which has done an incredible job working with many partners to bring greater visibility to artists and the organizations that support them. One of the first people I talked to after deciding to take on the Biennial was Wendy Watriss, one of the founders of Fotofest. She was so encouraging, and I hope she is pleased to see Fotofest’s influence in the Biennial project.
…mbg: I think it is significant that the venues are not limited simply to organizations in Austin, even though that’s where the Biennial originated.
VR: That’s right. The Biennial was started by a group of artists and arts supporters based in Austin. And now it’s happening for the fourth time, which as I understand, it is something of a record for such efforts in Texas. Gumption can be great!
The venues in Houston and San Antonio came about because as we started talking with people about joining the project as a participating organization, some organizations actually said, “But we’d really rather host what you’re doing, it sounds wonderful.” Both BOX 13 ArtSpace and Blue Star Contemporary Art Center essentially insisted they become venues, and of course we’re delighted. I would hope that 2013 might see the Biennial explore other formats, and ideally involve other cities as well.
…mbg: What were the curatorial considerations for choosing artists for the exhibition?
VR: Well, an open-call submission process can be quite interesting. It provides some degree of access between artist and curator that may not have existed otherwise, and that is very good in and of itself, and often very exciting. But obviously curatorial selection is confined to the universe of those artists who self-select to apply. Fortunately, the universe was big and filled with creativity.
I was given the mandate to have no mandate, so I chose work based simply on my own response and the feeling that the work was offered because the artist wanted to be part of some conversation. In the end, the show I curated has many conversations going on, and I hope viewers will find themselves engaged with at least some of them.
…mbg: What do you think is a successful visit to the Texas Biennial?
VR: That is such a smart question. Clearly not everyone will go to every venue and every participating organization – and in a way that’s proof of concept! There is so much going on in Texas, it really isn’t possible to see or capture it all. But hopefully, by making the Biennial somewhat more visible in places where it may not have been as well known before, some new audience will be made aware of the larger project. If that leads someone to visit the Biennial website and discover even one new artist, I think that’s something significant.
Wendy Vogel is the Editor of ...might be good.