A Warning to Young Artists: Don't Peak Too Soon

This post is part of a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

Michelle Grabner is an art world luminary with a multi-faceted career spanning artist, curator, critic and professor. She has had quite the year.
Earlier this year, she co-curated the 77th edition of the Whitney Biennial and her work was exhibited in a 20 year survey at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. She also continued to work in her roles as a Professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a curator of The Suburban (est. 1999), an artist project space in Oak Park, IL and a practicing artist. I caught up with Michelle to discuss the many roles she plays as a leader in the art world and how she balances it all.

Brett Wallace: What’s the best leadership advice you have ever received? And, what advice would you have for emerging artists?

Michelle Grabner: I would remind artists that it is wholly up to them to build their own narrative, but that their narrative is only interesting once you have many years of experience behind you. As Bill Arning sagely told me when I was a young artist, shoot to have your first major exhibition when you are 60 years old. 

BW: What first attracted you to the art world? And, specifically to contemporary art? 

MG: Contemporary art presented itself to me when I was a sophomore in college who jumped on a Department of Art sponsored bus from Milwaukee to NYC on spring break. 

BW: How has the art world changed since you were in school in the 1980’s, at the peak of postmodernism? 

MG: Ha! Everything! But perhaps the most impacting change is simply demographics. Who doesn't participate in cultural production? Unfortunately, fewer artists today are invested in critique. The other paradigm shift is that most artists in the 80s and 90s who actively participated in the commercial world were uneasy about that relationship, fearful of selling out. Today, artists are afraid that if they are not participating in rigorous commerce then they are not engaged in discourse. 

BW: What led you and your husband, artist Brad Killam, to come up with the idea to create The Suburban, the forward-thinking artist run project space in your Oak Park, Illinois backyard?

MG: We were a young, poor family without the mobility that one needs to gain influence so we decided to invite the artworld to visit us in the Chicago suburb. Oak Park is conveniently located between the MDW and ORD airports.

Image courtesy of the thesuburban.org

Image courtesy of the thesuburban.org

BW: The Poor Farm is a more recent venture you started in 2008 as a non-profit art space and residency. What inspired you to create this avante-garde artist destination? 

No longer young and less poor, we started valuing the difference of time and space that comes with both a suburban and a rural life. Once we established a studio in Wisconsin it was obvious that we would also make a space for artists in that landscape.

Image courtesy of poorfarmexperiment.org

Image courtesy of poorfarmexperiment.org

BW: You are the first artist to co-curate the Whitney Biennial. What was your curatorial vision?

MG: I wanted to curate a Biennial that other artists would appreciate.

BW: What was your most memorable experience from the show? What was more challenging than you expected? What leadership skills did you leverage in the process? 

MG: It was an extraordinary education. And only a very little bit of it was actually fun. Yet I would do it again at the drop of a hat. The most difficult idea for me to overcome was that the process of curating a Biennial would not be fair and just. 

And to answer your leadership question: I am an organized person so that was clearly a valuable asset in working with the 53 artists that I invited. But not knowing the integral workings of the institution put me at a disadvantage. However, my colleagues, Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer are professional curators who have worked on institutional installations and were masterful at the political aspects of the job. 

BW: How are the roles and definitions of artist, teacher, curator changing in the art world? 

MG: As we know, artists are being told that they need to be all these things, often at the detriment to art. It worked for me because I am profoundly curious and a pretty good multi-tasker. But it is not a career strategy, instead it is a homespun approach to self-long learning. 

BW: What are you currently working on in the studio?

MG: Thanks for asking. I am delighted to be back in the studio working on my exhibition that will open in early October at the James Cohan Gallery in NYC. I am also happily penning a few catalog essays. 

Image courtesy of michellegrabner.com. Work from Home, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland.

Image courtesy of michellegrabner.com. Work from Home, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland.

BW: How do you manage your energy and time across your professional and personal lives? 

MG: My profound sense of responsibility to my art and to other artists makes finding energy and time easy. Again it is not always fun, but I am always learning something.