The following post is part of a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
I sat down for coffee last week with Elizabeth Ferrer. Elizabeth is the Vice President of Contemporary Art at BRIC, one of the art world's most pioneering and multi-disciplinary non-profits. So, what is the single most important thing for emerging artists to do? Elizabeth described it as finding your voice. She advised emerging artists to ask the hard questions, such as "why do you want to be an artist and what do you want to say with your work?"
Since 1979, BRIC has offered a platform for artists to share their work and a way for the public in NYC to access a diverse and groundbreaking arts program. In her role, Elizabeth oversees BRIC's pioneering curatorial program.
Brett Wallace: What inspired you to start following art?
Elizabeth Ferrer: I started to get involved with photography while I was in high school, but over time, I realized that I didn’t have the temperament to be an artist. I was later encouraged by one of my college professors to begin writing about art and I was lucky to get freelance work writing reviews for an alternative newspaper in Los Angeles, where I grew up. This helped me to focus in on a career path. I switched from a studio major to art history, with a focus on the Italian Renaissance, discovered the world of museums and curating, and I was on my way.
BW: What led you to contemporary art?
EF: I made another big realization while I was in graduate school - a Renaissance art scholar doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to curate shows over the course of a career. By this time I was living in New York and discovered the contemporary art world. This was in the 1980s when SoHo was in its heyday, and I spent a lot of Saturdays going from gallery to gallery – places like Sonnabend, Mary Boone, Castellli. The whole East Village gallery scene was also emerging. There was just an incredible amount to see and I wanted to be a part of it.
BW: How has the art world changed since you started following it?
EF: The art world is much, much larger today; indeed, I’d say that there are multiple art worlds. It's more complicated for artists to make it today because it's harder for them to identify where they fit in, to find an authentic voice, and to find a community of support. But, there are also a lot more opportunities out there. I think it’s important for young artists find a network and be part of it, really participate, attend, and engage in what’s around you.
BW: As one of the art world’s top curators, what advice do you have for emerging artists?
EF: More than anything, you need to know yourself. Why do you want to be an artist and what do you want to say with your work? How will you distinguish it from all the other work you see out there? These can be hard questions; I think it’s a process that can take time to answer. It's also critical to develop your technique. Whatever form your art takes - whether it's an object, a performance, or something that exists in the virtual world, it should be well thought out and well crafted. As an art historian, I’d also say, know your art history – know who came before you.
On the practical side, this is really basic, but I also think that marketing is important. You need a good website; you need high-quality photos of your work. My first introduction to many artists has been via their website, and it’s frustrating when you go to a site that’s badly organized, or never updated.
BW: This is an incredible new building we're in. Tell us about the new space, BRIC Arts Media House.
EF: Our new facility is located in downtown Brooklyn and includes the Ballroom, a performance space for up to 400 persons equipped with the technology to accommodate a wide variety of performance styles, a flexible Artist Studio that provides short-term residencies for both performing and visual artists; the Gallery, which has about 3,000-square-feet of space; a Project Room for BRIC’s emerging curator program and for smaller curatorial projects; and a state-of-the-art public access television center, media lab and editing suites. One of my favorite features of the building is a monumental, interior Stoop, a cultural gathering space facing the gallery which is the site of frequent free programs.
BW: What is an example of a recent project in the new space?
EF: WOW (Work in Progress) was a project staged earlier this year that leveraged our space as a laboratory for a multi-layered experience. WOW is an experimental opera based on the tragic career of Milli Vanilli, a manufactured German pop duo whose spectacular rise and fall can be seen as tragically operatic.
To create the opera, three Brooklyn based artists worked across disciplines – musical composition (Joe Diebes), poetry (Christian Hawkey) and theater (David Levine). In an experimental opera setting, the work re-imagines the repetition of the CD-skip moment that started the precipitous downfall of Milli Vanilli's career. The performances used all of our program facilities including the Gallery, which acted as both a stage set and a real gallery show.
BW: What is your vision as a curator?
EF: My vision has been consistent over the years - I'm focused on creating rigorously curated, yet accessible exhibitions. I’ve also always been motivated to work with younger or lesser-known artists; I feel that one responsibility curators have is to introduce the work of figures who have yet to receive exposure or critical recognition.
I’m also increasingly interested in interdisciplinary shows that that have an interactive element, or that demonstrate the ways artists are working with an array of media and formats.
BW: What is your next major project?
EF: On September 19 we are launching a major new initiative, the BRIC Biennial. The first edition of the biennial will focus on artists based in downtown Brooklyn and nearby neighborhoods, and will present the work of 27 emerging and mid-career visual artists working in numerous artistic media.
BW: What one thing you want people to remember about art from this post?
EF: Having the opportunity to look at art, make art, or work with artists – it’s all a real gift. Developing an eye for art will help expand your world view, and compel you to see the world in fresh ways.