Greenwich Art Society, Greenwich CT

A Conversation with Dede Young,

Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College.

Dede chose the works included in Greenwich Art Society’s 90th Annual Juried Art Exhibition.

Shauna: First I’d like to hear about you and what attracted you to this profession.  What made you decide to become a curator?  Was there a “moment of Ah Ha!”  That’s what I want to do with my life?  Or was it something that evolved over time? 

Dede Young Photo
Dede Young

Dede: My interest in curating evolved over time.  I was an artist earning my living from my work as a painter.  When I decided to go to grad school to earn an MA in Art History rather than going back for an MFA, I suppose I was beginning to consider a new direction in my career, but it was not clear at the outset of grad school.  I used those years of studying to become more deeply rooted in the arts and to expand my base of knowledge to encompass more world culture.  I did not hold a clear thought about the future and the exact way in which I would utilize my degree.  But, from an early age I wanted to be in the visual arts.  That said, when I first walked through the doors of the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where I had lived for over a decade and had earned my masters, I had a bit of an ‘Ah Ha!,”  and I said silently “Imagine yourself coming to work here everyday.”  I was so thrilled that this amazing new museum had been built on the UF campus that I instantly wanted to be involved with it in some way.

Shauna: What have you found to be satisfying and fulfilling about your job?  Frustrating?  Fun?

Dede: It is enormously and endlessly satisfying to work with living artists.  I also love objects, and I enjoy research.  Building a museum collection, which is a big part of my job, is truly fulfilling, and it also provides a social involvement with artists, gallery owners, and collectors that can, at times, be fun.  Going to art fairs in major cities to do research often has an aspect of fun because the venue is a concentrated capsule that everyone works very hard to take advantage of; and though the days are long and often ‘too much to do,’ I have fun running around looking at collections, exhibitions, and all the art fair venues with literally thousands of objects of all types on view, and I meet many new people with whom I can talk about art.  I love promoting what the Neuberger Museum of Art does, so its fun to talk about it with new people, and these conversations have helped garner gifts to the collection, so that is very satisfying.  Frustrations that seem inherent in the profession of a curator include “So much art, so little time!”  I cannot get out to see ‘everything,’ and so I have to manage my time very carefully.  It is important that I am as visually literate as possible and thus frustrating to say no to artists who want me to visit their studios or meet them at their exhibitions to talk.  There are many more requests for my input than I can manage and still do the rest of the job.

Shauna: What do you love about visual art?
Dede: What’s not to love?  Artists tell us about our world.  Art speaks a language that is so beautiful and that can run the gamut from deeply profound to funny.  The human spirit resides in the creativity of the artist, and there is nothing not to embrace about that!

Shauna: What are the elements involved in practicing your craft and how do you work at expanding and improving your skills? 
Dede: Well, my job description is a full two pages long, so I won’t go into detail on all the elements of my practice, but I will address a few.  It is important to be a good art historian with a deep knowledge of the critical writing pertaining to visual culture.  A curator must be able to garner time for lots of reading.  It is important to think creatively and critically about what exhibitions can be beyond the display of objects.  Thinking about a balanced exhibition schedule and developing exhibitions that fulfill the museum’s mission and vision of central importance to me every day.  Writing and speaking clearly and for the average reader or museum audience member is as important as having the confidence and skill to speak to the more specialized reader or audience, and the more one writes and speaks publicly the more expanded and improved those skills become.

Shauna: How would you describe an excellent curator?
Dede: When I see an exhibition that tells me something new and that is beautifully fleshed out—from conception to content to design and implementation—I say to myself ‘this is a curatorial success.’  Not every curator can do the greatest exhibition every time.   Even when the show is modest or I don’t like the art particularly, it can be excellent. 

Shauna: Describe the kinds of shows you have been asked to curate.  Were there any that were “peak experiences” for you?  Are there types or styles of shows that you really enjoy doing above all others?  If you could do a “dream show”, what would it be?

Dede: I am lucky in that I am not asked to curate, I curate.  I present ideas for exhibitions that I would like to curate, which are typically accepted by the director and then I secure a place for them in the exhibition schedule and work towards presentation.  There are several peak experiences, but in my years at the Neuberger I would say that working with Andy Goldsworthy, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Mike & Doug Starn and April Gornik were at the very top of my experience.  Each project brought entirely new challenges and with that a mix of anxiety and excitement.  All were vivid in a singular way.

I like to think about the ways in which we all are connected on this planet, so perhaps you could say that I like exhibitions that address that issue in some form.  I have no bias for one medium or another.  I like to be involved in the creation of new work, and giving an artist the opportunity to respond to the fabulous gallery space at the Neuberger and working to develop the exhibition that will ultimately open in that space is really engaging for me.  It is a fabulous to be able to offer an artist an exhibition that will encourage him or her to stretch and grow.  Some great moments come out of that, and sometimes some great art is made because I have the privilege of extending an open hand to an artist at a particular moment in their career that will make a profound difference for them.

Shauna: You will be selecting the works for our upcoming show at the Bendheim Gallery and will be confronted with (probably) over 200 works in diverse styles, media and content.  Somehow you will bring together a coherent show.   What are the issues you consider in choosing the limited number of works for such a show?  What are your options for the overall feel and style of the show?  What philosophies and aesthetic guide you in these choices?  Describe the process.

Dede: I have juried many regional exhibitions during my career, and it is almost always the case that the work submitted ‘tells me’ what the show must become.  It is a tough set of circumstances because the quality of the work may vary a great deal.  I don’t ever know in advance what will make a show such as this one ‘work,’ and I don’t actually expect it to become cohesive; that would be a bonus!  Cohesion may best occur when the submission guidelines dictate a theme, a medium or a size.  My guidelines for jurying include, but are not limited to the work reflecting what I think or feel the artist’s intention is.  The work should not seem apologetic – by this, I mean that it cannot appear unfinished. I can tell when an artist has rushed a result just to make a deadline, and I may not be inclined to reward that artist with inclusion.  I can be instructive in this way, letting the artist know that taking the time to do what you intend with your work is critical to its success.   When I was a practicing painter, I applied to many such exhibitions.  I know how it feels not to ‘get in’ and then to see the show and know my work was actually better than some of those I saw on view.  I would have to take stock and consider why my work was not right for the show, or whether the work I submitted was weak.  This critical thinking helped my art and helped me to grow.

Shauna: Is there anything that you think artists should know about curators and the work you do that would foster greater understanding between us?

Dede: Yes!  I am writing a book called “Practically Professional: An Emerging Artist’s Guide to the Real Art World,” in which this is addressed.  My biggest piece of advice here and now is: make good work and make excellent images to represent that work to professionals, such as myself, so that your work will resonate with the very visually literate professionals who will be the ones to truly help you get your work ‘out there’ and, hopefully, appreciated.



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