By Kaitlin Pomerantz and Meredith Sellers
Meredith Sellers/Kaitlin Pomerantz: What is the Incubation Series?
Ramey Mize: The Incubation Series is a student-led arts initiative developed by members of the Fine Arts and History of Art graduate programs at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jeff Katzin: I really love telling people about the Series by saying “Fine Art students do the art-making and Art History students do the curating.” The partnership immediately makes sense.
RM: Right! The Series aims to showcase the work of MFA students in focused, conceptually rigorous exhibitions and to provide Art History graduate students with the opportunity to expand their curatorial practices. Each academic year, the Incubation Series team produces several exhibitions throughout Philadelphia’s thriving art scene. Exhibitions include small publications and incorporate a variety of public programs, ranging from performances to screenings as well as artist/curator conversations.
MS/KP: How did the Series get started?
RM: The Incubation Series was established in 2015 by one MFA candidate (Keenan Bennett), two Art History MA students (Haely Yoon Chang and Kirsten Gill), and one Art History PhD candidate (Hilary R. Whitham). As no other formal apparatus existed to bridge the History of Art and Fine Arts programs, the founding members recognized the need for a valuable intellectual and professional development resource that forged a productive connection between the two departments while advancing their shared interests.
True to the program’s collaborative roots, the Incubation Series continues to be run jointly by both Fine Arts and Art History graduate students in a non-hierarchical, lateral leadership structure. I, for one, joined the program’s management team in 2016 and have really loved watching it grow. Over the past four years, our management committee has steadily increased, from four members in the inaugural year to twelve this year! I’m excited to see where things go from here, and I think the program will only continue to expand and improve.
MS/KP: How does curation fit into the practices of art historians, especially with contemporary artists? How does this enhance or complicate the academic experience of studying art history and how is it to work with artists after primarily confronting art and artists through academic study?
RM: I see curation as an essential aspect of art historical training because it offers students the illuminating challenge of working with real people, objects, and spaces in real time. Whether you study medieval manuscripts, nineteenth-century photography, or contemporary performance art, the chance to realize an exhibition concept from the ground up is invaluable. After all, your career as a curator, researcher, or educator will inevitably involve the navigation between people, objects, and spaces to some degree… And a seminar paper doesn’t necessarily give you that same kind of experience! Speaking with artists is similarly revelatory, and conducting studio visits is a fantastic way to hone one’s curatorial voice and vision. This type of in-depth engagement between art historians and artists also helps students to cultivate a better understanding for the fluid, ever-evolving nature of the creative process.
In another sense, I also believe it is extremely important for curators/art historians to continue to find creative strategies for building meaningful intersections between historical and contemporary art. For instance, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the oldest museum in the United States, has a rich historical American art collection as well as a robust contemporary focus. The curators responsible for each of those collections, Jodi Throckmorton (contemporary) and Anna Marley (historic), have made a commitment to staging provocative contrasts between the two, as is evident in the current exhibition, Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World. The show, featuring many of Banerjee’s combinatory and vibrant sculptures, installations, and works on paper, is installed in the Historic Landmark Building, amidst canonical eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art. This juxtaposition of Banerjee’s work, which highlights the profound legacies of colonialism and globalization, is mutually enriching with the historic material, weaving together past, present, and uncertain futures in exciting and challenging ways.
In this way, the Incubation Series offers scholars like me (I focus on nineteenth-century visual culture of war and conflict across the Americas) to gain some confidence and expertise in working with contemporary art and artists that I think will only enrich my curatorial vision and contributions for years to come.
MS/KP: What is it like to work with artists who are in such an exploratory, or unsteady, or maybe even questioning moment in their practice (as MFA students tend to be) and what do you think the role of the curator is within that particular moment in an artist’s trajectory and learning landscape?
JK: You could also say that MFA students are really productive! They’re constantly making new work and testing new directions. That’s inspiring to witness, even if it means that the work for each of our shows may not be ready until late in the going. But that’s not such a unique problem—last-minute additions and subtractions can happen behind the scenes at major museum shows too. With that in mind, as curators we’re happy to test our limits and see that we can do good work on a short timeline, knowing that we’re building an ability to work quickly (something you don’t necessarily gain from a multi-year dissertation project).
These circumstances don’t necessarily change a curator’s role all that much. In any situation, a curator should listen attentively, be open-minded and generous, and seek to bring out the best qualities in the work at hand. I hope that this approach helps our artists to identify and capitalize on their strengths. It certainly has facilitated rich and rewarding conversations with MFA students in their studios.
MS/KP: What will artists and curators take from this experience—or what have they already taken? What kind of opportunities does the Series offer to
JK: From the curatorial side, I think it’s crucial that we get to take on meaningful responsibility. We recognize that to be hired as a curator you need to already have been a curator—what a terrible catch-22! The Series gives us a chance to make our own opportunities and to bring them as far as our drive and creativity will carry. Along the way we learn all kinds of unexpected things. Curating, like writing, has no right answers and can be a lifelong pursuit. The chance to take the lead allows us to really develop our sensibilities for things like laying out a space or writing a show’s introduction.
It’s important that the artists we work with feel similarly empowered. They’re getting off campus, they’re not working with professors, and they’re in a situation that’s more flexible and less hierarchical than even what most galleries would offer. We truly value their input, and I hope that they come away from the Series with greater confidence in asserting themselves.
MS/KP: How do curators within the Series manage to choose and group artists without overlapping each other’s shows? How are these shows organized and how much say do participating artists have in aspects of this process, such as choosing a show title?
JK: When school starts back up each fall we organize studio visits with every second-year MFA student to get a sense of their current work. We then pool all of our notes together and gather for one of my favorite days of the year—a single (sometimes long) meeting in which we tease out the common threads among the artists and settle on exhibition groupings. It’s a very exciting time.
We always invite the MFA students to our meetings and make sure that at least a couple attend this big one to give their input. As for the process of each show, it’s up to individual curators. For my part, I’ve learned to talk to artists about the planning process as early as possible to see what they would like to be involved in. Some prefer that we emulate the kind of curatorial authority they expect to face in their later careers, while others prefer to take on a more active role.
MS/KP: Philly has a dearth of commercial galleries, and most of its artist-run spaces are precisely that: run by artists and not professional gallerists. Do you see this project—art historians/academics curating shows—as responding to this in some way?
RM: Absolutely. From the very beginning, the idea was to build connections between Penn and the rich network of artist-run spaces, galleries, and collectives across the city. The networking and community-building component is key to what we see as one of the benefits and goals of the program, and the collaborative model of artist-run collectives is in keeping with this spirit. I can use myself as an example—I curated my Incubation Series exhibition, “Traversals,” along with my co-curator, Naoko Adachi, in 2016, and we mounted the show at New Boon(e) in Old City (now closed). The dynamic of experimentation and openness that New Boon(e) fostered was incredibly enriching to our own process and experience in staging the exhibit, and we have continued to seek out this kind of partnership throughout the course of the program’s existence. We have had annual exhibitions at FJORD and AUTOMAT, for example, for the past three years, and some of the MFA candidates who came through the Incubation Series are now members (or have been) members at those collectives as well. It’s exciting to feel so embedded in Philadelphia’s nurturing and inspiring art environment!
MS/KP: Does this experience spark any ideas about alternative models of curation or art exhibition? Have you gained new insight into what it takes to operate a DIY gallery space in Philadelphia?
JK: In some of the broadest conversations we’ve had about the Series, I’ve realized that our greatest strength is our overall structure. Lots of schools have both studio art students and art history students, but it’s rare that the two groups come together, even though they share so many interests. When you do bring those two groups together, it’s surprisingly easy to do interesting, meaningful work! This has me thinking about other collaborative possibilities that go unnoticed, and modes of curation that emphasize collaboration and organizing just as much as conceiving themes or producing texts.
Now, I know that I just said that doing meaningful work can feel easy, but it’s always hard work too. We get to see firsthand the time, effort, and care that stand behind every gallery we work with. The expectation is pretty much always that an exhibition should come out looking sleek, clean, and effortless, but that hides a lot of labor that should be more visible. Everyone involved in mounting a show deserves to be recognized for what they put into it, and in our case that includes the artists and curators but also our liaisons at each gallery, administrators in the History of Art and Fine Arts departments, mentors at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and our funders in groups like the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. We have some wonderful partners.
MS/KP: How do you think the Incubation Series serves the larger Philadelphia art community?
RM: Because we are typically able to secure substantial grant-based funding from the University, we believe strongly in channeling those financial resources into the broader arts landscape of Philadelphia. In other words, we are able to pay rental fees to the venues we use for our exhibitions, and we love the fact that, in this way, we are able to contribute to local galleries managed by and for artists.
We are excited to continue growing our contributions to the larger art community by extending our mission beyond the confines of our own university. Philadelphia boasts an extraordinarily rich array of graduate programs devoted to arts education, and we believe that the Incubation Series is well-positioned to function as a connective hub for individuals across these institutions. It is our hope that we can begin to build more sustained citywide partnerships beginning this spring, ideally even stimulating similar graduate-level curatorial programs at other institutions. The long-term goal is to collectively host exhibitions in the city, with artists and curators collaborating across universities.
Ramey Mize is a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. From Atlanta, Georgia, she holds a BA in Art History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. The majority of her research and publications to date examine the intersection of nineteenth-century visual culture, war, and landscape across Europe and the Americas. Previously, she worked as the Anne Lunder Leland Curatorial Fellow at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine; most recently, she co-curated the exhibition “The World is Following Its People”: Indigenous Art and Arctic Ecology at the University of Delaware’s Old College Gallery. Since 2016, she has served as a managing curator of the Incubation Series, a student-run curatorial collective at Penn.
Jeffrey Katzin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, currently working on a dissertation project concerning the history and potential of abstract photography. From Cleveland, Ohio, he specializes in the modern and contemporary art of the United States, with his research ranging from photography to painting, film, and video art. He is particularly interested in abstract art and its capacities to convey political, philosophical, and personal meaning. Jeffrey received a double BA in art history and government from Wesleyan University and an MA in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. He has served as a managing curator of the Incubation Series since 2016 and curated three of the Series’ exhibitions, most recently Close to Home at High Tide Gallery in October 2018.