In the Case of In That Case: A Curator Chat

In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art Helena Keeffe and Jessica Prentice 
Photo by Johnna Arnold.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum's (CJM) Associate Curator Lily Siegel and Curatorial Associate Claire Frost sat down to discuss working with artists and looking at contemporary art. In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art is an ongoing exhibition program at The CJM that encourages learning through fellowship for Bay Area artists, established professionals, museum staff, and the entire CJM community.  

Claire Frost (CF): I’m curious about whether it’s been different for you working with artists here than it has been in other spaces or whether it’s more based on your interaction with the artist.

Lily Siegel (LS): I think what matters most is the situation and not the institution. As a representative of the institution, the most important thing is to say, “yes,” to artists and to try to make their vision a reality. And of course that’s not always possible. I feel very proud being here at The CJM and working with artists and paying them for their work and being able to give them both the intellectual and material support that they need to make their projects happen. I know that though most museums strive for that level, it’s not always possible, so I think that that’s one great thing that we’ve been doing here.

Here in San Francisco we’re used to seeing so many young creative people able to make a living based on their craft, in the tech world or in the start-up industry. We have chosen as professionals to go into a not-for-profit institution, which means much of what we do is for the pleasure it gives us, not the pay. So, when we are able to give—even if it’s just a little token of support—it feels right; it’s important to show that there is some level of sustainability in the arts. In Havruta we pay the collaborators and artists; because of that we’re able to invite people from all different sectors and support scholarship and creativity not only in the visual arts.

CF: We are expanding our reach of who is benefitting from the resources of a medium-sized institution.
In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art
Helena Keeffe and Jessica Prentice
Photo by Johnna Arnold.

LS: You’ve had some of your first experiences working with artists. How has it gone?

CF: I love the way that most artists are able to bring ideas together that often seem very interdisciplinary in a seamless way. Working with living artists is also a fun puzzle in terms of figuring out how to work with someone and their personalities; figuring out what they need; and how best to facilitate that. The situation in which you’re working with the artist also varies, from a big gallery show to In That Case. And especially in the case of In That Case, when they’re working with the collaborator, it really changes conversations that are happening. When you’re working with a single artist on their exhibition, it’s more one way between you and the artist, and when the artist is working with the collaborator, much more of the conversation is happening between the artist and their collaborator; you just kind of poke your head in and figure out where you can facilitate. 

LS: One part of our jobs in working with artists is also serving as translator from artist to audience. Contemporary art can be scary and difficult for a lot of people, and not necessarily something one expects to encounter here at The CJM. Part of the curator’s responsibility is then translating what we are thinking and what the artists are thinking back to the audience. We’ve thought a lot about In That Case and how to contextualize that—share both the Jewish tradition, as well as, make people think about how that can be applied to the arts, and to contemporary conversations. What do you think is most helpful when you’re first presenting an artist’s work to an unknowing public—what is your first point of entry, usually?

CF: For me personally, or the point of entry that I think is most helpful for the audience?

LS: Both!

CF: Usually I just start with what excites me because if I can get excited about it then I can talk about it in an exciting way and get other people excited about it. I think that when you can find the stories that are a part of a work or an exhibition or a project that bring a kind of narrative into play with an object, that really helps me and it helps other people find meaning in these things that seem really oblique otherwise. How about you?

LS: Well I was thinking about a talk that I recently watched about contemporary art and about how it’s really still about looking. I think people are so afraid to just look at contemporary art.

So, my first approach is looking and spending time with the work. You have to allow yourself to have the thoughts that you have and not be afraid that what you’re thinking is wrong. Ask questions of yourself, and of the artwork. We, as curators, are lucky enough to have access to the artists of the art. We can ask a question as simple as, “what are you doing?” You know you can start there: “what do you see?” “Why did you choose red instead of green?” And I think that just allowing yourself to go through that thought process can lead to a lot more insight than one usually thinks.

CF: Yeah! I was really excited about how we hardly used any labels in J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch for that reason. All the section texts are actually Jim Seibold’s words explaining his thought process, and then its just illustrations from the books without any labels. I’m hoping that people can look at them and create their own narratives surrounding them, and dive in without thinking too much about what we have to say about them, especially because of the immersive environments that are in this space, so people can feel at home in the work, and also in their own thoughts without too much interruption.
Installation shot of J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch.
Photo by Johnna Arnold.
Installation shot of J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch.
Photo by Johnna Arnold.

Installation shot of J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch.
Photo by Johnna Arnold.

LS: That’s a great thing to bring up too because you watch all these kids in the exhibition and they’re not afraid to say what they’re thinking or pay attention to a squiggle instead of a dog, and think about what that means, and let their imaginations go and I think that’s a really important part of looking at art that we tend to lose as we get older—that freedom to be curious. Going back to In That Case and havruta: I think that’s what we’re asking of our artists and collaborators—to go back to their curiosity and let go and explore areas that they wouldn’t otherwise allow themselves to explore.

CF: I had a great conversation with Helena Keeffe about this because for her it was really a unique experience to work with a collaborator and navigate that different space, to leave room for somebody else’s ideas. But, she was talking about being in the studio and just starting to work and just making what came to mind. She was actually speaking to the fact that it was really hard for her to trust that kind of organic creativity; she’s much more of a planner and a thinker. I know I often have trouble trusting my intuitions—so to hear an artist who I often think of as someone who that comes very naturally to, her grappling with that was really interesting.

LS: Yeah, that is! I’m glad that that is happening, and I think that means that it’s successful!


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