Expansively Blending Disciplines Through Sharing, Thinking Artistically, and Joy
One of my first art memories was when my parents took me to the Getty Villa in Malibu, I was about four years old. I was enchanted by it and I told my parents that I wanted to live there. They explained to me that if I lived there, my toys would be everywhere, I would not be able to touch anything, and that museums are places where we can share beautiful things with a wide group of people, something that is not possible within a home. I loved that idea of a museum being a place to share with strangers and to connect over beauty (of course a museum is much more complex than this, but sharing is an important concept to teach a four-year-old, and I am sharing this idea from the mind of a four-year-old Diana). This is when I thought about possibly working in a museum one day. However, my singular dream from my earliest memories, that I worked toward until I was 18 years old, was to be a classical ballerina. While that dream failed, I am able to work with some of my favorite choreographers as a curator so I now see this as a dream transformed.
I got into curating by accident—opportunity met preparation but outside of the formal channels. I was friends with a lot of artists in my private life, interested in and studied art (in addition to math-track economics, finance, and Chinese language and culture), and worked in the art world in various capacities after leaving my first job in finance in my early 20s where, among other companies, I covered Sotheby’s as a publicly traded company for JPMorgan. But when I was 25 years old, I got lucky. After an artist did not finish his summer show in time for Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, New York, its then director Eric Gleason invited me to curate my first show in the gallery. That was in 2010 and it opened up a world of opportunities. Also, Eric met his now wife during the show’s opening, so that experience has made a larger impact on our lives than either of us imagined.
Building teams and normalizing joy as a value. My maternal family is from Guam—one of the most geographically hard to reach places on the planet—so connecting with “faraway places,” across extremely different dates and timelines, and connecting how cultures deal with time is something I’ve been doing as early as I can imagine, even without traveling all the time. We, like many diasporas, were forced to use remote means to maintain our connections to each other. I see all of my projects as beads in a single necklace (or maybe flowers in a garland), they reinforce each other. I am not able to focus on one thing at once. Rather than seeing that as a weakness, I see it as a strength as I can look expansively across many things and connect them in a unique way. I am good at building teams that support each other, so the process feels smoother than it looks on the surface. And having fun in the process is a core value, not to say that it is always fun, but joy is underrated as a value and I try to create moments of joy for everyone who I work with.
Critical thinking outside of the exhibition space as a drive. I like art because it is a place where the injustices of the world do not have to hold. It is a place where the “limits of reality” dissolve and other worlds are possible. To experience these alternative realities and open up possibilities for critical thinking outside of the exhibition space is what drives me about curating. In the words of Marcel Broodthaers, art is a place that “enables you to grasp both reality and at the same time those things that reality hides.” Broodthaers also said, “museums should help people distrust the signs they see in every day life.” I have used the word “museum” many times in this interview, so I should clarify that while with the Samdani Art Foundation I am developing a permanent art space with a collection—Srihatta, the Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture park in Sylhet, Bangladesh—which technically makes it a museum, I refute that word in my curatorial practice.
Breaking the limitations of the museum model. I’m trying to think of a new more inclusive and open model that does not connote the elitism or colonialism that clings onto that word due to how museums were historically operated. The word museum is too simple to translate into a context like Bangladesh and will leave more people out than what another more sensitive word could potentially draw in. The beauty of the word ‘summit’ as in the Dhaka Art Summit is that it can mean anything—even just the top of a mountain—and the festival is not bound by its form. It is becoming increasingly popular and a fixture in Bangladesh’s calendar—we welcomed around 500,000 visitors in 9 days, in February 2020. I’m excited about the next edition in 2023, which will draw its thematics from a word in Bangla for the first time (announcement coming up). It will give our team of art educators and mediators a more central role in the show’s planning, through collaborations during the curatorial process.
I don’t think that I am bridging the US and South Asia because I do not see the world in geographic boxes like that. My great-grandmother was a subject of the USA, Spain, and Japan all within her lifetime without leaving Guam. Our CHamoru food has spices from Mexico due to the Acapulco Galleon route, and my first language—due to life circumstances outside of my cultural or genetic DNA—was Spanish. I live in Belgium within a Brazilian community while working with a Bangladeshi team and grounding my thinking in Bangladesh, where I spent a significant time in before the pandemic and where I look forward to again spending significant time. My minor in University was Chinese Language and Culture, so the reference points are all over the place when it comes to language, culture, and geography.
Anecdotes are better told in person. Since you are asking me to share an anecdote of something tough that happened during an exhibition and which resulted in a better relationship with the team and/or the artist(s) afterwards—I would just say that I welcome anyone to ask me this over a drink and I’ll entertain you for hours.
How can curators be relevant today? By stopping doing things for each other and rather think of the impact they could have on civil society—without instrumentalizing the artworks—and also on artists’ careers. Opportunities for artists should be more distributed in a time when opportunities for emerging artists are more and more limited.
My secret weapon when it comes to curating is that I speed-read and absorb a wide range of references in my many hours reading. A friend refers to this as a “sponge-like” quality I have.
Thinking Artistically. All types of arts, music, theater, design, furniture… are important for me. I am interested in artistic practices that bleed across disciplines, even entrepreneurial practices that I feel employ “artistic thinking.”
I feel at home when I am around certain people who constitute what home means for me. Luckily many of these people live in Dhaka and in Brussels, otherwise I’d be homesick all the time.
My go-to piece of clothing or sartorial statement is anything with animals chasing each other—a strange recurring pattern in my wardrobe without being intentional—I wonder what that means…
To chill I play music and sing and dance along with friends at home—an activity that does not allow you to talk at all about work or take yourself seriously.
One of my favorite food is spaghetti vongole. The Hotel Villaggio in Stromboli has excellent vongole, but I am also lucky that one of the people closest to my heart has made memorable vongole meals for me while also teaching me that you need to trick the clams into thinking it is night-time by covering the bowl. This is very cruel, and why I cannot cook vongole myself, but I like eating it too much to give it up.
The book that still haunts me is the “Nutmeg’s Curse” by Amitav Ghosh. I finished it about a month ago and I come back to it nearly every day. It links climate change with Western colonialism through a myriad of references that begin with Banda island and the genocide that occurred over the Dutch trying to control the trade of the nutmeg spice. And you find Guam and Bangladesh referenced in there too. I added it again to a new list of reading material in preparation for the site-specific international exhibition DesertX 2023 in Palm Springs, which I am co-curating with its Artistic Director, Neville Wakefield. We are linking how one lives at the edges of climate extremes: drought and flood.
If I could change something in the art world with a magic wand, I would eradicate class-based barrier to entry—a major problem that needs to be discussed alongside race.
If I wasn’t curating I would be an architect or architecture historian.
Founding Artistic Director of the Samdani Art Foundation
Diana Campbell (Los Angeles, 1984) is a Princeton educated American curator who has been working in South and Southeast Asia since 2010, primarily in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Since 2013, she has served as the Founding Artistic Director of Dhaka-based Samdani Art Foundation, Bangladesh and Chief Curator of the Dhaka Art Summit, leading the critically acclaimed 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020 and upcoming 2023 editions. Campbell has developed the Dhaka Art Summit into a leading research and exhibitions platform for art from South Asia, bringing together artists, architects, curators, and writers from across South Asia through a largely commission based model where new work and exhibitions are born in Bangladesh, also adding a scholarly element to the platform with a think tank connecting modern art histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia in collaboration with the Getty Foundation, Cornell University Center for Comparative Modernities, the Asia Art Archive, and the Samdani Art Foundation. In addition to her exhibitions making practice, Campbell is responsible for developing the Samdani Art Foundation collection and drives its international collaborations ahead of opening the foundation’s permanent home, Srihatta, the Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park in Sylhet. Concurrent to her work in Bangladesh from 2016-2018, Campbell Betancourt was also the Founding Artistic Director of Bellas Artes Projects in the Philippines, a non-profit international residency and exhibition programme with sites in Manila and Bataan, and curated Frieze Projects in London for the 2018 and 2019 editions of the fair. She chairs the board of the Mumbai Art Room. Her writing has been published by Mousse, Frieze, Art in America, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) among others. She will be co-curating DesertX 2023 with its Artistic Director, Neville Wakefield.