Making the Difference between Being a Curator and Working as one

Ilaria Conti. Photography Daria Paladino

Tortellini as early art memories. One of my earliest memories is making homemade pasta—tortellini, to be precise—with my grandmother. I have a very clear image in my mind of the little glass cup usually used for coffee being employed as a pasta cutter, and then of the folding process that led to a perfect little tortellino. I do not have other memories of my grandmother, as she passed away when I was very young. But I remember her knobby hands, shaped by decades of work as a farmer. It is quite a non-extraordinary memory, but it condenses the care of her gesture, the hours of work put into nourishing her loved ones, and her commitment toward creating a communal gathering through food. In its details I see so much of what has shaped me as a person and what grounds my values and life today personally, politically, professionally. 

Choose how you spend your time. I was always interested in art, but the encounter with contemporary art came in my university years. I somehow then knew I wanted to be a curator. My understanding of what curatorship is and my priorities within it, have radically shifted since those early days. I have come to realize that what fuels my interest in curating is the possibility to advance critical thinking and social justice, and challenge how we understand ourselves and what surrounds us. I have learned to listen to this urgency and follow it. Similarly, when doing a studio visit with an artist, my first question is always “What is your urgency?”. I am aware that time is limited, and we have to choose carefully how to spend it. I continue to choose curating because of its ability to advance social justice through thinking that is at once critical and creative.

What drives me the most about curating is the awareness that the hegemonies that structure our societies and lives are the result of worldviews, which have been imposed and calcified over time. We cannot step outside of them, but we can know that they are fictional and try to hack them from within. Breaking the boundaries of these epistemic horizons and doing so by making space for creative practices—which are capable of bypassing the “intellect” and open up to embodied forms of sensing, feeling, thinking—is what I want to pursue through my projects. I wholeheartedly believe in the liberation and empowerment that can be created when multiple worldviews and epistemologies coexist and interact. My curating is an attempt at making ground for such multiplicity, and at doing so ethically. 

Most recently, I have been working in this direction through a long-term residency and curatorial collaboration with La Nueva Fábrica, a nonprofit art space in Antigua, Guatemala, which has welcomed me and humbled me in ways that have transformed me. Similarly, I am working on a project focused on communal and decolonial practices in Abya Yala, to be presented in Paris later this year in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Thanks For Nothing. I have been working in this direction also through discursive series such as Pensiero Plurale (Plural Thinking), which is developed with New York/Hudson Valley-based nonprofit Magazzino and is meant to cultivate nuanced and complex understandings of the artistic conversations surrounding Italy (the country in which I was born, and with which I have a complex relationship). 

Opening conversation, Cosmopolis #2: Rethinking the Human, Centre Pompidou, Paris. With Cristina Chirouze Montengro, Benvenuto Chavajay, Sandra Monterroso, Adrián Balseca, Adriana Bustos, and Simón Vega. 2019.

I always care to specify that I am not a curator: I work as a curator. What I do through curating is labor—a process, in flux—and not the production of a fixed—an often elitist—identity. 

On quite a few occasions I was expected to produce curatorial content without being given any agency over the infrastructure that allowed for such content to happen. I was asked to “make the project happen,” regardless of the ethics of the process. I have increasingly focused my attention on such infrastructural aspect, questioning the “how” (the process) rather than just the “what” (the curatorial result). Addressing the infrastructure means working on the larger ecology of a project: its curatorial ethics, financial structure, labor policies, bureaucratic violence, and all its inner workings. The process of setting up such infrastructure should, in my opinion, be considered the curatorial process in and of itself, since it is the infrastructure that allows for projects to happen and determines their agency and boundaries. That is a path through which real communal care and agency can be cultivated. 

Infrastructural Activism. I have been pursuing such “infrastructural activism” through a variety of projects, such as Around Labor, Art, and the Auratic Conditions (This is Not a Love Song) and  ALT(ering)+SHIFT(ing)+COMM(uning), but also through mentoring. I also do pro bono advising, something that I am happy to devote time to when there is no power imbalance between me and the advisee—that is, when the advisee engages in an ethical and truly mutual relation. Lastly, I support projects that proactively pursue a new labor culture in our field, such as Art Workers Italia

Cultivate honesty and humbleness. The thing that keeps me moving, grounded, and sane is the aspiration that, through my work, I can try to cultivate, to the best of my ability, forms of honesty and humbleness. These are values that I saw often undermined by the presumptuousness of the curatorial field, but I also saw them being honored and kept alive by many colleagues, artists, and activists with whom I had the privilege of working. I feel that is the legacy of my grandma’s hands, shaped by so many years of agricultural work, and of many other encounters—inside and outside of my work—that have enriched and shaped my path so far. I want to honor it as much as I can.

I just moved back to New York City after years in Europe. It is a very special and formative place for me; I have considered it my home since I first moved here in 2011. Even when I relocated back to Europe to work on Cosmopolis, I still visited regularly. The city is undergoing a very difficult phase due to the neoliberal policies that have shaped it over the years, to the point that it has become a polarized urban environment that lacks infrastructures of care for its inhabitants, especially for the less privileged ones. As a place, however, it continues to nourish and challenge me. The city has taught me much about coexistence, adjacency, and ultimately, a pluriverse view of the world. I see it as a place where one can be her full, multi-faceted self, without having to choose just one identity or role. It is also a city that asks us to reflect on what matters most, given the potentially endless spectrum of events, ideas, encounters it offers. 

Studio visit with artist Edgar Calel, San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, 2021.

When I am not working in the arts you can find me going to concerts (musical genres can really vary, from heavy rock to trovas and more), and watching theater and contemporary and classical dance. As for my own dancing, I take every opportunity to dance bachata. 

Pursuing social dislocation. I proactively pursue the practice of ending up in unordinary circumstances outside of my beaten path and comfort zone, in contexts where I am the person that quite obviously ended up there randomly. New York offers plenty of opportunities for such exercise in social dislocation, it is a great chance to encounter the many worlds that inhabit the city.

The best advice I ever got came in interrogative form when considering whether to take a job or not, my mentor asked me: “Will this job allow you to do the work?”. What she meant was: Does this position allow you to do the work that you deem most urgent, regardless of its prestige?

My advice to anyone starting their own projects in the art world, especially in a multicultural context, would be to be your fullest self, and allow yourself to be honest and humble. The pretentiousness and social norms that characterize parts of our professional field perpetuate a violent and elitist system of power. Also, spend time with artists: their generosity is transformative and nourishing.

Resilient Orchids. Talking about nourishing practices: as a lover of plants, many friends over the years have complained to me about how hard it is to maintain orchids. I disagree. Whereas orchids are often reduced, unfortunately, to a cheap interior design element that exudes poshness, I consider them wonderful examples of self-sufficiency and resilience. For those who struggle maintaining them, my suggestions are: do not change their pots or add soil, keep them near a source of natural light (except if the sun is very strong and the temperature is too hot, e.g. 30 Celsius and above), water them once a week by placing them for a minute directly under the faucet, with a very gentle stream of water. Do not cut leaves, branches, or else: let them regulate themselves. They are incredibly good at self-managing, if we let them do so.

If I could change something in the art world with a magical wand it would be how resources are accumulated and distributed. 

Emotionally, I feel at home when I am with non-judgmental people. Spiritually, when I am with plants. Geographically, both in my chosen home in Queens, New York, and in Rome, my hometown.  

To keep sane I spend time with my loved ones near and far; tend to plants; continue to feed my curiosity beyond art.

If I could have lunch with anyone dead or alive (and where), it would be with the late Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel—anywhere. 

I have too many books that either still haunt me or that I like, so I will instead point toward a short tale by Lemebel, “Pisagua en puntas de pies.” It tells the story of Gastón, a queer person arrested and sent to the infamous Pisagua prison camp. It seems light at first, but it develops into a very powerful tale of resilience and agency. Beyond literature, I want to mention Argentine feminist philosopher and activist Maria Lugones’s “Tactical Strategies of the Streetwalker” and artist and thinker Jota Mombaça’s “For an Ontological Strike.” Not novels, but these texts are incredibly punctual and powerful.

If I wasn’t curating I would be, in this order: an immigration rights lawyer, a snorkeling instructor, a gardener. Hopefully there’s still time for all three!

Ilaria Conti

Independent curator

New York, US

Biography:

Ilaria Conti works as a curator and is based in New York City. She focuses on research-based artistic practices engaging with decolonial epistemologies and the relationship between institutional infrastructures, communal care, curatorial ethics, labor, and civic agency.
Currently, she serves as Curator at the American Federation of Arts, advancing frameworks of shared and sustainable exhibition-making with a focus on contemporary art and social/cultural justice. 
Previously, she served as Research Curator at the Centre Pompidou for Cosmopolis, a multiyear platform devoted to research-based artistic practices and decolonial practices. She was Exhibitions and Programs Director at CIMA New York, Assistant Curator of the 2016 Marrakech Biennale, and Samuel H. Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other positions.
She is an Advisor in the Visual Arts for the American Academy in Rome and is the Vice-President of the African Art in Venice Forum.
Ilaria is an Awarded Mentee of the 2021-2022 Association of Art Museum Curators Foundation’s Mentorship Program. She holds a BA and MA in Art History and Curatorial Studies from the University of Rome La Sapienza and an MA in Visual Arts Management from New York University.
Curated projects include: Pensiero Plurale (2021-), Rethinking Nature (2021), Lo Sa La Ter Ruz [On This Red Land] (2021), Proximities (2021), Rethinking Nature (2021), ALT(ering) + SHIFT(ing) + COMM(uning) (2020-2021), Prove di R(i)esistenza (2020), Making Space: Art & Generative Communal Practices (2020), Labor/Art/Auratic Conditions (2020), Cosmopolis #2: Rethinking the Human (2019), Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence (2018), Cosmopolis #1: Collective Intelligence (2017), 6th Marrakech Biennale: Not New Now (2016).
Ilaria is a member of Art Workers Italia.  www.ilariaconti.me / IG @ilariamarion
Discover Ilaria’s artcuratorgrid profile

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva

Art critic and writer.

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