Leslie Moody Castro Draws From Her Travelogues and Her Community to Curate Art that Cares about Friendships and Collaborations
I became a curator without really choosing it as such, I didn’t grow up in a family that valued going to museums or galleries in the same way I did. Appreciating visual culture came from school. I took art history classes at a young age because I went to an accelerated magnet academy (a college-level private school, within a public school). It wasn’t until I was a senior in college at DePaul University in Chicago (around 2004), that I actually curated an exhibition. Someone had to tell me that’s what I was doing. The exhibition was tiny, and had a major component of social justice related to a study abroad program to El Salvador that I was participating in. It really set my path in many ways.
The major turning point for me in developing a professional practice happened when I moved to Mexico City in 2004. I landed a job at a small non-profit gallery called Art&Idea, and was plopped right into a really important community of artists. Mexico City was still very much a peripheral city at the time, Mexican poet Octavio Paz has a famous quote “So Far from God, So Close to the United States”. It was not taken very seriously by the major art world until many years later. It provided me with a moment to completely lean into shifting my perspective on how the art world should exist, what a curator can look like and do, and how a practice can be just that: a practice. I started getting invited to produce small projects, and just really took advantage of the time and space to play and experiment.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I went fully independent. I was still very much caught up in the United States system of a day job, and was applying around after graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). I landed in an institution, and though grateful for the steady paycheck, I was miserable. After about ten months I resigned. It was a really hard time. The amount of rejection letters I received from jobs that weren’t the right fit for me was overwhelming. One day I just decided to stop applying for things that I wasn’t really that interested in and for jobs where I knew I wouldn’t be successful. I was very lucky to have incredible friends who really supported this crazy idea of going completely freelance, and they began to connect me with the right people in some places. My practice grew and evolved from there. It hasn’t been easy by any means, and I’ve done lots of weird jobs to support myself along the way, but I definitely wouldn’t trade my creative freedom for anything!
I work well both alone or in a team, but I really, really love to collaborate. There are so many more ideas to play with when more people come to the table. I think it’s such a fun process of sharing and learning. For the project “Placeholder”, at UT Austin, in 2016, myself and artist Victor Pérez-Rul invited students to work with us. It was a show produced by a group of equal collaborators, the majority of whom weren’t artists. In the end, our team consisted of students from The Energy Institute at UT Austin, Architecture, Design, Museum Education, and Art History. The university is so large that these departments almost never interact, so it was great to see so many disciplines come together for one single project. We didn’t have a theme when we started, which was a little crazy, and induced a ton of stress for the staff. But in the first couple of weeks we realized that what could bring us together was space. We built a giant web out of bungee cord, metal springs that react to body temperature by expanding and contracting, and ultrasonic sensors. It was powered by solar panels situated in a courtyard nearby. Individually, none of us could fully explain how it worked, but collectively we all made it happen. The piece was glitchy and didn’t fully work the entire run of show, but it didn’t matter to us. As a piece it was impressive, and the goal of the exhibition wasn’t the final product, but the process itself, which we documented weekly.
My most recent collaborative project “A Grain in the Eye of a Mountain” in 2019, at Foundación MARSO in Mexico City, is potentially one of the most personal. I worked with two Mexican artists, Fabiola Menchelli, who works with photography, and draftswoman Daniela Libertad: two powerhouse women that I’ve wanted to put in the same space for some time now. The dynamics between us evolved with time, and all of a sudden we weren’t just producing our own work and putting it up in the space, but they became interdependent. Fabiola produced a new body of work that played with the form of an old-school film canister and photography landscapes reminiscent of color-field paintings. Daniela drew a 20 feet long tapestry that cascaded from the ceiling by pulling apart drawings she had done, cutting them into strips, and weaving them together. I wrote a text and turned it into four fragments printed on four posters, one for each room, which visitors could take.
It was like everything existed because of the existence of the thing next to it. I think that also mirrored how we worked together. Whenever one of us was stuck, or needed help or support, one of us would step in and offer that. It resulted in a gorgeous exhibition and friendships that I really cherish.
The best advice I ever received was “no one is going to die”. Ursula Davila-Villa, associate curator of the Blanton Museum of Art was my boss in my final year of graduate school. Many times, when we felt stressed as a team because of an event happening or a difficult installation, Ursula would talk everyone down by reminding us that our stress was unnecessary because no one was going to die from being a little bit behind schedule. It always kept things in perspective for me.
The worse advice I ever received was to change careers because I will never have a future. My uncle Joe sat me down during my junior year of college (2013) and told me that I was on a path to nowhere. I was totally broke, working multiple jobs, and generally just feeling defeated. I stuck with my decision, partly because I am stubborn, and partly because my gut was telling me that I was good at it. About five years ago my uncle Joe sat me down again and apologized.
Writing is very important to me. I used to write a lot for artforum.com, Frieze Magazine, and Flash Art International, but have stopped writing for the bigger magazines over the last few years. I’ve turned to writing more for local publications, and local being wherever I happen to be. There’s a different, more impactful type of engagement, and I realized that I enjoy writing outside the art world as well. I write a lot for glasstire.com, a statewide arts publication in Texas. One of the pieces I am most proud of, however, is about the border wall prototypes in Tijuana. It’s both a travel piece and a piece of art criticism, and I wrote it for a tiny magazine in Austin called Conflict of Interest. The most recent piece I wrote is about mixed media artist Deborah Roberts for Gulf Coast Magazine for the University of Houston. Unfortunately, that’s print only. I haven’t even see the final copy. I really like to write about history, culture, and places through the lens of contemporary art. I think the border wall prototype piece is a great example of the kind of writing I really like to do.
What drives me forward the most about curating is working with people. It doesn’t matter in what capacity. In 2019, I was completely worn down by months of writer’s block triggered by my grandmother’s death and the familial fall out from it. I decided to turn that into something productive. I modified John Baldessari’s “Fourteen disparate assignments” into writing prompts and titled the project “Fixing my Broken”. I really just owned being broken (I am fucking human, after all!). I turned the space at my residency at Fundación MARSO into a place for therapy, and invited friends, colleagues, strangers…anyone, to come in, and write with me, one person per day, for the entire month of June. I had a total of twenty-one sessions. One of my first sessions was with artist Virginia Colwell. She chose a hard prompt, and I had to write a script about failure. It was like ripping off a Band-Aid! After that it got easier. I had a session with my good friend gallery director Daniela Elbahara, and it opened a door to our friendship that hadn’t been there. A good friend and artist named Lauren Klein gave me a sound bath and asked me to write the things I saw while listening. Laura Resendiz, director of the up and coming Qipo art fair in Mexico City watched me write my own obituary. I was able to really put the vulnerability I was experiencing and my writer’s block in the hands of my community and work through it. Some beautiful work came out of it. It was a personal experiment that I didn’t expect to become so significant. All of the therapies and the writing is published on my website.
The one thing I always carry with me when traveling is a notebook. I like to document my reactions to new places and remember the encounters I have with people. Oftentimes when I travel I end up publishing about that travel, such as for Glasstire. Right now I am writing in a red notebook that I can only find in one shop in downtown Mexico City. I call it my bible because it has the same weight and feel of a bible.
Managing to work between Mexico and Texas is a matter of constant evolution and learning! I spent my childhood bouncing between Austin and Texas border region, and between two sides of my family, one living in extreme poverty, and the other from a more comfortable position of wealth. I think because of how I grew up, I’ve always been comfortable shifting between places and settling in, wherever I plop down. Nowadays, I try to keep life as similar as possible whenever I’m bouncing back and forth. I try to take mornings for myself, coffee, same breakfast of eggs, avocados and toasts. No matter where I am, I tend to speak English and Spanish equally. I’m always working on future projects that require me to mentally bounce back and forth, and there’s lots of Spanish spoken in Texas. Writing happens in both places equally, and I try to take time for that.
I think the biggest difference between each place is the relationship to time. When I am in the states, no matter where that is, there is an expectation to stay totally busy, and it’s something I really fight. I’ve had to learn to unapologetically advocate for my own time, and say “no”, for example, if I want to have an evening just with my parents when a thousand openings are happening. In Mexico it’s understandable to stay home rather than attend a social outing. I don’t ever want to take a place for granted, so scaling back really helped. Logistically, it can get hard, but I just kind of roll with it. I’ve learned that I do not do well with early morning flights (I’ve missed most of them), so I try not to book them earlier than eleven am.
I never curate an exhibition without talking to my friends about it. Both non-art friends, if they’re interested, and art friends. Running ideas by people is a really important part of my informal research on whether an idea is fully developed or needs to be flushed out a little more.
The last show that made a significant impression on me was “Cuídese Mucho” by Sophie Calle at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City in 2014. The exhibition takes its title from a breakup letter the artist received. When I saw it, I happened to be going through a painful breakup myself. It just didn’t seem to end, and I felt like I was living on an island of heartbreak. For the first time in my life I was so impacted by an exhibition that really spoke to the moment I was in, that I had to step outside and take a moment. It was like therapy, and it reminded me that an exhibition can be conceptually challenging while communicating with real people, living real lives.
If I was an art collector I would collect a Felix Gonzalez-Torres curtain, a Rothko Color Field, and pretty much anything by Sophie Calle.
If I ever need to reset my mind I go for a run. I started running in 2008 when I co-founded non-profit gallery space Co-Lab Projects in Austin together with my very good friend Sean Gaulager. I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so I just started running.
The perfect meal with friends is just hanging out at home. I am constantly on the road for work, and have to eat out a ton, so I really value those moments where we just cobble up a meal together, with no pretense or pressure. Right before COVID lockdowns I was in Austin. The day before I left to come home to Mexico City I stayed over at my best friend’s house, Sean Gaulager. The next morning he made me the most perfect omelette. It was the last time I shared a meal with a friend, and I miss that. It’s not about the perfect omelette, but about the time spent together.
All forms of art are important to me, but I have a special place for music. I think my entry point to creativity was actually music. I am a trained vocalist and sang from the age of four until I was eighteen, both individually and in choirs. I never sing anymore, but the skills I learned from singing—like public speaking—stick with me and have been incredibly useful.
The project “I Should Have Been a Pop Star“, in 2015 is a slight reference to my singing days. I hosted a series of weekly sessions at Central Track in Dallas, where I invited anyone participating in the arts ecosystem to talk to me about it. We wrote our notes on the walls of the gallery space, which became a space of activism, and eventually regular networking groups over potlucks or Sunday mimosas.
The one guilty pleasure I can finally come clean about is my action movie habit. It’s terrible, yet I feel no shame in it. They’re formulaic, and sometimes I just don’t want to think. My favorites are any of the Fast & Furious and the Bourne Identity franchises (I’m awful, I know).
When I am not curating you can find me enjoying time with friends and family. We don’t necessarily need to do anything considered important. It doesn’t matter, as long as we get time.
I imagine my ten-year older self visiting from the future, and she tells me that I’m insane. I’ve turned down a few full time jobs with a steady paycheck because I like my independent lifestyle a ton. Ten-year older me would be horrified.
If I wasn’t curating I can’t think of what I would be doing professionally, but personally, I can guarantee I would be really boring.
Leslie Moody Castro
Based in Austin, Texas and Mexico City
Leslie Moody Castro is an independent curator and writer whose practice is based on itinerancy and collaboration. She has produced, organized, and collaborated on projects in Mexico and the United States for more than a decade, and her repertoire of critical writing is also reflective of her commitment to place. She is committed to creating moments of artistic exchange and dialogue and as such is a co-founder of Unlisted Projects, an artist residency program in Austin, Texas. In 2017, she was selected as Curator and Artistic Director of the sixth edition of the Texas Biennial, and was recently the first invited curator in residence at the Galveston Artist Residency. Moody Castro earned a Master’s degree at The University of Texas at Austin in Museum Education with a portfolio supplement in Museum Studies in 2010, and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History at DePaul University in Chicago in 2004, and has been awarded two grants from the National Endowment of the Arts for her curatorial projects (2016, 2017). In addition to her firm belief that the visual arts creates moments of empathy, Moody Castro also believes that Mariachis make everything better. www.lesliemoodycastro.com