Last October, Darsie Alexander’s sprawling retrospective of Austrian sculptor Franz West opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), where she had been senior curator of contemporary art. Now, as the Walker’s new chief curator overseeing programs in exhibitions, visual arts, design, performing arts, and film/video as well as the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Alexander is charged with bringing the institution’s multidisciplinary vision to life. Here she talks about her path in contemporary art and impressions of the Walker as she transitions onto its staff.
Was there one particular thing that made you say, “I absolutely must take this job”?
The projects on the horizon, the staff, the extraordinary collection, and the collegial climate within the museum are just a few factors that had me leaning heavily in favor of seizing this opportunity. The “absolute must” became ever more apparent with my getting-to-know-you visits to the Walker. Even for first-time visitors, it’s clear that this is a special place.
You’re coming from an “encyclopedic” museum to an art center that is not only devoted to contemporary work, but also to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs. What kinds of changes does that mean for you as a curator?
It widens the scope, to be sure. Understanding the relationship of contemporary art to the past as well as the future is an important part of my curatorial perspective, and clearly one informed by my time in Baltimore. But the Walker’s embrace of such a vast array of art forms in the present allows for tremendous experimentation. I am thrilled to be working at a place that puts performance, film/video, and visual arts on an equal footing.
How and when did you become involved with art?
My interest in art grew slowly, and usually revolved around some social outlet or space. The fine art studios were adjacent to the theater in high school, where I spent a lot of time, so there was a natural overlap. The ceramics studios doubled as our makeup and changing room, and we could hear our cues from the stage. Sometimes there would be long stretches before going out onstage again, so a lot of time was spent looking at what the art students were doing. I guess this was my first intent, quiet observation of student artwork.
Like a lot of kids, I was also exposed to art through books and magazines and postcards. I was introduced to Utrillo, Renoir, and other recognized names that way, and always retained a fascination with various forms of reproduction and dissemination. With the Internet, the scope and complexity of dissemination has grown exponentially, and the Walker’s attention to these outlets reflects a keen awareness of how art travels into people’s lives—now virtually.
Were there other art careers besides curatorial work that intrigued you?
For two or three years I wrote art reviews and features for several Boston newspapers, and edited a small journal called VIEWS. Writing so much, usually under deadline, was a great experience. I would see something in the morning, or do a studio visit, and then go home and distill my impressions. While I didn’t have time to process my reactions and thoughts with as much depth as I can enjoy in an exhibition catalogue, I gained a degree of freedom during that time that improved my writing and sharpened my capacity to assess work.
What were some key points in your development as a curator?
Working at MoMA as an assistant curator played an enormous role, both as my curatorial boot camp and my introduction to people who would be very important personally and professionally. I don’t think I could pinpoint exactly what I learned there; it went far beyond learning how to fill out a loan form or present an object to the acquisitions committee.
Close relationships with artists have also had an enormous effect. For example, teaching with people like Carrie Mae Weems and Coco Fusco at the University of Pennsylvania has been a great experience; their participation in final critiques produces profound moments for all of us, not just the student standing there trying to absorb their comments.
How did you come to focus on contemporary art and photography?
While photography will always hold a very special place for me, at a certain point I wanted to look toward the future; photography is, almost by definition, attached to the past (the second an image is captured, it’s gone, etc.). At the same time, I have always enjoyed contemporary art for its immediacy and the opportunities to work with living artists. So the shift from photography to contemporary art seemed natural, and when I became head of the contemporary department in Baltimore in 2005, I brought my passion for still images with me.
Curiously, I find that with contemporary art, I am drawn to extremely ephemeral works, often with a limited lifespan: conceptual or performance-based works, or pieces that are made with what conservators call “inherent vice”—they assert deterioration or change as part of their materials and meaning. Art’s relationship to time has been an undercurrent of the various projects I’ve organized.
With your retrospective on Franz West just ending its run at the BMA and traveling to Los Angeles, what would be your next dream exhibition(s)?
That’s a hard question. I have been so involved in this exhibition for so long. When Franz and I were talking about titles for the show, he said, “What about, ‘A Lot of Pressure?’ ” It sounded good at the time—and accurate! On the heels of a big one-person sculpture show, I’ll probably opt for something or someone quite different. You’ll be one of the first to know.
Do you think that Walker shows are different from those at other contemporary art spaces, and if so, how?
The Walker is known for innovative exhibitions, its integration of technology, and for being the first to recognize artists who are now considered leaders in the field. Then there’s the fact that the shows are situated against a much broader backdrop that includes performing arts, film, design, and video. The collection provides a backdrop, too—curators can draw upon, react to, or expand the institutional frame of the Walker, including its new galleries. It’s a place with a history that remains deeply committed to the future.
The Walker has been called “a safe place for unsafe ideas.” How do you interpret that description as someone new to the place?
I think there’s a freedom people feel within the institution to try any path, no matter where it might lead. One of the great things about the Walker is that it embraces a range of ideas, from the generally accessible to those that speak to a sophisticated art audience who welcome experimentation and radicality. I think it’s important to maintain that spectrum; what may be a safe idea for one person may be a very daring idea for another person. This flow, this rhythm and pitch between ideas as they are played out in an exhibition calendar or in a series of performances, is why the Walker is so dynamic. But it’s not just a place for ideas. It’s a place where ideas are made manifest in space—where they are hammered out and given some kind of form, even if the form is virtual.
A shorter version of this article was originally published in the January/February 2009 issue of WALKER magazine.