Ellie New sits outside a glass window of a coffee shop in Knoxville, Tennessee. She tells me it’s right next to a busy road and sure enough, the sound of a fire engine blasts by as we start to catch up. We’re living in a strange part of the pandemic; we all feel the desire to start gathering again, anchored by the hope the world may start to open up soon. But it doesn’t feel like the world it was a year and a half ago. Not just because we’re still wearing masks in the street and worrying about standing six feet apart from each other. Each of us, particularly Ellie and myself, are getting used to reintroducing ourselves after not seeing each other for a year and half. Both of us graduated from university during the pandemic and last spoke as we were developing our final projects before lockdown started. At the time, she was trying to conceive of how to combine her interests in movement, museums and the natural world as I was figuring out how to describe how it feels to live without a home and find it in art. We’re still interested in what we were studying. Sort of.
Ellie and I met in a university class called ‘Art and/as Research’ taught by the celebrated performance artist Karen Finley. Both of us grew up thinking we would become performers and when we met, at least knew we didn’t want to anymore. She was studying to be a museum curator, I a theatre director; both jobs that require intellectual and artistic interests but also a large degree of administrative and managerial work. We often sat next to each other in class, slightly quieter than many of our other classmates who were studying for their masters degrees and more vocal, confident, and certain of themselves.
Ellie confesses she’s still interested in art that examines the implications of the climate crisis, as she was when I last saw her in person, but with a different kind of focus. She is now passionate about making and supporting work that unravels the emotional complexities of living within our deteriorating world. This spring, she curated a series of events structured as duets between two artists who’d never met before. She paired them around ‘a specific medium or particular way they were talking about environmental issues. All of them coincidentally had to do with water.’ More recently, she co-curated a pop-up art-science exhibition called PHREATIC! at the New York Virtual Volcano Observatory.
I cross my legs on a tall wooden chair as she muses, ‘we’re always implicated in what’s happening with the natural world. That relationship goes both ways.’ I nod. ‘For better or for worse. So, you know, I’m sitting by a road right now and I’m breathing air that is slightly toxic. Then that’s entering my body and changing my body.’ I nod again as she continues to circle her hands in front of her chest. ‘It happens on the smallest bacterial levels, as we know, on the level of the virus. The level of an infection. But it also happens, you know, on the macro scale. So you know, I took a flight to get here. It’s one little thing but it has a feedback.’
She looks to the side, looks back into the camera. ‘I’m really interested [now] in how that narrative has been constructed, which has been wrapped up in the narrative of ‘we can use the planet for resources and nothing will happen to us.’’ I laugh in agreement, ‘yeah.’ She joins me in the laughter and her voice elevates in enthusiasm as her hands start circling over each other again. ‘You know, this extractive culture that we exist in and perpetuate is predicated on false understanding that we are immune from the impacts that we have on the environment.’ ‘Yeah,’ I say. I’m pretty sure we aren’t, but I hope we aren’t the only ones who’ve been thinking about this after 2020.
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about inextricability,’ she shrugs. ‘If that’s a word.’ I smile and say, ‘it is now.’ Immediately she grins, ‘fantastic.’
For you, and correct me if I’m wrong, it seems as if the role of curator is not just a job. It informs the ways you look into yourself, how you interact with the world. I’m wondering how you think about the word and what it means to you, how it lives in you.
The etymology of the verb ‘curate’ is ‘to care.’ So, you can be a ‘curator’ or a ‘curate’ of something, a caretaker of something. I remember reading that people who maintained the water systems of ancient cities were called ‘curates’. In the art world, it can imply expertise, but for me, I don’t seek, at this point in my life, to be an expert in a particular kind of art. For me, being a curator is trying to understand the ways in which you can be a caretaker for the different beings involved in what you’re creating. So, how can you care for the artists you’re working with? Whether they’re contemporary artists living and making work now, or even if they were working two hundred years ago, how do you care for their stories and their creations? To me, it means continuing to ask questions about them.
There’s an amazing scholar and curator Denise Murrell, who has done ground-breaking research about Laure, a Black model in one of the most famous paintings by Manet, titled Olympia.
Very few scholars had taken the time to look into who this model was and why she appeared in multiple paintings by Manet. They glossed over what her story was and the power of her presence in that image, in effect erasing her from the narrative of this painting which is hailed as one of the foundations of Modernism. Through her years of careful investigation, Murrell has enriched the story of this work and repaired, in a way, a hole that was made in our understanding of it. So being a curator, to me, [means] continuing to ask questions, even of an artwork that has been catalogued already, created long ago and hailed as a ‘masterpiece,’ and continuing to learn its story. That is an important form of caring for the artwork and caring for the public that encounters that artwork.
There’s caring for the art objects themselves, and that often takes the form of more logistical art handling; using bubble wrap, unloading boxes, preparing the space, and installing the art requires a particular kind of caretaking. Then, there’s caring for the story of the artist and their artwork... and also the stories that people bring with them to the gallery site and the physical experience they have in that space.
The work I’ve done this past year has made me eager to work in physical spaces and with my hands, with people. I’m not sure yet whether that will be in an established institution or a more independent art space. I’d like to learn from both, so I can understand each of their particular ways of presenting art and then figure out if there are existing traditions that I want to continue within my own curatorial practice, or if there are divergences that I want to explore. It’s a way to stabilize my own interest. I want to know both sides of the spectrum in order to continue to locate where I am as a curator within that.
I feel like that’s a great segue into talking about the exhibit you curated that just closed, called PHREATIC!. I was looking through the website and the exhibit looked so amazing! It was in an old house, is that what it was?
I was really arrested by this image of one of the artists who was installing their artwork in such a way that there was a main frame, and it looked like little stones were on the wall connecting images to each other, bleeding onto the walls.
Maybe I’m not describing it well.
Was it little squares of colour?
Yes! The space was given texture and colour. What was your approach for curating this exhibit, which focused on the work of artists examining the intersections of art and science?
I had the opportunity to work with one of my close friends as a co-curator. Ayaka Fujii was my co-curatorial fellow, which was an absolute gift. We’d been working on some movement and climate-related artworks together, so we had a creative dialogue going already around some of our shared interests. Being able to bring that, with her, to the work was really special. I would say that we tried to develop a curatorial process based on how we could bring some of our own interests like deep time, score-making, embodied practices to our conversations with the artists who were involved. But also, and this is really from Ayaka’s influence, to practice what she calls ‘deep listening’: to respond just as much to what the artists are doing as to what we’re bringing to them.
The house gave us a story to tell about the worlds that exist within other worlds. The artists were each exploring these interactions, too: the world of a snail, of nests and fossils, of toxic landscapes, geo spirits, of bacteria under environmental stress. Their works, and the exhibition as a whole, spoke to the worlds that both art and scientific practices can delve into and expand.
Part of the joy of this recent exhibition was seeing the art in person after curating it from a distance. People were enchanted by the house, and by the park, and by Governor’s Island, and we had a celebration with incredible live music from some of the artists. So, there was an element of just being able to be in a space with artwork that is so simple but brought me a lot of joy.
I love how you describe the house as a character because we should be considering space as a character more. Those white walls in museums that are very austere, it’s not that they’re this neutral space or negative space. It’s also in a way a person, with a point of view that a spectator is in an experience with.
Coming from a performance background, I was always really interested in and had opportunities to do some movement-based, devised theatre… site-specific works, immersive productions, all the things we performance-makers love to experiment with. With my dance background too, I’ve always felt like I’m connected to my mind through my body and vice versa. When I enter a space I have a physical experience of that space, either positively, negatively, or neutrally. So I’ve appreciated learning from the many people who’ve studied issues of museum display and reading their insights about the physical impacts of white cube galleries, which is often the standard: white walls, text-heavy wall plates, specific lighting on artworks, there aren’t really places to sit, no food and drink allowed. This atmosphere removes the expectation that you arrive as a visitor in a body. It makes it hard for me and from what I’ve heard and read, for other people to feel comfortable.
I’ve had the experience of going into a major museum, and thinking, ‘Okay, there’s the Van Gogh, there’s the Picasso, here’s the whoever, you know?’ And learning about these revered artists can be a rewarding experience to have, but I also always felt like, ‘What else is there? What am I missing?’ Museums have an identity of telling the narrative: sharing history, cataloguing, archiving this story about human representation of human experiences and stories over time. They tend to do that with a tone of authority, from the architecture, to the style of writing in the wall labels, to ‘Expert Tours.’ All of these levels of display and the ways in which visitors encounter the objects and subjects of display presents this story as if it’s the only story. That’s just not the case!
Whoever selected these works was a person, with particular areas of knowledge and expertise, but also with holes in that expertise. Everything that ends up in museums is filtered through the people who are working within the museum. Coming to that understanding made me want to create exhibitions where our human presence is acknowledged and incorporated into what the visitors get to experience.
My work has, in the past year and a half, really turned toward asking how artists and art exhibitions explore the myriad [of] relationships that we have with each other and with the natural world. I’ve gotten really interested in the term ‘holobiont,’ which describes how we think of ourselves as ‘I’m a human. This [body] is my human matter.’ But what I’ve read is, if you remove all of the human genome parts of us, there would still be a pretty good sketch of a body there. That is microbacteria, it’s fungi, it’s, you know, weird things that I never thought I would be so fascinated with. I’ve gotten really interested in that. I’ve gotten really interested in fungi and mycelium, these kinds of natural networks that speak to and expand our understanding of the intricate ways in which we’re all connected to the spaces that we inhabit and the people who we interact with. Working within this art-science space, whether that has to do specifically with climate crisis, or more abstractly with art-science collaborations, has changed how I think about exhibition making. I’ve started to think about exhibition making as a practice of tracing relationships; seeing how artists’ works speak to each other or speak to particular issues, or speak to a space or a community.
Is there now a particular place or museum you’re really excited to go to right now?
There are museums that I love that I’m excited to go back to. But I’m also… hoping that the ways in which people have creatively gathered during the pandemic might continue. I wasn’t in New York so I didn’t get to experience some of the Covid-safe things that I saw friends creating that were really exciting, like dinner parties that were these creative, artistic experiences that happened outside. I’m hopeful that we can continue to open up the ways in which we gather around the arts, because there was just, by necessity, a lot of creativity. Whether it’s a revival or embrace of an existing tradition, like the potluck, or if it’s something that has newly emerged out of necessity. As much as I’m interested in returning to established arts institutions, I’m also really excited to continue to see what our generation does otherwise.
What else people think of.
Who do you draw inspiration from in your approach to curation?
I draw a lot of inspiration from the wonderful curator, professor, and writer Grace Aneiza Ali… It was really as her student that I learned about ‘curatorial activism.’ My understanding of what that means comes in part from a book by Maura Reilly, who is a curator and writer. She wrote this book, which is essentially about countering cycles of exclusion in the art world and the need for an activist curatorial approach. She cites these statistics… I pulled this one out because it feels really heavy to me. In 2016 this group called Pussy Galore did a survey of thirty four galleries in Manhattan. Only 21% of the artists represented in those galleries were non-white. Another instance; in the 2017 Venice Biennial, only 35% were women, and 65% of the artists were from Europe and North America.
Reilly pulls these out as examples of how exclusion creates negative value cycles. So what we end up seeing in museums tends to be part of the ‘master narrative’ of what art is deemed ‘valuable’ by a limited group of decision-makers. So it becomes this silo which I don’t think serves the public good.
Through Grace’s courses, I learned about exhibitions and curators who are doing work outside of this canon, who are saying, ‘Okay, I want to focus solely on women artists. I want to focus on queer artists.’ Or ‘I want to do a show that critiques these institutions and what they call ‘master narratives’ of art. That’s a hole that needs to be filled. So I’m going to start to fill that space.’
I can’t claim a lot of these ideas as my own, except that I’ve tried to adopt them in some way. I’m holding them and sifting through them. You used the word abundance [earlier] and I really liked that. The writers and curators I’ve learned about who are invested in this kind of work make me feel the possibility of abundance in this space.
Which I think is maybe an interesting way to think about what I want to create.
Sometimes, feeling like you’re in touch with an abundance of possibilities or thoughts or ideas can be an incredibly rich space to work from. It can [also] be incredibly overwhelming and even alienating, maybe. It can feel like, ‘Where do I start? What do I have to contribute?’ As much as we’ve talked about what I’m interested in, what I’ve done, and these amazing opportunities that I’ve had in the past year, that is a lot of what I’m working through at this point in my career. Where do I go next? I could go multiple places next. You know?
Yeah. I’d love to talk a little bit about your focus in college, where we met. You went to the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, where final projects for university take the form of a colloquium. Could you speak briefly about what you focused on academically?
I was thinking about the question of, what does art bring to our experience? Why do we create art? Why do we seek it out? But also, what do arts presenters and arts organizations add to experiences of art, and how are they a civic asset? They’re tax exempt in the United States, which is different than in many other countries… And there are some great things about being tax exempt… [But] a lot of people don’t feel like the arts are a civic asset. They feel like, ‘Oh, we don’t need that. Why are my tax dollars going to that?’ I think that’s a fair question, and at the same time, I think we need a stronger structure of support for the arts.
From the perspective of some of those who work in these organizations, what have you heard about their response to the business model of the arts in the United States?
I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I think there’s a general feeling that people who work on the administrative, directing, development side of these organizations work incredibly hard to try to gather support for the work that the organization does. There’s a huge investment of time and energy and a lot of that goes to fundraising. A lot of energy is spent on planning a gala for your big donors, getting auction items, that kind of thing... these things that non-profit organizations often feel that they have to do to get the funding that they need in order to do their important work.
As I said, there are some really great things about being a non-profit, you know, people are incentivized to give to your organization, but it also takes so much work to stay afloat, and it takes a big investment from the staff, who are often underpaid. A lot of organizations do amazing fundraising work in their local communities; small donations, small dollars. That’s incredible as well. So I think it really runs the gamut in terms of how people make this work, and people do make it work. But I’ve always wondered, why isn’t it easier? For me, art and supporting artists is such an important part of how our culture is shaped and how it evolves. I want to see a system in which more arts organizations are able to support innovation, take risks, and invest in what their local community needs, without having to worry about what will attract the biggest donors.
This idea of reciprocity really interests me: that in encountering art, we receive something back… Where I got to in my studies was this question of: We say that the arts are a ‘public good,’ based on the business model, based on the narrative around them, at least in the art world. So what good are they serving? And who are they really serving?
There are issues of lacking diversity in leadership, of equal pay, issues around the baseline element of making all people feel welcome in your institution is somehow such a huge problem for museums. Not for every museum, but for many of them. There are so many nuances to the issue of exclusion in the art world. It goes from visitor experience, to staff experience; hiring practices, promoting practices, to what artwork is actually on display. All of these things are part of a cycle, in my understanding. So this question of ‘are you serving the public good if you’re not serving the entire public?’ is important to consider.
I keep circling back to the ‘public good,’ which of course, I don’t know what that is. I don’t know if it has a singular definition. I don’t think it can or really should.
Ellie shifts in her chair outside of the coffee shop in Knoxville. She looks to the side, looks back into the computer camera. She confesses she’s been discussing the mission statement of La Piccioletta Barca, ‘art for art’s sake,’ with her partner, who doesn’t work in the arts. She says, ‘when I hear ‘art for art’s sake’ half of me is like ‘yes, art is important just being [as] it is.’ I pull my knee into my chest as I nod vigorously. I rub my elbow, relax in my chair.
She looks out to the street, considers what to say. ‘The other part of me which I guess more recently has been the stronger voice is…’ she looks away again, back as she moves her left hand by her side. ‘I feel like when I hear ‘art for art’s sake’ my interpretation cuts off in the middle of the phrase.’ She moves her right hand through the air as if to cut through the left. I make a sound, encouraging her to continue.
Ellie looks back out to the street, moves her hair behind her ear. ‘My immediate response is that it points to this assumption,’ I nod as she moves both hands away from her in circles, ‘that art is kind of frivolous or fluffy. That it’s something that should exist just because it’s nice.’ Both of us smile and an ‘mmm’ leaves my mouth. ‘It’s almost like, you hear ‘art for art’s sake’ and you think, ‘oh, it should exist just because it’s art,’ she points out. ‘But what that phrase is really pointing to is that art has a sake. It has a purpose, or many.’ Both of us laugh as I nod, agree. ‘Art for the purpose of art’ is what it’s saying. So when I hear that phrase I want to ask, ‘so what’s the purpose?’
She looks directly into the camera. ‘Totally,’ I nod in response. Ellie moves her shoulders up, ‘that’s where my questions came from at Gallatin,’ she says emphatically. ‘If the purpose of art is beauty, why is beauty important to us? If the purpose of art is to archive a particular moment, why is it important to archive it in this particular way? If the purpose of art is to gather, how does art do that? And why do we need that?’
She moves both of her hands quickly back and forth, ‘so I got caught in this kind of feeling that people hear ‘art for art’s sake’ and they think, you know,’ she brings her hands together in front of her as she looks up. ‘Oh, I can’t argue with that, art should just be art. Art shouldn’t be political.’ An ‘mmm’ escapes me as I understand what she refers to. She looks to the side, back into the camera, continues, ‘[as if] it shouldn’t engage in real world issues, as if art isn’t part of the real world.’ Both of us laugh. ‘But I think it actually points, for me, to the inextricability of art and life.’ I shake my head in agreement as she laughs.
I look to the side, ‘I love that you just brought that up.’ I quickly look back to the camera, smiling, ‘I also feel like this conversation about the relationship between arts and politics, which both of us got a minor in,’ I say as I gesture to both of us. ‘Yup,’ Ellie says, laughing. ‘So we don’t have expertise but we’ve thought about it,’ I add as Ellie nods and both of us smile. Ellie moves her hands through her hair as I look to the side, ‘I feel like the answer to the question is…’ I blink, trying to come up with what I want to say, ‘so obvious.’ I turn back to the camera. Ellie nods as I move my hands to my chest. ‘My instinctive response, always, is that art is political.’ She nods as I move my hands to my sides, ‘but also political with a lowercase ‘p.’’ Ellie nods.
I bring my hands together, ‘that distinction for me is really important,’ as she says, ‘yeah.’ I gesticulate from side to side. ‘Art is not trying to encourage people to support a buzzword version of how to exist in the world,’ I open my hands to my sides as she continues to look into the camera, nodding. ‘It’s instead speaking of the politics of asking ourselves, ‘how are we interacting in the world? What are we doing? What world are we hoping to build and how is art itself its own form of worldbuilding in connection with how we exist already?’
‘Yeah,’ Ellie agrees.
‘We tend to think of art as a singular thing, that we go to and return from. But rather than thinking of owning an experience or going to a destination and then returning to how we were before, art is asking all of us to continue from where the art left off, to go in a different direction from where ‘life’ left off… Art is here so that we can feel alive. So that question is never not imbued, for me, with questions of freedom, of how we exist, what forces restrict us from getting close to feeling alive, how we’re living within ourselves… You know?” Ellie nods, an ‘mmm’ leaves her here.
‘Hopefully, if nothing else, the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ can get people to ask these questions for themselves…’ I gesture with my right hand as she nods, ‘I think the questions each of us land on or are led by say something about what our politics are. Where we are and where we wish to go.’
‘Yeah,’ Ellie replies. She looks away from the camera, ‘Definitely.’ She looks in the other direction and moves her right hand forward. ‘I agree with what you were saying about how we’re changed by our encounters with art.’ She looks directly into the camera. ‘The same way an artwork’s history lives on after the moment of creation,’ she cycles her hands in front of her as I nod. ‘It was in this museum, this many people have seen it,’ she moves her hands in chunks through the air, to locate different spaces in front of her. ‘People put posters of their favourite works on the walls. So the artwork lives beyond this moment of creation and first display,’ she says as we look at each other through a camera. Both of us nod.
She grins. ‘I like questioning the many different networks of relationships that exist between a person and an artwork. And that they both kind of carry each other.’
Ellie New is a curator, writer, and producer from Vermont’s Mad River Valley. She creates exhibitions and events that connect artists with the public around environmental issues, art-science collaborations, and new approaches to art curation with the goal of catalyzing the power of artists’ voices to generate more equitable, habitable futures. Ellie graduated from New York University with an Individualized B.A. titled “Art for Our Sake: Curatorial Activism and Cultural Institutions as Civic Assets” and a minor in Arts Politics from the NYU Tisch Department of Art & Public Policy. She is currently an alumna-in-residence Curatorial Fellow at WetLab (NYU Gallatin).
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Installation view of PHREATIC! (2021) Presented by NYU Gallatin WetLab at the NY Virtual Volcano Observatory, Governors Island, NYC. Artworks by Rhea Barve and Brock Riggins. Photo by Emma Comrie. Courtesy of NYU Gallatin WetLab.
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Installation view of PHREATIC! (2021) Presented by NYU Gallatin WetLab at the NY Virtual Volcano Observatory, Governors Island, NYC. Artwork by Rhea Barve and Kristina Waymire. Photo by Emma Comrie. Courtesy of NYU Gallatin WetLab.
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Installation view of PHREATIC! (2021) Presented by NYU Gallatin WetLab at the NY Virtual Volcano Observatory, Governors Island, NYC. Artworks by Rhea Barve and Taylor Burkhead. Photo by Emma Comrie. Courtesy of NYU Gallatin WetLab.