Curators (particularly curators who are not also artists) sit somewhere between being artistic practitioners, organizers, and managers. Curators are so often written about with mention of the etymology cura in Latin, “to help or to care.” There are distinct differences between independent curators and institutional curators, though we all, to some degree, engage in a practice of “care.” Expressions of care, of course, change with context or culture, with caring for objects vs. caring for artists or for audiences.
We look to find meaning in this work because, regardless of whether we flow, stumble, or educate ourselves into this position, our influence balances between control and possibility. I find discourse around curating as a feminist practice illuminating. I will endlessly analyze curating as an artistic practice, and find resonance in writings on curating as an ethical practice.
But one of the truest ways I can explain my curatorial practice is as a practice of devotion. I can’t make sense of this through academic reasoning, or even my relationship to art and artists, but rather, through my family and the formative influence of faith.
My father is agnostic, and despite being born to a Thai Buddhist mother, I was raised in some part Catholic, courtesy of my German paternal grandmother’s wish (expectation).
I adored my grandmother, so I willingly followed her path. Also, as a mixed child who longed to express her Americanness…my mother’s spirituality was weird. She prayed to an altar and lit strong incense regularly. Her beliefs were enforced upon my brothers and me through rules like, “Don’t walk by your brother’s head, it’s a sin!” (As a Thai family we spent a lot of time sitting and laying on the floor, and in Buddhism and Thai culture the head is sacred.)
The structure of Catholicism felt less judgmental (ironically) to me. Sundays spent with my grandmother meant attending Sunday mass. The church in my grandmother’s small Minnesota town looked like a movie. An epic flight of stairs led to the building. A classic cemetery wrapped around the perimeter with ornate tombstones dated back to the early 1800s. A steeple stretched high with a clock at the top. Inside, a magnificent pink and white ceiling arched up from pillars, and the windows glowed with the geometric brilliance of stained glass. A life-like crucified Jesus adorned an epic carved wooden altar.
My grandmother loved to sing. I loved listening to her sing, especially in church, when her familiar voice would rise above the chorus of strangers. I never prayed much in church, but I lived for that “after church” high. A sensation of clarity and happiness always swept over me when the massive doors would open and everyone would flow out onto the steps. The healing energy of a community was inspired by the possibility of good in the world, the sensory experience of music, and the collective pause for deep thought in a beautiful and special space.
I romanticize the church only as far as the symbolism it holds, for my grandmother’s devotion to her faith and the time I spent with her. Catholicism never stuck with me, perhaps because my father trusted science and my mother told a fluid story of God.
I found more resonance in my mother’s spirituality as I shed the excessive teenage self-consciousness wrapped up in mixed-race identity. My birthplace of Thailand is covered in temples, a defining feature of the architectural landscape. Spectacles of craftsmanship and symbolism, the temple, or wat, is rarely understated. To be in such artful space is transcendent.
Like most Thai Buddhists, my mother believes in prayer through action, in generosity and love, and living by these values to earn the life you deserve. One of her classic methods of practicing this faith is through sayings that she has coined and repeats regularly. One such mantra is, “Everything you do you must love.”
Everything you do you must love. An expression of devotion to whatever it is she is doing, staying present in it no matter how challenging it is—which, most of the time, is cooking us a meal or taking care of others.
Years ago, as a young, nervous curator who founded a struggling new art space, I attended a networking event. A colleague urged me to introduce myself to a prominent program director at a foundation. “Just go tell him about your work, he needs to know about it,” they urged me.
After a healthy amount of hesitation, I took a deep breath, swallowed all my anxiety, and marched up to the program director. I dove into a wobbly pitch, sharing my vision for an inclusive art space for artists of color, undoubtedly with more passion than clarity. He seemed to ponder my words for half a minute, until his face shifted to dismissal. “I wonder,” he inquired, “why you think you need a space to do your work? It’s just that space requires so much overhead…”
I instantly felt insecure. Maybe if I was a real curator with more experience, then maybe I would know how to curate without space?
At the time, I didn’t know how to express or admit that I created a space because it was the physical space I needed. Nowhere, in the handful of contemporary art spaces that existed in 2013 in the Twin Cities, did I feel welcome or reflected.
A space-less art world is, admittedly, an innovative progression if you are among those who have always had access to space. When space is abundant, it is easier to take it for granted. Alternatively, space is sacred for artists and curators who have been fundamentally excluded from such spaces, or even further, discouraged from pursuing and building spaces of our own.
My grandmother sang with joy and comfort because she had the privilege of being inspired in a beautiful space that represented and understood her. Her church was a place she belonged, a place with history that shaped her and her community. She had access to it long enough to deepen her faith, to practice ritual, tradition, celebration, and healing.
For me, all of this should be embodied and experienced in space for art.
A gallery is my temple, the art space my church.
My practice finds purpose through a simple truth. As a curator, I practice my devotion to the care of sacred space. Because everything you do you must love.