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PARSE Co-Director Amy Mackie on Shaping the New Orleans Art Scene

Mackie. Photo by William Downs

Amy Mackie.

WILLIAM DOWNS

Amy Mackie speaks fast, and her answers wind around into other answers. Her conversation is ornamented by her encyclopedic knowledge of the community she works in. After leaving a curatorial position at New York’s New Museum in 2011, she went to New Orleans to direct the city’s Contemporary Arts Center, and ended up, in 2013, in her current position as co-director of PARSE, a recently established, curator-centric art space and residency program (the other co-director is artist Ricardo Barba). A three-story building in the city’s downtown, PARSE is one of many artist-run spaces in a community with a large number of young people and very limited resources. Ten years out from Katrina, the artistic community in New Orleans seems like one of the most hopeful and vital elements of the city’s culture. Mackie is the only member of PARSE who is not an artist, and the organization is, at present, funded primarily out of her own and Barba’s pockets—the long-term plan is for grant-based funding. Mackie’s work style is of close, dedicated interaction with artists, and her vision for PARSE is that it could be not just an exhibition space but a hub for curatorial experimentation, in a city where experimentation seems crucial to survival. ARTnews spoke with Mackie about her work in the city via email.

ARTnews: Before you took the job at CAC, leaving the New Museum, you weren’t very familiar with New Orleans, is that correct?

Amy Mackie: I was not that familiar with the art community in New Orleans when I was still working at the New Museum, though I had visited the city several times in the past. I was, however, well aware of Prospect.1 and projects such as Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot, but was not able to attend either. I actually heard about the Director of Visual Arts position at the CAC through New York-based artist Paul Ramirez Jonas, who went to graduate school with New Orleans-based artist Robin Levy at RISD. I was very impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the artists I met when I came to interview for the job in the fall of 2010.

Veronica Hunsinger-Loe and Nathaniel Kusinitz's "Readymade Theater" performance at PARSE in December 2014.

Veronica Hunsinger-Loe and Nathaniel Kusinitz’s “Readymade Theater” performance at PARSE in December 2014.

Tell us about the differences between working in a community like New York, and working in a community like New Orleans?

Money, time, space, critical engagement. In New York there is a lot of support for the arts, not enough time, little space, and tons of critical engagement. In New Orleans there is no money, time doesn’t exist, there are tons of spaces, but little critical engagement (though I should say that this is changing rapidly with a handful of artist-run spaces and initiatives that are bringing artists, writers, and curators to the city from all over the world).

What is it about New Orleans that makes it suitable to what you want to do?

Time and space. Time and space are critical in maintaining and sustaining a creative practice. Money is much more difficult. The economy of New Orleans is based primarily on tourism, so unless you want to work in a hotel or restaurant, one has to be imaginative about how to make a living here. Artists, writers, and curators in New Orleans do everything from working as background actors in film and television to working as a gardener to driving a pedicab. Of course, there are also plenty of creative people in New Orleans who have jobs more aligned with the kind of work artists do in New York such as teaching or working as an installer or fabricator.

What are the implications of it being a quite young, tight-knit community? What are some of the implications of working with very little money?

There is a pretty loose infrastructure in New Orleans when it comes to the arts and this allows for a lot of freedom. We are a tightknit community and we all help each other. Bartering is very much a part of this creative economy. At PARSE, we would not be able to do most of what we do without borrowing equipment from other spaces or artists or trading space or opportunity for labor.

The exterior of PARSE. Photo by Angela Berry.

The exterior of PARSE.

ANGELA BERRY

How important is the livelihood of a scene or community in the development of young artists and their practices, in your opinion?

During my time at the CAC, I conducted tons of studio visits with local artists. I quickly realized that many of the younger artists really had not had the opportunity to engage with curators. Most local artists had/have relationships with Dan Cameron (founder of Prospect New Orleans) and Miranda Lash (former curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art), but they did not have much exposure to curators working internationally. This has changed quite a bit in the last several years with the development of a handful of various initiatives to import curators, writers, critics, artists, and performers via residency programs. The Joan Mitchell Center is the most visible (and most well-funded) residency, but there is also A Studio in the Woods, which was founded in 2002. Newer residency programs are in place at Press Street, Pelican Bomb, May Gallery, The Tigermen Den, PARSE, and elsewhere. Deltaworkers (initiated by a curator and artist based in Rotterdam) is yet another. Residency programs are really key to the growth of this community and makes New Orleans a much more viable place for emerging artists. I was shocked to discover that other than A Studio in the Woods, none existed when I came down to visit in 2010.

What person or institution has been the greatest support to you so far?

There are too many to name, but in terms of my curatorial practice, many of the curators I’ve worked with continue to be great supporters, including Laura Hoptman, Sofia Hernandez Chong-Cuy, and Nato Thompson. Artists I’ve worked with such as Jeremy Deller, Paul Ramirez Jonas, A.L. Steiner, and Mariam Ghani, who are not only amazing artists but also incredible educators and community organizers, have also been very inspiring to me. The members of our advisory board at PARSE are also great cheerleaders in every possible way. Bob Snead (an artist based in New Orleans and also Executive Director of our fiscal sponsor Press Street), Miranda Lash (former curator at NOMA, now curator at the Speed Art Museum), Susan Bridges (founder of Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta), and Elizabeth Shannon (a local artist and activist) are amazingly generous supporters and friends.

And what is the greatest obstacle?

Money.

In your graduate program at Bard, you took your internship with an artist, rather than a curator, as those in your program were supposed to.

I definitely see myself as an artist-centric curator. I spent my Bard CCS internship working for Paul Ramirez Jonas and I learned so much from him during that summer. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Immediately after graduate school, I also worked briefly for my long-time friend Shinique Smith. Working closely and in collaboration with artists is very important to me… I spend much of my time thinking about how to support other people’s projects, more so than my own. I’m also teaching a seminar at Tulane University this semester for MFA students that focuses on professionalism in the art world.

Tell us how you ended up at PARSE.

I was very familiar with the space (formerly known as Parse Gallery) located in New Orleans’ Central Business District since it was just down the street from where I lived at the time. Margot Walsh, who used to run the space with my current business partner Ricardo Barba, contacted me shortly after I took the job at the CAC and invited me to an opening. I was a big supporter of their program early on and attended most of their openings and events in the first couple years. I left New Orleans for about a year after I resigned from the CAC in 2012, but somehow I never left. I spent much of my time away writing, thinking, and talking about New Orleans. When I returned to the city in the spring of 2013, Ricardo and I started talking about the future of PARSE since Margot had chosen to move on. We decided to work together in July 2013 and to shift the focus of the program to bring international curators to the city.

If someone had told you five or six years ago that this would be the direction of your career, would that have surprised you?

I could never have imagined that I would be here now, though it somehow all makes sense. Marcia Tucker is my hero, primarily because she was a curator who was a huge advocate for artists and she was never afraid to take risks. I think a lot of my colleagues thought I was out of my mind when I resigned after being at the CAC for only 15 months, but I ultimately felt that I could have a bigger impact in this community outside of the institution, rather than within.

Explain the vision that you have for curatorial residencies at PARSE.

I think our mission statement sums it up: PARSE is an art space and curatorial residency in New Orleans’ Central Business District that serves as a platform for critical dialog about contemporary art. This program hosts three to four visiting curators annually. During extended stays in the city, curators are encouraged to engage in studio visits with local artists, conduct research in the area, and utilize the PARSE facilities to experiment with the boundaries and possibilities of curatorial practice.

And you have an interest in performance and dance work?

Yes, I would say this is true, though I also like drawings and sculpture. My first curatorial project at the New Museum in 2008 was C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience), a collaboration between artist A.L. Steiner and the dance-duo known as robbinschilds (Layla Childs and Sonya Robbins). Last year, I curated It Could Go Either Way: Mariam Ghani + Erin Ellen Kelly at Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger, Norway. The exhibition includes seven videos collaboratively produced by artist Mariam Ghani and dancer/choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly. The show is traveling to the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska, at the end of this month. I’m also curating a show in San Antonio, Texas, for the CAM Perennial in March that addresses movement and transformation.

Can you tell us about your partnerships with other New Orleans institutions, like Loyola University?

Several students from Loyola University came to intern with us at PARSE during the Hand-in-Glove conference that Bob Snead and Press Street organized in New Orleans in the fall of 2013. Several of these students were members of two university “art clubs” called Loyola Untitled (at Loyola University) and The UNO Visual Arts League (at the University of New Orleans). Last spring, they invited me to jury their student exhibition, which is open to undergraduate and graduate students from any of the colleges and universities in New Orleans. It was intended to be a two-part exhibition, with local artist Alex Podesta jurying the portion at the UNO St. Claude Gallery, but they were still looking for another venue. We offered PARSE to the students for the month of June and it was a great success! We’ll be hosting the exhibition again this year that will be juried by another guest curator or artist. Shortly after, I met with several faculty members at Loyola who were enthusiastic about co-hosting Geir Harladseth’s lecture (our recent guest curator at PARSE). He gave a lecture at the school and did studio visits with their students. I also arranged for him to do studio visits at Tulane University and University of New Orleans in addition to all the studio visits he had with local artists—nearly forty in total. I’m really excited about maintaining PARSE’s relationships with the colleges and universities in New Orleans as it makes it possible for our guest curators to reach a larger audience.

Apart from yourself, who else is working and active to raise the profile of the New Orleans arts community?

Cameron Shaw and Amanda Brinkman from Pelican Bomb, Bob Snead at Press Street, Delaney Martin at New Orleans Airlift, Tony Campbell at the University of New Orleans, AnnieLaurie Erickson at Tulane University, Nick Stillman at the Arts Council of New Orleans, Gia Hamilton at the Joan Mitchel Center…Press Street, Pelican Bomb, and Ashé Cultural Art Center are currently overseeing The Platforms Fund, which is part of a network of regional re-granting programs supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. National Performance Network, which has a Visual Arts trajectory is also critical in supporting local organizations.

 

And you’re working on a book. Can you tell us about that?

I have tons of research, interviews, partial chapters, photographs, print materials, etc. that will eventually fill the pages of a book focusing on the evolution of the artist-run spaces in New Orleans from 2005 to the present. Again, it’s those issues of time and money. If I can secure funding to cover my expenses, then I’ll be able to finally sit down and actually get it written.

What’s still missing from the New Orleans arts scene?

Curators!! And of course, money…

What should we be excited about that’s coming up at PARSE?

Well, we don’t do any programming during Mardi Gras because we’re located on a parade route and it just doesn’t make any sense. That said, we are bringing a short film festival to PARSE in March that was previously presented at Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta. It’s called Presentism. According to artist and curator Ruth Dusseault, “Presentism is a philosophy of time that states nothing in the past or future exists.” This seems quite appropriate for New Orleans! In June we’ll have the juried student exhibition I mentioned earlier that is organized and curated by students with a guest juror. I will serve in an advisory capacity for this project, but it’s up to the students to make it happen. And pending funding, we’re planning to bring New York-based curator Rachel Gugelberger to PARSE in the spring to curate an exhibition, give a lecture, and conduct studio visits. Geir Haraldseth also wants to come back and curate a show, so I am focusing most of my efforts on raising money at the moment. We’re currently in the process of filing for nonprofit status. Once PARSE is a 501c3 we’ll be ready to seek out larger sources of funding and be able to move forward with more programming—and more guest curators!

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