Artists Features

‘The Art’s Not an Afterthought’: A Visit With Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Curator Jay Davis

Installation view, “Impossible Possible,” Memorial Sloan Kettering Brooklyn Infusion Center SLOAN KETTERING

I’m no stranger to nontraditional art venues. In the past, for this website, I have written about a gallery that exists on the shelf of a car and a guerrilla exhibition staged inside an ATM lobby. But the work that the artist and curator Jay Davis carries out at four regional outposts of New York’s Sloan Memorial Kettering Cancer Center falls into a different category altogether. Where many project spaces lean on novelty, the exhibitions staged by Davis at Sloan Kettering serve a distinctly practical purpose. One recent rainy weekday, I met up with the artist, whose formal title at the institution is Curator for the Ambulatory Arts Program, at the East 64th Street outpatient outpost of Sloan Kettering. I wanted to tag along for a bit of his day and learn more about the program.

We took an elevator down to the basement of the building, where a 12-artist group show titled “New Logic” is currently on view in a corridor. Looking at contemporary art inside of a cancer treatment center is a singular experience. In some ways, the center’s emotionally charged atmosphere is the opposite of a neutral, white-walled gallery, and the confines of the spaces come with unique challenges. Case in point: As we were looking at some otherwordly digital collages from the artist Carmen Teixidor, we got squeezed by a group of staff members making their way through the building. “As you can see, people actually get stuck in the hallway,” Davis said. “I think people do notice everything,” he remarked, regarding the art’s visibility to employees and visitors.

For Davis, who has had solo shows at Mary Boone in New York and Shoshana Wayne in Los Angeles, the decision to work at the center was a major change of pace. “I existed as an artist for so long,” Davis said, recalling that he first thought, “Do I really want to go in and do this? But I think what I’ve found to be the answer is how rewarding I’ve found this job to be.”

Davis began working with Sloan Kettering as an art installer, and then became interim curator after an employee’s sudden departure. Finally, in the fall of 2016, his position helming the program, which is based around donated work, became permanent. Davis works on shows in locations as far-flung as Long Island and Middletown, New Jersey, all with a homespun focus. Two more galleries—in Long Island and Bergen County, New Jersey—are slated to open this spring, with another in Nassau County and one more in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, coming later in the year. His current show in Middletown, a two-person affair with the artists Ellen Martin and Mike Quon, is titled “Locally Known.”

“The way that you can curate a program like this is very different than how you curate a lot of programs,” Davis said. “There are certain images, certain ideas that you don’t want to approach. I think it’s also good to keep in mind that you want the dialogue that you present to everybody to not be too esoteric.” It is a job that requires a delicate balance. At one point at the 64th Street location, we were standing in front of a group of colorful abstract paintings by the artist Peter Fox, who is also a patient at the center. Davis said that for a portion of the staff and patients, this is possibly their first real-life exposure to a certain strand of contemporary art.

“A lot of the work that I’ve hung up here, people have been like, What?” he said. “And then, when I come back, today when I got here, a couple people up front have been like, We love [the Fox pieces].” In fact, there was an environmental services employee that enjoyed the work so much that she inquired about owning a piece. “As a patient here, [Fox] wanted to give back to not just the doctors and everything, but he was thinking about the people who make the everyday system here run,” Davis said. Fox gave her a framed drawing.

After a time at 64th Street, we jumped in a car and headed to the Brooklyn Infusion Center in Downtown Brooklyn, where in 2016 Davis staged “Impossible Possible,” his first show with for Sloan Kettering. It featured everything from smiley face ceramic, enamel, and Frisbee sculptures by Ryan Kitson to prints by Robin Cameron that she created with such an institutional setting in mind. Davis told me that when he first proposed the exhibition, the center was “willing to give me the benefit of the doubt . . .  and we ran with it, and I think it’s really taken the usual expectations of what you can do with a treatment center or a waiting space and turned it into something.”

Taken as a whole, “Impossible Possible,” as well as other shows staged by Davis, which have included a mural and sound installation by the artist and musician Hisham Akira Bharoocha, formally of the legendary New York experimental band Black Dice, mark a departure from what normally scans as hospital art. “A lot of offices you go into, they’ll have a TV in the corner with CNN or Fox playing, and you’re just being reminded of everything not great going on in the world,” Davis said.

Although the artist is enthusiastic about receiving artists’ donations, he told me he does not accept any giclée prints of a certain kind of hospital kitsch—things like sunsets or a person sitting on the edge of a marsh. “I don’t want to look at that normally,” he said. “That just makes me depressed looking at that in general, but I can’t imagine going through some really hard point in my life and having to look at that every day.”

That night, Davis was getting ready to deinstall the Bharoocha installation. After spending some time with Davis, it was clear to me that his hand could be seen in all steps of the exhibition process, all the way down to the wall lettering. “It’s a pretty DIY operation,” he said. “I want everything to be better than it could be if I was to work with somebody who’s going to charge a crazy amount of money.”

“It’s hard to ignore the fact that people are going through some really, really difficult times in their lives,” Davis said at another point. “It’s something that’s really tough and something that a lot of people go through. I think of it every second when I’m putting together an exhibit.” He added that patients have told him that the art program means a lot to them during their stays at the center. “The art’s not an afterthought,” he said. “Our whole experience here isn’t just an afterthought.”

“The Fundamentals,” a group exhibition at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Brooklyn Infusion Center, at 557 Atlantic Avenue, is on view through February 6, 2019.

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