“I am a huge champion of Brooklyn. It’s my hometown. Though I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, I have always had one foot firmly planted in Kings County. I am Brooklyn through and through…. strange, but true.”
Contemporary art curator and entrepreneur, Dexter Wimberly, was born and raised in Brooklyn. Curatorially, Wimberly focuses on contemporary urban history: “I love art that reflects our times, and I am excited to be in the position to work with artists who are shaping contemporary culture and bringing the beauty of under-exposed aspects of modern life to a greater public. I feel that this is my calling within the arts.” A passionate collector and supporter of the arts, Wimberly has personally exhibited the work of nearly 100 individual artists. S2S talked to Wimberly about the hood that defines him, his recent exhibitions and what tips he has for emerging artists and curators.
S2S: The “Brooklynization” of other cities is a recent phenomenon. You were born and raised in Brooklyn before the borough became a global brand. Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing and how much the old and the new Brooklyn have shaped your personal identity and your image as a curator?
Dexter Wimberly: I was born in Brooklyn in 1973 and grew up during the 80s and 90s. These decades were not the kindest to many neighborhoods in the borough. New York City as a whole was going through tougher economic times. The effects of widespread drug abuse and violent crime were a real part of daily life. However, even in the midst of these societal pressures, I had an amazing childhood. Most of my days were filled with the usual trappings of just being a kid. I could go into some stories about my encounters with some of the negative aspects of inner city life, but that would paint an inaccurate picture. Yes, the 80s and 90s were very rough in a way that newer residents of Brooklyn could never imagine. I saw a lot of people fall victim to bad decisions or bad circumstances, but 99% of my teenage and young-adult life was filled with positivity. I am a huge champion of Brooklyn. It’s my hometown. Though I have been fortunate enough to travel the world, I have always had one foot firmly planted in Kings County. I attended Brooklyn Tech High School and Brooklyn College. The only time I’ve ever been taken to the emergency room was to Brooklyn Hospital. I am Brooklyn through and through…. strange, but true.
S2S: Before you became a curator, you were a very successful PR and marketing strategist, representing many leading brands. What inspired this career change and in what sense does your professional background influence or aid your work as a curator?
DW: I started my first company, August Bishop, in 1995 at the age of 21. We offered our clients public relations, marketing and research services. I had no plans to enter the art world, let alone to become a curator. For 13 years, I ran the company with my friend and co-founder, Barney Bishop. We represented dozens of major clients including Adidas America, Benetton USA, Guinness World Records, Maxim Magazine, Turner Broadcasting and Virgin Mobile. During this time, I also met a lot of freelance graphic designers and photographers who were actually fine artists doing commercial projects to “pay the bills.” This really fascinated me. As I got to know these artists better, I realized that many of them could benefit from some business management advice. I knew that my entrepreneurial background would be helpful to them. I had no idea that my desire to “help” would drastically change the course of my life.
Also, around year 2000, I met Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records who is also responsible for discovering Bob Marley and the band U2. Chris is a friend and remains a huge inspiration to me. His ability to spot talent and turn it into something that the world can enjoy is very powerful inspiration to me. In 2003, my company also briefly sublet office space from Chris, so I was able to talk to him almost everyday.
Another major influence in my life is a man named Ivan Karp. Ivan passed away in 2012 at the age of 86. I knew him for the last 15 years of his life. Ivan was the owner of O.K. Harris Works of Art, located in SoHo, NY, and is chiefly responsible for the careers of many important artists including Andy Warhol, who he managed, and Roy Lichtenstein, who he introduced to famed art dealer, Leo Castelli. When I met Ivan in 1998, I was not even an aspiring curator. I enjoyed visiting his gallery that is located next to my favorite cigar shop, O.K. Cigars, which Ivan also co-owned. In the years that followed I had many opportunities to talk with Ivan and to witness him in action. Even in his later years he was one of the sharpest art-minds I’ve ever met. I never worked with him professionally, but he did offer me a lot of good advice, both in words and in his deeds.
S2S: You state that your main focus is “contemporary urban history.” One good example is your 2012 exhibition THE BOX THAT ROCKS: 30 Years of Video Music Box and the Rise of Hip Hop Music & Culture at The Museum of the Contemporary African Diaspora Arts. The exhibition sets the historical record straight, giving Ralph McDaniels, who created “The Box” years before MTV, the recognition he deserves. I find that your curatorial emphasis often lies on re-examining history. In a Foucauldian sense, would you consider yourself a genealogist?
DW: I wouldn’t consider myself a genealogist, but I am certain that my past experience with ethnographic research is behind some of my decision-making. I also think like a marketer, so I am aware that if you want people to come see your art exhibition you better do something relevant to the times. I am interested in all areas of art, but yes “contemporary urban history” is my sweet spot. The Box That Rocks was a very successful exhibition because the artists featured in the show captured the importance of Video Music Box to what we now know as Hip Hop culture, and also paid tribute to the show’s founder Ralph McDaniels in a meaningful, yet unexpected way. Rather than focus on exhibiting archival video footage and photography, I saw the exhibition as an opportunity for a new generation of artists to show how their lives have been affected by the show. I also exhibited the work of some well-known Hip Hop luminaries including Fab 5 Freddy and Bobbito Garcia.
S2S: Most of the artists you work with are emerging. You have stated that not a week goes by were you didn’t have at least one studio visit with an artist whose work you were not familiar with. How do you find and select the artists you represent?
DW: I still see myself as a student of the art world. I approach each day with an open mind about discovering new artists. It’s very exciting to me. Although I curated my first exhibition more than 10 years ago, it has only been 4 years that I can say that I’ve been fully immersed. As I mentioned, my background is in PR and marketing. I studied political science in college not art history. That said, I am always pushing myself to learn everything I can about art and the art world. My success as a curator probably stems from my utter excitement for each project as well as my tireless approach to meeting artists, seeing their work and hearing their stories. Each exhibition I curate is an opportunity to for me to conduct dozens of studio visits. I also receive emails from artists all over the world who want to show me their work. I will always take a look.
S2S: As a former marketing executive, you are certainly aware of ‘cool hunting’ – a practice where marketing researchers target creative youth they consider ‘trendsetters’ – just to sell products back to them. Hence, what kind of concerns do you have as a curator when you pull someone out of relative obscurity into the mercurial arms of the art world?
DW: I always tell artists that there’s a huge difference between being an artist and being in the art world. Any artist should be able to find fulfillment in the act of creating. If you are a painter, what happens in your studio is between you and the canvas. It’s private and not subject to the opinions of the world. If you don’t want to show or sell your art that is totally fine. If you are happy with that process of creating, it will bring you immeasurable joy. On the other hand, if you want to enter the “art world” you’d better prepare yourself for an unpredictable ride. Be prepared to be judged and to have your passion dissected by people who know less than you but have more money and power than you. If you want to be a commercially successful artist with sold out shows and waiting lists for your work, be prepared to work like a dog and sometimes be treated like one. Unfortunate, but true. The art world is alluring – fame and wealth are what make the headlines, but the reality is that most artists work in relative obscurity hoping to make enough money to pay their bills.
I often jokingly ask the question, “Why would anyone ever choose to be an artist?” The truth is that “real” artists don’t choose to become something that they already are. I can’t make a final judgment of the art world. I know some talented, smart and generous people who work in all sorts of art-related capacities – gallery owners, dealers, curators, museum directors, collectors, art advisers, and journalists. The more people I meet, the more I realize that the art world, like the rest of the world, is filled with both the good and the bad.
S2S: You do not shy away from taking on controversial subjects in your exhibitions. In 2011, Crown Heights Gold, confronted racial conflict at the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots, and in 2010 The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks, an aptly coined exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), addressed the racial, economical, and class implications of gentrification in Brooklyn. What were your initial goals for each exhibition and did you achieve them?
DW: I had no idea that my experiences in Brooklyn would inform so much of my curatorial work, but it makes logical sense. Long before I became interested in art, I studied American history – 20th Century history to be more specific. I entered my current role as a curator because I realized the power of art to tell important, under-exposed stories. That has remained a primary goal of my career. My first high-profile public exhibitions were entitled The Gentrification of Brooklyn in 2010 and Crown Heights Gold in 2011. Both of these exhibitions were inspired by dramatic occurrences in my borough. The Gentrification of Brooklyn used contemporary art to explore the ongoing, rapid demographic shifts taking place in Brooklyn, while Crown Heights Gold marked the 20th anniversary of a deadly riot that took place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Both exhibitions were supported by extensive public programs at MoCADA, The Skylight Gallery, The Brooklyn Museum, and The Brooklyn Historical Society. In my view, the programming that surrounds a public art exhibition is as important as the art included in the show.
S2S: In regard to Crown Heights Gold, you have stated that the exhibition is also about ‘healing’: “It’s like a cut that itches like crazy, becomes really uncomfortable before it actually heals.” Can you talk about some of the collaborative and socially engaging works that developed throughout the exhibition?
DW: The Crown Heights Riot was a three-day riot that occurred from August 19 to August 21, 1991 in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. At the time of the riot, Crown Heights was and remains predominantly an African-American and Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. It is the home of the Lubavitch sect of Orthodox Jewish Hasidim. The riots began on August 19, 1991, after Gavin Cato, a child of Guyanese immigrants was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile in the motorcade of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the sect’s leader.
A Brooklyn-based artist named Oasa Sun DuVerney created one of my favorite pieces in the Crown Heights Gold exhibition. Her contribution to the exhibition included a sculpture of a gold bicycle made of paper and a looped video of her young son attempting, without success, to ride that bicycle on the very same corner where 7-year old Gavin Cato was struck and killed by a car in August 1991. This event is seen as the spark that led to the 3-day riot. I also have a 10 year-old son, just a few years older than Gavin Cato. I am sure Oasa had to work through a lot of deep emotions as she developed her work for the show. Casting her own child in the video was a meaningful act and really made her piece visceral and unforgettable.
S2S: At first glance, one could perceive the last two exhibitions you have curated this year, Pattern Recognition at MoCADA and Crossing the Line: Contemporary Drawing and Artistic Practice (co-curated with Larry Ossei-Mensah) at Mixed Greens Gallery in Chelsea, as less politically charged. But upon closer inspection, this is not the case.
The title Pattern Recognition references the sci-fi novel of the same name by William Gibson and alludes to computer classification, such as facial detection. Although the works in the exhibition are primarily abstract, they are very different from modernist abstraction, which Frederic Jameson deemed a function of the abstract power of money. Unlike the abstract art found in the lobbies of corporations, which is often void of any message or meaning, how do the works in Pattern Recognition explore themes of history, consumerism, and the tension between art and commercialization?
DW: Abstract art making is also subject to a greater degree of skepticism than other categories such as portraiture. Abstraction, while sometimes regarded as highly intellectual, is frequently perceived as benign, decorative, or even apolitical. With abstraction, not only is the meaning of the art sometimes viewed cynically, the artists themselves must frequently defend the very relevance of their work.
The exhibiting artists use abstraction to present concepts that range from the personal to the geo-political. Their paintings, drawings, prints, and mixed-media works are a testament to the continued evolution of abstract art making within the African diaspora. There are several conceptual parallels amongst the exhibiting artists’ creative processes, including the use of found materials, and the meditative repetition of patterns within their work. Moving comfortably between materials and methods of production, these artists refuse to be bound by one medium or means of creating as evidenced by their multidisciplinary studio practices. Instead, they opt for the freedom of abstraction as a means of breaking boundaries.
In curating this exhibition, I endeavored to create an environment that challenges the viewer to not only think about the art that hangs in front of them, but to also consider the socio-political environment in which it was conceived and ultimately created.
On the surface, Pattern Recognition may appear to fall outside of my usual curatorial direction. I have frequently stated, that my primary interest is in “important matters of contemporary urban history.” My past exhibitions have often dealt with particular events in American life marked by social unrest, human rights issues, and pivotal moments in popular culture.
In actuality, Pattern Recognition fits well within my curatorial vision. Behind the works selected for the exhibition are deep explorations of matters that impact us all. Issues such as America’s ongoing “war on terror,” as well as our country’s unresolved history of race and gender relations are the inspiration behind several pieces; as is the impact of modern living in developed nations and the resulting waste produced by mass consumerism.
S2S: One could make the point, that Crossing the Line at Mixed Greens, is as equally radical as your earlier exhibitions. Not just is it a show about drawing, a medium that has not been given a lot of commercial attention – even more exceptional, especially in Chelsea, is the fact that all artists in the show are relatively unknown women from very diverse ethnic backgrounds, hailing from Nigeria, the Dominican Republic/Haiti, South Korea, Trinidad, Iran, and the United States.
The term “crossing the line” in filmmaking refers to switching a camera angle that changes the viewer’s perspective in such a way that it causes disorientation and confusion. Despite recent art stars like Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu and Kehinde Wiley, why are we still not seeing more exhibitions in Chelsea as diverse as Crossing the Line?
DW: Commercial galleries are not concerned with diversity. They exist to make money. They show what they think will sell. Sometimes the shows will reflect the idea of ethnic or gender diversity, but it is not the function of a commercial gallery to make the world a better, more fair place.
I have exhibited the works of nearly 100 individual artists. Without counting, I know that more than half of them have been women. I am not naive, but it never occurred to me that I was doing something unusual. When Larry Ossei-Mensah (co-curator of Crossing The Line) and I were conceiving the exhibition, we immediately knew that we wanted to show all women artists from cultures under-represented in the mainstream. It made sense to us that if we were going to present an exhibition about drawing, we needed to find a unique perspective that people would find compelling enough to come and see. As commercial and cultural interests in the art world continue to become more global, I think there will be increasingly more exhibitions of women artists and more shows of international artists. I am particularly focused on making this happen. I have plans to present an exhibition of contemporary African artists. Undoubtedly, many of them will also be women.
S2S: You have been on a panel recently discussing the best strategies for making it in the art world(s) in NYC. You had three tips for artists to get gallery representation:
1. Get introduced to a gallerist by one of his/her artists
2. Have a collector introduce your work to the gallerist
3. Have a curator/writer talk about your work to a gallerist
If none of these suggestions are realistic, is there a plan B?
DW: Plan A and plan B are directly connected. Artists must make their best work possible, and be willing to take constructive criticism. All of the introductions in the world won’t make up for poor art or bad work ethics. There are always open calls for group exhibitions as well as independent curators that are willing to do studio visits with unknown artists. If no one responds favorably to your work it does not mean that you are without talent. It may be that your work does not fit into the current trends or that the people you are showing it to don’t have the ability to see its merits. This happens to every artist at some point in his or her career. If you believe in your work, keep making it and keep growing.
S2S: I was especially taken by the advice you gave to a struggling painter in the audience, who had a full time job, a family, spent all his free time before and after work to produce his art and was frustrated because he is not ‘making it’ as an artist. You pointed out that he has everything he needs that is of value, a steady job with health insurance and a family. Do you think most people are misguided about an artistic career?
DW: Very few people will ever become wealthy making art. However, thousands of artists make decent livings from selling their work. If you approach it as a business you are likely to consider some key elements of running a business such as pricing, marketing and publicity.
S2S: You also said that evening “the art world is bat shit crazy.” Do you have any advice for young curators navigating these tumultuous waters?
DW: The only advice I can offer is to make allies. Get to know other artists at various stages of their career. Ask them questions about what works and what doesn’t work in building ones career. Obviously every artist’s situation is different, but there is wisdom in seeking the wisdom of others.
S2S: Although this might be trivial, I have to ask – what is your take on Jay-Z performance/video recording of “Picasso Baby” at Pace Gallery? Multiple Choice!
A. Jay-Z’s lyrics will entice young people to look up some of the art historical references in the song.
B. The performance undermines everything performance art stands for.
C. A brilliant publicity stunt.
D. All of the above.
E. None of the above.
DW: Absolutely D. All of the above.
Watch an interview with curators Dexter Wimberly and Larry Ossei-Mensah in conjunction with their group exhibition Crossing the Line: Contemporary Drawing and Artistic Process. July, 2013. Pattern Recognition at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) will be up until October 6, 2013.