May. 23, 2022

FRONT Triennial: “I Think it’s Absolutely Changed”

By: Brittany M. Hudak


Brittany Mariel Hudak recently sat down with Prem Krishnamurthy and Annie Wischmeyer in the Ames Family Atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art to discuss their curatorial strategies, inspirations, and what we can expect for FRONT 2022. Their team had just held a press announcement at moCa Cleveland the night before, where they revealed the roster of participating artists, initiatives, programs, and commissions—including a new mural on Public Square to be designed by the internationally-known artist Julie Mehretu. Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, the second iteration of FRONT International, will run from July 16 through October 2, 2022.

BRITTANY MARIEL HUDAK: You couldn’t have known back in early 2020 when you made the announcement about the theme of FRONT 2020 at Karamu House that the world was about to endure the collective trauma of a pandemic. Has the experience of the past two years changed FRONT?

PREM KRISHNAMURTHY: I think it’s absolutely changed FRONT in multiple ways. One: practically, and let’s also say emotionally and philosophically, it’s slowed us down. It meant that we added a year to our schedule and of course the delay has been very challenging in lots of ways. It’s required changing the way we work, and changing our expectations, and also figuring out ways to support artists through this. On the other hand, though, I think we had always talked about the idea that the process of making the Triennial was as important as what’s on view, and so in some ways, that extra time made us take that more seriously.

During the first nine months of the pandemic, we started to do more online programs that were focused on trying to bring people together, using Zoom as a space of connection, as a space of community—and actually in that moment we had started an open call to artists in the region to submit their portfolios for studio visits, and that’s actually when Annie first got involved with FRONT to start to actually—how many applications did we have?

ANNIE WISCHMEYER: Well, over a 100.

BMH: And that’s just from regional artists?

AW: Yes. But there wasn’t a strict mandate of what regional meant, so there were people from across the lake in Canada, Chicago, and Detroit—we were a little bit loose and flexible with that. It gave a really incredible overview of what was being produced regionally.

BMH: As far as modes of curation, your team’s is a bit different—you mentioned the intentional slowness, you’ve used the word porous—this is very different from what we’re accustomed to —the fast and furious get as many things in, see as many things as you can, go to this show, go to that show. We’re expected to absorb all of that. Was it the pandemic that made you realize that we need new modes, new ways of not only curating, but of living?

PK: I think in some ways, whenever something actually becomes visible, it’s already been there. It’s already been under the surface in all these ways; it’s just that there’s a particular moment that coalesces or manifests it. Same is true of the pandemic. When we first started developing ideas for this show, obviously it was focused on healing because we saw that as something that was happening here in Cleveland, something that was happening in other American cities, and more generally it was something, a topic that more artists were taking up—something that was coming up in conversations with people. And I think artists are often prescient in that way. Artists are often the people that are ahead of the curve, and are sensing what is happening in the world in a different way and translating it through the medium of artistic production.

And so, I think those things were all there, and they were being developed; but it was the pandemic that coalesced what was really needed and some of that again was saying, “well, we really want to make sure that the show has a meaning and relevance within a local and a regional context,” and it was also sharpening the focus of trying to have projects that might be in collaboration, or in dialogue with specific communities on the ground. I mentioned Jacoby Satterwhite’s project with the Cleveland Clinic last night—and that emerged during the pandemic. We had to come up with a new model for an artist like Jacoby, who had never worked that way, either with a hospital or on a public commission or with a more community-based initiative. How could he stretch his own way of working, how could the Clinic stretch their way of working with artists, and also for folks in Fairfax, how could they be in dialogue with an artist? The distance and separation of the pandemic made it clear that the project needed to happen in a more direct way.

(To Annie) BMH: And did you see that in the studio visits as well, that artists were shifting their usual modes of working?

AW: Absolutely. That was a question I asked every one of them—one of my standard questions during visits—because there were a lot of shifts happening. Artists didn’t have the same access to facilities and studios that they usually did—you know, ceramicists didn’t have access to kilns… Everybody’s practice was shifting to what could be done at the kitchen table in their house, or in a corner of a room. So things were contracted a bit in terms of scale that I saw, but everybody was finding new ways to share outwards again—in online Zoom gatherings for example, and how important social media had become for connecting to audiences.

BMH: And now that we are emerging from that very isolated part of the pandemic and are able to experience things collectively again—last night for example—I am much more aware of the energy that a group experience can foster. And you certainly brought some energy last night. Prem, it’s unusual to have group dancing included as part a curatorial press presentation.

PK & AW: (Laughing)

BMH: Or for a presenter to have the group do a focused writing, or the breathing exercise you had us do at Karamu House. All of these things obviously reflect your personality, but also speak to how nontraditional an artistic director you are. Is that part of your vision, to break down those traditional structures, those traditional expectations of the art experience?

PK: I think the thing that has shifted, both for me personally and more generally, is the public’s willingness to accept these modes—because I think there’s often this desire to really professionalize the way a show is curated, and every good show happens because whoever is involved in it has some personal stake in it. Some personal motivation—something that is their passion and their joy. But oftentimes I think, when it’s filtered through a larger institutional structure, what happens is those things are stripped away so things end up seeming more neutral and objective. The show is by no means a show that I created. It’s a show that I, together with other people, helped to push some folks out in the water, and there are all these different contours of it and pieces of it. But I’m hoping that, you know, maybe by me being up on stage dancing, it encourages other people to realize it’s okay to be up on stage and dance. And one of the things that the pandemic also made clear, when I started doing these Zoom events my parents would come—and therapists, and people who are doing movement, and all kinds of people. And I remember somebody saying to me, “Oh it’s so nice that it doesn’t feel like this art world construct.” And I thought, we’re all sitting in our bedrooms on Zoom trying to figure out how to move forward, amidst this unfolding tragedy. This is not the place to set up these strong distinctions. We show up as all kinds of people to these things, and it’s all okay. Maybe we all need to dance more… oftentimes I walk into an institution, and it’s very clear to me, I’m supposed to encounter this artwork in this way. And I’m not saying that everybody is going to like all of the work in the show—people will have different reactions—but I want them to have a reaction. I want them to have whatever reaction they want to have.